Conversations with Bach

Eva Hoffman, Krysia Osostowicz, George Szirtes, David Waterman

01/03/2020 8:00 pm
Kings Place, Hall 2

Reaching across three centuries, Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions for solo violin and cello are brought to life with readings of new poetry and prose by celebrated authors George Szirtes and Eva Hoffman. George’s poems play with the dance rhythms of Bach’s music, while Eva composes personal letters to Bach, asking questions about the tensions between his creativity and his personal life, the sources of his music in his time – and the mystery of its universal nature. Two acclaimed musicians – violinist Krysia Osostowicz (Dante Quartet) and cellist David Waterman (Endellion Quartet) – bring their own interpretation to these profound works.

The full text of the performance, including a list of Bach pieces performed, can be found below

Conversations with Bach


Johann Sebastian, who were you? Who are you to us? Could I have talked to you, could

I have understood you? Can I understand your music, as you understood it – as you wanted it to be understood?


Bach D min Allemande


As a child I put my hand to the fire

to see what would happen and how much

I could bear. I admired the red glow

of my fingers then quickly withdrew them before

approaching the fire again. I wanted to know

what was at the heart of a flame

that I could admire but not touch.

I wouldn’t then have called it desire,

nor was it quite, but something at the core

of my being sensed it. The same with God

who was a creature of music with the same

roar and flicker, and lived, as did music, in the blood.
God made his patterns in the flame and leapt

through the grate if you were not careful.

He would burn you even as you slept.


In the images which have come down of you, Johann Sebastian, you seem remote, impersonal, monumental. I try to come closer through some of the things we know about you, through some facts; and these are startling enough. You were one of seven children born into a family with a long musical lineage. At least seven of your ancestors were church organists. And you were hardly the only Johann in your family. Seven of your uncles were Johann, your father was Johann, and your great-grandfather was Johann. Four of your five brothers were named “Johann,” and the other was Johannes. This was not the age of individualism; you were not about to write a memoir. We don’t know how you felt about

your parents or siblings – or about the many deaths visited on your family. You lived with the constant, intimate presence of mortality. By the time you were nine, both your parents had died. Before that, you lost three of your siblings and a cousin who had lived in the house with you and was really a brother. In your adult life – to leap ahead — you went on to marry twice, and to have 20 children; you buried 12 of them. We don’t know if people mourned the death of children as they do now; it was an all-too-frequent occurrence; but maybe we also need to spare a moment’s thought for your two wives: Maria Barbara, who gave birth to seven children and saw three of them die, before her own death at the age of 26; and Anna Magdalena, who gave birth to thirteen children, seven of whom predeceased their parents.


Bach Sarabande in C minor


The asking of questions and the hesitation

in answering. The shy advance

followed by the step back. The dance

of the tentative conversation.

What happens at death’s door?
What of the woman waiting there

who in her youth was slender but is thin,

who was kind, intelligent and full of grace?
Who will remember that beautiful face?

Where to begin?

Each answer leads you to another question

and the questions mount, back on back.

Answer, music! Tell us what you lack.


Bach Andante from Sonata no 2


Against such facts – against this version of the human condition – you had, from the beginning, your faith, and the constant presence of music. The house in which you grew up, in the small German town of Eisenbach, was filled with it; your father was the director of town music and the town band, and the house, with its many music students and

instruments, was almost a small conservatory. You had a beautiful voice and became a chorister in your father’s church, before going on to hold various positions of your own in various German towns where you lived, and to compose the enormous repertory for which we still – or again – revere you today. Whatever the ups and downs of your personal or professional life, you always worked extremely hard, and the breadth of your output is simply astonishing. Your life was spent in the service of music.


Bach Allemande in G major


Dance as on nails, fleetly

as if burning.
You cannot be light enough.
You are the world turning

round its own burning core,

but ordered, mannerly,

tripping pertly, sweetly,

then vanishing* in a single puff of air ….*to here

at once both here and everywhere.


Bach Courante from G major suite


The clouds are gliding across the hill. Lighter now,

it is as if their movement had been slowed

right down and that, in real time, they were skipping

from peak to peak, no longer bearing a load

but freed from responsibility somehow

now that someone, somewhere has loosened a knot.

Which is how an observer might feel, slipping

out of the ordinary, into a new dimension

defined by dancing, precise as a gavotte,

of the sky’s own making, a propriety of scale

with its own proper rhythm and tension,

lighter still and lighter, infinitely frail.

And the birds too sense it, rising from trees

to perform their own courtesies and pleasantries.


Bach Gavotte in E major from Partita no. 3


In the service of music: in your adult life, you were ambitious, but your ambition was not “to become an artist,” as it might be today, when being an artist is the proof of being a unique, creative individual. You thought of yourself as a craftsman, and you were the most complete craftsman of them all. You came to be known as the best organist in Germanic lands, but you could also play the violin, the harpsichord and the clavichord. You knew about acoustics and building organs, and you were known for your ability to improvise the most complex musical forms of your time, on demand, perfecting the methods of counterpoint and the musical forms of the chorale, the canon, the fugue.


The fugue in the mind is the fugue in the ear,

the return to the forgotten that cannot be forgotten,

the ghost that disappears only to reappear,

the memo that is lost and has constantly to be written.

You heart breaks once, so it must break again,

the phrases echo then shift position, recur and recur.
You dance on pins, you dance on the refrain.
You dance on memory and the death you must defer,

You return to the dance, you return to the mind,

you return to what hurts, you rewind and rewind.


Bach Fugue in G minor, from Sonata no. 1


Your compositions were not – as far as you were concerned — an expression of your own personality. They were an expression… well, of what? You were a deeply religious man, and an ardent follower of Luther. Luther, who said the following: “You will find that from the beginning of the world, music has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony… Music is a gift and largesse of

God, not a human gift. Praise through word and music is a sermon in sound.”

David and Krysia

Bach Pastorale arr. for cello and piano


Pastoral is both statement and code.

A way of standing in a field,

in a landscape purposely laid out.

Pastoral is a valley with a road,

a meandering where the great house is revealed

as a resolution of lingering doubt.

Pastoral is definition. A mode

of being, a wound that is finally healed,

the subject the story is about.

Pastoral is seduction. It is the mind

melting and thawed with nature as balm,
a field where everything grows

to profusion without fret or grind.

It is the world balanced on your palm,

nestling there like a piece of fine prose

addressed to God by the deaf and blind,

their hearts suddenly open to a psalm

of ripeness, the bulk of a full rose.


Bach Largo in F, from Sonata no 3


A gift: we still say that, although today, we think of it as a purely human quality, even if it remains perhaps the most mysterious. But for you, it was a gift of God, and the expression of a divinely created and perfectly ordered universe. In those ways, your music was an expression of its time – and an expression of a certain kind of time. In the religious world-view, and in the physics of the time, the universe had beauty because it was created by God; and it was structured with a divine logic. The motions of the planets were regular and

harmonious – a heavenly dance; and this order, the logic of the cosmos was replicated in the logic, the basic structure of music. The musical proportions which say that halving a string doubles its frequency (something I can only say, but not really understand), were also found in the distances between the planets. Music echoed the mathematical nature of the universe. Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer who was your contemporary, correlated – in his work, Harmonices Mundi – the orbits of the planets to the intervals of the scale, and he found in their motions “a many voiced music,” which can be grasped only by the mind, rather than by physical hearing. There were more arcane and secret numerical correlations hidden in music still. Johannes Kepler was an astrologer as well as an astronomer, and there were learned treatises at the time on the connections between alchemy and music – connections in which you were interested from childhood.

Krysia and David

Bach 2-part Invention in C


Your own compositions, Johann Sebastian – for whatever instruments they are written, and whether on the small or great scale – always proceed by wonderfully inventive logic. [ the inversions of counterpoint, the proportions between theme and its developments, the intricate progressions of the Fugue and the canon – forms which you developed and perfected to the point of genius.] Above all, the rhythms and motions of your compositions, their propellent, forward movement – are always contained within these structures. They express, perhaps, not only the harmonic proportions of the stars and planets, but the unstoppable regularity of their motions – a kind of perpetuum mobile.


On a clear night perhaps it might make sense

to gaze at the sky and sort the stars

into a pattern, but music can do just as well,

as if it were itself the sky, conjured under the spell

of its own magnificence,

believing its own metaphors.

Krysia and David

Bach 2-part Invention in E major


However lively, dance-like, transcendent or tragic in tone, your music – so it seems to me, as I speak from a very different kind of time – always has the serenity of being held within a framework of a containing order. You, however, were hardly a perfectly composed, or a well-tempered personality. Quite the contrary, you were irascible, explosive, touchy, professionally proud and demanding. You often felt that, in your positions as church organist and the head of music in various German towns, you were not rewarded fairly, or valued properly. You fired off long, intemperate missives to your superiors; sometimes, your students complained about being treated badly; once, you spent a few weeks in prison, for demanding “too insistently” your immediate dismissal from a position which you were eager to exchange for something better.

And you knew these were faults. In the margins of Luther’s writings – you owned and knew them all – you underlined passages relevant to your condition. Here is one: “Anger must exist, but take care that it occur as is proper and in your command, and that you express anger not for your own sake but for the sake of your office… For yourself you must show no anger, no matter how severe the offense has been. However, where it concerns your office, you must show anger.”


Can you hear the rain and see the leaves

beating vainly in the wind? How dark it is.

Soon there will be thunder. Whole cities

will be under water. Let us put

our affairs into other hands and shelter under eaves.

Let doors and windows be shut.

Even thunder has method. Though people fear it

there is music in it. It has bar lines

and time signatures. It understands signs

and lives by them. Rain

has pitch and structure. You can hear it

passing, the same, time and again.


Bach Allemande in B minor from Partita no 1


How is it possible to reconcile all this inner turbulence, conflict, self-division, with the deep serenity of your music, within which all states of soul – joy, grief, reaching for transcendence – were contained? This, I think, is one of the great mysteries, perhaps of all art, but particularly of music: That it is a language which exists somewhere within us, but is not only individual. It is always, it seems, an expression of its time, and in your time, it also had national characteristics. You were wedded to the Germanic, Lutheran ideal of music and stubbornly resisted the new – less intricate, lighter, more ornamental — musical styles and fashions arriving from France and Italy, as the Age of Enlightenment began to dawn.


Like dancing at the bottom of the sea,

like two souls without their diving suit

in the music of the depths

taking the deepest breaths,

and moving with the gravest delicacy,

like something drifting not quite taking root.

Like understanding the sea-floor by heart

like an earnest vow made by voices

blossoming in the dark

of the long-shipwrecked ark,

where feet learn their patterns, part by part,

in which profundity the sea itself rejoices.

Here is the stately ballroom of the soul.

Here lives that have long drowned are now made whole. (54”)


Bach Menuets 1 and 2, from Suite in G


Perhaps music – to be entirely speculative for a moment – also reflects deeper structures of our make-up, and of subjectivity, as well. In our vision of cosmic time, we have substituted the radical uncertainty of quantum physics for the certainties of a harmonious universe; but we find more and more that we ourselves are constructed through a numerical logic: the logic of nature, and of the human creature. We know that we all derive from 23

chromosomes, which are structured in pairs and contain our genetic code; and that our bodies – our selves – derive from the expression of genes, and from cell division which both replicates the original structures and creates something new, as musical motifs are repeated and modified in counterpoint.. And in addition to this, we have the still mysterious movements and rhythms of subjectivity, which the great composers have drawn on and expressed — the extensions of longing, the dips of despair, the quickening heartbeat of excitement. Music is the art which most fully expresses our internal states and their alterations; after all, music originates with the voice, which comes from within us, and whose movements, inflections, gestures and rhythms, reflect and express internal states.

So perhaps, Johann Sebastian, we are talking to you still; and perhaps as long as the mysterious genius of music continues to be with us, the conversation will continue.


Then peace, a slow, hesitant peace,

even in the dark, even in the nerves,

because the fibres are so arranged

that they imply a kind of stasis

in their tensions and tight curves.

Everything remains though wholly changed.

Everything remains at tension yet still,

ready to be pieced together once more

as if it had not fallen apart.

Dark clouds are building over the hill

like a dense passage in an orchestral score

that beats against but also calms the heart.


Melancholy is at the heart of it.
The universe is slowly being abandoned

to its own thoughts, each broken bond

beyond mending or profit.

But beyond melancholy a door

that leads into a parallel space

that offers consolation, a grace

beyond music or metaphor,

a construction of loss

so complicated it builds

and unbuilds itself even as it tilts,

and sways like a bridge you must cross

with nothing underneath you,

no safety net, no ground,

only this web of sound

you enter and pass through.


Bach Chaconne in D minor, from Partita no. 2

Eva Hoffman

Eva Hoffman grew up in Cracow, Poland and studied music at the Cracow Music Conservatory before emigrating in her teens to Canada and the United States, and eventually settling in Great Britain. After receiving her Ph. D. in literature from Harvard University, she worked as senior editor and cultural critic at The New York Times, and has taught at various British and American universities. Her books, which have been widely translated, include Lost in Translation, Exit Into History, After Such Knowledge and Time, as well as two novels, The Secret and Illuminations (published as Appassionata in the US). She has written and presented numerous programmes for BBC Radio and conceived a series of programmes at the South Bank on Writing and Music. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, Whiting Award for Writing, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Prix Italia for Radio, for work combining text and music. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and is currently a Visiting Professor at the European Institute at UCL. She lives in London.

Krysia Osostowicz

Born in London of Polish descent, Krysia Osostowicz studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School, at Cambridge and in Salzburg with the great Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh. In 1995 she founded the Dante Quartet, recognised as one of Britain’s finest ensembles and recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Chamber Music. She has performed throughout Europe, and made many award-winning recordings, including the sonatas of Bartók, Brahms and Ravel, and the string quartets of Debussy, Janá?ek and Kodály. In the 1980’s she was a founder of the pioneering piano quartet Domus, which travelled the world with its own portable concert hall, a geodesic dome. Krysia runs chamber music courses in England and France, and is much in demand as a teacher at the Guildhall School of Music. She is also artistic director of the thriving Dante Summer Festival in Cornwall. In 2015, with pianist Daniel Tong, Krysia created Beethoven Plus, presenting Beethoven’s violin sonatas alongside companion pieces by ten living composers. The duo has toured all around the UK and recorded the entire cycle on the SOMM label. Krysia’s long-standing interest in creative ways of combining music and words has resulted in Conversations with Bach.

George Szirtes

A child refugee from Hungary in 1956, George Szirtes lives in the UK and published his first book of poems, The Slant Door, in 1979. It won the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, his collection, Reel, winning the T S Eliot Prize in 2004 for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His latest book is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe 2016). Beside his English prizes he has been awarded various international ones for his own poetry and for his translations of Hungarian poetry and fiction, including The European Poetry Translation Prize, the Best Translated Book Prize in the USA and the Man Booker International Translation Prize for his work on the novels of László Krasznahorkai. His second book for children, In the Land of the Giants won the CLPE Prize for the best book of poems for children in 2012. He has written reviews and articles for major newspapers, programmes for the BBC and has edited a variety of books. His recent work with composers and performers includes poems for The Voice Project and the carol set by Richard Causton for the BBC broadcast Service of Carols at King’s College Chapel in 2015. His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published in February 2019.

David Waterman

David Waterman was born into a musical family in Leeds. He studied philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, and cello with Martin Lovett, William Pleeth and Jane Cowan. In 1979 he helped to form the Endellion Quartet which has played all over the world, broadcast countless times on BBC Radio and TV, and recorded for many major labels. Recent recordings include the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets for Warner Classics. For twenty-seven years, they have been Quartet-in-Residence at Cambridge, and in 1996 were awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Best Chamber Ensemble. David Waterman has also performed chamber music with members of the former Amadeus Quartet, the Chilingirian, Belcea and Elias Quartets, Joshua Bell, Michael Collins, Isabelle Faust, Ivry Gitlis, Steven Isserlis, Stephen Kovacevic, Mark Padmore, Sandor Vegh and Tabea Zimmerman, among others. He has taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal Northern College of Music, the Guildhall, the Royal Academy of Music, the Britten-Pears Foundation, and at IMS at Prussia Cove. In 2003 he contributed a chapter to the “Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet”, and has also had articles published in The Guardian, Strad Magazine and other publications. He feels very fortunate to play on a wonderful cello by J.B. Guadagnini which he jointly owns and shares with his friend, Steven Isserlis.