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by William Serad

The fellowship of the pipe transcends time and place. It knows nothing of race, politics or gender and is unbounded by barriers of language. Pipe smoking’s outward simplicity disguises a microcosm of complexity in perception and preference. As a study, it encompasses agriculture, physics, chemistry and more. Pipemakers range from lone artists with their practiced craft to large-scale manufacturers. With a long history, it continues to develop still, unfolding in new ways before our eyes. Even though it is a solitary pursuit, pipe smoking unifies practitioners as few things can.

Music shares most of these same characteristics. At times, things with hidden similarities weave in and out of each others’ paths, and so it is with music and the pipe. We can all think of examples of pipe-smoking musicians, but one recent point of contact with remarkable historical complexity involves the cello.

Around 1720, the great German musician Johann Sebastian Bach wrote six suites for unaccompanied cello. Perhaps we don’t think of Bach as an innovator, since his musical language was so firmly grounded in the Baroque. Yet he innovated in the method of tuning, the use of the thumb in organ technique, musical pedagogy and other areas. These cello suites are something of an enigma, ahead of their time, as the cello was not often considered a solo instrument in Bach’s era. We don’t know whom they were written for or why, but they were something of a departure from the norm.

The towering contribution Bach made to Western music is now beyond dispute. Yet during his life, he was probably known more for his virtuosity on the organ, and for improvisation. His large-scale works were nearly lost, as his death coincided with the change in musical tastes from the Baroque to the rococo, classical and then Romantic periods. His music was at such a level of genius, we think of the man as somehow in a different sphere even from other great composers. Beethoven said, “Bach is not a brook, Bach is an ocean.” (The word Bach means “brook” in German.) Brahms said, “Study Bach. There you will find everything.” All the major composers studied his works, even though the large pieces were rarely performed. But despite the extraordinary reverence in which he is held, Bach was of flesh and blood and appetites. He liked coffee, wine, beer and brandy. He had 20 children and two wives. He is known to have had an altercation with an obstreperous bassoonist and drawn his sword. Bach was prolific as a composer, deeply philosophical and a man of profound faith. Everything about him was filled with extraordinary vitality.

And Bach was a pipe smoker. He wrote a little song in the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” (in 1725; she was his second wife) where he draws parallels between life and pipe smoking:

Whene’er I take my pipe and stuff it
And smoke to pass the time away,
My thoughts as I sit there and puff it,
Dwell on a picture sad and grey:
It teaches me that very like
Am I myself unto my pipe.
Like me, this pipe so fragrant burning
Is made of naught but earth and clay;
To earth I too shall be returning.
It falls and, ere I’d think to say,
It breaks in two before my eyes;
In store for me a like fate lies.
No stain the pipe’s hue yet doth darken;
It remains white. Thus do I know
That when to death’s call I must harken
My body, too, all pale will grow
To black beneath the sod ’twill turn.
Or when the pipe is fairly glowing,
Behold then, instantaneously,
The smoke off into thin air going,
Till naught but ash is left to see.
Man’s frame likewise away will burn
And unto dust his body turn.
How oft it happens when one’s smoking:
The stopper’s missing from the shelf,
And one goes with one’s finger poking
Into the bowl and burns oneself.
If in the pipe such pain doth dwell,
How hot must be the pains of Hell.
Thus o’er my pipe, in contemplation
Of such things, I can constantly
Indulge in fruitful meditation
And so, puffing contentedly,
On land, on sea, at home, abroad,
I smoke my pipe and worship God.

Bach’s major musical works might have been lost to the general public had it not been for the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn, a famous composer in his own right, who took up the mission. Mendelssohn was a student of Carl Friedrich Zelter, a composer, a conductor, head of the Berlin Singakademie and, of course, a pipe smoker. While Bach was admired by Mozart and Haydn (who owned a manuscript score of the Mass in B minor) and studied by Beethoven (Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” in particular), it was Zelter who made a point of teaching the music of Bach and having Bach’s motets sung at his school.

Mendelssohn was a willing pupil of Zelter and his Bach curriculum. When he was just 14, Mendelssohn received a manuscript copy of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” from his grandmother. In comparison, when I was 14, I received a corduroy shirt from my grandmother (admittedly my favorite, which I wore until it inhibited my breathing). Mendelssohn studied it diligently and hoped one day to perform it. Some years later, he went with his friend, the actor Eduard Devrient, to see Zelter and ask permission to perform it at the Singakademie. Zelter, enveloped in the smoke from his pipe (no sur- prise), talked about all the difficulties of mounting a performance. Zelter had wanted to perform it some years before, but, being a pipe smoker and thus inherently reasonable, he acquiesced. In 1829, when Mendelssohn was only 20, a performance was given at the Singakademie, with Mendelssohn conducting and Devrient singing the part of Jesus. Such was Mendelssohn’s fame that all the tickets were sold out and the performance was attended by the poet Heinrich Heine, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, the violinist Niccolò Paganini and the king of Prussia, among other notables. This performance ushered in a full revival of Bach’s works, par- ticularly the large-scale choral works. And yet the unaccompanied cello suites would languish in obscurity as unsuitable for public performance, more like etudes than masterworks, too dry and academic.

One day in 1890, a 13-year-old Pablo Casals was walking with his father in the port area of Barcelona, where they wandered into a second-hand shop. Pablo found a copy of the suites there, and music performance practice for our time was profoundly changed. Regarding the suites, Casals said: “How could anybody think of Bach as ‘cold’ when these [cello] suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry? As I got on with the study I discovered a new world of space and beauty … the feelings I
experienced were among the purest and most intense in my artistic life!” It took 12 years after finding them for Casals to play them in public. And during that period, Casals also became a confirmed pipe smoker. In fact, he became inseparably identi- fied with his pipe, even lighting up during rehearsals.

The suites are numbered, and the movements are named for the dances that define their meters and rhythms. But there were no tempo markings, no bowings, no dynamics or other instructions—just the notes. Consequently, Casals had to find the music just from the ink on paper, intuiting what Bach meant, feeling and conveying that meaning to the audience. As Casals said, “The heart of the melody can never be put down on paper,” and, “The art of interpretation is not to play what is written.” It is never just the notes.

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Category: Pipefuls, Summer 2015

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