Outside the temperatures had sunk to -5 C, it was dark and the pavements had turned slippery under the first thin dusting of snow. With each minute that passed, the 7 pm concert across the road in the palace chapel seemed to drift away in the stream of events unattended, on cold winter nights when the couch and a warm blanket beckoned.
The bell to the front door signalled that my husband had come home just in time to stop the slumber of bears. “Shall we go?” he asked rhetorically, infused with the heady energy of a clear winter’s night. The aperture for an evening out that had nearly shut now shot wide open, and within minutes we were making our way past the cressets that lined the path to the royal chapel.
Under the embossed dome with flickering candles inside glass holders, the discomfort of the hard wooden pews seemed the only reminder of earthliness. Thin whispers effervesced in the silence, until a lithe, pale man in a grey suit and sky blue tie broke the quiet with his shoe soles on the stone floor. He bowed to the audience, then turned to the harpsichord and sat down, laying soft eyes on the two rows of keys that had become lovers and old friends, in hours, days and years of practice.
Barely without a pause, he played the thirty variations on the opening aria, composed and published by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1741 as an antidote to insomnia for one of his patrons. By all accounts, at the outset Bach regarded this as a monotonous exercise, something like counting sheep. But maybe even the genius surprised himself.
I struggled to follow the agile fingers as they flew across the keyboards, often moving at a velocity and in contortions that made the performance seem like Olympic gymnastics. There was a call to faith in this music that challenged and sometimes even panicked me with its divergent melodies, but that always came together, acknowledging that the threads had never really been separate at all.
In the Variations I caught a glimpse of what polyphony can teach us. There is an aria, a harmonic interdependence, to which we all tend and in which we all move. If we do not recognize it, even fight it, there will be no music, only chaos and collapse. This part of who we are - every being connected, every note connected – must be acknowledged in a score. It is the very frame by which independent rhythms and contours are set free to play. We can be who we are - the variations - if we can acknowledge that we are humans first.