A Memoir of Bach and Mourning
by Philip Kennicott
Pub Date 18 Feb 2020
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning critic reflects on the meaning and emotional impact of a Bach masterwork.
As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of the composer’s greatest keyboard masterpieces, the Goldberg Variations. In Counterpoint, he recounts his efforts to rise to the challenge, and to fight through his grief by coming to terms with his memories of a difficult, complicated childhood.
He describes the joys of mastering some of the piano pieces, the frustrations that plague his understanding of others, the technical challenges they pose, and the surpassing beauty of the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoint that distinguish them. While exploring Bach’s compositions he sketches a cultural history of playing the piano in the twentieth century. And he raises two questions that become increasingly interrelated, not unlike a contrapuntal passage in one of the variations itself: What does it mean to know a piece of music? What does it mean to know another human being?
About the Author: Philip Kennicott, the senior art and architecture Critic of the Washington Post and a former contributing editor for the New Republic, won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2013. He lives in Washington, D.C.
“A piano teacher once told me, ‘We can be sitting here and play a phrase and suddenly there’s beauty.’ You can touch a page of this book for beauty, along with sadness and wonder and certainly joy.” - Noah Adams, contributing correspondent, National Public Radio, and author of Piano Lessons
“A wise, haunted, and beautiful book. I found myself reading paragraph after paragraph aloud, marveling at Kennicott’s ability to create a full musical resonance with his words alone. Counterpoint is not only an intimate examination of a masterpiece—Bach’s Goldberg Variations—but an unflinching and humane meditation on the lifelong process of growing up.” - Tim Page, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California
“A story as complex and poignant as the great musical work at its heart, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.” - Paul Kildea, author of Chopin's Piano
“An absorbing meditation on grief....Elegant prose graces a deeply thoughtful memoir.” - Kirkus (starred review)