Family and Friends

My Cherished Son

When Li Shangyin visited J.S. Bach in Leipzig in 1736, he was surprised at the size of the great composer’s family. Children were everywhere, under the stairs, by the gate, even lying on the harpsichord.

Although the school building was cramped, the view over the moat was pleasant. A faint mist covered the idyllic countryside, and the sound of a choir could be heard from behind the Thomaskirche[1]. Bach himself was a gruff man with a large belly that didn’t hinder his brisk walk. “I have twenty…”, he said, noticing Shangyin’s gaze. “That’s why I work so hard…It is God’s will.”

“I just listened to your great Toccata in D minor,” Shangyin said,” In China we have never heard such music. Just flutes and things. They move the soul, but yours – it shakes heaven itself!”

“D minor is one of my favorite keys,” Bach said solemnly. “The Chromatic Fantasy, Herr Mozart’s Requiem, The Russian Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerto, some upcoming fugal experiments [2] …the list goes on.”

He dressed simply and neatly, reflecting his Lutheran thrift. A white wig, sparse in places from frequent washing, made his already large head look like a cherry in a snowball. White socks reached to the knee just below his gray coat, and his hands tapped the armrest of his chair with a slow drumbeat, as though he was listening to an inner rhythm. The white walls were bare except for a picture of Jesus and a black wooden cross.

“You realize that later generations look upon you as a god of sorts…”

Bach growled uncomfortably. “So you say…this shocks me. I fully expect all my music to be destroyed when the new music director takes over and writes his own pieces. Carl Philippe, get off the harpsichord – at once!” he roared at a red headed boy across the room.

He shrugged and turned back to Shangyin, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music. For his glory. No more, no less.”

衮师我骄儿,  gǔn shī wǒ jiāo er;ér,

美秀乃无匹。  měi xiù nǎi  wú pǐ。

文葆未周晬,  wén bǎo wèi zhōu zuì,

固已知六七。  gù yǐ zhī liù qī。

四岁知姓名,  sì suì zhī  xìng míng,

眼不视梨栗。  yǎn bù shì lí lì。

交朋颇窥观,  jiāo péng pō kuī guān,

谓是丹穴物。  wèi shì dān xué wù。

前朝尚器貌,  qián cháo;zhāo shàng qì mào,

流品方第一。  liú pǐn fāng  dì yī。

不然神仙姿,  bù rán  shén xiān zī,

不尔燕鹤骨。  bù ěr yàn hè gú。

安得此相谓?  ān dé;děi;de cǐ xiàng;xiāng wèi?

欲慰衰朽质。  yù wèi  shuāi xiǔ zhì。

青春妍和月,  qīng chūn yán hé yuè,

朋戏浑甥侄。  péng xì hún shēng zhí。

绕堂复穿林,  rào táng fù chuān lín,

沸若金鼎溢。  fèi ruò jīn dǐng yì。

门有长者来,  mén yǒu  zhǎng zhě lái,

造次请先出。  zào cì qǐng xiān chū。

客前问所须,  kè qián wèn suǒ xū,

含意不吐实。  hán yì bù tǔ shí。

归来学客面,  guī lái xué kè miàn,

闱败秉爷笏。  wéi bài bǐng yé hù。

或谑张飞胡,  huò xuè  zhāng fēi hú,

或笑邓艾吃。  huò xiào dèng ài chī。

豪鹰毛崱屴,  háo yīng máo zè lì,

猛马气佶傈。  měng mǎ qì jí lì。

截得青篔筜,  jié dé;děi;de qīng yún dāng,

骑走恣唐突。  qí zǒu zì  táng tū。

忽复学参军,  hū  fù xué  cān jūn,

按声唤苍鹘。  àn shēng huàn cāng hú。

又复纱灯旁,  yòu fù shā dēng páng,

稽首礼夜佛。  qǐ shǒu lǐ yè fú;fó。

仰鞭罥蛛网,  yǎng biān juàn  zhū wǎng,

俯首饮花蜜。  fǔ shǒu yǐn  huā mì。

欲争蛱蝶轻,  yù zhēng  jiá dié qīng,

未谢柳絮疾。  wèi xiè  liǔ xù jí。

阶前逢阿姊,  jiē qián féng ā;ē zǐ,

六甲颇输失。  liù jiǎ pō shū shī。

凝走弄香奁,  níng zǒu nòng;lòng xiāng lián,

拔脱金屈戍。  bá tuō jīn qū shù。

抱持多反侧,  bào chí duō fǎn cè,

威怒不可律。  wēi nù  bù kě lǜ。

曲躬牵窗网,  qū gōng qiān chuāng wǎng,

衉唾拭琴漆。  kè tuò shì qín qī。

有时看临书,  yǒu shí kàn;kān lín shū,

挺立不动膝。  tǐng lì  bù dòng xī。

古锦请裁衣,  gǔ jǐn qǐng cái yì;yī,

玉轴亦欲乞。  yù zhóu yì yù qǐ。

请爷书春胜,  qǐng yé shū chūn shèng;shēng,

春胜宜春日。  chūn shèng;shēng yí chūn rì。

芭蕉斜卷笺,  bā jiāo xié juǎn;juàn lán;jiān,

辛夷低过笔。  xīn yí dī guò bǐ。

爷昔好读书,  yé xī hǎo;hào  dú shū,

恳苦自著述。  kěn kǔ zì  zhù shù。

憔悴欲四十,  qiáo cuì yù  sì shí,

无肉畏蚤虱。  wú ròu wèi zǎo shī。

儿慎勿学爷,  er;ér shèn wù xué yé,

读书求甲乙。  dú shū qiú jiǎ yǐ。

穰苴司马法,  ráng jū;chá  sī mǎ fǎ,

张良黄石术。  zhāng liáng huáng shí shù。

便为帝王师,  biàn;pián wèi;wéi  dì wáng shī,

不假更纤悉。  bù jiǎ gèng;gēng  xiān xī。

况今西与北,  kuàng jīn xī yǔ běi,

羌戎正狂悖。  qiāng róng zhèng;zhēng kuáng bèi。

诛赦两末成,  zhū shè liǎng mò chéng,

将养如痼疾。  jiāng yǎng rú  gù jí。

儿当速长大,  er;ér dāng;dàng sù  zhǎng dà,

探雏入虎窟。  tàn chú rù hǔ kū。

当为万户侯,  dāng;dàng wèi;wéi wàn hù hóu,

勿守一经帙!  wù shǒu  yī jīng zhì!

My cherished son Gun Shi’s beauty is without bounds.

In swaddling clothes, not yet one, yet of six and seven, he knew the sounds.

At four he knew his name,

For peas and chestnuts, his eyes did not crave.

Friends used to shield him from prying faces,

As though he was a treasure from the Red Phoenix Cave.

In Northern Be, where features are esteemed,

His rank would be the highest, him alone.

Not that he hasn’t the face of a god

Or a swallow’s neck and a heron’s strong bones!

How can they sing such praise

And not console this doddering man?

Spring and earth, those halcyon days

Without distinction, cousins, friends – with all he plays,

Circling the halls, again into the forest,

Making sounds like water bubbling in the golden ding.

When elders arrive at the gate,

He is eager to be the first to welcome them in.

Quite diplomatic, he asks guests what they want

His true feelings he does not reveal

Leading them in, he studies their faces,

Opens the doors as he holds father’s Hu[3].

Sometimes, he mocks Zhang Fei’s beard

Or makes fun of how Deng Ai stutters like a fool!

A great eagle perched on a mountain cliff

Or the fierce visage of a heroic horse

Other times, he chops down the towering green bamboo

Then rides his makeshift pony with wanton force!

Suddenly, he pretends to be a general

Lowers his head and voices a deep command.

Standing before the gauze lantern

He bends to make a religious supplicant’s pose

He sweeps the cobwebs from the saddle

And deeply breathes the scent of the flowers.

Striving to be as light as a butterfly,

He races the catkins beneath the willow’s arbors,

Bumping into Auntie in front of the stairs

Again and again he loses a bet with her at ‘Liu Jia’,

Insists on rummaging in the lady’s makeup box

Then onto the gold doorknob to fiddle and play.

Try holding him, as he wiggles and squirms

Despite threats and scolding, he won’t obey.

On a whim, he grabs the window’s gauze

With a little spit gives the zither a good polish.

As he observes his father’s calligraphy, he stands straight, not a knee does he bend

He wraps the silk around each work

As well as the jade clasp on each end,

Asks father to write some Spring Festival greetings

Preparing them all for New Year’s eve.

Banana fronds are handled as if to wrap the books

Or under the ink brush, places lily leaves.

His father used to study hard, in earnest

And with much difficulty prepared his work.

Wan and sallow at his near forty years

Ticks and fleas now threaten his fleshless bones!

A son should absolutely not emulate a father’s studies

Or read in search of glory.

Study the methods of Master Sima, [4]

Or how old yellow stones gave General Zhang military strategies

In order to become a teacher of kings

Your ethos should be to ignore extraneous things.

These days to the north and west

Nationalities clamor, and the result is chaos.

Neither punishments nor pardons make a difference,

As though one were nursing a terrible illness!

After you quickly grow up my son

Dare to snatch the little one from the tiger’s den!

When you become the lord of 10,000 homes

You can afford to ignore the Classics!

 ***

Musical Interlude: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue by J.S Bach, played by Mark Obama Ndesandjo

Chromatic Fantasia

Chromatic Fugue

To me, this work is a romantic piece par excellence. The arrangement is based on the legendary pianist Hans von Bulow’s edition. There are few pieces as imaginative as the fantasia, and as linear and passionate as the fugue.

Notes:
[1] St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where, as Cantor, Bach performed many of his compositions.

[2] The Art of Fugue was composed many years later. Bach’s last major work was unfinished, and the last notes were written on his deathbed. The theme was based on the notes B-A-C-H. Bach refers to later composers here, perhaps because he had mastered the art of time travel too.

[3] An honorific board held in the hands

[4] Sima Rang: 500BC, Qi military strategist

Featured Image Credit

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