Friday, April 21, 2006

A poem by Johann Sebastian Bach

When I was in school, one of the best things I discovered was the German library in Pune, Max Mueller Bhavan. It was a free membership, to add to the joy of reading new books every month. And so every month, I would make a trip to this place. One of the important milestones in the trip was to go to the small burger shop in the library campus :) And then, the books! I could spend hours looking at new books, reading their last page. They also had audio cassettes, ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to the world war tunes to the latest in rock and pop.

In particular, I was drawn to one section of the books, where biographies of great music composers were kept. And so it is that I read about the lives of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and other composers. Interestingly enough, I hadn't listened to too many of their musical works (except some Beethoven), but still I found reading their biographies very interesting. Each ones life reflected so much more than just their musical work. Their values, their society, their struggles, their hopes, their despair. And I found a common thread in most composers lives, that they often led one of emotional turbulence. Perhaps that is the price they paid for being gifted with such extra-ordinary talent.

In particular, I was impressed by some of the events in Beethoven's life. One that stands out is the letter he sent to the prince who patronized him, refusing to play for Napolean's forces, inspite of the prince insisting that he do so. In dramatic fashion, he wrote in his letter: "Prince! What you are, you are by birth and by accident. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, and there will be, thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven." Amazing. Almost every person on earth, however ignorant of music, must have heard "Fur elise" by Beethoven. The story of his life is something that everyone should also read, along with enjoying his musical works.

However, today's article is about another composer, who was slightly different from the rest. Who had a relatively calmer life, and whose only joy in life was music and only fear was God. Johann Sebastian Bach. Extremely talented, extremely religious. And in his biography, I found this poem which is attributed to him. There is no evidence that he wrote it, and yet most people believe it is his work. Regardless, this is a beautiful piece of poetry that gives immense pleasure (see italicized stanza)

Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker

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 gray:
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 'twil turn,
Likewise the pipe, if oft it burn.

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 fame likewise away will burn
And unto dust his body turn.

How oft it happens when one's smoking:
The stopper's missing from its 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.