It was the old man’s 285th birthday, and I mean the virtuoso, the illuminata, Johann Sebastian Bach. I was a university student, and to celebrate almost three centuries of musical genius, our conductor set up a twenty hour marathon concert starting early in the morning. All day, the university’s music and choral students migrated in and out of the auditorium, with motets, cantatas, solos, quartets and concertos. Early in the afternoon, our bare-footed organist played the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, then a prelude he played entirely with his feet. I was amazed at his synergy of dance and sound.
The concertmaster from my first year in the orchestra returned to play the Violin Partita in D minor with his eyes closed. No music stand as he tuned to an inner singing. Then the entire orchestra walked onto the stage to play the Second Brandenburg Concerto, the Concerto for Two Harpsichords, the Concerto for Three Harpsichords, the First Orchestral Suite, and later, just after sunset, the Magnificat. I was playing cello next to the harpsichord, inside the sway of its musical body, surrounded by tones that took me back to an earlier century.
That night, I had my first experience of musical transcendence. The moon was glowing through stained glass. On the stage, we were playing the Magnificat. Inside, we were flying in other-worldly ecstasy, and it stayed that way for the rest of the night. By 10:00 that night, I could swear the maestro was there, listening and sometimes playing with us. Years later, on the other side of the continent, one of my private pleasures is playing the Bach Cello Suites late at night, with no one listening. And sometimes, by the ocean with the moon glowing towards full, the old man whispers to me.