Editor's note: Eliza Rubenstein is the editor of "Cantate," the print newsletter for the California Chapter of ACDA. This is highly recommended reading. It also ties beautifully with an article of Composer/Arranger Shawn Kirchner which will also be reprinted by permission on our website. Watch for it!

Eliza Rubenstein
Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Cantate (California ACDA magazine)

This isn’t the column I intended to write.

I left the summer conference at ECCO with a list of topics in the queue, ready to pick one and tackle it after I’d returned from a week at home to see my parents as my father recovered from surgery.

Change of plans: The week became a month. Recovery became loss. The topics on my list became unimportant.

The musical themes of summer nights in Missouri when I was young were Cardinal baseball on my mother’s radio, cicadas and frogs droning in the woods behind the house my father built, and classical music.

My parents met in music school—my mother studied music history, my father theory and composition—and my sister and I grew up playing instruments, singing in choruses, and getting quizzed on composer identifications from the front seat of the car (to our embarrassment, if friends were along). Our family values included counterpoint and pedal points and four-part singalongs of Christmas carols and “Little Brown Jug” around the piano.

To the mix this summer we added hospital alarms, nurses’ pagers, disembodied code blue announcements from the corridor. The polyphony of illness is ugly. We took a laptop computer to the hospital and drowned it out, as much as we could, with Bach.

When I tell you my father was amazing, I’m not just grading on a familial curve. He was a computer scientist, an inventor, a builder, a woodworker, and an artist, with a basement workshop like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future and a handful of patents to his credit. He was one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve known, too, the sort who grasped on one hearing the stuff that most of us would need a score, a pencil, and an hour or two to analyze.

My father also survived pancreatic cancer in 2001, and the experience left all of us both grateful and apprehensive, as such experiences do. Eight or ten years ago, an e-mail arrived from him with the subject line “Serious sh*t coming up.” I remember going cold as I clicked the message open, certain that the disease was back and the future was grim.

In fact, he’d only been listening to the first movement of the St. John Passion, and he wanted to compare notes about Bach’s crafting of its masterfully portentous opening phrase. I laughed, and I told him not to scare me like that again, and we talked about ostinati and suspensions and the peculiar desolation of G minor.

Talking grew more difficult for him with every day in the hospital, but he still had things to say. “I never could play these worth a damn,” he grumbled somewhere in the middle of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. “I really don’t understand the appeal of some of what’s trendy in the choral world these days,” he said one evening during a discussion of repertoire I won’t name here. “This is Beethoven,” he pointed out politely when the rest of us, distracted, failed to notice that the playlist we’d programmed hadn’t gone according to plan.

You probably know the story, which may or may not be true, that Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations to cheer and soothe an insomniac Count as he fell to sleep. On the night my father decided to end treatment, the nurses put a fake rose on the outside of his door, and we put the Goldbergs on the computer. We woke the on-call doctor, said the last of the important things we needed to say, and drifted, each in our own ways, into the peculiar consolation of G Major.

Here, listen to pianist and author Jeremy Denk for a moment: “Step one. Suppose you clear away all the happinesses that you distrust? Step two. Clear away all the unhappinesses that you have come to trust. Get rid of them too, don’t count on your miseries or your titillation. What will be left behind? Perhaps, after you’ve cleaned all that out, you might find in the back of your cupboard something like the theme of the Goldberg Variations. A deeply trustable happiness. A tender, discombobulating— but not discombobulated!—smile with just enough sadness and loss in it to be believable, to be endurable.”

I tell people sometimes that I was raised in the church of Bach, and it’s not really a joke; in his music I find, as millions of others have and do, the virtues of which Shawn Kirchner writes in his beautiful essay on the next pages, the virtues to which other, better-known religions aspire. In the Goldbergs, as in the B Minor Mass or the Musical Offering or Komm, Jesu, Komm, we find both the ordered perfection of a universe that must make sense to someone somewhere, and the joys and disappointments of an empathetic fellow traveler navigating its mysteries. (Denk says it better: “I love the way his music seems to look down on the whole human deal, but not condescendingly.”) This is the miracle of Bach: that his music is at once fully divine and fully human. Theologians call that the “hypostatic union,” an unromantic name for a condition that I’m skeptical of in its more traditional religious usage, but that I need—viscerally, “as the hart desireth the waterbrooks”—when it comes to music.

That said, I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to listen to the Goldberg Variations again. For now, and probably for a while, they’re inseparable from the beeps of morphine pumps and the midnight ministrations of nurses. But they’ll be in the back of the cupboard when I need them.

When I was nine or ten years old, I found a stack of my father’s experimental compositions from the early 1960s in a bookcase, and pointed to a section of nontraditional notation in one of them. “Was this an idea you invented?” I asked him. He shook his head. “Eliza,” he said without gloom, “there are no new ideas, only variations on the old ones.”

Here’s an old idea: that music makes sense of the nonsensical and logic of the illogical; that the music of our little world is a miniaturized model of the workings of the cosmos; that the harmonies and symmetries of the Goldbergs are there for the taking in the rest of our lives, too, if only we listen closely and well enough. I don’t know that any of that’s true. I could write here that Bach has brought clarity or closure to the last few weeks, but it would be—if not quite a lie—at best a longing. Perhaps my father would have said the same; I don’t know that, either.

Bach’s music doesn’t help me with the knowing. It helps me bear the not-knowing. If the motley forces in our lives moved in perfect concordance, we wouldn’t need fugues. If the plotlines in our lives always came full circle, we wouldn’t need that trustable G-Major aria to return after eighty minutes like an old friend, changed but unmoved, at the end of the Goldberg Variations.

See: This is where the tidy conclusion, the moral of the story, would go if the world worked like music (it doesn’t) or if I worked like Bach (I don’t). Next time, maybe.

This isn’t the column I intended to write.

Eliza Rubenstein
is Director of Choral and Vocal Activities at Orange Coast College, and the Artistic Director of the Orange County Women's Chorus and the Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra. She hold degrees from Oberlin College and UC-Irvine, and she is a former animal-shelter supervisor and the co-author of a book about dog adoption. Eliza lives with a yellow Labrador named Dayton and a cat named Wilbur, and she's passionate about grammar, Thai food, photography, and the St. Louis Cardinals. She can be reached at: