When his mother was dying, critic Philip Kennicott drew comfort from repeatedly listening to Bach’s “Chaconne,” a violin solo. The “condensed and obsessive” feeling of the Chaconne complemented his feelings of fear and claustrophobia. After his mother passed, Kennicott put the recording away. But the experience stirred him to return to another canonical work by Bach. Learning to play the “Goldberg Variations,” a set of 27 short pieces that take roughly 40 minutes to play by piano or harpsichord, became a goal of Kennicott’s life, a Sisyphean task.
Spanning nearly a decade, Kennicott’s engrossing memoir, Counterpoint, explores his impressions of his mother, his musical development and eventual retreat from the piano, his determination to test himself against the music at this juncture of his life and his encyclopedic knowledge of Bach. There are also soaring descriptions of Bach’s music and the “extraordinary pleasure” that comes from playing it well. Kennicott writes, “On good days . . . the fast passages will feel elegant and infallible, the motion of the fingers both automatic and deliberate, the skips and jumps sure-footed.” One gathers an impression of both Kennicott and, more generally, the devotion that challenging music requires.
Counterpoint offers deep and pleasurable ruminations on how our obsessions—musical and artistic—can contribute to an inner life that is both satisfying and difficult to share. Kennicott wonders at the inner life of his mother and questions why her world, once infused with interests and ambition, seemed to contract as she aged. His ambivalence about his mother, his struggle to progress in the “Goldberg Variations” and his rueful reflections on his musical education are tender vulnerabilities generously shared. But it is Kennicott’s intimate insights into the towering music of Bach, and to the way music speaks to all our lives as we approach our inevitable deaths, that make this book an unforgettable triumph.