As I have been studying the Chaconne I find it ties together a lot of strands from my musical life: an early love of Bach, some wonderful teachers, and a 50-year relationship with the guitar in various forms. From time to time in the course of this project I will take time to write about some of these strands, and these interludes will show up here. Those interested in the purely musical aspects of the project will certainly be forgiven for skipping over these reflections!
The Chaconne Project really began one day in a South Dakota classroom, thanks to Shirley Bertsch and J. S. Bach.
I grew up around music. My father, of whom I remember very little, was a salesman by trade, but by all accounts played a mean jazz piano. I retain a vague memory of sitting on his lap while he played a piece that I later learned was Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys.” My older sister was—and still is—a gifted pianist and I am sure I heard her practicing. My own piano lessons started and ended at an early age, and my siblings still enjoy taunting me with the story of my one and only performance on a student recital at age 5. Apparently, after having played my tiny little study or prelude, I stood and basked in the no doubt feeble applause, bowing first to the right, then to the left, and finally to the center. My mother was mortified.
Still, in my own mind the start of a lifelong love of music was a moment I remember with perfect clarity: In a classroom my seventh-grade music class sits assembled, with light streaming in through tall windows to my left and little posters in colored construction paper on the walls. At the front, before a large dark green blackboard, stands a young teacher named Mrs. Bertsch. She puts an LP on the phonograph, and I am transfixed by the sound that emerges, like I’m a butterfly pinned to a card. It is strange music, but with logic so compelling that it seems familiar. Spare and precise and beautiful.
It is Bach—the “Little” Fugue for organ in G minor played by E. Power Biggs:
I was a pretty shy kid (despite all that bowing at the recital). But when class was over I went to Mrs. Bertsch and asked if I could take the record home. She said yes, and I cradled the flimsy dust jacket on my walk home as if it contained a great treasure. Of course, in a way, it did. I played it over and over again that evening, trying to imprint it on my brain. I was amazed by the way the little tune at the beginning—for I did not yet know subject and countersubject and episode and all the terminology—kept coming back, always the same and yet somehow not. The power and colors of the organ impressed me too. This was a whole world to explore!
Reluctantly, I returned the record the next morning with great reluctance, but as it turned out this was the first of many records that Mrs. Bertsch sent home with me. And in the remaining two years of my time at Axtell Park Junior High School she encouraged me as I started teaching myself to play guitar using the old Sears Silvertone that I found under a bed, including me in a small folk group and pushing me to enter a talent show. In the ninth grade she supervised me while I taught a basic guitar class in the same room where I heard that Bach recording.
After junior high I lost track of Mrs. Bertsch, but thought of her often when I eventually went on to study music—especially whenever I heard the “Little” Fugue in G minor. As I grew older I began to regret that I had never taken the opportunity to thank her for all she did for my life and feared the chance to do so had passed me by. But I’ve had my share of lucky breaks in life. In 2014 I connected with her on Facebook and wrote her a letter trying to put my gratitude into words. Even better, I invited her to come hear me in a recital I had been invited to give at the University of South Dakota, where I got my undergraduate music degree. I was so excited when she said she would come, and wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. One morning in the shower, the theme from that little Bach fugue got in my head and somehow morphed into a little waltz theme with a kind of South American feel to it, and I was inspired to write my first piece for flute and guitar for the occasion: Waltzing Bachwards. It’s dedicated to Shirley Bertsch, who was in the audience for the premiere:
Bach and Mrs. Bertsch: two themes that return regularly in my life, always the same and yet somehow not.