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As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of the composer’s greatest keyboard masterpieces, the Goldberg Variations. In Counterpoint, he recounts his efforts to rise to the challenge, and to fight through his grief by coming to terms with his memories of a difficult, complicated childhood. He describes the joys of mastering some of the piano pieces, the frustrations that plague his understanding of others, the technical challenges they pose, and the surpassing beauty of the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoint that distinguish them. While exploring Bach’s compositions he sketches a cultural history of playing the piano in the twentieth century. And he raises two questions that become increasingly interrelated, not unlike a contrapuntal passage in one of the variations itself: What does it mean to know a piece of music? What does it mean to know another human being?


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As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of the composer’s greatest keyboard masterpieces, the Goldberg Variations. In Counterpoint, he recounts his efforts to rise to the challenge, and to fight through his grief by coming to terms with his memories of a difficult, complicated childhood. He describes the joys of mastering some of the piano pieces, the frustrations that plague his understanding of others, the technical challenges they pose, and the surpassing beauty of the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoint that distinguish them. While exploring Bach’s compositions he sketches a cultural history of playing the piano in the twentieth century. And he raises two questions that become increasingly interrelated, not unlike a contrapuntal passage in one of the variations itself: What does it mean to know a piece of music? What does it mean to know another human being?

30 review for Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning

  1. 4 out of 5

    Heather Erickson

    I chose to review “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning” by Philip Kennicott for two reasons. I’ve been in mourning since my husband died in April 2019 and I love baroque music (JS Bach is the master). The author is a gifted writer. Philip Kennicott is the chief Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. Kennicott won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. What I got from the book was different from what I expected. I I chose to review “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning” by Philip Kennicott for two reasons. I’ve been in mourning since my husband died in April 2019 and I love baroque music (JS Bach is the master). The author is a gifted writer. Philip Kennicott is the chief Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. Kennicott won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. What I got from the book was different from what I expected. In “Counterpoint” Mr. Kennicott recounts how he wanted to master the Goldberg Variations by JS Bach after the death of his mother. Their relationship was complicated, but it was she who spurred him on in music. He was playing the piano before he could even read. In “Counterpoint,” Kennicott shared his passion for music and in particular for JS Bach, in a way that even non-musicians will understand. I know, because I fall into that category. Although I can read music, I’m not a musician by any standard. The relationship between Kennicott and his mother was enigmatic. We were given just enough information to understand the complexity of it, and how it could contribute to some complicated grieving after her death. I appreciated that. He didn’t treat this book as a tell-all, but rather communicated his grief experience honestly in a way that meant something deep: music. As someone who is in mourning, I appreciated reading his experience. How does one pull themself out of mourning? Should one even try? It’s something that’s as unique as the individual in mourning. In some ways, I envy Kennicott’s music. It is something into which one can throw themself. This book felt like taking a stroll. It was a series of experiences the author had (some were present and others in the past) which all connected to show the process he took to try to perfect the Goldberg Variations. At the same time, he processed the relationship he had with his mother. I appreciated the honesty in “Counterpoint.” As I read “Counterpoint,” I looked up pieces of music that Kennicott mentioned, as well as specific musicians such as Glenn Gould. I fell in love with the music and found greater understanding of JS Bach. I also began to understand the power music has to heal. My daughter is a pianist who played the piano for her dad during his time on hospice. She also played at his funeral at his request. I can’t imagine a more difficult thing to do. When she heard that I was reading this book, she began to play the Goldberg Variations. It means so much to me. I recommend this book to anyone who has lost someone after a complex relationship. This will appeal to all musicians and likely, lovers of classical music. When the book is released on February 18, 2020, I plan to buy a copy for my daughter’s piano teacher. Thank you to NetGalley and W. W. Norton & Company who provided me with an ARC “Counterpoint” in exchange for an honest review.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Hank Stuever

    Beautiful, upsetting, redemptive, informative -- written with such care. A strange but brilliant melding of memoir and music education, going deep on a troubled mother-son relationship and the son's attempt to try something that's as difficult (playing Bach's Goldberg Variations on the piano) as coming to terms with grief for the person he struggled his whole life to understand. Beautiful, upsetting, redemptive, informative -- written with such care. A strange but brilliant melding of memoir and music education, going deep on a troubled mother-son relationship and the son's attempt to try something that's as difficult (playing Bach's Goldberg Variations on the piano) as coming to terms with grief for the person he struggled his whole life to understand.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!!!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dubravka

    It was a rare and exceptional pleasure for me to discover that there is another suffering soul with thoughts, feelings and experiences (especially in childhood and early adulthood) that parallel mine. I felt poignant delight as I read his honest thoughts about music, practice, struggles, joys, conflicts which were also my own, but which I don't think I ever verbalized even to myself. In his, I recognized my own troubled relationship with my mother which was directly related to my own troubled re It was a rare and exceptional pleasure for me to discover that there is another suffering soul with thoughts, feelings and experiences (especially in childhood and early adulthood) that parallel mine. I felt poignant delight as I read his honest thoughts about music, practice, struggles, joys, conflicts which were also my own, but which I don't think I ever verbalized even to myself. In his, I recognized my own troubled relationship with my mother which was directly related to my own troubled relationship with the piano, but also to the joys and love of music and piano we both shared. This was not an easy book to read for me, but it was an intimate and beautiful read. Thank you. For some reason, Kennicott's book reminded me of An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. Although different, exploring different sorrows and other sentiments, they both have a certain sensibility that appeals to me very much.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Yorgos Nastos

    Beautifully written, informative, honest and very very moving. Absolutely loved it

  6. 4 out of 5

    Aurelie

    This turned out to be phenomenally good. I felt compelled to write a review not only because I loved it, but because I suspect the title may give the erroneous impression that the book is only for music lovers. I strongly believe it will resonate with a lot more readers than those who care about Bach. I, for starters, root for Beethoven. And Brahms, and Dvorak, and Shostakovich. Bach is not a composer I feel the need to listen to on a regular basis. (You can judge, I'll get over it.) So, you may This turned out to be phenomenally good. I felt compelled to write a review not only because I loved it, but because I suspect the title may give the erroneous impression that the book is only for music lovers. I strongly believe it will resonate with a lot more readers than those who care about Bach. I, for starters, root for Beethoven. And Brahms, and Dvorak, and Shostakovich. Bach is not a composer I feel the need to listen to on a regular basis. (You can judge, I'll get over it.) So, you may ask, which audiences will the book resonate with? The many people out there who have had a complicated relationship with their unhappy, complex mother nursing stifled hopes and increasing resentment for her child while they were growing up. See, I've just expanded the market for Kennicott's memoir about ten thousand fold, or shall we say one hundred thousand? Either is a conservative estimate. This book deserves to be widely read.  I bought the book because the author is a Pulitzer-Prize winning art and music critic at the Washington Post and I like his reporting. The first chapter was enticing enough, and it helped that I decided to listen to various recordings of the Goldberg Variations while I read. (The two by Glenn Gould, of course - I don't care about Bach but I care about piano, and I care about contemporary geniuses who went off the beaten path, so of course I had Gould's landmark recordings - but also the one by Simone Dinnerstein.) Then I realized the book was about mourning his mother who had brought him to piano lessons, and I started having misgivings because (apparently) happy stories about mothers and their children sharing a common cultural interest in a healthy relationship tend to make me sad that I don't have that with my mother. So I started finding flaws with the book, which was more a reflection of my state of mind. Throughout chapters two, three and four, when young Kennicott starts learning the piano, I insisted that the book was boring, that it should have some snippets of Bach's scores to enliven the page, that this account of Kennicott's learning the piano was a self-indulgence of a music critic whose book would never have found a publisher otherwise, that hopefully when the publisher send Kennicott on book tour they would ask local music students to play a variation or two of the Goldbergs because this way perhaps the audience would make a pity purchase of the book after the event (you can tell I was being triggered by the impression the book was about a happy mother-child relationship around the piano). I kept musing: should I stop now? try to read the first page of each subsequent chapter to save time while pretending I had read it in its entirety? should I give it two or three stars on Goodreads.com? Maybe three stars saying it really deserved two, with one extra star for the author being the WaPo music critic. And then came Chapter Five. And ladies and gentlemen, this turned into a six-stars-out-of-five book in a snap. After its slow start (or perhaps I missed the clues, sorry if I did) the book transformed into a gem. You see, the relationship between mother and child was, instead of happy, very complicated. I don't want to spoil the enjoyment of reading the book but there was a shocking incident at the beginning of Chapter Five between mother and son that for me showed Kennicott's mother as, in fact, showing a probably case of borderline personality disorder. (I know it is less than advisable to play the armchair psychiatrist and diagnose someone when Kennicott never does, but I am trying to give a sense of what turned the book for me without ruining the surprise for the reader.) And suddenly his mother resembled mine so much more, and at long last I felt someone had written a book about mothers that pays homage to complex mothers with their flaws and their fears and their resentments at their life not turning the way they wanted and how it got reflected on their behavior toward their family, without judging them, without blaming them, without making this a caricature, but instead with empathy and honesty and fairness. In today's society mothers are glorified and occasionally someone famous will admit having had a difficult mother - helicopter mothers are becoming a little cliche these days - but I've never read such a spot-on portrait of my own relationship in someone else's book and I am just so happy that someone could pull it off without coming across as settling scores or nursing a grudge. Instead, Kennicott honors the relationship without embellishing it and his account rings true. It comes as no surprise that he was able to write this book only several years after his mother's passing.  After that point I just couldn't put the book down and adored every single page of it. Suddenly, the insights on Bach seemed judicious and pertinent and illuminated my understanding of the Goldberg Variations - I honestly can't even say what Kennicott wrote about Bach in Chapters Two through Four because I was so determined to find the book boring, I will have to read those chapters again. Chapter Eight hit a home run as well because it describes Kennicott's friendship with his piano teacher Joseph Fennimore, whose piano lineage reaches back to Ludwig van Beethoven himself. Then in Chapter Nine, Nathan the Dog makes his entrance, and you have to read that chapter and hear how that dog reacts to Bach and - at the end of the chapter - the probable explanation as to why.  I have underlined many passages in my copy of the book, most of which only have meaning for me, but here are a few quotes I will leave you with. (Summary: Kennicott can write.)  P.232 of hardcover edition: "We are a curious species. We spend much of our lives doing one thing in order to do another, having children to fix marriages, running marathons to heal psychic traumas, learning music to lessen grief... We muddle through life in order to get somewhere, we suffer in order to be happy, we live in order to have had a life." P.237: "Had she been merely cruel and capricious, I might have hated her. But all along I saw also the woundedness of her life... When I sat on her deathbed, it wasn't just the fear of my own mortality that pierced me. It was the helplessness of watching an unhappy life come to an unhappy end." Buy. This. Book. 

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I read a preview excerpt in the Washington Post shortly after my father died, so I took it as a sign that I should read this book. In some ways, my father had a similar temperament to Kennicott's mother in that his moods could be unpredictable at times, so the author's recounting of his relationship with his mother and about her death hit me a little harder than I had expected. Kennicott's journey in learning Bach's Goldberg Variations resonated less with me, but was still enjoyable to read. I a I read a preview excerpt in the Washington Post shortly after my father died, so I took it as a sign that I should read this book. In some ways, my father had a similar temperament to Kennicott's mother in that his moods could be unpredictable at times, so the author's recounting of his relationship with his mother and about her death hit me a little harder than I had expected. Kennicott's journey in learning Bach's Goldberg Variations resonated less with me, but was still enjoyable to read. I admit I had the Aria theme running through my head as I was reading the book, and it did make me want to listen to the entire piece again, with music in hand. I respected his realistic perspective on the powers of music-- that it cannot magically heal grief and pain, but is transformative nonetheless. I'm still working on processing my feelings about death and loss.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    *Counterpoint* is an aptly titled book -- Philip Kennicott's memoir weaves together narrative strands, much as a contrapuntal piece of music weaves together melodic strands within a piece. After his mother died, the author began to learn Bach's Goldberg Variations in seriousness. The book follows this process; additionally, Kennicott reflects on growing up with his mother (a woman suffering from her own grief at not fulfilling her own life ambitions); discusses the history of the Goldbergs and i *Counterpoint* is an aptly titled book -- Philip Kennicott's memoir weaves together narrative strands, much as a contrapuntal piece of music weaves together melodic strands within a piece. After his mother died, the author began to learn Bach's Goldberg Variations in seriousness. The book follows this process; additionally, Kennicott reflects on growing up with his mother (a woman suffering from her own grief at not fulfilling her own life ambitions); discusses the history of the Goldbergs and includes poignantly moving descriptions of the music; and offers details of Bach's life. A beautiful book, sometimes philosophical, and always interesting. Thank you to Net Galley for providing me with an advance of the uncorrected proofs. I enjoyed this book so much that I will get a hardcopy for myself. I occasionally teach a class called *Piano from Bach to Jazz* and we spend a portion of the semester on the Goldberg Variations; this book has provided me with some new and fresh ideas to incorporate into the course.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

    This book was great but not five stars. I loved the Bach stuff and the content on the nature of learning, studying, and practicing music. The content about the author's family was so enjoyable and interesting but ultimately only tenuously connected to the rest of the content. I'd really only recommend this to mucic nerds but for them it is really a great read. This book was great but not five stars. I loved the Bach stuff and the content on the nature of learning, studying, and practicing music. The content about the author's family was so enjoyable and interesting but ultimately only tenuously connected to the rest of the content. I'd really only recommend this to mucic nerds but for them it is really a great read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ian Lea

    Definitely good, interesting on mourning and family histories and Bach. Not just for classical music nerds but being a bit nerdish won't hurt. Definitely good, interesting on mourning and family histories and Bach. Not just for classical music nerds but being a bit nerdish won't hurt.

  11. 5 out of 5

    David

    I normally don't read memoirs of people I don't know, but this was a fascinating take that I enjoyed very much! The author is not a professional musician but a dedicated amateur who has spent much of his life studying piano or trying to overcome the mental obstacles that kept him from growth. His complicated relationship with his mother is part of his story, and it is her decline and death that causes him to do a deep-dive into the music of J.S. Bach. Given that the author is not a professional I normally don't read memoirs of people I don't know, but this was a fascinating take that I enjoyed very much! The author is not a professional musician but a dedicated amateur who has spent much of his life studying piano or trying to overcome the mental obstacles that kept him from growth. His complicated relationship with his mother is part of his story, and it is her decline and death that causes him to do a deep-dive into the music of J.S. Bach. Given that the author is not a professional musician but is a serious hobbyist, I valued the perspective in describing the life and music of Bach with his own experiences.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    One of the best books about music I've ever read! The writing is very learned and he takes music very seriously. I related to everything he said about performing and studying music. I especially liked his more philosophical points and questions about performance, music, history, performance practice, Bach, etc. Highly recommend to musicians!!! One of the best books about music I've ever read! The writing is very learned and he takes music very seriously. I related to everything he said about performing and studying music. I especially liked his more philosophical points and questions about performance, music, history, performance practice, Bach, etc. Highly recommend to musicians!!!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Martha Anne Toll

    Here’s my review on NPR Books. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/19/802635... Shout out to this book here too https://themillions.com/2020/12/a-yea... Here’s my review on NPR Books. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/19/802635... Shout out to this book here too https://themillions.com/2020/12/a-yea...

  14. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    I liked the mix of memoir and biography/history, and it was fun to listen to the Bach pieces while/after reading about them. This made me realize that I would like a more in-depth knowledge of classical music, but then didn't quite scratch that itch. I liked the mix of memoir and biography/history, and it was fun to listen to the Bach pieces while/after reading about them. This made me realize that I would like a more in-depth knowledge of classical music, but then didn't quite scratch that itch.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Harrison Saich

    This one sums up exactly what it’s like to be an amateur musician. Not so much with the grieving though.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Danny

    A mostly stellar book, that functions as part memoir, part Bach biography, part music criticism, part reflection on the nature of the more esoteric aspects of music, grief, and art. I found the book, on the whole, to be insightful, moving, and beautifully written. At points Kennicott describes both life and music in rather technical terms, at other points he infuses anecdotes and insightful turns of phrase. At points, the book is sad, and at others, especially in the final 10 pages, I found myse A mostly stellar book, that functions as part memoir, part Bach biography, part music criticism, part reflection on the nature of the more esoteric aspects of music, grief, and art. I found the book, on the whole, to be insightful, moving, and beautifully written. At points Kennicott describes both life and music in rather technical terms, at other points he infuses anecdotes and insightful turns of phrase. At points, the book is sad, and at others, especially in the final 10 pages, I found myself laughing out loud. Many of his reflections were clearly the extension of a well examined inner life, which draws the reader into much of the same. I had one criticism, but it's a sharp one. On page 12, Kennicott criticizes those who think differently than himself about music as guilty of sloppy thinking. This is, of course, sloppy. A form of elitist arrogance. But later, on the same page, he refers to religion as "wishful thinking"; nothing more than consolation and emotionalism. Considering that some of the brightest minds in history have been deeply religious, and for far more nuanced reasons than "wishful thinking," is it not possible (and in fact almost certain) that Kennicott's sentiments about religion are themselves sloppy in the extreme? And is it not both ironic and hypocritical to in one paragraph accuse others of sloppy thinking and then be guilty of the same? This was a disappointing level of shortsightedness in an otherwise insightful and well written memoir. Kennicott's greatest accomplishment of all was that he threw me into the Goldberg's more than ever before, and for that I am grateful to him.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robbie Claravall

    A poignant, and at times solipsistic and quixotic, detour into the psyche of a classical pianist and the inner communion of his life and his relationship with music after his mother had passed away. It uses Kennicott's Sisyphian process of learning Bach's Goldberg Variations to deliver a resplendent foray coloured with personal and cultural memories from his life as a child and how his mother, once a violinist, shaped him and his ideas of music. The structure is interesting because it is both a A poignant, and at times solipsistic and quixotic, detour into the psyche of a classical pianist and the inner communion of his life and his relationship with music after his mother had passed away. It uses Kennicott's Sisyphian process of learning Bach's Goldberg Variations to deliver a resplendent foray coloured with personal and cultural memories from his life as a child and how his mother, once a violinist, shaped him and his ideas of music. The structure is interesting because it is both a cosmopolitan history of Bach (with at times esoteric and arcane knowledge about the composer) and a cynosure history of the author, weaving the two into the persona's reconstructed identity of himself and his mother, one so unfathomable in spite of any illustrious and dignified memories he had of her, as subjective and vulnerable as it was. A reminder that grief is omniprescent and that music does not necessarily take it away, but instead numbs it, and through this numbness, there is a novel and more introspective understanding of loneliness and how it can simultaneously change us—a cornucopia of soliloquys about the quantum meaning of loss and the significance of isolation, and for Kennicott specifically, a reflection as a pianist struggling to become great at his work after everything has been taken away from him.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    In many ways this book is quite good; there are moments when the author expresses his grief about losing his mother in ways which are both beautiful and profound. But Counterpoint can be painful to read because the author’s mother was extremely abusive to him, both emotionally and physically. Evidently she had a deep and powerful connection to music as he does, but she also attacked him in vicious unpredictable ways, at times when he was practicing the piano. Once she yanked his hair so hard tha In many ways this book is quite good; there are moments when the author expresses his grief about losing his mother in ways which are both beautiful and profound. But Counterpoint can be painful to read because the author’s mother was extremely abusive to him, both emotionally and physically. Evidently she had a deep and powerful connection to music as he does, but she also attacked him in vicious unpredictable ways, at times when he was practicing the piano. Once she yanked his hair so hard that he fell backwards off of the piano bench onto the floor. It makes total sense psychologically that the author grew up to become a music critic. His mother certainly was. No matter what, children always seem to love abusive parents. The author certainly did. But of course he had a deeply ambivalent relationship with his mother. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t have a deeply ambivalent relationship to music too. “Counterpoint” is a good title, both because the author is delving deeply into several of Bach’s pieces, and because the word counterpoint suggests a kind of “yes but/ there’s this but there’s also that” quality. As in, “I love her/ I hate her”. Clearly I’ve got mixed feelings about this book too :). I don’t know where the author’s father was during all of this. He’s nowhere to be found in the book.

  19. 4 out of 5

    David Dunlap

    Unfortunately, this book gets a lower rating from me, not solely on its merits (it's a rather good book, actually), but based on my expectations in approaching it. (I took the subtitle -- the mourning part -- more seriously than was perhaps warranted...) -- 'Counterpoint' works on a number of different levels (befitting its title!): it is a memoir of the author's complicated relationship with his mother, a tracing of his interactions with Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Goldberg Variations,' a set of b Unfortunately, this book gets a lower rating from me, not solely on its merits (it's a rather good book, actually), but based on my expectations in approaching it. (I took the subtitle -- the mourning part -- more seriously than was perhaps warranted...) -- 'Counterpoint' works on a number of different levels (befitting its title!): it is a memoir of the author's complicated relationship with his mother, a tracing of his interactions with Johann Sebastian Bach's 'Goldberg Variations,' a set of biographical musings on the life of Bach, and, ultimately, a search for an answer to two questions: What do we mean when we say we 'know' a piece of music? And, perhaps more significantly, How is it ever possible to know another human being? -- I found the writing style a bit dry and clinical. I believe the book might have benefited from some musical examples. But I laughed out loud at the episode -- toward the end of the book -- involving eggplant parmigiana. (Perhaps more humor like this might have helped the book, too.) -- Recommended...with caution. This is probably not a book for everyone.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia Crawford

    I found this book ultimately rather depressing. I am an amateur pianist with only a few years experience, but I can relate to Philip's struggles. However, I also wish to express the deep joy music and piano practice can bring to one. What I don't feel comfortable with is Philip's rather persistent declarations of dislike of music/practice-a long-term ambivalence I can't relate to. It seems he continues to play under his imagined mother's hostile, watchful eye, and it steals much of the powerful I found this book ultimately rather depressing. I am an amateur pianist with only a few years experience, but I can relate to Philip's struggles. However, I also wish to express the deep joy music and piano practice can bring to one. What I don't feel comfortable with is Philip's rather persistent declarations of dislike of music/practice-a long-term ambivalence I can't relate to. It seems he continues to play under his imagined mother's hostile, watchful eye, and it steals much of the powerful satisfaction that could be possible if he took on a challenge that he felt he could actually fully meet and enjoy. Instead he tortures himself with doubts that reflect, perhaps, the weight of his mother's influence, still making him feel inadequate, and he appears to persist with the torment that he will never resolve the issue of his mother's strong negative influence, in the same way that he will he never finish learning this piece to a satisfactory level-a place where he can find real joy. That would not even need to be any kind of perfection, but rather , a release from the feeling of never feeling complete in himself.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    My favorite quote from the book, "Grief is like the ether of the heavens, or the phlogiston of combustible bodies, a mysterious, intangible substance that exists everywhere, ever the same, and becomes manifest to us only when we are forced to think of death in a concentrated way. Grief shatters or fractures into a kind of particulate matter that clings to everything, is ground into us, tracked into the recesses of our world like street dust, impervious to removal or cleaning, yet something that My favorite quote from the book, "Grief is like the ether of the heavens, or the phlogiston of combustible bodies, a mysterious, intangible substance that exists everywhere, ever the same, and becomes manifest to us only when we are forced to think of death in a concentrated way. Grief shatters or fractures into a kind of particulate matter that clings to everything, is ground into us, tracked into the recesses of our world like street dust, impervious to removal or cleaning, yet something that we learn to live with, a messy omnipresence. It is like the fluff oc cottonwood trees, which we discover long after they have. molted their seeds in spring, still swirling in some corner we haven't looked into in months. It never disappears, but remains mostly invisible during the happier moments of our lives, and only as we grow older and our losses accumulate do we realize that the world is forever glinting with it, on the bright days and the dark ones, too."

  22. 4 out of 5

    Eric Suchyta

    I found this memoir sometimes insightful and other times scattered. It jumps between the author's life, Bach's life, and musical analysis, the last of which can be difficult to follow for someone who isn't classically trained. It's not that it isn't interesting, but I'm not sure how much I'll be able to take out of it. The Bach anecdotes were amusing, but I think maybe a bit digressional at times. More generally, the flow sometimes seemed to get distracted from the main quandry of what it means I found this memoir sometimes insightful and other times scattered. It jumps between the author's life, Bach's life, and musical analysis, the last of which can be difficult to follow for someone who isn't classically trained. It's not that it isn't interesting, but I'm not sure how much I'll be able to take out of it. The Bach anecdotes were amusing, but I think maybe a bit digressional at times. More generally, the flow sometimes seemed to get distracted from the main quandry of what it means to know a piece of music. The author is a vocabulary virtuoso, a maestro of highbrow sounding language. I mostly enjoyed that but some might find it exhausting. I wasn't a huge fan of the audiobook narrator. He wasn't hard to understand, but the cadence was sometimes stunted. Overall, this book was OK, but I wouldn't put near the top of my recent reading.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Pickens

    I listened to this book on audiotape, and wished I could listen to the story on a loop as soundtrack to my life. There are so many issues addressed in this book that I can relate to: aging parents, the effect of hypercritical parenting, a love for classical music, and the beauty brought to your life by playing and listening to music. I was reminded of Jackson Brown's lyrics for "To a Dancer," that go "In the end there is one dance you do alone." Playing music is a basically a solitary activity t I listened to this book on audiotape, and wished I could listen to the story on a loop as soundtrack to my life. There are so many issues addressed in this book that I can relate to: aging parents, the effect of hypercritical parenting, a love for classical music, and the beauty brought to your life by playing and listening to music. I was reminded of Jackson Brown's lyrics for "To a Dancer," that go "In the end there is one dance you do alone." Playing music is a basically a solitary activity that we use to try to find some meaning in life, but in the end we all end up alone and not knowing what of it all is.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Nasreen Baten-Tschan

    Two parallel threads run through this book, the "Bach" and the "Mother" respectively. As someone who knows almost nothing about the science of music there were parts of this that were hard to read, but as someone who was invested in completing this book, I nonetheless found the extended metaphors appropriate/understandable for the music philistine audience. The author is my favorite art critic at WaPo, the newspaper I've read since childhood, so I was eager to read this. Having a more intimate v Two parallel threads run through this book, the "Bach" and the "Mother" respectively. As someone who knows almost nothing about the science of music there were parts of this that were hard to read, but as someone who was invested in completing this book, I nonetheless found the extended metaphors appropriate/understandable for the music philistine audience. The author is my favorite art critic at WaPo, the newspaper I've read since childhood, so I was eager to read this. Having a more intimate view, sans art criticism, was exactly what I signed up for. And he delivered.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sydney Kjerstad

    I have a lot in common with this author in regards to grief, a toxic parent, and a life long love of music. Music intertwines all aspects of life, and the author does a good job of showing how that works. All the while not making a conclusion about our parents, grief, and making music. Which is a good thing, because there are no answers, only experiences. Lots of little biographical tidbits about Bach, Gould, and other music histories that keep a nice balance. Definitely an insightful read and o I have a lot in common with this author in regards to grief, a toxic parent, and a life long love of music. Music intertwines all aspects of life, and the author does a good job of showing how that works. All the while not making a conclusion about our parents, grief, and making music. Which is a good thing, because there are no answers, only experiences. Lots of little biographical tidbits about Bach, Gould, and other music histories that keep a nice balance. Definitely an insightful read and one worth reading

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Gay Men Write About Their Moms (and Death) – a reading list On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4... Bettyville, by George Hodgman https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977 - September 15, 1979, by Roland Barthes https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1... Gay Men Write About Their Moms (and Death) – a reading list On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4... Bettyville, by George Hodgman https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... Mourning Diary: October 26, 1977 - September 15, 1979, by Roland Barthes https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...

  27. 4 out of 5

    Carmen

    Every student who sweated at the piano keys will relate to the shared experience of failure, fake starts, false expectations, futility, bitterness and will appreciate the sincerity in writing about such a delicate subject as reaching a limit. The information and commentary on Bach does not add to whatever one can find in a music history book and the part about the family is personal, with maybe a glimpse of mid century suburban America making it engaging and informative. A good read overall.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    In the now popular genre of grief memoir as woven through a single work of art (usually a work of literature, for example All the Lives we Ever Lived), this one is the best I've read. It's particularly impressive because it's an homage to a difficult mother, with whom the writer had a difficult relationship. I don't know if you have to have played Bach in your youth to appreciate it, as one who did play and misses it, his exigeses are wonderful. In the now popular genre of grief memoir as woven through a single work of art (usually a work of literature, for example All the Lives we Ever Lived), this one is the best I've read. It's particularly impressive because it's an homage to a difficult mother, with whom the writer had a difficult relationship. I don't know if you have to have played Bach in your youth to appreciate it, as one who did play and misses it, his exigeses are wonderful.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Loretta

    A perfect book for me. This music critic for the Washington Post describes his efforts to learn Bach’s Goldberg variations in the aftermath of his mother’s death. It is a meditation on practicing, the ethics of making music, the challenges of family..I loved everything about it. In particular I am also working on this music. This makes is very meaningful. It can function as a reference manual for anyone trying to make better music.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Brian Chenault

    I love how Philip weaves together ruminations on grief, reflections on family and upbringing, and of course historical snippets about Bach and thoughtful analysis of his music (particularly the Goldberg variations). This was a heavy book, but I admit that I had a hell of a laugh over the eggplant bit. It's funny in spots too. I was always more of a post-Romantic and early 20th century guy when it comes to composers, but this book has invigorated my interest in Bach. I love how Philip weaves together ruminations on grief, reflections on family and upbringing, and of course historical snippets about Bach and thoughtful analysis of his music (particularly the Goldberg variations). This was a heavy book, but I admit that I had a hell of a laugh over the eggplant bit. It's funny in spots too. I was always more of a post-Romantic and early 20th century guy when it comes to composers, but this book has invigorated my interest in Bach.

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