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The Song That Changed Your Life: Picks

How Bach Saved My Soul by David Waltner-Toews

During my teenage years in Winnipeg, rock music (and even some folk music) was not allowed in our Mennonite Brethren home. 

To still my soul, I spent many hours lying face-down on the carpet in the dark living room listening to my older brother’s collection of classical records. Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto (I think it was Sviatoslav Richter playing) was my heart and soul music. But another recording went straight to my neural networks: a Columbia Masterworks recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s piano concerto in F minor (No. 5, originally for harpsichord) and Beethoven’s first piano concerto in C major. 

I didn't know how deeply that music had lodged. In 1967, at the age of 19, I left Winnipeg, hitch-hiked to Montreal, and took a freighter to Belfast. From there I vagabonded by bus, foot, boat, bicycle, and train across Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India - on through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia and finally, via Japan, to Vancouver and back to Winnipeg. 

On the way, I lost or abandoned pretty much everything that had held me together - my religion, my culture, people I loved. The one piece of music that stayed with me, that held me together, on that whole 18-month journey, amidst cacophonies of sitar and rock, middle eastern mizmas, Songs of Tagore, tablas, Thai ballads and Japanese koto, was Glenn Gould playing Bach’s fifth piano concerto. 

To my surprise, I could hum it, pretty much note for note; I sang it in the deserts of Persia and the mountains of Afghanistan. I pum-pummed it to myself in crowded buses rattling through dust and crowded markets. Gould, playing Bach inside my head, gave me peace, let me sleep on rocky ground, and woke me up to continue that strange journey. The universe, however cold and lonely, however crowded and poor and miserable, said Gould - said Bach - was also full of amazing structure, delight, melodies that built on each other, stepped lightly over stone fortresses and trees, crumbling in death and sand and jungle and endless tragedy, then folded like an origami bird, flew away like an egret from the back of a still-standing water buffalo, and came back as sunrise through broken clouds, red earth, flat bread from a clay oven. 

Bach’s fifth piano concerto, played by Glenn Gould, saved my soul.

David Waltner-Toews is from Kitchener, ON

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