COUNTERPOINT by Philip Kennicott
Kirkus Star


A Memoir of Bach and Mourning
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Pulitzer Prize winner Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic of the Washington Post, makes his book debut with an absorbing meditation on grief.

Unsettled by the death of his mother, the author was drawn to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, especially Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, an emotional, aggressive interpretation, “clarifying as with colored light the intertwining lines of Bach’s thirty variations.” As a piano student years before, he had not mastered anything by Bach, preferring instead dazzling pieces by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms: “fast and with lots of drama.” Now, he decided to confront the challenges of the Variations. “I had no illusions that I would ever master them well enough to be satisfied by my performance,” Kennicott writes. “Rather, it seemed a way to test life again, to press upon it and see what was still vital,” to attain “clarity, accuracy,” and, not least, a sense of order and control. This desire for control in the face of sorrow, mortality, and loss recurs as a contrapuntal theme as the author chronicles his obsession with the Variations—their place in Bach’s oeuvre, reception, and demanding technique—along with a memoir of growing up in a tense household dominated by his moody, brittle, often vindictive mother, whom he wishes he could better understand. As he questions what it means to truly know a piece of music, he asks, as well, what it means to know any person. During adolescence, he found in music “a refuge” from chaotic family life, “an adult space where I was fully responsible for my actions.” At home, practicing piano functioned as a kind of “wordless communication”; “I would make music for an ideal mother who didn’t exist, and she listened to a son who, through music, spoke without irony, or condescension.” Now, as an adult, he seeks in music not solace, nor epiphany, nor a “miraculous entrée to higher consciousness,” but instead a “raw moment of openness” to “an emotional resignation that is beyond pleasure, or healing, or anything that can be captured in words.”

Elegant prose graces a deeply thoughtful memoir.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-393-63536-2
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2019