J.S.S.O.S. Bach

January 12, 2017

They make for great adventure stories. No matter what the setting, ships at sea and those who sail them have fascinated readers for centuries. In many of those stories life or death situations force the main characters to rely upon untapped reserves of resourcefulness. A real-life incident involving a musical ship of sorts reminded me of some of those nautical tales.

First, let me mention that back on November 18th, I introduced a bit of ship-related word play on the occasion of 2 musical birthdays that were being celebrated that day.  I floated a story about 3 musical ships, 2 of which are actually Schiffs – that’s the German name for ship and it’s the family name of 2 famous classical music soloists.

There’s the Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, who’s best known for his performances of composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  Schiff is also the family name of the Austrian-born cellist and conductor Heinrich Schiff.  Heinrich Schiff is not related to pianist Andras Schiff.  As far as I know, the 2 never performed together, they don’t share a birthday and if it weren’t for the fact that both have been well-known classical musicians, they would be 2 Schiffs passing in the night. 

As it turned out, the 65th birthday of Heinrich Schiff happened to be on the same day as the 180th birthday anniversary of William S. Gilbert, the lyricist of an entire fleet of well-known operettas, written in collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan:  For the occasion, I presented not just the ship, but the entire crew of H.M.S. Pinafore in the opening sailors’ chorus from the operetta named for the vessel.

It was an amusing and musical telling. I wasn’t aware at the time that Heinrich Schiff had once experienced a real-life challenge which was very much like a shipwreck. I learned about it only recently in articles that paid tribute to Schiff, following his death on December 23rd.

Kevin Rawlinson of The Guardian related the story as told by cellist Steven Isserlis last year in an interview with Slipped Disc. Isserlis explained that he was complaining (as usual, he said) about the pressures of performing the suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Heinrich Schiff looked at him and said quietly: ‘Bach saved my life’. Isserlis continued: “I asked him what he meant and he told me that a few years ago, he had a serious stroke, and was in danger of losing all mobility on his left side. As soon as he got to the hospital, and realised what was happening, he started (almost instinctively, Isserlis imagined) to go through the fingerings of the prelude from Bach’s first suite, moving his fingers ceaselessly to the imaginary music. He did this for about 20 hours a day, he thinks; and gradually his whole body came back to life, powered by those fingerings.”

“Today,” Isserlis said, “you would never guess that he could have been half-paralysed, possibly even incapable of speech – or worse.”  Isserlis called it the miracle of Bach – and of Heinrich.

I haven’t stopped thinking about that story. I have since tried to imagine Heinrich Schiff reaching for Bach’s music like someone desperately making their way toward a lifeboat or firmly grasping the hand of a rescuer. And I continue to wonder about that prelude that played over and over in his head in a way that only Schiff could experience and hear. It had to be a unique and somewhat haunting journey with that music.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that music came to the rescue. Lullabies continue to comfort crying babies,  and music never ceases to uplift, inspire or relax people each day. Listeners remind me of that all the time. It’s easy to downplay those common encounters in favor of the more dramatic ones that come to light from time to time, like that of Heinrich Schiff.

Many take the initiative and turn to music daily for a variety of reasons.  But it’s fascinating how a piece of music can be there for us when we hadn’t even planned on it. It’s as if a unique musical moment may be headed our way at any time. Hopefully we won’t let it sail by unnoticed.


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