Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (Hardcover)
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2020
A Pulitzer Prize–winning critic reflects on the meaning and emotional impact of a Bach masterwork.
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?
About the Author
Philip Kennicott, the senior art and architecture critic of the Washington Post and a former contributing editor for the New Republic, won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2013. He lives in Washington, DC.
Lyrical and haunting.
— Alex Ross - The New Yorker
Full of arresting insights about the way music permeates our lives, as well as heartbreaking reflections on the wounds a parent can inflict on a child.
— Michael O'Donnell - Wall Street Journal
Immensely moving....With gorgeous prose and granular inspection, Kennicott has created a subtle and profound portrait of love, loss and the human condition.
— Marcia Butler - Washington Post
A thought-provoking and accomplished memoir, meeting Kennicott's own criterion that ‘every good book or great piece of music carries with it the possibility of redemption.’
— Martha Anne Toll - NPR
With stunning candor and elegance, Kennicott explores the complexities of grieving for an emotionally abusive person with brief dissertations on longing, on learning, on perfectionism; the lasting memories that color our lives; a beloved dog that indelibly despises Bach.... Kennicott’s approach turns what may have been a simple memoir into a shining, nonlinear meditation.
— Zoë Madonna - Boston Globe
A tender, wise, unflinchingly realistic and plain-spoken memoir.... In short, this is a beautiful and unexpectedly uplifting read which will have you reaching for both Gould’s Goldbergs and the Chaconne, and perhaps even looking at the world with renewed thoughtfulness.
— Charlotte Gardner - Gramophone
Heart-wrenching....This book, marvelous as it is, might be merely another contribution to the subgenre of grief literature, were it not for Kennicott’s extraordinary gift for writing about morning alongside music....By the end of Counterpoint, Kennicott has somehow managed not only to meditate on loss, but to say something, without resorting to cliché, about what it means to be alive and do meaningful work.
— Adrienne Davich - Van
A piano teacher once told me, ‘We can be sitting here and play a phrase and suddenly there’s beauty.’ You can touch a page of this book for beauty, along with sadness and wonder and certainly joy.
— Noah Adams, contributing correspondent, National Public Radio, and author of Piano Lessons
A wise, haunted, and beautiful book. I found myself reading paragraph after paragraph aloud, marveling at Kennicott’s ability to create a full musical resonance with his words alone. Counterpoint is not only an intimate examination of a masterpiece—Bach’s Goldberg Variations—but an unflinching and humane meditation on the lifelong process of growing up.
— Tim Page, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California
A story as complex and poignant as the great musical work at its heart, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
— Paul Kildea, author of Chopin's Piano