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The Silverberg Variations

June 3, 2007

A story in twelve movements

From the vernacular body [no longer online], September 16-18, 2004

I: Chaconne

This story starts, as do so many stories in my life, with music. For many years, I have placed the chaconne from Bach’s second partita for solo violin on a peak all its own. This massive virtuoso piece is one of those musical creations that always makes my pulse race and my heart feel like breaking. Even thinking about the piece puts me in a strange sorrowful mood.

The chaconne and its closely related musical form the passacaglia are of, I think, ancient Italian origin. The forms were popular in Baroque times. They build a series of variations on a repeated or implied bass line. The theme is often stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then transmuted several times. This repetition, filtered through changes of tempo, melody and register, gives a chaconne an inexorable quality. Chaconnes are emotional and ecstatic, and their power comes precisely from the limits imposed on them, which stretch composers to be as creative as they can be. In the hands of masters like Marais, Forqueray or Bach, the chaconne or passacaglia becomes a truly astonishing thing, music that makes you jump out of your seat, music that changes your world. Brahms used the form to wondrous effect in the final movement of his fourth symphony. But, long before that, Bach had scaled the heights of the variations-on-a-theme challenge in not one but three works: a broody passacaglia in C minor for organ, the famous Goldberg Variations for keyboards, and the violin chaconne in D minor.

I once had a splendid recording of the Bach partitas for solo violin. It was a performance on Sony Classics, played by a sixteen year-old girl called Hilary Hahn. I later gave the recording away, and for long afterwards, I had the sarabande, the gigue and the chaconne from the second partita playing in my head. I heard other recordings of the work: Milstein, Heifetz, Perlman, Szeryng. But none of these great and famous violinists played with either the heart or the technical ability of the prodigiously gifted Miss Hahn. So, when I saw two weeks ago, at Tower Records, Hilary Hahn’s performance of the solo Bach pieces for sale at a substantial discount (eight dollars), I snapped up a copy quickly. I must have listened to the chaconne movement, which is eighteen minutes long, right through some five times since then.

Once at least my eyes have brimmed with tears.

II: Numbers

On the way to the hospital, we’re caught in afternoon traffic. The driver of the gypsy cab is listening to a baseball game on the radio. Yankees.

I try reading Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That, which I’ve brought with me, but I give up after a while, and listen to two men call a game on the radio.

I don’t know anything about baseball, but I do know that baseball-talk is full of statistics. I listen to the game for five minutes, keeping track only of how often they talk numbers. The commentators seem to be straining for a repeated “wow”, with all their percentages and RBIs and narrowly-defined records. Everything is made to seem remarkable, and the commentators don’t seem to be able to halt their numbers talk for even ten seconds. The game seems to be more about the numerical detritus of the game than it is about the game itself as a physical activity.

It’s hot. I find the obsession with statistics childish, and peculiarly American. I am mildly irritated, but I’m also thinking about how I will write about the heat and statistics and irritation in my blog.

The hospital emerges in the sun.

III: “There’s a lot of love in that room.”

For a few hours every Thursday evening, I help at the desk, answering phones, and assisting some other volunteers in serving food to family members of the patients. I have a good rapport with the nurse aides, the registered nurses and the doctors. There are twelve rooms on the ward, and in each one, someone is dying. At the desk, people fill in charts and answer queries. There’s always laughter at the desk; there’s acerbic humor and kindness; barbs fly. This is how they get through the days. I’ve only seen momentary silence at the desk when a body, shrouded in black polythene, is wheeled out by men from the morgue.

Maria, a nurse aide, says in her lilting accent, her Jamaican English that is like singing, Oh, there’s so much love in that room, so much love in that room, why I can’t find a love like that? She looks genuinely upset. Errol, the registered nurse, who’s quite fat and, depending on his mood, either very nice or very surly, says, What, in room 712? He goes over, takes a peek, comes back.

Lordy, that’s a lot of love. There’s some banter over at the desk. Errol says, She love him. You know he been a dog before, but she love him now. Hmm, mm.

There’s a comatose man in room 712, and sitting next to him is a woman, his wife. She’s holding his hand, talking to him, loving him through the threshold to the other world.

Maria still looks miffed, almost petulant, almost bewildered. I can’t believe it, she sings, why I cannot find a love like that, uh?

IV: A woman kissing a man’s hand

I have gone to room 712 out of curiosity, but my pretext is to find out if Mrs Silverberg needs anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water.

He lies on the bed, comatose, and next to him, she sits in a chair and holds his right hand. She raises his hand, lowers her head, kisses his hand. I love you, she says, why did this happen to you? You wonderful man. I love you. She kisses his hand again. His breathing is raspy but calm. His mouth is wide open, his eyes almost closed. His chest rises and falls with each labored breath but he is otherwise immobile. To his left and to his right, he is attached to tubes and clear bags of fluids. The tubes are connected to his arms. He looks like Gulliver on the Lilliputan shore.

My poor baby, she says, I love you.

Then she turns around and notices me standing there. And who are you? she asks. I introduce myself. She squints at my ID, and says, oh, and turns back to her husband. I ask if she wants anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water. No, she says, I still have apple juice. I tell her that it’s wonderful that she’s talking to him. He can’t talk back, I say, but he can hear you.

He’s a wonderful man, look at him, she says, wonderful man, so full of life but look at him now. You are wonderful, she says to him, and lowers her head and kisses his hand.

There’s nowhere for me to sit. I kneel down between the bed and the chair, and Mrs Silverberg begins to talk to me.

V: The wife’s tale

I have been married to him for forty-eight years. I love him. After he came to hospital, the dog used to sleep by his bed every night. Missed him terribly. So did I.

She holds his hand adoringly. The grief is heavy on her. Elsa Silverberg tells me that her husband is a violin teacher. Mr Silverberg taught in the Bronx public schools for more than thirty years.

She’s very hard of hearing, so I have to lean close if I want to say something. I enunciate into her ear: I love music.

Oh, says she, classical music? I nod and smile.

(She shows me a driver’s license which says “David Silverberg”. He is a burly and cheerful-looking man, an image hard to connect with the one who lies before me, this silent one, pale, unshaven and with that look of permanent surprise that you see in the faces of the old: white eyebrows, gaping mouth).

Well, she says, when he was young David studied with Samuel Rifkind, who was a great teacher, and this man told my husband that if he had wanted he could have had a brilliant career as a performer.

Once, about sometime in the early 1960s, David played a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Can you believe that? He had a wonderful talent.

He played the Bach chaconne.

Do you know it?

VI: Chaconne

The chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

VII: Children

a: We have two children. Our son lives in New York, with his wonderful wife and their eight-year old son. Aaron, our son, he’s into computers. And when he was a boy, he sang beautifully. He was in the boys choir at St John’s Church. The best singer they had at that time. But when they did high masses, he couldn’t sing with them because of his religion. St John’s is an Episcopalian church.

a: What? You’re going to have to speak a little louder.

a: Of course, Jewish. Anyway, his voice broke, and then he stopped singing. He went to NYU. His father was so happy when he said he was getting married. Have you met our son? He comes here often, to visit his father.

a: Our daughter lives in Maine. They lost her medical records, these idiots. Now she can’t get her medicaid. She’s thirty-five, and she has fibromyalgia. She has a huge dog that helps her get around, you know, one of those service dogs.

a: We send her money. What can we do? We have no money, but we have to send her money. Because someone lost her medical charts.

a: She would like to come see her father, but there’s no money.

VIII: Accidents

One of our dogs, and we’ve had many, one of our dogs bit off David’s little finger. It was a dumb dog. Anyway, the finger was reattached, and can you believe this man, he learned how to play violin all over again. We had the dog put down.

We got into an accident last October. He was driving. We hit a tree.

They made us wait so long in the emergency room. He hurt his shoulder, I hurt my arm. That was all. But then, when they did a scan, they found out that he had cancer in his stomach.

They’ve had to take out all his insides. There’s nothing left inside him now.

Can you believe what one of the doctors said to us? That David is seventy-eight, that that isn’t such a bad time to die. Can you believe the nerve of these doctors? If they had taken better care of him, he wouldn’t be here like this right now.

Mr Silverberg agitates slightly. His wife starts, but he calms down quickly, and so does she.

She kisses his hand.

People live to be ninety, she says, why is this happening to him? I’m not ready to let him go, he has been a wonderful man. Yes, he had a bit of a temper sometimes, but he was a wonderful man.

I kneel closer to her. She inclines her head.

I say, he can’t speak, Mrs Silverberg, but he can hear you. He can receive all this love you are sending his way.

Mrs Silverberg nods and falls quiet.

It is very late afternoon now. I have been in this room with the Silverbergs for an hour. I can see the skyline of the city from this seventh floor window. There are trains in the distance, bridges, a river. It is impossible to describe the air, and the beautiful light which is just out of reach of words. Light and air are the opposite of dying. Of all the free and joyful things, I think, light and air come first. And yet, at the appointed time, one ends up with air from a tube, light from a fluorescent tube, and no hope of ever going outside again.

How strange that the same chaconne I was humming earlier in the day is the foundational piece of this man’s life. I wish I could bring the disc, play it for him. Or would that tie his spirit down? Bind him too closely to the world that his body is already trying to escape?

Night begins to fall. The air and the light take on darker hues.

I break the silence after a few minutes.

Thank you, Mrs Silverberg, I say, holding her hand. She looks surprised. Why are you thanking me? I should be thanking you.

Because you’ve shared your story with me, I say, and because you have such a love for this man.

Thank you, she says, squeezing my hand tight and holding it in the squeeze, thank you. God bless you.

God bless you too, Mrs Silverberg.

Her eyes are glassy. Eventually, she releases my hand and I leave the room.

I return to my seat at the nurses’ station, musing on this interaction.

I am completely unprepared for what happens next.

IX: Unfathomable

The Chaconne is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
–Johannes Brahms

X: The nurse’s tale

a: She’s drunk, you know.

a: No, I’m telling you she’s an alchoholic, and she’s drunk right now.

a: Yes, I understand that, you talked with her for an hour. But do you know some people are at their most lucid when they are intoxicated? She’s been drinking all day. That’s why she was talking so much.

a: Believe.

a: Well, everything has a reason. And it’s all in Silverberg’s chart: her alchoholism, his abuse.

a: Beat her. Pretty badly but it’s hard to tell now, isn’t it?

a: It’s pretty certain. What’s not quite as certain is whether the allegations by the daughter are true.

a: Sexual abuse.

a: Yes, way.

a: She brought a big court case against her father in the early nineties. There was no legal resolution, but they became estranged. This was all before she got fibromyalgia. He got a PhD from Columbia, you know, in musicology, and he was a brilliant violinist. But what good is all that?

a: Probably why his wife took to drink.

a: Apparently, the daughter converted out of Judaism and became a born-again Christian in the late nineties, and that is what has allowed her to begin to forgive her parents, and make peace.

a: We don’t know if she’ll make it out. She was trying to arrange a flight to see him before he dies. There are some cheap flights on Jet Blue.

a: That’s right, you wouldn’t know it from the way Mrs Silverberg’s carrying on in 712. Medical professionals are human beings too. Sure we make mistakes. But we are not to blame for her husband’s illness. She needs to realize that.

a: You got it. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

XI: Morimur

It is 3am on a Saturday morning as I write these words. I can’t sleep. Hunger. Heat. Humidity. Thoughts.

Certain scholars believe that the chaconne has mystical and even cabalistic properties. The piece was written in 1720 after the death of Maria Barbara, the first wife of J.S. Bach, as an epitaph to her. The variations of the chaconne contain themes from some of Bach’s other choral preludes, each of which deals with the subject of death.

Even without the codes, the music is moody, intense and, as Brahms says, unfathomable.

I rise in the small hours and begin to sing it to myself.

XII: Resignation

I left the hospital at 7pm that evening.

Mrs Silverberg stayed by the bed until midnight, and then, according to the nurse, she reluctantly went home.

Mr Silverberg breathed his last some two hours later, at 2am on the morning of September 10.

The widow is in a bad way, and her health has taken a sudden turn for the worse. She is getting help from the bereavement counselors from the hospice.

Albert Schweitzer writes, of the chaconne: Out of a single theme, Bach conjures up a whole world. We seem to hear sorrow contending with pain until at the last they blend in a mood of profound resignation.

I’m not sure I completely understand. All I do is watch like an astonished child as the universe does what it does.

I’m going back to sleep.

by Teju Cole

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  1. June 3, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Gobsmacked is too crude a word to put after reading this marvellous homage to Bach and to frail humanity. But I am gobsmacked by it. Can’t say any more.

  2. Ivy
    June 3, 2007 at 4:21 pm


  3. June 4, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Holy wow.

    Reading this brings the hospital back to life around me, with its complications and contradictions.

    There’s so much more I want to say but I can’t find words.

  4. June 5, 2007 at 5:12 am

    I loved this the first time you published it. Now I know your writing and preoccupations better, I think I appreciated it even more. Terrific, moving, satisfying in so many ways. Its impact grows and shifts on second and subsequent readings – just like the Bach chaconne.

  5. June 5, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    It’s always humbling to get this kind of response to something I’ve written. Thank you all.

  6. June 5, 2007 at 7:08 pm


  7. June 8, 2007 at 11:10 am

    What an amazing composition in counterpoint, music with story: the compassionate listener, the patient’s patient wife, the story behind the story, and the music. Oh the music of this piece. Thank you!

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