Bach for the Cello

Rowan Williams shares one of his poems.



Rowan Williams shares one of his poems.


By mathematics we shall come to heaven.
This page the door of God’s academy
for the geometer

Where the pale lines involve a continent,
transcribe the countryside of formal light,
kindle with friction.

Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals:
under the level moon, desire runs fast,
the flesh aches on its string,
without consummation,

Without loss.


The image I began with in this poem was the inscription over the Academy in Athens, Let nobody enter here who doesn’t care about geometry. You think, what a bizarre thing to say! But I thought about the intensely mathematical nature of Bach’s great abstract music – and I think of the Cello Suites as the greatest example of Bach as an abstract musician. He’s looking at patterns running off in all directions, and all of them generated by such very simple relationships. It’s mathematical in that sense. So yes, “By mathematics we shall come to heaven” was the line that came to me first. But I thought also of the way in which the cello itself, that most rounded and eloquent of solo string instruments, seems to be like the carving of a deep line, a canal, a channel. Something which, yes, like a canal, allows something to run. “Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals.” And the mysterious fact then that out of this very abstract, very mathematical set of relationships comes a depth of emotion, almost emotion you haven’t got a word for. And what do the cello suites make you feel? Happy? Sad? I don’t know. They make you feel. They make you feel. Hence, “The flesh aches on its string” – a sort of almost unbearable intensity of yearning, a sheer depth of awareness that comes out. And so, “without consummation, without loss”: it’s not a feeling that comes to a climax and a release; and at the same time, it’s not a feeling that just comes and goes. It’s a level of sheer felt presence which is generated there. That’s why, for me, the Cello Suites are the supreme music, I have to say, even in Bach.