Richard King reviews Horatio Clare’s Something of His Art: Walking to Lubeck with J. S. Bach, published by Little Toller and out now.
Something of His Art by Horatio Clare is an account of a journey spent following the route taken by Johann Sebastian Bach during the winter of 1705, from Arnstadt, in Thuringia, deep within central Germany, to Lubeck, a town close to the Baltic Coast. The purpose of the composer’s two hundred and fifty mile walk was to study under the organist at Lubeck cathedral, the celebrated and temperamental Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach undertook the journey as a callow twenty year old and Clare retraces his steps in the knowledge of what lay ahead for the composer. Something of His Art is consequently an investigation into the genius loci of Bach’s route, a consideration of the spirit of the places Bach walked through at a brisk and determined pace with the vigour and confidence of youth.
A sound recordist and radio producer accompany Clare. They are there to turn this expedition into a radio programme for Radio 3 (the logo of the station is printed on the back cover of the book) and the presence of these travelling companions, their conversation and everyday needs such as hotel rooms, occasionally intrude on Clare’s thought processes. It is to his credit he allows their everyday badinage into the narrative; the chatter about types of microphone shields and snacks acts as a counterbalance to Clare’s natural tendency to turn his thoughts inwards.
The library of books about contemplation while walking has swelled in recent years. What is refreshing about Clare’s monograph – or as he describes Something of His Art, a ‘journal’ – is the fact his travels have both a destination and purpose. The rather tired qualities of drift and self-discovery that motivate a great many books about distances covered on foot are absent. Instead, Clare shares his uninhibited joy at the project and the euphoria he experiences at the end of long days spent walking briskly in the fresh air, when ‘you develop a kind of itinerant persona…part pilgrim, part passage migrant, at home in your own space, which you bring into every village and hamlet.’
Although this is a journey informed by the past, Clare has a fine eye for the character of the landscape through which he travels – one that still retains some of the atmosphere of the Cold War. His evocative description of a cafe near Brocke, which until twenty-five years ago had held an internal border with the East and a Russian military presence, is more reminiscent of the final scene of Smiley’s People than anything found in the pages of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Clare senses the recording equipment of his entourage has not made them welcome in the cafe and ‘the exchanges of the Russian troops and border guards who were billeted here seemed to have caught in the fabric of the walls.’ He is also sensitive to currents in contemporary life – he sees a swastika and several anti-fascist graffiti during the moments his route takes him into built up areas – but it is his pleasure in sharing the footsteps of the young composer and imagining how he may have felt that animates his journey.
Clare and his crew make their pilgrimage during the early winter, and when in open country this allows Clare to share his knowledge of birds, which is thorough and worn lightly on the page. He is eager to encounter a honey buzzard, a species which breeds in Germany, but has by the time of their walk migrated. Instead his sightings include goldcrests, sparrowhawks, jays and buzzards and Clare describes them with the intensity of someone who has spent time in their company out of need rather than curiosity.
Over a a few paragraphs, as he and his crew approach their final destination of Lubeck, Clare explains that his first encounter with Bach occurred during his final year at University, when he first experienced the crippling condition of depression. For Clare the effect of listening to the composer’s cello suites proved overwhelming but comforting. Many readers will feel an affinity with his description of the suites, the low notes of a solitary instrument speaking directly to someone undergoing the uncontrollable shift from contemplative solitude towards something more malevolent. For Clare the suites were ‘a place of safety, soft and intimate and quietly, insistently uplifting.’
Something of His Art is a slim volume, but the directness of Clare’s exhilaration and openness is well communicated by its brevity; he demonstrates that to walk for the purpose of retracing centuries-old footsteps is to walk through our own age as well, but with a lighter and perhaps happier tread than the one we habitually use.
Something of His Art is out now and available here, priced £12.00.
Richard’s next book The Lark Ascending is due for publication by Faber & Faber in 2019.