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Obliged to be Industrious

By Edie Cay
May 23, 2023

I grew up as a musician in a household of musicians. My father was the conductor of a summer county band–think of any extremely wholesome outside event with a nice bandshell, an audience perched on picnic blankets with children buzzing about with frisbees, the sun setting leaving the heat of the day behind and living in a climate where mosquitoes cannot breed. My father claimed, as a man in his early thirties, single and loving it, that he found himself trying to cue the trumpets when no trumpets were called for. Because my mother played first trumpet. And she wore mini skirts.

It was the early seventies.

Some years later, at the age of four, I began piano lessons, which I diligently continued through college. I knew it wasn’t my calling. Playing was enjoyable, yes, and I loved digging into difficult pieces. But I hated performing. Memorizing music terrified me. My mind doesn’t work that way. I need something concrete and visual. To take away the music was like adding a weighted cuff to a soccer player. Why would you do that?

There is a chance that this etching from 1736 shows Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian. It is part of a larger work showing the German town of Leipzig, where Bach worked.

I much preferred writing, but I enjoyed the history of music, and during college, I finally began to appreciate Johann Sebastian Bach. In my high school days, I hated playing him. His pieces were fussy and intricate, without the big flourishes that one might manage in Chopin and Rachmaninoff. But as I learned more about the structure behind his greatest works–a structure called a fugue, and a technique called counterpoint–I learned to love them. And then when I learned about the man himself, the more I felt akin to him.

To be a Bach in Saxony meant you would be a musician.

Just as a family of farmers created farmers, a seven generations of Bachs created musicians. Johann had little choice in the matter. I could relate. He grew up and married a second cousin, Maria Barbara, a woman who sang, but given the strict confines of the Lutheran church, was not allowed in the church choir loft. Bach worked for the court of a duke and then a prince, and while he was away working, his wife died, leaving him with four children. Though heartbroken, everyone counseled him to remarry, as those children needed a mother. Anyone. Get anyone.

Bach married Anna Magdalena, another singer, who also was a professional musician. They had traveled together when the court moved. They were a two income household for some time, as she was an excellent musician in her own right. Anna Magdalena was sixteen years younger than Johann, and his eldest son, CPE Bach–who later became a prolific composer and Mozart’s teacher–hated her. They feuded up until Anna Magdalena died. He…was extremely not nice to her.

But their household was a bustle of children and students, constant composing, playing and singing. With so many children, Bach had to produce a huge volume of work. And he did. Once he took the job in Leipzig, he turned out a brand new full-scale works weekly. Kind of like a symphony every week. He was a machine.


What I really identify with was his workman-like approach to art. Bach didn’t believe in drug-fueled Xanadus, no slippery muses. Bach said, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.” I wrote a paraphrase of this on a post-it and hung it on my computer years ago. It helps to know that Bach was considered middling in his career. He was not a rock star, he was not a touring celebrity like Mozart. He was obliged to work, and he did.

It reminds me of writing. Perhaps there are some out there who strive to be more Lord Byron in a sea of Johann Sebastians. But you can’t produce work without, well, working. To me, it’s a very midwestern approach. Head down, keep composing. And that is what I try to do. I wish I had the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, I am like Bach, industrious because I am obliged to be so.

Edie Cay

Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website,

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Beggs

    Wow, what a perfect post for Trainer Tuesday! TY. Sharing.


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