Patriarch and Primeval Father of harmony.
-L. van Beethoven, on Bach
I’m listening to Bach again.
It’s partly because I’m one week out from finals. It’s partly because I’ve finished cleaning my kitchen. It’s partly because I’ve been talking to and with and around people for the last week and I need to hear something other than human voices, other than silence.
It’s mostly because Bach reminds me of the best parts of who I am and who I wish to be.
I listen to him while I study, and sometimes while I drive; often I listen to him as I sit and do nothing else. My life is often stressful; occasionally it verges on chaotic; and I’ve been going though several transitions that demand resources of attention and cognition which sometimes feel as though they are stretched too thin.
I listen to J.S. Bach because listening to him reminds me of what the marriage of technique and inspiration sounds like; of what discipline of thought, skill, and desire can produce; of what unity of form and substance can achieve.
I listen to Bach because in listening to him I remember- or rediscover, in a different manner with each hearing- what the coalescence of technical brilliance and unexcelled joy sounds like.
I’ve spoken to many who find him boring or characterize him as joyless. It is true that Bach is not showy; his variations play on different aspects of specific melodies. They do not seek unexplored territory; they seek to refine what is known, to press its limits and define its ambit.
To me, they embody self-discovery: an endless reinterpretation of known attributes, a charged and shifting string of possibilities rendered into solid and tangible reality with the sure precision of a Master.
What matters it that he worked almost entirely on variations in his music? What matters it that he used forms which existed at his time rather than inventing new ones? This is an integral part of what artists do: seeking to push the known into its furthest limit, to make real things which lurk at the edge of form, known but as yet unseen.
Are Tennyson and Keats boring because their verses retold mythologies already ancient in their time? Are Monet or Rembrandt uninteresting because they painted the same subject repeatedly? Is Donatello’s, Verrochio’s, Michaelangelo’s, or Bernini’s David uninteresting because all four of them portray the same person?
For that matter, are Michaelangelo's Pieta and David boring because they are both fashioned of the pure, unvarying white of Carrera marble?
We as humans seek to know what we already know- we retell ancient tales, look at ancient art, listen to tunes which reach back beyond any ancestors of whom we know. We do these things because they remind us of who we are and of what we might be. Bach does that for me: he shows me that which I seek in myself.
The lilting exhilaration of Bach’s music, impeccably and ineffably joined to its mathematical precision, embodies the best harmonies born to the marriage of deliberation and desire.
If I’m very, very lucky… or very, very, smart… or some combination of the two, perhaps one day I too will make those vows.
And until then, I have his music. It’s not a bad prospect.
So- back to work.