To an unbeliever, most Christian thinking, beginning with the proclamation of the cosmic kingship of an executed Palestinian carpenter, must seem like an insane, if touching, attempt to rationalize tragedy and failure. Yet the history of my romance with the greatest of all composers concretely and compellingly illustrates the ancient Christian doctrine that God’s Providence brings good out of every evil. Let me explain.
It has been twenty-one years since I came wailing into the world, but I have yet to land a girlfriend in the proper sense of the word. I once came close though, indeed, so close that at the time I was thoroughly convinced I had succeeded. It was the crowning achievement of my last and glorious year at home in Jamaica to attract and sustain the interest of the prettiest girl I had ever seen in person. She told me, in an awkward and suitably ‘cute’ exchange, that it was emphatically appropriate for me to refer to her as my ‘girlfriend’ in conversations with third parties. Ah! How we frolicked through the Elysian fields of my seventeenth summer on God’s bountiful earth! This frolicking largely consisted of my monologuing on literature over the telephone, but I, at least, was in Eden. After Eden came the Fall, when with sweet sorrow I left for my posh new Massachusetts boarding-school, at last a normal person, complete with a girlfriend ‘back home’ to telephone and pine for and, after a fitting interval, poetically break up with. Life was good.
Then, within hours of my arriving in the US, my posh new Massachusetts phone rang and I, like a lamb to the slaughter, meekly toddled across the room to answer it. It was my best friend, who had been keeping up a secret correspondence with the young lady in question (let us call her ‘Beatrice’). Beatrice had told him that she never considered herself to be my girlfriend, and apparently, while my seat in the departure lounge was still warm, she began vigorously dating (to euphemize) her male ‘best friend,’ the mute caveman who had always hovered ominously in the background.
After a few moments of calm reflection I decided that the situation was too mind-numbingly horrible to face squarely. Instead I threw all my energy into adapting to my new environment, indeed, into willfully alienating myself from my Beatrice-tainted past by saturating in brand-new friendships and interests. The darker elements of my personality probably have a direct and strong connection to this amusing little interlude, but in the final analysis I must be grateful that it happened, since among my new therapeutic interests was classical music: No Beatrice’s treacheries could outweigh the goodness revealed to me in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach was, in a very strong sense, born to make music. His huge family was so musical that ‘Bach’ gained the secondary meaning of ‘musician’ in his hometown. Johann Sebastian dutifully contributed a substantial share to the already impressive aggregate of Bachs by producing around twenty children of his own, efficiently using only two wives. Perhaps to assure his colossal brood regular meals, he worked as a teacher and church musician his whole life. This role as a teacher and commissioned composer probably helps to explain the famous technical perfection of his work. Now-canonical works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue were primarily considered instructional materials, pedagogical demonstrations of musical forms and styles.
Bach, then, is a teacher, and as such insists on order, but not the rigid, mechanical order of a mere technician. An impressive number and variety of thinkers have suggested that Bach’s work may be conclusive material evidence for the existence of God, a compliment no engineers of my acquaintance have been paid. Like Dante’s Commedia, Bach’s best work is intricate, complete, yet somehow seems as if it could, should, and does go on forever, somewhere in eternity. To take perhaps the most banal example, his over-played but immortally lovely ‘Air’ (most familiar in its modified form as ‘Air on the G-String’) is a marvel of fluidity, sweetness and balance. It expresses better than any words could the quiet joy of the just and loving man. I recommend that you play it to reward yourself after a hard slog at the gym and a hot shower, preferably while nicely dressed and drinking something warm.
But the mild Herr Kapellmeister can also stun and overwhelm you. His St Matthew Passion, for example, widely considered the most perfect work in the Western canon, becomes deeper, darker and more transcendentally beautiful with each listen. There is a great wealth of wonderful musical moments throughout it of course, and it is as a (coherent whole) that it is truly great, but it is worth listening to for the first three minutes alone: The sad, lonely grandeur of humming strings creates an atmosphere heavy with fate and death. After a minute the choir cries out: “Come, O daughters, help me mourn!” Theirs is a song both particular and universal, both the story of this man at this place at this time, and the song of all those who have been the victims of cruelty and ignorance. One chorus answers the other, as though they have suddenly espied Christ, the flayed and beaten Bridegroom making his torturous procession: “See him! “Whom?” “The Bridegroom!” “See him coming!” “How?” “Oh, so like a lamb!” Then, to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein, quietly but clearly, above this woozy, aural soup, the pure sound of the boys’ choir floats, proclaiming the cool, calm truth of salvation: “Oh guiltless Lamb of God….you have borne all sin.” If this does not move you, you are probably dead.
But since few would dispute the claim that Bach was a composer of the highest rank, I should end by insisting that my affinity for him goes far beyond his artistic achievement to deep affection for what I know of the man himself. Indeed, if I were asked to put my feelings as simply as possible, I would have to say that I love Bach because that fat and ugly Teuton lived so damned beautifully. He was, to all appearances, a good and pleasant man, confident but not arrogant, ambitious but not obsessed with fame, public but not preening. He was a dutiful father, an exemplary teacher, a musical genius but never a vain, self-mythologizing ‘artist’. He was, in short, a (mensch), rooted in earthly duties and realities, and for that very reason produced music fit for angels. His life and work illustrates the distinctively Christian logic of Incarnation and Sacrament, which allows that the mundane may be shot through with divinity. The beauty he produced in reams continues (as I know from experience) to have transformative power. It is a beauty so deep that it is hard to remain a mere aesthete, enjoying it like a sensual pleasure. This beauty accuses, interrogates, demands. Like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” it rouses you from sloth and tells you that you must change your life. It teaches you to strive for excellence and transcendence, to love the world (Beatrices and all) and give thanks for it in word and deed. And thanks, as GK Chesterton said, are the highest form of thought.