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You never know you’re changing until it’s already happened; time has a funny way of fooling us into thinking that the only way we respond to the things that come to pass is enduring them. It all feels as if it happens so rapidly, one thing after the other, that we perceive it as all we can do in the moment. But it is in all of these little moments – the pain, the sadness, the awe, the humor, even joy – bundled together that time carves us like marble, rounds us out. We all would like to believe that we are buoys in turbulent waters, but the cosmic joke is that we are the fish, our currents laid out for us and our patterns molded by something more conscious than fate but less present than God. And in the grand scheme of things, we are no better or smarter.
It is within the humility inherent to this line of thinking that I believe the humane power of Bach’s music rests. Of course he was a genius, but that, in the scheme of our account of history, goes without saying. Nor is it quite what I’m getting at. His body of work means a great deal to many, and served as the foundation upon which an entire continent’s music was built. However, we and many others always seem to come back to him, in my mind, for the balance he manages to strike between preaching to all who walk through this life, and the intimate sensation that persuades that his music is quietly speaking to you, as if a friend had just grabbed your hand and confided something to you so personal yet so wise that you couldn’t forget it.
But this is just merely his music’s attitude, the gut-reaction that it can evoke from an open listener. It is not merely how he says it, but what he’s saying. The Well-Tempered Clavier, in all of its monumental grandeur (again, history), is really just a diary, a fun project that Bach set himself to compose little by little, the fugues appearing to arise sometimes from an improvisatory spur of the moment, putting to paper his moods and thoughts as he walked his path. What sets them apart is their beautiful intricacy, like vines dancing their way up a tree trunk, along with the sublimity of the thoughts themselves. All of the fugues by their nature are built upon one respective idea, repeated over and over again. But it is in the tiniest alterations – a modulation, perhaps, or the melody in reverse or upside-down – that we see, with our ears, a person born, living, and dying, never quite the same, but neither different. The music sees our patterns; it knows them and comes back to them constantly, and yet does not gloss over those little moments, in which anything from a great struggle to an unexpected happiness can change them, and shape our selves.
At the heart of this phenomenon is the music’s evocation of a higher power. A devout Lutheran, Bach nevertheless seemed hesitant to involve the Judeo-Christian God in his music directly (unless the piece by design demanded it). Moreover, it seems, the fugues seem to believe not in a deity that we can personally know, but a universal order that subtly guides us, an undercurrent impartial to any of our wills that nonetheless moves us through time and experience. And in this, it seems to find the greatest reassurance, the joy of our discovery of these patterns within ourselves and life that were always there, waiting for us. Through this, Bach and his music seem to know that through everything that time carves us with, through every tortured passage or wrong note, that we can and will be saved, accompanied at the end by a major chord of either ecstatic triumph or quiet tranquility.
You’ve caught me at a very difficult period in my life, which is where I’m sure most of you are as well. But I hope in listening to me that you can hear even a snippet of what I’m trying to describe, the true experience of which I can’t do justice. For four years, I have lived with this music, and though I will spend my life trying to understand it, it has already whispered to me the most personal truths. I can only hope that it may speak to you as well.
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Featherstone, Jesse Evan, "Der Bach Ist Deep (The German Master Interpreted by Yet Another Jew)" (2014). Senior Projects Spring 2014. 231.
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