The violinist was hired to play Christmas music in the atrium of Capella Tower in Minneapolis over lunch, but he clearly felt he could add a personal touch. He placed it up above the crowd where it echoed off the glass and marble, the light hand on a single violin piercing consciousness with the Prelude from Partita #3 by JS Bach.
I walked over slowly, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be transformed. For a moment I wasn’t there or any place with earthly cares – there was this tremendous sound, the man whose craft propelled it into the air, and myself. When he was done I quietly, almost apologetically said what I could. “Thank you.” It wasn’t enough, but it was all I had. His response, equally respectful of the moment, said more. “My pleasure.”
This was a meeting not between any two people but between the two of us who, I am sure, share a religion. It is a sense of spirituality that comes from the gut strings of a fiddle and echoes not just through marble halls but through our hearts and minds every moment we can allow it. This is a sense of faith in the order of the universe given to both of us, skilled and unskilled, by JS Bach more than 260 years ago.
It is common to refer to Bach as some kind of mathematician because of the intricate structure of his works. To say this about him misses the motivation which compelled this approach because he was not an artist, as we might understand the concept, but a craftsman – a tradesman servant put to use by the courts and churches that employed him.
Ultimately, he was first and foremost a servant of God – understood through a fairly radical Lutheranism largely lost to us today. What we have is his expression for those of us who dare to surrender ourselves to it.
The purpose of music is the recreation of the soul and the magnification of the Glory of God.
Born more than 330 years ago, Bach was always propelled by his faith. The perspective on it which he shared with many in his day was not just that we mortals are part of creation but are uniquely given a spark of the divine through our father. Faith, in this sense, is only made stronger by a deeper understanding of the wonders of creation. We are here to not just worship God – our calling is to be nothing less than the manifestation of The Creator on this earth.
Many of Bach’s works dare us to see the world as God must see it – so that we can be more at one with the Creator and realize what we were created to be.
The best examples of this are indeed very mathematical and orderly – because that is the nature of creation itself. One of the most famous is the “Crab Canon” from the Musical Offering. The main theme is by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, but Bach put a twist in it – shown here literally as a mobius strip. It is written in two parts, but they are opposite and upside down from each other – so that two musicians on opposite sides of the score can read the single line. The harmony expressed is indeed mathematical, but as music it calls us to a higher plane.
That’s not to say that everything he wrote was this intense, of course. Towards the end of his career he worked in Liepzig, a town full of talented musicians. Bach got together with his friend George Telemann to form a group Musical Friends (Collegia Musicum) that jammed every Friday night at Zimmerman’s Coffee House. Picture the night as you would a Jazz concert now – the performer at the height of his power playing what he wanted but mindful of the crowd-pleasing fireworks. This particular jam, a keyboard concerto, has a strong backbeat that goes into syncopation and complicated rhythms that slide along the crunchy, almost atonal chords.
This performance, on piano, features Helene Grimaud. Note that at the end of the first movement as she goes into the cadenza she enters something of a trance, a feature common to our faith. Bach has put her on a different plane as she becomes one with the music, shaking her head gently.
Neither of these two pieces seem to speak directly to the Lutheran faith that created them, however deeply steeped in the vision of the Creator that they are. The best example I know of this calling to see the world as God must comes in the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor. It’s about death and resurrection, a small passion play in two movements. The resurrection comes in the form of a mathematically perfect theme that builds on a smaller motif that echoes at the start and end of the main theme and is developed through every key available on the keyboard.
Not all of his religious works were this intense, however. In his Cantata 78, essentially a church service for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, he response to the Epistle for the day, a reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
The music which Bach places right after this is a very human response – an old folk tune crafted into a statement of faith in times of trial. “We hasten with weak, yet eager steps,O Jesus, our Master, to You for help.” In other words, we are trying, Lord, we are trying. But the effort is as joyful, as it is determined if only we can be more like Jesus as we seek his company and comfort.
The only real sin is not constantly being the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut – who also shared this faith in Bach and his teachings.
For those of us who have this religion, this sense of spirituality, the music of Bach is more than just music. It is a desire to be something more. Certainly, we all forget from time to time just what it means and have to be reminded. Fortunately the music of Bach is still with us after so many centuries to keep our faith when it fails us.
The universe has order, and it is beautiful. To understand it is to understand creation itself. That act is not audacious or arrogant – it is humbling and directs us to our true calling.
That one moment when Partita #3 echoed above the noise of the city was a statement of this faith. It is worth sharing in a way that another member of the faith has put to a different visualization – one that I hope can inspire you as much as it does me.
Our faith is not intellectual but a careful opening of the pathways between head and heart. It flows through our blood and ignites every nerve along the way. It unites us in spirit and calls us to be not just better people but to realize the spark of creation within us and between us. A stolen moment is often enough to remind us of the great joy and peace that comes from realizing just how amazing life is.
That is what Bach is about, and that is why his statements of faith through music still ring strongly today.