I started taking piano lessons when I was fourteen and enjoyed playing, as difficult as they were, the “two-part inventions” of J. S. Bach. I’ve been playing them ever since, and so my life was been shaped in part by these supremely crafted little works of art. I wish I could demonstrate here how Bach takes a line of five or six notes and without using any other material creates a satisfying and complete piece of music.
When I was seventeen my father took me to the Ford Auditorium in Detroit to hear the Canadian genius Glenn Gould play Mozart and Bach concertos in one of Gould’s rare public performances. If I felt connected to Bach before hearing Gould, afterwards I was a devotee of both the performer and the composer.
Let me make a general point: Today we tend to think of music as entertainment, whereas throughout history it has been viewed as part of the deep education of a person (Plato), as the very structure of the universe (Boethius) and as one of the chief aids to sacred ritual. Today classical music inspires meditation and contemplation, whereas popular music helps us feel in our bodies and emotions the rhythms and tonalities of love and sex. (That sentence needs elaboration, but it points us in a useful direction.)
What does Bach invite us to contemplate? If you can see how carefully he constructs a piece of music, creates conundrums and solves them brilliantly, and keeps several intricate lines of music charging along dynamically and harmoniously, you would understand that he does nothing less than offer in sound the very blueprint of our existence. Listening to his music, you sense how the universe is designed, how human life handles its complexity and how everything is in highly layered motion and yet free of chaos.
Other composers, of course, are good at counterpoint (the art of combining separate melodies beautifully), but none with the artistry and technical command of Bach. I find that his music heads directly for my chest, perhaps to what the ancients called the thymos, a place in the body where thought, spirit and penetrating emotion find their focus. It’s a place of inspiration, courage and whole-hearted vision.
So should everyone be an insanely devoted listener of Bach? Yes. Otherwise, you will have lived without a taste of this art that takes you to the very crack in the cosmos, that gives you a peek into whatever heaven might mean. You have to do just a little study to appreciate what you are hearing, but even a day at the races requires a little education.
The emotion in Bach’s music has a wide vertical range, from the depth of sadness, as in the St. Matthew Passion, to the peak of joy, as in the Christmas Oratorio. None of it is cheap, no manipulation, nothing too personal. In this way it is always theological, pointing to the sublime or the utterly tragic. Even the simple keyboard inventions can help you experience the simple joy of life or intense, probing emotion.
Our popular music often recreates in us the emotions of lost love or pining or desire. But Bach can both resurrect strong emotions and at the same time observe them, so that his music is form of reflection, a power not often used well in contemporary society. We analyze and quantify but rarely reflect deeply. Bach both teaches us how to reflect and offers musical guidance toward reflection. Some people complain that he is too intellectual at times, but I feel that his intellect keeps us from caving-in to raw emotion.
If you read spiritual books in search of meaning and inspiration, consider listening to Bach. Read just a little about how he puts music together, then listen to a piece again and again. I recommend Eliot Gardiner’s version of the St. Matthew Passion or Glenn Gould’s or Simone Dinnerstein’s interpretation of the keyboard works. If you’re adventurous, learn how Bach designs his counterpoint, as in the Goldberg Variations, which is a picture of the world’s architecture in sound.
To really explore the spiritual life, you have to get beyond belief, beyond ideas and beyond words. Bach will take you where you need to go.