Let’s talk about good ol’ Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Imagine, instead, what it feels like to stand chest-deep in the ocean, waiting to snorkel. What you see are the sparse physical features visible to the naked eye: the shore, the horizon the surface of the sea, maybe a boat or two, and perhaps the bleached outline of fish or coral just below, but not much else. Then you don your mask and lower yourself into the water. Immediately you enter a separate, magical world of myriad tints and vibrant colours, the subtle movement of passing shoals, the waving of sea anemones and coral – a vivid but wholly different reality. To me this is akin to the experience and shock of performing Bach’s music – the way it exposes to you it’s brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm. Above water there is this dull quotidian noise; below the surface is the magical world of Bach’s musical sounds.”
John Eliot Gardiner’s tome covers unimaginable ground. I don’t have much else to say besides the occasional comment—I might as well quote the entire book. From his faults (a bit of a misogynist and an incorrigible man) to his triumphs (his entire oeuvre, basically) and everything in between (his family, his faith, his spirit), Bach was an extraordinary human being. Key word being human. He may have been a genius with some 1,100+ works under his belt, but he felt and experienced the same struggles as any other living person. Loneliness, frustration, love, grief—it was all there.
In reflecting on his own beliefs later in life and having acquired his own copy of Abraham Calov’s bible commentary, Bach wrote Nota bene in the margin and underlined two almost identical passages: Ich will dich nicht verlassen, noch von dir weichen (‘I will not forsake you nor stray from you’) and Ich will dich nicht verlassen, noch versäumen (‘I will not forsake you nor abandon you’). One would dearly like to know ho much of that confident assurance — of not being entirely alone in the world — Bach already possessed when he became an orphan, and how much of his grief returned twelve years later when he sat down to compose the work know as the Actus tragicus, or Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit.
Unlike his contemporaries (Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau) Bach chose not to dive into the world of opera, where career prospects glittered—his upbringing was more particular and greatly influenced by Lutheran ideology. He may have drawn inspiration from the grandiose flourishes and orchestral colour, but he also saw short-breathed musical lines and a lack in tonal planning. He was steadfast in his beliefs and in his artistic vision. His work was perpetually set in motion by the world around him—Germany on the brink of enlightenment, theological revolutions, the clashing ideals of modern science, war and plagues breaking out, folklore running amuck in medieval forests. He didn’t take kindly to authority and had several long-standing disputes with fellow musicians. He had a pretty cool monogram.
Of course one can no more define the emotional charge – or, for that matter, the pain or the pleasure – that Bach’s music affords us than a neuroscientist can distinguish between stimuli of reality in the brain and those of fantasy.
There’s something in his music. An aural presence akin to the harmony of Pythagorean spheres, the structure of cathedrals, the essence of a human soul.
For this is what is so distinctive when we compare Bach’s legacy to that of his forerunners and successors. Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible it is to transcend human fragilities and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God – in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.
Listen to Actus tragicus, or Die Elenden sollen essen, or the Goldberg variations, or John Passion, and you’ll hear it. You might not understand at first, but you’ll feel something. Something from the castle of heaven.