Martin LeFevre: Bach—The Language of the Heart
Bach—The Language of the Heart
There is no greater composer of the language of the emotions than J.S. Bach. To listen with all of one’s being to his works is to feel at once salved, saved, and stretched.
The titles of Bach’s pieces are instructive. For example, the slightly humorous and perhaps ironic “Sheep May Safely Graze.” It has a rather simple, unchallenging melody befitting its name. Others, such as “Sanctify Us With Thy Grace,” speak to every seeker and ‘sinner,’ to use the old Christian word, which used to simply mean an ordinary human that makes mistakes.
Then there are pieces that almost hurt, such as “Air on a G String” (not that kind), which inserts itself into the sorrow in one’s soul, and beckons release. This kind of music does not just originate from the mind of a single genius, or even from Bach plus the cultural genius of his time, but from sources that will remain forever a mystery to human beings, as they must, and as they are.
Bach isn’t all emotional heaviness and existential squeezing. There are compositions, which, no matter how depressed one is, one cannot listen to without feeling uplifted, even just a bit. One such piece is Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, Allegro. It gently says, ‘no matter how bad things seem, there is still reason to feel joy in life.’
It seems a little absurd to attempt to write about music that speaks most deeply to the poetic and philosophical sensibility. But some paint with brushes, others with notes; myself with words. All fall short, but I must admit words tend to fall the furthest short.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 31, 1685, and died July 28 1750. He wasn’t recognized as a composer of the first rank until well after his death. Bach is now considered the greatest composer of the Baroque period, and by some people, the greatest composer of all time.
One cannot listen to “Sleepers Awake” without hearing something beyond Bach beckon to all who can hear. I don’t know about the rest. Probably the people beyond reach have to want to get back within reach very badly before they can again hear the ‘voice of God.’
Then there are two compositions that I sometimes listen to back to back, if I have the heart to do so. The first is “B Minor Mass: Crucifixus.” Stripped of all Catholic panoply and ritual, one can hear the aching chords of truth in that piece, specifically, the truth of Jesus’ needless and fathomlessly tragic death.
How Christians through the centuries have twisted Jesus beyond human recognition in their contorted attempts to explain why the “Son of God” was tortured and nailed to Roman timbers. For two thousand years priests and clergy have taught children that Jesus was born to die on the cross for our sins, and have thereby denied and destroyed the capacity of one generation after another to feel the unfathomable sorrow of Jesus’ mission gone horribly wrong.
We are all accountable for our own ‘sins,’ that is, our own mistakes and meta-mistakes. That implies no Supreme Judge in the sky, just the law of cause and effect. No person, not even the “Son of God” can take our sins on his shoulders. (Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” by the way, a vastly different thing, the former being fantasy and projection.)
The core premise of Christianity is simply wrong, the great trick that people have been buying into for two thousand years. There are some Christians who’ll say I’m one of the devil’s own for saying it, but given the lord that their boys, Bush and Blair, served in all their pompous Christianity and Catholicism respectively, conservative Christians have no spiritual standing whatsoever.
And when you look at the wealth of the Popes and the Catholic Church, and consider what a complete inversion of Jesus’ teaching the Church’s riches represent, one can see how darkness takes over the greatest teachings, and turns them into instruments of manipulation and control.
The last Bach composition I’ll cite (and there are many more I’d like to), one that I often listen to after ‘Crucifixus,’ and that provides a fitting coda to this column, is “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The melody is well known, and so is the title, though rarely heard afresh.
In it, as the title indicates, Bach again returns to joy, giving his response to ‘Crucifixus,’ implying that even in the shadow of the greatest mystery and tragedy of the Western world, a tragedy few fathom and a mystery few feel, there is something greater than evil going on with humanity.
We may not understand or even feel it, but it is there, no matter how many Auschwitz’s and Rwanda’s man may engender. Darkness and evil determine nothing, matter nothing, and in the end count for nothing. Humanity’s fate, like the individual’s soul, is where it’s always been—in the hands of the living.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: email@example.com. The author welcomes comments.