I write this as my town of Boston is under a lockdown as authorities continue looking for the younger of the two perpetrators of the marathon bombings.
During this time of uncertainty, pain and reflection, I’m reminded of the power of music to help describe how we feel when words fail. Yesterday I taught a freshmen class of string players. As the class was to take place at the same time as the memorial service, it felt somehow disrespectful to hold the class as usual. It occurred to me that we as a class needed to be together, and that we had the power of music to fall back on.
The most appropriate thing I could suggest was to have any of the students who felt comfortable to play J.S. Bach. Two students played. A violinist played the 3d and 4th movements of the first sonata in g minor by Bach. He played sensitively, thoughtfully, and with a sense that this is what he could do. Next, a very talented young violist played Bach’s monumental Chaconne. The Chaconne runs through 30+ variations on a repeated harmonic bass. I can’t think of many human emotions that aren’t represented in this piece that is often described as the pinnacle of violin writing. Although it was performed by a violist who played it in the necessary lower key (the viola plays a fifth below the violin), the emotional content remained palpable. In the 14 or so minutes that it took to perform the Chaconne, we settled into an reflective journey. As the student played the final cadence, there was quiet applause and then silence. We sat in the quiet for some moments. I reminded my students how lucky we are. How lucky we are to play, and to understand and to share without words, the full range and depth of our emotional experience.
We dedicated these performances to the victims of Monday’s tragedy, and reminded ourselves that as deeply moving as these pieces are, the young victim would never again have the opportunity to hear such beauty.
Why Bach? There is an eternal quality to Bach’s music. Whereas so much music reflects its time, Bach feels that though it’s always existed and always will. I listen to the fugues, and marvel at their craft. I listen to the cantatas and understand how religion can be so meaningful to millions. I listen to the d minor Chaconne and wonder if anything could sound so important.
And so today, or any time you are faced with uncertainty, I invite you to listen the work of J.S. Bach and be thankful.
In terms of recordings, there are many excellent examples, and lively discussions about which is “the finest.” Such a recording obviously doesn’t exist because of its subjective nature. Having said that, I heartily recommend the recordings Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Gruimiaux. Find a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed, put on one of these recordings, and remind yourself that despite all the events of the week, there is still so much beauty in the world.