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Rictor Noren
Rictor Noren

Listen to Bach, Listen to Life

The Music of J. S. Bach has the power to lift us out of our troubled times.

As the floor feels solid and sturdy and eternal, so feel I feel about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach wrote his 6 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin in 1720. They feel as eternal as the oldest stones in the oldest castles. They embody the panoply of human emotion, sense of self, and shared experience.

I turn to Bach when I need to reconnect with the divine, reconnect with myself, and remember what keeps me on this planet.

Today I had a student play the Grave from the second Sonata in a minor. It's an eternal movement full of layers of thoughtful repose. I think of heaven, and respect, and forgiveness, and grace. I told my student that to play Bach he had to assume, if only for the 4 and a half minutes that it takes to perform this movement, the religion of Bach.

If his biographers are to be believed, Bach was a devout man, wise beyond wise. He created the uncreatable, described the world in terms in which we still struggle. Whereas Mozart floats above the ground and Beethoven, the imagination, Bach sits firmly on every surface touched by man. He is that rare composer who, with no need to mature into his style, holds us.

I invite you to listen to Bach’s Grave, and wonder how this too might hold you. I feel reverence, and you may feel awe. You may feel boredom, and that's okay too, as we experience music as we experience everything; in our way and our time.

Listen, if you will, to the cadence of breath, how certain cadences feel satisfying, while others leave us wanting. Listen as you would listen to your own heartbeat, and imagine that they are made of the same stuff, that they share a similar life force, and that if either were to go out, so would what makes us alive.

I listen to Bach to bring me back to personhood, as like a tower whose firm foundation stretches through many levels before reaching its apex.

No matter your ability, from a humble keyboard minuet, to the sophistication of The Art of the Fugue, listen to be human.

Invest in Bach and join the generations who have found comfort, solace, genius, and eternity in his music.

This is the rarest composer in the sense that he can (and often is) performed through the filter of historical performance practices, romantic indulgences, and modern exegesis. Bach can seemingly suffer any number of abuses and still speak to us. I can't necessarily say this for too many other composers. Play a simple 2 or 3 part Invention, and marvel at its genius. Find something that speaks to you, either through tenderness, feelings of nostalgia, a sense of urgency, or pure serenity.

Finding peace through music requires action, and a willingness to put aside old assumptions concerning its power to transport the listener. If you let it, and if you are willing to invest in a quiet space where you can remain uninterrupted, you will find that music, and perhaps especially the music J. S. Bach has the power to invited us to think bigger thoughts, and soften some of the blows thrown at us by daily life.

Frankly, there isn't much I can do about the crisis in Syria, or the 60+ innocent people gunned down in Kenya at a recent mall tragedy, but what I can do is connect with beauty, hold these events and their victims in my thoughts and invest in, as the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals said "...working to make the world worthy of its children."

If you, like me find healing through music, we have an obligation to excite others and especially young people to the possibilities of music making and a way of making our shared human experience better.

Listen to Bach, but also listen to those for whom this great music has had such an impact. If history is often written through the lens of war, politics, and art, I choose art.

About the Author
Rictor Noren

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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