Time, Death, Eternity: Imagining the Soul of Johann Sebastian Bach
George E. Atwood, Ph.D. Rutgers University
This essay describes a search for the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach, as it is expressed and symbolized in his music. In what follows, I have drawn extensively on the well-known biography by Christopher Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician (2000), and also on Mendel & Wolff’s (1966) The New Bach Reader, Peter Williams’ (2001) Bach: The Goldberg Variations, James Gaines’ (2005) Evening in the Palace of Reason, and John Butt’s (1997) The Cambridge Companion to Bach.
This exploration presents some fairly serious difficulties, in view of the immense edifice that is Bach’s music. Beethoven famously remarked, on being asked what he thought of Bach’s lifework, “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sein!” Not a brook, but rather an ocean! Albert Schweitzer (1911) regarded Bach as the product of decades and even centuries of developments in European music, the objectivation, as he put it, of a vast historical process.
Bach was born more than 300 years ago, in Eisenach, Germany, into a culture, an early Lutheran religious worldview, and a language very far removed from our own. How can one hope to cross that great divide and actually find the individual personality, the inner feelings that were his? He left us almost nothing written describing his own emotional experiences. I would ask, though, whether Bach’s music might itself be understood as a record of his life as he lived it, one that is even vividly detailed, if only we can find the right way to listen to it. This study is one of searching for that way of listening.
The essay is less a scholarly argument and more a reverie, almost a dream, about Bach the man, and Bach the child. My goal is to create a fantasy embracing and interconnecting what is known of his life and of the patterns in his music.
The material develops in the form of a series of interconnected thought trains, with some selections from Bach’s music recommended to be listened to along the way. The essay can be followed in itself, but the additional presence of the music with the ideas that are developed will immeasurably enrich the reading.
I chose as my initial recommendation the prelude and fugue in C Major in Book 1 of the collection known as The Well-tempered Clavier. The music is exceptionally beautiful; and the part that follows the prelude - the fugue in C major - contains, numerologically encoded, Bach’s presence itself. Most Bach scholars agree that he played with number symbolism in his music, and that the number 14 was for him a representation of his own name. When the letters B – A – C – H are replaced by their respective numerical positions in the alphabet: 2 – 1 – 3 – 8, adding the numbers together, one arrives at the sum of 14. There are exactly 14 notes in the theme – the so-called subject of this first fugue, played in what is called “stretto “ (the theme is played overlapping itself in different keys, over and over). So translating the fugue into its numerical and alphabetical equivalent, it is as if voices are saying: ”Bach…Bach…Bach…Bach…etc.” The fact that he did this exemplifies what simply has to be true in any case: namely, that he is everywhere present in his music. After the prelude, which consists in a series of chord progressions that he originally wrote out as an exercise for one of his sons learning to play keyboard instruments, listen closely to the repeating melody of the fugue, in which the 14 notes are played again and again in different keys.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- First Suggestion: Well-tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude and Fugue in C-major:
My acquaintance with Bach originally included the melody of his cantata (147) known as Jesu: Joy of Man’s Desiring, since this is played everywhere. I had listened a few times to one or two of the Brandenberg concertos, and I was also familiar with the famous melody from the cantata (140) known as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (The voice calls to us Awake!). Cantatas 140 and 147 figure importantly in my presentation later.
I recall an impression from these, and others of Bach’s creations, an impression of the music as cyclical and repetitive, rather than linear and progressive. The music always seemed to start and end “in the middle:” no clear origin, no intermediate section following, no identifiable conclusion. In my imagination I saw circles and cycles, always repeating, rather than journeys from one recognizable point in space and time to another. It would begin and then end, but linger forever in the middle. Could this absence of linear development, I remember wondering, be relevant to the experience of time, as if the passage of time, from the past through the present to the future, was somehow held in abeyance in Bach’s works? Was there some issue in Bach’s lifeworld pertaining to a resistance against the flow of time, to an attraction to a realm transcending time? What such an attraction could mean I had no idea.
I became aware some years after these early ruminations on temporality that Bach lost both his parents when he was a young child, first his mother, then his father. I wondered if what I perceived as the timeless quality of his music could possibly relate to this experience, the loss of a loved one being something that occurs in time, whereas in timelessness there is perhaps no such thing as loss. Maybe his music, I thought, provided a way of moving beyond a tragic world, ruled over by the progression of time, a world in which death is inevitable and irrevocable.
One of the first things one learns about Bach in a study of his life and work is that he was the great synthesizer. Traditionally sacred and secular music are freely blended and integrated in his compositions. German, Italian, French, Spanish, and many other national musical heritages are drawn together. He wrote for practically every musical instrument, and he drew upon every musical form and genre: vocal, instrumental, solo, choir, orchestra, opera, concerto, etc. Bach’s genius resided in his ability to bring things together in new and dazzling combinations – his was therefore an originality of synthesis, rather than one of radical change and revolution. It occurred to me that perhaps there are two kinds of genius: one devoted to extending and integrating all that has come before, and the other to destroying existing structures and replacing them with new ones.
If Bach represents the former of these, one might say Picasso exemplifies the latter, since it was the hallmark of his long career to overthrow existing traditions, including the ones he established himself. I think genius that expresses itself by pulling elements together into new unities is guided mainly by love; but genius that leads revolutions and destroys the old, although love may be present, is full of aggression and hate as well. Eros in the one case, Thanatos in the other. It cannot be an accident that Bach was a loving husband, who worked his whole life to hold his family together and passed on to his children all that he could of his music, whereas Picasso, in dramatic contrast, did all he could to destroy the women of his life, and seems not to have held back from injuring his children as well.
Rather than there being two kinds of genius, however, it probably would make more sense to speak of two poles of creative genius, one that synthesizes and integrates diverse elements from the past, and the other that creates revolutionary forms overthrowing the structures elaborated in the past. Both poles would therefore be present in every act of creation, differing only in their relative salience. In Bach, unquestionably, synthesis and love predominate.
He was always weaving and reweaving unities out of previously unconnected elements. One may ask: what drives a man to do this throughout a lifetime? The idea occurred to me that it might be associated with a fragmentation, a feeling of being in pieces, or of the world itself having disintegrated in some essential way, so that the synthesizing trend in his musical compositions would express an underlying need to heal his own fragmented selfhood, and/or to restore to a shattered world its lost coherence. This idea turns out to be an essential one and is developed further in the next sections.
Now, however, I suggest listening to a selection that is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in all of creation: the aria from the Goldberg Variations. The aria appears at the beginning and then again at the end of the variations making up this work. Many have thought that this arrangement creates a circular structure in the set of variations as a whole, wherein at the end one is returned to the beginning, which could mean that the entire sequence could be played forever, around and around, and therefore transcends time and partakes of eternity. This could be seen as an instance of Bach’s music in its timeless aspect.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Second Suggestion: Aria from the Goldberg Variations:
3. Music and Death Let us now consider what is known about Bach’s childhood years. He was the youngest child of eight, in a large extended family tracing back over several generations of musicians. During his childhood, there were two constant companions:
Music and Death.
His father, Ambrosius Bach, was the director of town music for Eisenach, where Bach was born.in 1685. His mother Marie and her husband were 41 years old at the time of Bach’s birth. The father had an identical twin, Christoph, also an accomplished musician and an important part of their lives.
What was it like to be the youngest child in that incredible family? The house was full of children and young people, virtually all of them occupied with music. At one point Johann Sebastian lived with 6 siblings (a sister had died in infancy before he was born) as well as two cousins (orphans from his extended family whose parents had died of the plague) and his father’s young apprentices. Johann Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, describes an important yearly event that must have deeply influenced him: reunions in which members of the larger extended family would gather together and spend a few days celebrating and making music. I picture these occasions as times that were filled with great joy for all concerned, including the very young Johann Sebastian himself.
“As the company consisted wholly of cantors, organists and town musicians … the first thing they did, when they were assembled, was to sing a chorale. From this pious commencement they proceeded to drolleries which often made a great contrast with it. For now they sang popular songs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly naughty, all together and extempore, but in such a manner that the several parts thus extemporized made a kind of harmony together, the words, however, in every part being different.” (quoted in Wolff, 2000, p. 27)
And now, let’s turn to Death.
Bach’s sister, his parents’ first child, had died in infancy 14 years before Bach was born. He lost a brother when he was two months of age, and another sister when he had just turned one. In addition to the continuing loss of numerous more distant relatives, his eighteen year-old brother Balthasar died when Bach was six, and the next year one of the cousins who had been in the house Bach’s whole life, working as an apprentice to his father Ambrosius, also died, at the age of 16. But these losses, difficult though they must have been, were not the most profound ones of his early years.
In 1693, Christoph, Bach’s father’s twin, then town musician in Arnstadt, not far from Eisenach, died suddenly. Bach’s son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel, annotated the family genealogy with the following description regarding the twin brother:
“These twins [Christoph and Ambrosius] are perhaps the only ones of their kind ever known. They loved each other extremely. They looked so much alike that even their wives could not tell them apart. They were an object of wonder on the part of great gentlemen and everyone who saw them. Their speech, their way of thinking – everything was the same. In music, too, they were not to be told apart: they played alike and thought out their performances in the same way. If one fell ill the other did too.” (quoted in Wolff, 2000, p. 34)
Imagine what it might have been like for one’s father to have a duplicate, someone reportedly greatly loved by the family, and then to learn that this magical double, this man who could only be distinguished from his father by his clothing, had died. What foreboding might the boy feel, then at the age of eight, knowing that everything that occurred in the life of his father’s twin occurred also in his father’s? Within a year, Bach’s mother Marie died. Nothing is known about the cause of her death except that it was sudden. Ambrosius, shocked by the loss and saddled with the responsibility for so many young ones, after only a few months remarried within his extended family, to a widow of one of his cousins, Margaretha, who herself had two daughters. Twelve weeks into the life of the reconstituted family, Ambrosius himself died, possibly after an illness involving much suffering. (surviving records from the family indicate the presence in the Bach home of great numbers of medications). The nine-year old Johann Sebastian had lost his father, his father’s duplicate, and his mother.
What was the experience of this child in the midst of such a catastrophe? The only facts concerning this time that remain available to us are his school attendance and grades in the year 1694-1695, a period that included the illnesses and deaths of his mother and father: he was absent on fifty one and one half days, a greater number of absences than are recorded in any of his other years of schooling. His grades, formerly at the top of his class, fell during this time. Can words describe the depth of trauma involved in such tragedy? Can mourning occur when so many losses are involved? What happens to a child who continues on, even in the face of such events? What happens inwardly, secretly, to the soul of the child, even as outwardly he or she resumes the activities of daily life? And how might all of this be related to Bach’s music?
A few months after the death of his father, Johann Sebastian and his brother Johann Jacob, three years older, were sent to live with Johann Christoph, in Ohrdruf, a small town 25 miles from Eisenach, where the brother was the organist at St. Michael’s Church. Christoph was fourteen years older than Johann Sebastian and had spent a number of years as an apprentice to Johann Pachelbel.
The next several years spent in Ohrdruf continued Bach’s education, academically and musically, and his school records from that period show him at the top or near the top of all his classes, performing at a level matching or exceeding students who were years ahead of him. One story from this period may have importance for an understanding of his continuing struggle to master the tragic circumstances of his childhood, and also for knowing how these struggles became reflected in his music. I call this story: The Moonlight Robbery, and it appears in Bach’s obituary, written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Most commentators believe that this story must have originated with Johann Sebastian himself:
“The love of our little Johann Sebastian for music was uncommonly great even at this tender age [12 years, approximately]. In a short time he had fully mastered all the pieces his brother had voluntarily given him to learn. But his brother possessed a book of clavier pieces by the most famous masters of the day – Froberger, Pachelbel, Kerl – and this, despite all his pleading and for who knows what reason, was denied him. His zeal to improve himself thereupon gave him the idea of practicing the following innocent deceit. This book was kept in a cabinet whose doors consisted only of grillwork. Now, with his little hands he could reach through the grillwork and roll the book up (for it had only a paper cover); accordingly, he would fetch the book out at night, when everyone had gone to bed and, since he was not even possessed of a light, copy it by moonlight. In six months’ time he had these musical spoils in his own hands. Secretly and with extraordinary eagerness he was trying to put it to use, when his brother, to his great dismay, found out about it, and without mercy took away from him the copy he had made with such great pains.” (quoted in Wolff, 2000, p. 45)
How are we to interpret this story? What could have been the sources of Johann Sebastian’s driving need to make his brother’s secret musical possessions his own? Could it be that by having all of the music his brother possessed, without anything at all being left out, Bach was trying to give himself the basis for recreating the early family reunions, at which every kind of music was played, in which his early world was still intact? This much can certainly be said: in the aftermath of the family disaster, the one and only thing that survived was music. And it was to music that Bach gave himself body and soul.
I am also struck by the assertiveness, the aggressiveness implicit in this little tale; the young Bach, contravening his brother’s wishes, finds a way to take what he has to have, what he must have felt was necessary for his own emerging purposes (Botwinick, 2004). He thought to himself: “to hell with Johann Christoph, I will make this music my own!” My friend Patricia Price helped me see an analogy here between Bach’s defiant copying of the music in the secrecy of the night and Prometheus’ stealing of fire from Zeus and giving it to mortals, a mythical crime symbolizing the child’s appropriating of parental power to itself and defining its own independent identity, agency, and destiny. Pat also suggested that the imagery of this story of the robbery in the night embodies an ancient archetype of the prophet who unrolls the sacred scrolls and translates the divine word to humanity at large. Inasmuch as music in the Lutheran church during Bach’s time tended to be regarded as immanently containing the word and even the very presence of God, I find this suggestion incredibly interesting.
How specifically was Johann Sebastian affected by the deaths of his loved ones? If the inferences cited earlier regarding an abiding sense of fragmentation were correct, how did the losses contribute to this sense? What form did the fragmentation itself take? Trauma such as he suffered has to have left a lasting imprint on his experiences, and this imprint will inevitably show itself in the structure of his creations. With a view toward reconstructing the answer to these questions, to discovering the pattern inscribed in his music, I listened to his orchestral works and his solos, to his instrumental compositions and his vocal creations - to The Goldberg Variations, A Musical Offering, The Well-tempered Clavier, The Art of the Fugue, The St. Matthew Passion, The St. John Passion, The Mass in B Minor, a vast number of partitas, preludes, sonatas and fugues, the cello suites, to all of the concertos including especially the Brandenbergs, and finally, to many, many of the cantatas.
Here are some thoughts that occurred as I listened to one of these, entitled Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Be silent; chatter not), also known as:
The Coffee Cantata.
This piece of music, generally considered to be a purely secular work, is a two-person opera, a comic opera actually, in which a grumpy, aging father—Schlendrian—argues with a spirited, defiant daughter, Lieschen. The quarrel between the two concerns coffee: whereas Lieschen has great love for this beverage, taking intense pleasure in it, Schlendrian regards her doing so as a kind of addiction she should overcome and renounce. Back and forth the two of them go, the one affirming that coffee is most lovely, sweet, and enjoyable, and the other asserting the importance of giving it up. What follows is a translation of a short section of the cantata in which one hears Schlendrian and Lieschen in conflict over her continuing enjoyment of this drink.
Schlendrian: You naughty child You wanton hussy Oh when will I have my way For me and lay off the coffee!
Lieschen: Dear Father. Do not be so strict For I must three times each day Drink my little cup of coffee If I do not, I’ll turn indeed to my distress Into a dried up goat for roasting
Schlendrian: If you do not quit coffee You will have no wedding feast Nor ever take a stroll!
Lieschen: Agreed! But leave me to my coffee!
Schlendrian: Here now I’ve got the little monkey I will most surely refuse you a whalebone dress!
Lieschen: I can easily learn to bear this
Schlendrian: You will not venture to the window And you will see no one who walks beneath it!
Lieschen: This also, but heed my request And grant that I may keep my coffee.
Schlendrian: You will not receive from my hand A silver or golden band Upon your bonnet!
Lieschen: Yes, yes, but leave me to my pleasure [coffee]
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Third Suggestion: the Coffee Cantata:
I am aware that the lyrics of this cantata were composed originally by Bach’s librettist, and therefore cannot be identified as uniquely his own. I would say however that in writing music for words perhaps originally penned by another, he made those words his own in the creation as it finally emerged. I have therefore chosen to understand the theme of this piece of music as an expression of Bach himself. The conjectures offered in the following therefore apply to what I have imagined that the words may have meant to Bach. A careful listening to the singing of Lieschen in this cantata makes one think that she is expressing something more than just her feelings about coffee. She repeatedly emphasizes how sweet it is – she sings out, with great passion, that it is “sweeter than a thousand kisses, milder than a fine Muscatel”. This conflict between father and daughter seems to be a more basic one than a disagreement over a particular beverage. Furthermore, in the last stages of the piece, the father tells the daughter she must refuse coffee lest she never become married, and that if she gives up coffee then the way is clear for her to marry. Lieschen, on hearing this repeated, agrees finally to give up coffee so that she can have a husband. But at the very, very end, after the argument has been won by Schlendrian, she adds: she will make it an explicit part of her wedding contract that she be allowed to have …..COFFEE! Thus the argument returns in a circle to where it began. This final twist in the story, in which Lieschen both marries and maintains her access to her beloved coffee, was almost certainly not written by the librettist but rather was added to the cantata by Bach himself.
One morning in the Fall of 2003, as I was driving to the college where I teach—a 45 minute commute—and listening to this cantata, especially the last part, I recall asking the question: What is coffee? Coffee seems to be more than just a drink, based on the breathtakingly passionate way Bach has Lieschen singing about it. It emerges in the music as the most desirable of all desirable things. What, I asked, did Bach see in this story about a clash between two wills, one seeking a pleasure of the senses, and the other opposing that and affirming the renunciation of that pleasure? And what could it have meant to Bach that ceasing to drink coffee will enable this young woman to marry? In another of Bach’s cantatas, No. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), the image of marriage is used as a symbol of the union of humanity with Jesus Christ at the End of the World, where Christ is pictured as the groom and the souls of humanity are pictured as the bride. Could it be, I asked myself as I was driving, that this is somehow also part of what is being spoken of in this music? Is it possible that Schlendrian and Lieschen symbolized for Bach two conflicting parts of himself, the former standing for intense religiosity and a commitment to union with God, and the latter to a love for humanity, for the world, for all the pleasures of the senses? I asked further, were there two sides of Johann Sebastian Bach, one orienting toward Heaven, the locus of his lost parents, uncle, and siblings, and the other orienting toward Earth, and toward all of the desirable things one finds in the realm of living human beings? The Earth includes coffee, wine, good food, the pleasure of company with others, the love of women and sexuality, professional achievement and success, parenting and family life, and a long succession of other secular purposes and goals. Heaven, in contrast, releases us from the suffering of earthly existence into a timeless realm in which death does not interrupt life, a realm that includes those most dearly, deeply loved, namely, the lost ones of Bach’s youth: his father, his mother, his father’s twin brother, his own siblings and other relatives and acquaintances who had died. Could it be, I wondered, that Bach was a man torn in half between these two poles, one pointing toward Heaven, the other toward Earth, and that in his music both poles were represented, and at different moments and in different ways, brought together, fused, integrated, only later to separate, differentiate, but then again to reintegrate and fuse still again, and endlessly back and forth, separation and reunion, in cycle after cycle? A bringing together of the two warring sides (Schrade, 1946) would then be symbolically expressed in the part of the cantata’s story it is believed was added by Bach himself, in the image of Lieschen both marrying (uniting with God) and continuing to have coffee (partaking of earthly life). Sacred and secular are thereby joined in everlasting union .
Let us try again to picture the young Bach’s grief, the situation in which he found himself following the loss of his beloved family members. Moving forward over the years to 1727, Bach wrote Cantata 198: The Trauer Ode (Ode to Mourning/Grief), composed to mark ceremonies in honor of the recently deceased Christiane Eberhardine, wife of August II, King of Poland. I am again imagining the significance Bach’s music had for its own composer, and using the resulting images in an effort to picture his experience of the tragedies of his life. This beautiful cantata begins as follows:
Lass Fuerstin, lass noch einen Strahl aus Salems Sterngewoelben schiessen. Und sieh, mit wieviel Traenenguessen umringen wir dein Ehrenmal.
Princess, Let a ray shoot out of the starry vaults of Salem [Jerusalem]. And see with how much of a downpouring of tears we encircle your time of honor.
The departed one is here visualized as casting a look back at the world – sending a ray from the stars -and witnessing the overwhelming grief of all of those who loved her. Even as she looks back, the world is pictured here as looking upwards toward her, vowing never to forget her until the end of time.
Doch, Koenigen, du stirbest nicht, Man weiss, was man an dir besessen; Die Nachwelt wird dich nicht vergessen, bis dieser Weltbau einst zerbricht.
So, Queen, you do not die , One knows, what one possesses in you, posterity will not forget you, until this created world is one day destroyed..
The Trauer Ode pictures the princess, also referred to as the queen, as a beloved mother to her followers, and is creating an image in which this mother looks back upon the world, as she stands upon the threshold of everlasting life. I was reminded by this of what I have understood occurs when an object falls into a black hole in spacetime - an outside observer does not actually see the object disappearing, but rather witnesses an endless process of ever closer approximations to the event horizon. This approaching of the boundary line that goes on without end has to do with a slowing of time inside such an intense gravitational field. I think of Bach’s mother, and his father and other loved ones, as analogously approaching the gateway to Heaven but never quite passing in and disappearing, remaining forever in view in some essential way. I also picture them as perceiving his love for them; as the world of the living looks toward Heaven and promises to hold the dear departed in its consciousness always. This may correspond to the part of Bach remaining forever involved and engaged in loving his mother and father and others who died, so many of whom became lost to him on the plane of ordinary temporal existence, but not on that of the timelessness of Heaven.. By 1727, the year of the Trauer Ode, Bach had also lost his first wife, numerous children of his own, and all of his many siblings. His whole life was a Trauer Ode, an ode to mourning the deaths that followed him at every step. On the other hand, one could say that precisely the opposite is also the case, namely that Bach’s life was equally a Freude Ode, an Ode to Joy. What was his response to the loss of his first wife, Maria Barbara, who had passed away in 1721, after bearing him 7 children (4 dying in infancy)? After a period of mourning he found a second wife, Anna Magdalena, with whom he fathered 13 more children (only 7 of these survived infancy). Bach’s life was simultaneously one of never ending sorrow and ever renewed passionate creation.. So he was torn between the human and the divine, between the eternal and the temporal, and he found in music a way of expressing both of these currents of his nature. This duality is interestingly reflected in the only recorded statement Bach made regarding the essential purpose of music:
“true music … [pursues] as its ultimate and final goal … the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.” (quoted in Wolff, 2000, p. 8)
If it is true that Bach was a divided soul, with the essential rift being between eternity on the one side and the temporal world of earthly life on the other, then how perfect it is that Bach’s primary mode of musical expression was that of counterpoint, embodying the relationship between two (or more) voices that are independent in contour and rhythm, but interdependent in harmony. He did not invent this musical form, but he was its greatest genius. A great many of Bach’s creations – especially the fugues - are marked by the presence of two separate melodies, one following the other, played concurrently, interlacing, merging, separating, and alternating, materializing in sound the duality of his inner nature.
5. The Marriage of Heaven and Earth
Let us now turn to another of Bach’s cantatas, No. 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. As noted earlier, the story on which this cantata is based, drawn from one of the Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew), uses the metaphor of marriage to represent the union of the Souls of Humanity (the bride) with Jesus, Son of God (the groom). In the biblical story there is a great wedding to take place, but a number of people are sleeping as the moment of the actual marriage approaches. The call to the sleepers to awaken (Wachet auf!) stands for a call to humanity to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord and of Eternal Salvation.
In the selection I suggest listening to from this cantata (track 4 on most CD versions, its most well known section), there are two distinct parts that alternate and overlap - one of which – the initial instrumental part– calls to mind people and perhaps even animals in motion, dancing, walking, running, leaping, such imagery being bodily in nature, existing in space and in time, on the earth – the other part, which comes in after a short period, is a Lutheran chorale, celebrating the glory of God, giving voice to the coming union with Jesus Christ. This second part, embodying the divine side of the dichotomy, appears superimposed on the first part, representing earthly life – they alternate and then coincide, playing simultaneously, almost like a kiss at the final moment of the marriage, uniting Heaven and Earth, Jesus and the Soul of Humanity, blending and unifying the Eternal and the Temporal, the Finite and the Infinite. If you can listen to the selection, pay attention to the arrival of the chorale melody and hear it as the Coming of the Lord. And join me in picturing this unification as a symbol of a healing of the rift in the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach. Benjamin Stolorow helped me to hear the duality within the music, and the fusion of the two sides as well.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Fourth Suggestion: Cantata 140: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The most famous section of cantata 147, known as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, presents a substantially parallel structure in sound, wherein a dancelike melody (embodying spatiotemporal existence) is, after a short period, joined by a vocal part addressing the glory of God (the timeless realm of Heaven). I suggest listening to this piece of music again, and picture the alternations and integrations as reflective of Bach’s inner duality and personal struggle to achieve synthesis and wholeness.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Fifth Suggestion: Cantata 147 – Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring:
The Goldberg Variations, as mentioned in the first part of the presentation, are sometimes described as circular rather than linear in their organization – the work begins and ends with the same piece of music, the aria. This circularity suggests the possibility of the work being played around and around, forever, which connotes the eternal world beyond time and space.
The Goldbergs are also sometimes described as fractal in their structure, meaning that the same organizing patterns appear and reappear at whatever level of analysis one chooses. The 30 variations contained within the repetitions of the aria are organized into 10 sets of 3 variations each. Each of these triplets – possibly symbolizing the Holy Trinity, while the number 10 may symbolize the 10 Commandments – follows a common pattern: generally the first variation is a dance, the second is a virtuosic piece, and the third is a canon. A dance is concerned with bodily motion and the world of time and space in which such motion occurs, and therefore can be viewed as symbolic of earthly life. The virtuosic pieces that follow the dances, often involving rapid sequences of ascending and descending notes, one can look at as transitional way stations on a journey that is being depicted in sound. The canons that then appear - involving a melody which follows itself (like row, row, row your boat) - because of their structure, are temporally disrupted and prevented from traversing a linear pathway from beginning to end. This interruption of the linear flow of time itself points toward a world beyond time, namely the realm of Heaven. So each triplet may be heard as depicting a journey from Earth through a transition to Heaven. The canons themselves (there are actually only 9, because the 10th triplet involves something different) in turn are related to one another by changes in the keys in which they are played. The first canon, variation No. 3, is played at the unison (meaning the repetitions of the melody are in the same key as the original presentation of it). The second canon, variation No. 6, is played “at the second,” meaning one key higher than that of the original presentation. The third canon, variation No. 9, is “at the third” (two keys higher), etc. etc., until we reach the 27th variation, which is a canon played “at the ninth.” If one visualizes this progression of the canons as described, they undergo an ascension and create what my friend Benjamin Stolorow pointed out to me amounts to a “Stairway to Heaven,” paralleling the movement taking place inside each triplet.
The final triplet in the Goldbergs does not present a canon – variation No. 30 is what Bach calls a “Quodlibet,” a piece of music derived from popular songs often sung at festivities, such as the family reunions of Bach’s youth. I wonder if the ascent along the stairway to Heaven thus also represents a return to an idealized time of music and joy predating the advent of tragic loss in Bach’s early years. It is interesting in this connection to review the words belonging to the melodies Bach chose to complete his sequence of the 30 variations: they concern separation and loss. I will have some further comments on the content of the Quodlibet in a later thought train.
And now some brief thoughts on what is arguably Bach’s single greatest creation: the Chaconne of the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, a piece known among many musicians as the “Mount Everest” of solo violin. It is sometimes said that if Bach had written only the Goldberg Variations and the Chaconne, he would still be the greatest composer of Western Civilization. It was written in 1721, the year of the death of Bach’s beloved first wife, Maria, and may indeed be a kind of epitaph for her. This was also the year of the death of Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph, who served as a surrogate father to him following the loss of his parents. The death of Maria (and of Johann Christoph), leaving Bach with a number of young children, precisely replicated the circumstances of his childhood loss of his own mother and father, and must have reawakened all of the feelings associated with the tragedies of his early life.
The Chaconne begins with a sequence of a few notes that present the primary theme of the piece in four measures, and then it is followed by a series of 60 variations on that theme, divided into two parts of 30 each. The structure of the Chaconne is extremely similar to that of the Goldberg Variations. The presentation of the theme, corresponding to the ground bass in the aria of the Goldbergs, occurs both at the beginning and at the end of the piece (the theme also appears in the middle, between the two sets of 30). The music as a whole therefore forms a circle, which suggests the possibility of it being played endlessly, through eternity. Contained within the boundaries of the recurrence of the theme are the variations. The Goldbergs are also divided into two parts, of 15 variations each.
I have two speculative, deeply personal thoughts about the content of this music, both of them relating to an interpretation emphasizing Bach’s mourning of his first wife’s death. First, consider the beginning of the second part of the Chaconne, occurring after about 8 minutes, where D minor gives way to D major and the music becomes exceptionally soft and beautiful. I always cry when I listen to this part, and visualize a late afternoon scene, bathed in golden light, in which Bach walks along a pathway through the trees, returning from his musical labors to be with his beloved wife and children. I entertain the idea that the mournful remembering of such happy times was a part of the context of this magnificent work’s creation. The specific melody played here some commentators have suggested is drawn from a chorale celebrating the Second Coming of Christ. Such a view I think does not contradict my own associations to the music, because the End of the World would also mark Bach’s reunion with all those beloved he had lost. The second thought relates to a short passage in part 2, occurring approximately halfway through, in which the pitch goes higher and higher, finally becoming almost a screeching, and then falls back into a lower range. I experience this rise and fall as a reaching up to the sky, an effort to climb into heaven where God resides, where those who have died have gone, followed by an inevitable falling back into the world, away from the sky and down to the earth. This would be a movement of Bach’s unbearable grief for his wife, and for the many other lost loved ones, recorded in sound.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sixth Suggestion: The Chaconne from Partita #2 in D minor, Part 1 and 2:
Over the course of the last decades, I have taught a seminar at my college on the theme of madness and genius. Each year, a small group of students and I select someone from history who shows in his or her life acts of genius and moments of madness. The purpose of my seminar has been to solve the riddle of the relationship between these two categories of human experience. This is the sort of question that will never receive a final answer, but that generates many interesting insights along the way as one engages in the search. Among the individuals we have studied have been: Carl Gustav Jung, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a number of others. An unexpected generalization has emerged from these studies: acts of creative genius appear, almost without exception, to be associated with a rift in the soul, a duality within which the integrity of the person’s very selfhood is broken, and the acts of creation, always appearing as something profoundly driven, have as one of their most important meanings and purposes the goal of unifying the broken self, mending the disintegrated soul, bridging over the abyss that has opened up within the person’s identity through a creative synthesis of both sides. The circumstances and specific dynamics of this splitting of the soul differ from creator to creator, but the fact of the duality seems not to.
This generalization would appear to apply to Johann Sebastian Bach. Would it be correct also then to say that Bach was mad? Certainly not, if one looks at his life by any external standard. His was outwardly an exemplary life, both professionally and personally, and this in spite of the great tragedies that haunted him throughout its long course. On the other hand, this was a life occupied with the most stunning creative achievements, occurring again and again, and one may wonder about the driving need involved in such work and about whether this drivenness might indeed be seen as a form of madness in another sense. In the midst of thinking about this issue, and having become so focused on the inner pattern of Bach’s music that I was myself driven to dwell upon it continuously, deeply, obsessively, day and night, something happened.
Eines Morgens, als ich aus unruhigen Traeumen erwachte, fand ich mich zu Johann Sebastian Bach verwandelt.
One morning, as I awoke from restless dreams, I found myself transformed into Johann Sebastian Bach.
Here are two of the dreams and my thoughts regarding them. Although my focus will be on how the dream imagery relates to what was then a still-developing interpretation of Bach, I am also aware that in this understanding I have identified deeply with him and that the ideas intensely reflect my own situation and my own dualities and associated history of traumatic loss.
In one of these dreams it was nighttime and I was in a building that was being heated by a tall brick structure that somehow was both a wood burning stove and also a chimney. The structure was built into the wall of the building, so that one part faced into the room I was standing in while the other part faced outside into the night. There was a sense of great heat being generated inside the structure. A voice intoned the words.” If the illustrator dies, madness will occur.” Then there was an image of a number of dogs running and jumping up on the portion of the brick structure that was outside the building, biting and snapping at the bricks and dislodging a number of them. Fire and smoke emerged from the places the bricks had been knocked away. There was a sense that if the structure broke down, that would be the equivalent of whatever was meant by the idea that the illustrator might die. In thinking over the dream after awakening it occurred to me that Bach was himself an illustrator, an artist who produced drawings and paintings in sound, auditory hieroglyphs as it were, displaying the bipartite structure of his soul. I suddenly saw Bach as identified with the theme-subject of his creations, e.g., as in the Goldberg Variations and in the Chaconne. The internal unity of the theme thus would represent for Bach the constancy and coherence of his own sense of personal identity. The snapping dogs seemed like they might be the variations that depart from the inner coherence of the theme, and that therefore threaten to destroy its pattern and order, symbolized by the danger of the entire brick structure being pulled down by the dogs, producing a chaos of fire and heat. This idea leads to a different interpretation of why Bach begins and ends the Goldberg Variations with the aria: here one might view the aria’s two appearances as bookends serving to hold the wholeness of the structure of the variations together and preventing a disintegration and disruption of its internal pattern and order. The Chaconne as well has 3 appearances of its theme subject: at the beginning, in the middle after the first 30 variations, and then again at the end. These recurrences are like the front cover and back cover of a book, and a spine in the middle binding all the pages together inside the common structure. If the unruly, rambunctious variations were allowed to proliferate and not always returned to their origins, a calamity of unimaginable scope would occur. The illustrator might die, which would mean that Bach might plunge into the abyss.
Even as I was thinking these thoughts a different and complementary idea crystallized: perhaps the variations are embodiments of Bach’s own ambivalent individuation in relation to his mother and father, his becoming a distinct person, existing in his own right. The theme subject of the variations would then correspond to the parental matrix out of which the child forms, transported by the tragic conditions of Bach’s early life into the afterworld beyond death. The recurrence of this subject, in the two repetitions of the aria in the Goldbergs and in the three repetitions of the theme in the Chaconne thus represents a kind of holding environment in which the developing, emerging child is contained, and, I would add, restrained. The variations would then be Bach as an individual, carving out his unique destiny and expressing his unique individuality in a life located in the only place such a thing can occur: on earth, in space and in time. Although he could go a certain distance from the everlasting bonds of connection to his lost loved ones in this journey of individuation, there always remained a limiting boundary within which his variation from his origin needed to be contained. This was owing to his continuing connection to the lost ones, sustaining ties he could not mourn and without which he would have ceased to be himself. Bach’s authenticity itself may thus be seen to have been divided between Heaven and Earth. Recall again the so-called Quodlibet, appearing as the last of the Goldberg variations. There are two melodies combined in this short piece, both drawn from folksongs as indicated earlier. The first of these begins with the words:
Ich bin so lang nicht bey dir g’west Ruck her, Ruck her
I have been away from you so long Move near, move near
These words would seem to apply to the variations themselves, which have departed from the theme established in the aria and undergone a long journey of their own elaboration. If the aria contains the bond to the parents, and the variations represent Bach’s individuation, this first song expresses a longing to return, a painful tension brought about by the separation itself, as if the aria misses the variations and is calling them back to itself. The second song offers a kind of explanation for why this separation occurred and has gone on for so long.
Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben Haett meine Mutter Fleisch gekocht Waer ich laenger g’blieben
Cabbage and beets have driven me away Had my mother cooked meat I would have stayed longer
The person who has strayed from his mother would have remained by her side if she had provided the sustaining food that he wanted and needed (Fleisch). But what she gives is unsatisfying (Kraut und Ruben). Could these images reflect as well the tension within Bach between the side of him that sought to remain forever faithful and devoted to his mother and father, even in their deaths, and that other side that wanted to make his own way and partake of what life on this earth has to offer? This latter Bach could never be wholly satisfied with the spirits of the dead, however much he loved them, because they did not and could not provide more than what a spirit can give. This was the Bach who was embodied also by Lieschen in the coffee cantata, who although she prepares herself for marriage (union with heaven), also arranges for access to coffee (participating in earthly life).. And it is also true that he could never wholly break away from the ties that were never mourned, bonds with which the very substance of his being remained engaged to the end of his days. As this final variation ends, the aria returns once more, closing the distance that has opened up in the journey of the variations and healing the rift in Bach’s divided soul.
The second dream concerned an international crisis between two nations, perhaps like India and Pakistan. The image was of there being two geographically distinct regions or countries that were so alien to each other that no one from the one was ever allowed to pass into the other. However, there was a small piece of territory located precisely on the boundary separating the two that was a kind of demilitarized zone, where emissaries might meet and negotiate, where very limited contacts between the two estranged realms could occur. In thinking about this dream, I saw the two regions as the two sides once again of Bach’s own personality: Heaven and Earth, Eternity and Temporality, the Infinite and the Finite, the Sacred and the Secular.. His music would then be like the emissaries meeting in the transitional space between these separated nations, serving to bring them together and avert the catastrophe of them somehow flying violently and permanently apart.
In regard to the question of madness and genius in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, these reflections lead to the notion that Bach’s creativity served to hold him together, to maintain the cohesion of his own identity and sanity, and this was achieved by integrating and balancing a passionate love of life with an equally passionate, continuing love for all those he had lost. It occurs to me that the drivenness of his creative work in this connection also relates to the tragic circumstances of Bach’s own death in 1750. In his last years, his vision was impaired by cataracts and he became almost completely blind. His health, according to his son (CPE Bach), was otherwise excellent, and so he might have lived many more years. However, he chose to undergo two extremely dangerous, horrifically painful eye surgeries in an attempt to recover his ability to see. The loss of his sight must have meant the end of his career as a composer and musician. The result of the surgeries was that his vision was not restored and he developed a raging infection and eventually a stroke that killed him after months of terrible suffering. It is my understanding that his life was a life of musical creation, and that he could not have done otherwise than to risk all in reaching for the possibility of a restored capacity for creative work.
9. The End
Now consider one of Bach’s last compositions, written in the late 1740s, an incomplete work known as Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of the Fugue. This fugue has three subjects, introduced one after another. The first is a slow, mournful theme, almost palpably expressing the experience of the loss of loved ones who have died. The second subject then appears, a melody that is extremely lively, played in a quick tempo and dramatically contrasting with the first. In keeping with the interpretation of the duality at the heart of Bach’s soul, I am suggesting the first subject reflects his ties to the deceased and all the associated sadness which he felt, whereas the second subject shows his joyful engagement in the activities of the world of life. The third subject, appearing and then superimposing itself upon the simultaneous playing of the first two consists of four notes, replicating the letters of Bach’s name: B - A - C - H (B in the German musical notation corresponds to B flat whereas H is B natural). Contrapunctus 14 thus crystallizes Bach’s own distinctive individuality as a person divided between death and life, but whose own journey was one of giving himself over to both. He fused the two inner directions of his nature and then placed his signature on the resulting synthesis, and even as he was doing so, the composition of the music was suddenly interrupted, as his long and creative life finally came to an end.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Seventh Suggestion: Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of the Fugue:
An interview with George Atwood about the writing of the Bach essay, conducted by Penelope Starr-Karlin and originally presented on Facebook: September 2014 ------------------------------------------------- P.S-K. George, a whole set of questions arose as I read your essay on Bach, and I think it would be good if you can give us your thoughts in response to them. I will offer them one at a time and you can tell me what comes to mind.
Why did you write this astonishing paper?
G.A. I really don’t know. The work began in 2002, without any real plan of action or specific goal. One day the thought just came to me: it might be cool to immerse myself in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and see if I could get a reading on his personal lifeworld. Part of the situation at the time was that I was recovering from having spent almost two years writing a long paper on psychotic states, a project I have often said cost me a gallon and a half of blood (http://www.georgeatwood.com/shattered-worlds---psychotic-states.html). I felt braindead, from the extreme effort of this writing, unable to even imagine ever working on anything again in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. The obligations and pressures of collaboration had also become difficult, and I just wanted to go and play, unconcerned with pleasing anyone but myself. I guess I am answering your question after a fashion – I wrote the essay for the fun of it. Although I ended up pouring as much energy into the Bach study as anything else I have ever undertaken, it was a labor of love from start to finish.
P.S-K. Who is Bach to you, George? Can you say anything about the personal meaning for you of having undertaken this project?
G.A. There is a direct affinity between us: he is my brother, a child of loss. Although we are united in having lost beloved parents in our middle childhood years, however, there is one very major difference. It pertains to the role of religion and God in our lives. I was raised Episcopalian, and for the first 8 years of my life believed in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I have many warm memories of my church during these early times. I played important roles in the Christmas pageants, I was a proud acolyte sometimes allowed to assist in Sunday services, and I especially liked Bible School during the summers – chocolate chip cookies and sweet lemonade were served. It was a very soft form of Christianity that was taught, emphasizing values of love and forgiveness, with almost no mention of sin and the fires of Hell. Then came my mother’s sudden death , an event that changed everything. My childhood was bifurcated: before, and after; mother, and no mother. I remember sitting in the church in the months after her passing away and staring at the stained glass window that had been set up in her memory. It was quite beautiful, depicting one of the saints, formed out of pieces of blue, green, red, and yellow-gold glass. I reached up and felt the window with the palm of my hand: it was shockingly cold and hard to the touch, at an infinite remove from the responsive, loving person I had known her to be. Sometime during the next year, a crisis of faith occurred, changing forever my relationship to God. A cute five year-old girl, Lisa, who lived a few doors down from my family, one day was hit by a car and then taken by ambulance to the hospital. It seemed she had been injured terribly and might die. It was time for a conversation with the Almighty. I spoke to Him: “God, please save little Lisa. If you don’t and she dies, I will strike at you with my only weapon: I will not believe in your existence anymore!” It had never occurred to me until this moment that I could cease to be a believer, that there might be no God. As it turned out Lisa did survive, with a broken bone or two, but I continued on with rescinding my faith and became an atheist anyway. I was aware that other children are killed sometimes, and mothers are allowed to die. Johann Sebastian Bach lost both his mother and his father when he was 9 years old, but he did not in consequence become an atheist. Perhaps atheism was not an option in the year of his family’s tragedies, 1694, lying beyond the horizon of a child’s possibilities. It was 200 years before Nietzsche announced the death of God. If anything, the young Bach’s faith deepened in the aftermath of his parents’ and other family members’ dying and helped him immeasurably in his life’s continuing development.
A close friend of mine, herself a wonderful psychotherapist, suggested an idea about what it might be that Bach and his life story represent to George Atwood. She knows me well, and has heard about my conversation with God and the atheism that then ensued. She put it this way: “Maybe you are looking for your lost faith, George, and you are imagining you might find God again through your explorations of the life of Bach.” It is interesting to me that her life too has been one of very severe trauma, with destructive effects on her religion. She was raised Catholic and was very involved during her early childhood years in the life of her church. Between the ages of 7 and 15, however, she became the victim of atrocious sexual abuse. This and other traumas that befell her young life shattered her faith in a loving, protective God and she too became more or less an atheist. So she saw her own struggle reappearing now in my life, but I like to think her idea contains truth and I thanked her for it.
P. S-K. I have to ask you then whether your journey into Bach’s music and life has helped you refind your lost faith?
G.A. I don’t really know. I can say this: atheism no longer makes any sense to me. Atheists, in their denial of God, remain engaged with God, even if only in their active effort to negate His existence. Atheists are believers who have placed a minus-sign in front of their faith. I have also noticed that in times of great helplessness I find myself praying to God. For example, when one of my patients attempts suicide and is lying there in the ICU in critical condition, something that has unfortunately happened a number of times, I speak to the Lord and ask for His assistance. Once the patient survives, if he or she does, I promptly resume my former atheism. An atheist who turns to the Lord when he is in trouble is not a true atheist. Maybe there are no true atheists. Still another thought comes to me that is relevant. I was informed of my mother’s death by the minister of our church, Father Channon. He promised me I would see my mother again in Heaven, but not before. Now that my own life is coming to its concluding chapters, I sometimes think back on that promise, and wonder what could lie ahead. It would be so comforting if I could know I would be with my mother again finally, and with all those other loved ones I have watched die in the meantime. If I have understood Johann Sebastian Bach correctly, I can say his faith in God and in everlasting life beyond death was absolute. I feel the pull, but I am afraid that what awaits us is the Nothing - life on earth being all that there is. So the issue still floats before my mind, unresolved.
P.S-K. Tell us more about the writing of the essay, George. How were you able to arrive at the interpretations and conclusions you came to? Bach would seem to lie beyond the reach of psychobiography, there being such limited information about his experiences, no written autobiography, no juicy personal confessions. How did you gather the courage to make this effort, and what specifically helped you see what you have called the division in Bach’s soul?
G.A. It did not require courage in any way, because nothing was at stake. I had not promised anyone anything, no one was going to evaluate the results of my efforts, there were no deadlines, and if it proved to be impossible – who cares? It was all for fun. I pictured his music as an ocean – Beethoven called it that – and I could swim in that ocean to my heart’s content. I had scarcely explored its vastness before, nor did I know much about the larger world of Baroque music to which it belonged. So I spent hundreds of dollars on books about Bach and his time, and bought essentially all of the best recordings of his compositions and began to listen to them.
I told myself that the task I had undertaken was not so different from the psychobiographical analyses of the great personality theorists that appeared in my first book with Bob Stolorow, Faces in a Cloud. Bach was a personality theorist, I said to myself, giving us a vision of human nature and the human condition through his music. One just has to read it properly – by listening to it carefully and deeply - and its themes and dimensions will inevitably become apparent. It was also helpful to know in advance that his repeating experience of the death of beloved family members was going to be key and I held on to that as an unquestioned assumption. You could ask: how did I know this to be the case? My answer is that I just knew it: children of traumatic loss understand this about each other. His losses were so profound that it simply could not be otherwise.
So I began to listen, and to listen, and then I listened some more – to all of it, again and again, for days and weeks and months. My wife and children grew tired of the music playing, often crying out: “Oh No, it’s Bach again!” I was waiting for the Eureka moment, the epiphany that always finally comes in psychobiography when the thematic structure organizing a person’s life and world suddenly becomes apparent. I learned about such things from the great Silvan Tomkins; Bob Stolorow learned about them from the great Robert White. Let me quote the passage from my essay describing this moment in the unfolding of the Bach study. It happened in the context of my listening to the so-called Coffee Cantata.
“One morning in the Fall of 2003, as I was driving to the college where I teach—a 45 minute commute—and listening to this cantata, especially the last part, I recall asking the question: What is coffee? Coffee seems to be more than just a drink, based on the breathtakingly passionate way Bach has Lieschen singing about it. It emerges in the music as the most desirable of all desirable things. What, I asked, did Bach see in this story about a clash between two wills, one seeking a pleasure of the senses, and the other opposing that and affirming the renunciation of that pleasure? And what could it have meant to Bach that ceasing to drink coffee will enable this young woman to marry? In another of Bach’s cantatas, No. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), the image of marriage is used as a symbol of the union of humanity with Jesus Christ at the End of the World, where Christ is pictured as the groom and the souls of humanity are pictured as the bride. Could it be, I asked myself as I was driving, that this is somehow also part of what is being spoken of in this music? Is it possible that Schlendrian and Lieschen symbolized for Bach two conflicting parts of himself, the former standing for intense religiosity and a commitment to union with God, and the latter to a love for humanity, for the world, for all the pleasures of the senses? I asked further, were there two sides of Johann Sebastian Bach, one orienting toward Heaven, the locus of his lost parents, uncle, and siblings, and the other orienting toward Earth, and toward all of the desirable things one finds in the realm of living human beings? The Earth includes coffee, wine, good food, the pleasure of company with others, the love of women and sexuality, professional achievement and success, parenting and family life, and a long succession of other secular purposes and goals. Heaven, in contrast, releases us from the suffering of earthly existence into a timeless realm in which death does not interrupt life, a realm that includes those most dearly, deeply loved, namely, the lost ones of Bach’s youth: his father, his mother, his father’s twin brother, his own siblings and other relatives and acquaintances who had died. Could it be, I wondered, that Bach was a man torn in half between these two poles, one pointing toward Heaven, the other toward Earth, and that in his music both poles were represented, and at different moments and in different ways, brought together, fused, integrated, only later to separate, differentiate, but then again to reintegrate and fuse still again, and endlessly back and forth, separation and reunion, in cycle after cycle? A bringing together of the two warring sides (Schrade, 1946) would then be symbolically expressed in the part of the cantata’s story it is believed was added by Bach himself, in the image of Lieschen both marrying (uniting with God) and continuing to have coffee (partaking of earthly life). Sacred and secular are thereby joined in everlasting union.”
I remember noting the time – it was 6 45 AM, on a Friday, as I traveled down Highway 22 from Clinton, where I live, to the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, where I was teaching a course in personality theory. When it came to me that Lieschen and her love of coffee represented Bach’s love of life, and her father Schlendrian symbolized his bond to God in Heaven and to all those who had died, I became so excited I almost drove off the road and crashed through the front window of Dunkin Donuts. For this was not just an interpretation of one little piece of music; it was the theme that was the key to an understanding of the whole, the golden thread that runs through every part of his life and work. I saw that Bach was divided between Heaven and Earth, between the Eternal and the Temporal, and that he was occupied at every step of his creative journey with giving expression to both of these poles and to bringing them together in beautiful structural unities. I worked for a number of years further on the paper itself before it reached its present form, but from this point on the writing was really a piece of cake: it was just a matter of composing an overall narrative and arranging and discussing the illustrations of the theme that I had found.
P.S-K. Why is the subtitle of the paper “Imagining the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach?” Also, you describe it as less a scholarly essay and more a reverie, almost a dream. Why the emphasis on the imaginary?
G.A. Every psychobiography is an exercise of the imagination. One imagines oneself into the life being studied, searching for that life’s inner thematic pattern. There is never any external proof that one’s interpretations are correct, no objective evidence definitively substantiating or disconfirming the understandings that are reached. There is really only the coherence of the ideas themselves and the order they appear to bring to the case material at hand. In addition, I actually used two of my own dreams in the development of ideas about the structure of the Goldberg Variations and the Chaconne. My dreams helped me see how Bach’s creativity served to maintain his sanity and stability, by fending off the possibility of an annihilating personal disintegration. Sometimes our dreams can give us very good thoughts.
P.S-K. Although the essay has not been formally published, I know it has been widely circulated, appears on your personal website, and now has been offered via Facebook. What sort of reception has there been, and what did you hope would be the responses of your readers?
G.A. I sent a very early draft of the paper to a group of psychoanalysts, the so-called “Eastern Group” of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology. Their reception was very positive, for the most part. One of the members of the group, however, happened to be married to a Professor of Music History, and, unbeknownst to me, she gave him a copy. Oh, No. He wrote an angry essay in response, presenting 25 serious, potentially fatal errors and problems he discovered in the manuscript. I felt that my baby had been crucified on an ugly wooden board with 25 nails, and I was only able to read 2 or 3 of the scorching criticisms at a time. Luckily, I have a strong, almost invincible heart in the long run, and so I was able to recover finally and consider carefully each of his points. They were all astute and valid, but his bitter, nasty tone remained almost unbearable for weeks. I eventually wrote to this gentleman and told him I had been working on experiencing his criticisms as a gift, and that I planned to revise the paper in light of his points. Although thanking him for his efforts, I pointed out also that he had only negative things to say, and no comment at all on the essay’s central thesis about Bach’s everlasting grief and inner self-division. He answered by saying my love for the music came through and wishing me good luck. I did work to change the paper based on the things he pointed out and it is far better now than it first was. But I would not feel safe sending the revision back to him. A few other students and professors of musicology and music history have had an opportunity to read the essay, plus a couple of professors of English at Rutgers who know a lot about classical music. Their responses have ranged from icy silence to open hostility. They seem to experience it as a reductionistic incursion on their territory of expertise by a psychologist who needs to mind his own business.
I have also shown the essay to a number of musicians and composers, as well as to numerous students and colleagues in psychology and psychoanalysis. Their responses have been enthusiastically positive and encouraging. I did not have a goal in mind in sharing this writing with others. I hoped they would enjoy it and find it interesting, and it occurred to me that maybe someone would pick up on the ideas and extend them to parts of Bach’s music I did not address. Miriam Beer, Sylvia Schwartz, and Benjamin Stolorow have actually done this and they have made me very happy. A number of other people have thanked me for “giving Bach back” to them, returning them to the beauty of the music with a new understanding of its possible human significance. That means the world to me. I think the psychological interpretation of art, in all its forms and variations, enriches our perception and deepens our appreciation. Those who say such interpretations are inevitably reductionistic and diminish the works of art to which they are applied suffer from a Cartesian madness that separates thought from life. There is no separation, as far as I am concerned.
P.S-K. Are there other composers you have studied similarly? I am thinking your essay on Bach opens up a realm of study still largely unexplored.
G.A. Just this, in the field of music: Gustav Mahler. There is a parallel there to Bach, a sharp division between Heaven and Earth, and an agenda to bring the two together. Mahler’s losses were not of his parents, though, but rather of a number of siblings, and emotionally of his mother when she collapsed into a lasting depression because of her children’s deaths. Themes deriving from this history haunt a great many of Mahler’s compositions (e.g. the Kindertotenlieder). Someone with a few years to spare should follow up on this. I do not think I am that person, even though I have studied all the symphonies and read all the relevant biographies.
P.S-K. Has the overall experience of presenting the Bach paper in installments on Facebook been a good one? I certainly hope so.
G.A. It has, and your idea of accompanying the short sections of the writing with addresses to the relevant music has made all the difference. You have given indispensable help in our creating a wonderful event and everyone who has read the paper and listened to the selections is forever in your debt. I thank you Penelope, from the bottom of my heart.