Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Link: Alex Ross in the New Yorker touches on J.S. Bach and death


I spoke too soon if I said that 2011 was at least not a year that included as much death around me as 2011. I don't mean death in natural disasters such as the tsunami in Japan, but death that touches at a personal level. My sister lost a baby she was carrying recently and today I learned that an old friend from my Mars Hill days has died. Learning of two deaths in a single day is ... grim. When I was young I appreciated Bach for the genius of his approach to musical thought and his mastery of counterpoint. I still love those things about his work but I have also come to appreciate how comprehensive his range of emotional expression is and how he composed as a Christian. Plus Bach dealt with more death than any emo or grunge or death metal sort has probably actually had to deal with in this American life.

What Alex Ross describes in summary could be a life's work I am not capable of writing at the age of 37. My life's work, whatever it may be, shall not likely be a treatise on how Bach's cumulative work in sacred choral music can be construed as a meditative live-out reflection on the warnings of Ecclesiastes that life is short and unstable and that we shall all die. Besides, Bach's music itself is so suffused with the realization of the reality and brutality of death I have nothing I could add in writing about it. Good artists and bad artists alike can spend their days grappling with what it means to be human and what it means to live. Good artists and bad artists alike can confront what it means to die and what the daily reality of death surrounding us means.

The difference between a Pixar and a Disney film in which death is in the stakes is that in a Disney film death tends to come only to the villain, who at any rate we see deserves death. In pixar films death is what threatens to rob the protagonist of love and friendship and action. The figurative facing down of the endless fire of the trash heap in Toy Story 3 is affecting because, as with so many of Pixar's best films, the reality and, for us, immutability of death most directly confronts us in the narrative. Death is averted by a providential intervention but death is still one day going to come. As many works of art on grief and death and loss have revealed, the great pain of death is for the living who have lost those they have loved. In childrens' entertainment even being so bold as to confront the reality that such loss can happen can be profoundly affecting and even unnerving for us. As one reviewer put it so pointedly about TS3, "These are pretty fricking existential toys!" Not existential, so much, but aware of the reality of death.

It may be a mistake of our era in terms of art and thought to imagine that simply confronting the reality of mortality involves existentialism. Existentialism as a philosophy was hardly the currency of Bach's day and yet he certainly lived a life full of the death of those he loved. As a man who lost his parents, his first wife, and no less than ten children to death, Bach was, dare I say, almost terribly qualified to reflect in his art on the brevity and frailty of human life. What makes Bach work special is that, as a Christian, he reflected not only on the pervasiveness and depth of death but explored in his music how Christ Himself lay in the bonds of death, broke the bonds of death, accepted death for us, and conquered death for us. Bach has hardly been the only composer to have reflected on these things.

Other composers have done a great job of using music to reflect on how Christ embraced death on a cross for our salvation and Penderecki's harrowing and, yes, melodramatic Luke Passion is a sturdy 20th century example. But arguably without Bach Penderecki's masterpiece would not really be what it was. Furthermore, while I respect Penderecki's use of the techniques of the avant garde to depict the suffering of Christ Bach's music is adept at plumbing beneath that into what scriptures reveal, ultimately are the motives of Christ. Christian choral music would be impoverished were either of the works of these two composers not with us but, obviously, the absence of Bach would lead to the greater poverty. Fortunately that possibility is utterly moot.

No comments: