Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bach in Times of Crisis

There is something about Bach in times of crisis.

I have a tendency to run to Bach when times get crazy, when it feels like all the threads of events are tangled in the most beastly of knots that even the invincible children's book protagonist Maniac Magee would be unable to untangle. Bach entered my life when I was about twelve and once I mastered my first little prelude I pounded it out with great enthusiasm and minimal regard for the fact that Bach was not in fact a romantic and may not have approved of my rather dramatic take on his dynamics. I took piano lessons until I was nineteen, so Bach became a fixture of my practicing time as I moved gradually from Inventions, to Sinfonias, to finally working on a hauntingly beautiful Prelude and a hauntingly terrifying Fugue to prepare for my final exam.

What has continually drawn me to playing Bach (besides the fact that he was an integral part of the curriculum) is that he always resolves so beautifully. Each piece is composed of different melody lines working through the same motif. The melodies are like threads that weave in and out of one another, bouncing motifs off of one another throughout the piece until they finally resolve with a conclusive cadence at the end. And regardless of whether the piece is stormy and frantic in a minor key, or jubilant in a major key, the loose ends are always eventually drawn together.

It is so satisfying to know that whatever my external circumstances, Bach won't leave me hanging. He will always masterfully weave in the loose ends in and give them purpose.

In the midst of the final exam madness this semester (side note - I just survived my first semester of grad school. not that it's a big deal or anything....) one of the figures I have been studying is Julian of Norwich. A mystic living as a reclusive anchoress in the fourteenth century, Julian lived in an era of true crisis. The church was shaken by emerging heresy, the papacy was corrupt, new Renaissance ideas were just beginning to challenge traditional understandings of life, and let's not forget the Back Death, waves of which Julian would have experienced twice within the first twenty years of her life.

And how did Julian respond? In her Showings of the Divine Love she describes the concerns of the world as nothing more than the size of a hazelnut. And she recites the words of the Lord, spoken to her in these times of crisis:
I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well
Because I can only begin to understand God by seeking to understand him through the lens of earthly things, I see something of Bach in God. Like Bach pulling the separate threads of melodies through a sometimes harrowing melodic experience into a conclusive cadence, God will, somehow and unbelievably, pull us through the knotted mass of threads that is this life - and he will be better at untangling the mess we've made than even Maniac Macgee.

I can't help but think about the hope that Julian suggests in these times of crisis, where children(!) experience trauma and evil in their schools. It is hard to see that hope when we are knotted up in the midst of it all. All I can do is sit down at the piano I am so very blessed to have in my living room, and I can play my preludes and sinfonias with the hope that the cadence will come, in spite of all odds.

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