An Empirical Case for Objective Goodness and the Existence of God in the Vocal Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
January 2023 | Ryan Mangan
I found myself scaling a small mountain with a young Frenchman who I met in Slovenia. Our discussion carried us through the subjects of music, the origins of art, and the idea of God. “I don’t understand it exactly, but I can’t help but hear God in the music of Bach,” I asserted. “When I am completely immersed in it, not only does it feel like the music comes from God but it is in fact God itself.” A bit dramatic? Perhaps, but it felt like a truthful thing to say. Naturally, I was a little embarrassed to hear how my companion might respond as this was the first time I had spoken the idea into existence. Luckily, his response was an exciting relief. “You know, you are not the first person to say that to me.” Was I onto something worth exploring?
A venture began through the many facets of my theory, recognizing that if I intend to support the idea to any merit, I would face the burden of defining God and objective goodness. Such a challenging task is endearing as the music of Johann Sebastien Bach has always inspired and moved me. To ask myself, “why”, presses me to understand myself a bit more, about why it moves me so profoundly. This is an attempt to provide an orderly answer to that chaotic question “why”. The vocal music of J.S. Bach, coupled with the poetry of Picander, is rich with elements of tonal coherence, unity, and themes of sacrifice. It evokes meaning and bears the potential to replace the spiritual nourishment of religion. Even more, it represents the enormous potential of mankind to prolifically create music of such astounding complexity and beauty. Through these elements his music can be defined as objectively good and therefore proof for the existence of God.
On God and Objective Goodness
What is God?
For starters, there is no God without human beings. God is not a sentient being separate from us. Likewise, He is not controlled by human consciousness. God is the property of the mind which we do not understand. He is the soul and the unconscious; the spirit. All elements of goodness and its potential, including moral intuition and artistic talent, are what make up his existence. He is the faculty within our personalities that takes the form of the conscience. He is the force in our soul that tells us what is right and wrong. He is that part of the consciousness which judges. He is the part of us that controls our positive behaviors that we do not understand.
GOD ≈ Human mind’s potential for goodness; unconscious influences of integrity; conscience.
When we observe human cultures, take the ancient Greeks for instance, we find that people personified the elements of their life that seemed to have a mind of their own. Eros makes us fall in love, despite whether we want to or not. Dionysis pulls out of us an inherent rambunctiousness and frivolity. The magnificence of God parallels the divinity of mankind. God is the spirit, the part of us that comes from the stars. The mystery of God is the mystery of consciousness and unconsciousness. Our species is the mystery of God. To celebrate God is to celebrate the goodness of humanity. Faith in God is the recognition that humanity possesses divine potential for goodness.
Exposing God Through Art and Imagination
Homo sapiens have faced extinction at least twice: 150,000 years ago due to an extreme temperature drop, and 70,000 years ago due to the effects of the Toba Explosion. Our advancing cognitive strengths made it possible to develop tools and strategies to survive. In order for these things to develop, our ancestors must have had an imagination to summon better possibilities. Without question, they experienced the necessity to push forward through the turmoil. They strived for betterness. This property within us developed into the notion that the grass is greener just a little further West. Our imaginations saved our species from extinction. God is the imagination which saved us from extinction. Our minds are the kingdom in which God reigns.
Michaelangelo himself may have also considered God to be synonymous with the mind. His iconic The Creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel has placed the likeness of God in a brain-shaped celestial silk. Considering Michaelangelo’s intense study of anatomy, this can hardly be dismissed as coincidence. As I have played with this idea that God ≈ the mind, I observed that many chapels, churches, and cathedrals seem to be theatrical representations of the mind. Here is what I have observed:
The church is the place where thoughts are turned introspective.
We face the judgment of the crucifix which acts as a symbol for our moral conscience.
The painted cherubim carrying small messages and scrolls seem to symbolize little thoughts and ideas taking place.
The ceilings feature cosmic designs and frescos symbolizing the brain’s vastness and infinitude.
Moreover, the construction of a cathedral, synagogue, or mosque tends to include a dome. Is it ridiculous to connect this architectural design to our dome-shaped craniums?
Could these coincidences hold any merit for the assertion that God is the human mind itself? Is it possible that we have unconsciously observed the mysterious nature of the mind and began calling it “God”? Perhaps we already know this to be the case, as Michaelangelo may have, but we do not know that we know it. Whether these are coincidences or not, it is a fun idea to play with.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, explored the human mind to its most extreme possibilities. His most important contribution was his discovery of the subconscious mind. In a 1998 essay "Freud and the Poet's Eye: His Ambivalence Toward the Artist," Norman H. Holland lays out the details of Freud's admiration and envy towards the great poets. This is in accordance with Freud's remarks in Delusion and Dream in Jensen's "Gradiva" where he states, "Creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream." Equally, Holland notes that the famed Elizabethan dramatist, William Shakespeare, had an understanding of the psychological significance of slips-of-the-tongue and expected his attentive audiences to understand it just as well. Shakespeare's observation of the unconscious through slips of the tongue corresponds with Freud's equivalent observation in Lecture II of Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. His admiration for poets like Shakespeare and Sophocles hints at his recognition of the artists' capacity for uncovering the Truth.
My thoughts turn to the American poet Walt Whitman who was a staple of the Transcendentalist Movement (ca.1830-ca.1850). His magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, featured groundbreaking new poetry. The most notable of this publications "Song of Myself" exemplified a new kind of spiritual thinking.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
(Leaves of Grass, 1892 version)
He describes himself as "immortal and fathomless" – two adjectives traditionally utilized in describing a being that is beyond human. Whitman dealt with the transcendent. He observed the spirit of the Self as God. He saw the soul as something transcendent. It is remarkable to consider that a scientist of the mind, arrived at philosophical and psychological conclusions which poets had arrived at long before him. Might Freud have come to the same conclusion as Whitman in regard to the idea that God is the Self? With this idea in mind, we can more easily consider that the music of J.S. Bach was sourced from something objectively good – from something of God-like proportions.
Complications with God
It is not uncommon to hear young people expressing atheist ideas through expressions like, “God was created by men in order to oppress other groups and justify evil behavior.” I think this attitude misses the point. To counter the atheists, God instead is a faculty that was not created by man but rather observed. God, I think, evolved at the same rate as our consciousness. Let’s be clear about one thing: there is no question that mankind has exploited the idea of God in order to take political control and justify cruelness. This is absolutely true. It seems to me that if God were created for this terrible reason I think the idea of God would not have survived. Sigmund Freud is noted to have said, “In the small matters, trust the mind. In the large ones, trust the heart”. He suggests that the heart is a more reliable informant when stakes are high. Allow me to make a distant connection to Freud’s assertion. Bad ideas, while they make an enormous impact, do not last. Good ideas, however, can be expected to last. Why? – because they are good! I don’t think it’s naive to maintain that love always wins. If the idea of God were created for malevolent purposes, it would not have lasted. I suspect the idea developed from a more natural and honest source, making it old enough to have outlasted empires tenfold.
So, as a concession, what about the nasty parts of human nature? We have within our unconscious potential the capacity for wrongdoings. Objective immoral desires do exist as true as the goodly desires. Mankind has an insatiable appetite for war, conflict, malevolence, vengeance, etc. They are complicated faculties as they can sometimes be justified as good and just. Shakespeare uses his character Hamlet to share an observation that good and bad are not so obvious and objective. In Act 2, scene 2, Hamlet says:
I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.
As Shakespeare's contemplation shows us, the meaning of goodness can be ambiguous and subjective. Subjective goodness is a matter of personal taste and does not qualify as proof for the existence of God. Indeed, the nastiest elements of our nature are as true as the purest, but they are not God. God is the force of goodness only. The opposite unconscious properties could be expressed as the symbolic idea of Satan. However, I use this essay to attempt a definition only of objective goodness.
What makes a song “good”?
Picture this: I’m 7 years old. It’s 2003. 7:00am on a Tuesday morning. My older brother has his favorite Linkin Park album Hybrid Theory on full volume in our shared bedroom. He goes to take a shower. I climb out of bed to prepare for the school day. The song "Crawling" annoys me so I turn off the CD and put in my soundtrack for the Disney movie Tarzan. I play my all-time favorite “You’ll Be in My Heart”. Boy, was I soft or what. My brother returns with a towel on, shuts down the music with his adolescent fist, and throws my CD on the floor saying, “This music sucks. What are you gay?”
So began my confusion over what makes a song “good”. Apparently, the mere fact that I enjoyed the song so much was not enough to merit it being “good”. So how could I discern what qualifies a song good? The question of subjectivity is relevant as this was, of course, a dispute over musical taste. I do think, however, that goodness in art can be observed as objective. The conditions for this, I think, rely on elements of structural and thematic coherence, unity, and integrity of the artist. This is true for visual and performing arts, but for my case, I will only examine the idea through the art of music.
The great art of music is one that symbolically represents the theme of unity. Melodies and harmonies balance and weave among each other At university, my music theory professor was explaining to the class how the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical formula observed in nature and art, could be observed in Estampes (a set of piano works) by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Upon learning this, the class was stunned into silence. One of my peers broke the silence asking, “Wait, but did he incorporate the Fibonacci sequence in the piece intentionally? Or, was it observed after he completed the piece?” – a compelling question to which the professor replied, “Does it really matter?” Another silence followed as we sat in awe of the indisputable genius that produced such music. It seems to me that whether Estampes is enjoyable to listen to or not, its structural coherence upheld by the Fibonacci numbers is enough to merit it as a collection of “good songs”.
A work of art, likewise a musical composition, becomes objectively good when it goes beyond superficiality, maintains structural coherence, promotes subconscious or conscious Truths, or fulfills its potential for transcendence. We can listen closely to a composition and ask ourselves, “Is it pumped with the juice of God through artistic genius or fulfillment of the mind’s full capacity for good?” Ehr, you know, something like that…
On Bach’s Music
A Substitution for The Nourishment of Religion
In its most basic form, the human appeal for church is to satisfy the inherent question of mortality and what it means. Subscribing to a religion offers a feeling of connection to a greater being; a higher order; being a part of something that is capable of pushing the soul to complete awe. The body craves this feeling as it is a part of what made us survive extinction through the motivation of imagination. We crave it so strongly so that when the divine stares us in the face, our nervous system reacts in the form of frisson. The hair on our skin spikes up. There is a dramatic chill up the spine. A feeling not completely divorced from an orgasmic sensation. When I encounter the music of Bach, particularly his vocal works, the Divine stares me in the face. Bach’s music is humble. It recognizes God as a force which must be honored yet not necessarily worshiped. Honor is an equally strong form of respect but does not carry the catastrophic potentials of fanaticism that are associated with worship. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (Matthäus-passion) and St. John Passion (Johannes-passion) are widely introspective when it comes to honoring God. Less often does Bach’s music cry-out in fanatical devotion. To experience the vocal works of Bach seems to me more spiritual than religious but are nevertheless effective in offering a sense of meaning to the questions of mortality and fulfillment of the soul.
As I progress into adulthood, I do not thirst for spiritual sustenance. My soul does not seem to crave spiritual nutrients as it does for many of my peers. Music has offered me a replacement for religious nourishment. Especially as a vocalist, I find this to be true. Music is felt within me and is activated through my laryngeal anatomy. It is a part of me more than it can be a part of a violinist or pianist. The music is in my breath and is integrated fully into my life experience in such a way that fulfills the spiritual appetite inherent in us all. Blanche Moyse, conductor of the New England Bach Festival, was outspoken in her ideas of God in connection with Bach's music. She once stated in an interview:
Well, obviously when you talk about God, you talk about something that can’t be explained. That can’t be described. You don’t really know what it means, you don't know if it's a special energy, you're thrown into a world of questions that have never been well answered, and will probably never be. Bach knows that the music takes over when the words finish, because you can encompass everything in music, it doesn’t have to be explained further. Nobody asks you to explain what the music of the St. Matthew Passion means, you know. Nobody would dare. For a musician it’s clear.
Many people experience transcendence by attending religious services, while artists like Moyse are nourished by God through music. Music is, in fact, food for the soul. Such sacred music as Bach produced begs us to believe in God. His music is transcendent as it embodies the human mind’s potential for goodness.
I visited the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany one October evening before closing. In the dark space, a chorale was being sung by a small choir of voices. As I took my first steps inside, I looked to my right towards the altar where a small private chorus of about twelve could be seen. They were facing each other, in a circle, looking downward in musical prayer. My soul felt frozen to be hearing Bach's pure and clean chorale in his very church. I turned to stone like a rabbit trapped in open grass – petrified until only moments after my entry when the sacristan pressed me to leave as he was locking the church for the evening. The following morning, I returned to the sacred space for a proper visit. There was no choir that morning. In fact, no music whatsoever. I approached the altar and discovered something chilling. I beheld a large, metal plaque on the floor with three words written upon it: "Johann Sebastian Bach". This spot, which a pious choir had surrounded with soft music the evening before, was the burial place of Bach’s remains. An awesome experience worthy of a pilgrimage. I sat in the nave with my headphones listening to the Bach Passions. The St. Matthew Passion premiered here in this very space. This was the space where his masterpieces were first heard! I observed the modest crucifix watching over me as a Divine presence sipped the tears from my eyes. My spirit acknowledged the red rafters that were webbed high above with music absorbed in their fibers. The sensations were of complete awe; of being in the presence of greatness. It was, for me, nothing short of transcendent. It’s Bach’s music that begs me to believe in God. Its source seems so beyond human, but reflects humankind so completely and without flaw.
A Connection to Conjuring
In my years working as a magician, I spent a lot of time thinking about what a magician is. Is he a trickster? At what point does a magician prove himself to be an artist? How can we distinguish a magician/conjuror from a juggler? My suspicion was that magicians could be useful as artists and not only exist as the shallow showmen who say, “Look what I can do!” I discovered that my performances as a magician were most effective upon admitting I was a trickster. If a magician is honest about the fact that he does not possess true magic powers, impressive sleight of hand forces the audience to actually consider the possibility of real magic, considering the mind cannot comprehend the puzzle they have just witnessed. Similarly, there are things in the world that force us to believe in God. We witness a soccer stadium rise to its feet in exaltation, we tear-up as we set eyes on Michealangelo’s David, and we are carried away in our dancing shoes to the power of rock and roll. The transcendent power of life’s experiences show us how impossible it is for the idea of God to be false.
Bach’s Prolific Output
As divine as God can be, humanity matches it tenfold (because these are one and the same). Bach’s music exemplifies the magnitude of human artistic potential. His enormous music output is so prolific that it seems almost inhuman. It is beyond what mankind is thought to be capable of, making it so uniquely human. Bach composed at least 1,128 compositions. Considering the tonal richness and contrapuntal complexity of Bach’s work, not to mention the emotional profundity that has kept his work relevant, many consider him the greatest composer in Western music heritage. As far as quantity is concerned, George Philipe Telemann has him beat at over 3,000 compositions. Although, Bach scholars at the University of Leipzig estimate our hommie’s output could have reached 11,111 compositions! By what means is a human being capable of such astounding feats? Some would argue that this could not be done by a human being alone. Such an accomplishment seems sourced by something super-human. In truth, the capacity for such astonishing potential is completely within the realm of human potential. The fact that Bach’s capabilities seem so inhuman is exactly what makes it human indeed, and thus, Divine. Humanity and divinity are made of each other.
George Frideric Handel, another baroque legend, lives on through his legacy as a master composer. I think his legacy is marked by accessibility to the listeners. Handel’s music is more immediately enjoyable. It is grand and impressive. Its definition can be more closely regarded as superficial than any of Bach's music which is more sensitive and nuanced. Handel’s music is very sophisticated, timeless, beautiful to the ear, and richly composed, but Bach’s music asks more of the listener.
Allow me to compare the two master baroque composers and how they have affected me differently in my youthful musical exploration. The first time I listened to Acis and Galatea, Handel’s playful opera on a myth from Ovid, the melodies were immediately stuck in my head. I wanted to listen again and again to satisfy my ear. The “Hallelujah chorus” is bound to lift anyone up to their feet in exaltation! By contrast, the first time I listened to Bach’s Johannes-passion, I found myself bored at first listening. Yes. I was bored at first. In fact, when I listen to a Bach vocal work, my initial impression is that it sounds like every other Bach piece in the canon. I suspect my feelings are shared with many other twenty-somethings of the 21st-century. Upon continued listening, the Johannes-passion arias began to reveal themselves to me. They took on new textures and moods that made each of them stand before the others. The more I listened, the more unique they became. Suddenly I found myself listening again and again to satisfy, not my ear, but rather my soul.
Yet even as a great Bach admirer, I still find myself stuck in the body of a 21st-century listener. In 2015, TIME magazine reported that the human attention span averaged around 8.25 seconds – a fact which didn’t seem too outrageous to me until I learned that a goldfish can focus on a task for about nine! It's been eight years since that article was published and not surprisingly, the average attention span has dropped about four seconds in the last 15 years. Johannes-passion takes around two hours to be performed. It is a drama but it is not performed in a theatrical setting. No costumes, no set pieces, nor staging to keep the eye engaged. Therefore, all the drama is contained within the orchestrations and text. It requires an enormous amount of engagement for a listener who wants to harvest all he can of this sacred music. My point is, it is not easy music. There is nothing superficial about it. It is void of extravagance but rich with spiritual substance.
The theme of unity is often featured in storytelling, most effectively at the ending. It can be observed at the end of the Hero's Journey structure. Interesting to note here that several religious stories bear the Hero's journey archetypal structure – most obviously the Passion of Christ. J.S. Bach was a master of counterpoint. This ability to weave separate melodies together in harmony was unmatched by his contemporaries. His unprecedented talents were proven in his impressive ability to improvise fugues – that is astounding! J.S. Bach truly is the master of contrapuntal composition. Counterpoint, and polyphony in general, is symbolic of the most perfect utility of music. Counterpoint is a beautiful allegory for the potential of humanity. All different paths and melodies weave together in tonal harmony. This is the great capacity of man: to unite and work together. It is exactly what we aim for in our society. When all the chaotic elements of life find a way to weave together properly and support each other, we find ourselves living harmoniously. Music is a metaphor for order in life. Its significance lies in the fragility of harmony. When a gifted pianist plays rapidly at the keys, his fingers are just millimeters away from slipping to the wrong keys. A slight miscalculation of the fingers would destroy the tonal integrity of the entire piece. One slip, and the miracle becomes a catastrophe. For the duration of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the pianist puts himself right on the edge, balancing pure magic against disaster. As we listen, our minds tell us that imperfection is likely, but then, when everything lines up, the artist shows us how pure beauty and harmony can be harnessed at the hands of human potential. Contrapuntal techniques are not unique to Bach’s music alone, but his mastery of this baroque technique acts as his musical autograph. Counterpoint is heard repetitively through his cantatas and oratorios in the form of four-part chorales. His chorales act as the glue that binds a greater work together. They provide the harmonious thematic pattern of Unity.
The Sentiments of Sacrifice
The depth of human goodness is no better expressed than in the aspect of self sacrifice. The recognition that things can benefit when the soul is traded in, is a profoundly human idea and can scarcely be defined as anything other than objectively good. Matthäus-passion is an oratorio which dramatizes the Passion of Christ through music. It is narrated by a tenor soloist and features a chorus of singers, vocal soloists, and orchestra. The drama nears its end as Jesus sacrifices his body, taking on the sins of the world so that all can be forgiven of their wrong-doings. Bach composed “Komm, süßes Kreuz” to be sung while Jesus drags the cross over his shoulder. Simon, the character whose aria we experience, pleads for the opportunity to take over Jesus’ brutal burden. While the words are spoken as the words of Simon, the sentiments are shared between the characters Jesus and the disciple Simon. Each character thirsts for the opportunity to embrace self-sacrifice. The aria is an exceptional example of how Bach’s artistry exemplifies the idea of objective goodness. It provides a rich, musical illustration of the highest potential good – self sacrifice. He does so by addressing the emotional duality associated with sacrifice through theoretical devices and by the philosophical significance of Picander’s poetry.
There is, as with all music by Bach, absolute integrity and intention in his compositions. Various musical techniques are employed to strengthen the aria’s structural and thematic coherence. The first being text-painting, the next being rhythmic and modal contrast, and the third being his choices in orchestral scoring. The dramatic scene is painted in the music. Simon pleads to take the weight of the cross upon himself. We can visualize the scene by how Bach depicts it musically. The opening of the aria features text-painting of the cross symbol with its criss-crossing pitches about the staff. A broad anacrusis (pick-up beat) reflects the first heavy step towards Calvary. To follow, there is abundant heaviness expressed by accented beats which provide the essence of marching by Viola da Gamba as well. This heaviness compliments that of the cross, the sacrifice of Christ, and the burden Simon wishes to take on himself. The woody timbre of the Viola da Gamba elevates the idea of the wooden cross over Jesus’s shoulder. Dotted rhythms communicate a sense of frustration and anxiety which support the emotional impact of the piece. The incessancy of dotted rhythms in the melody reveal an attitude of determinism associated with his painful decree.
The rich duality associated with sacrifice is characterized by the pleasure of doing what is good and the pain of bearing the consequence. The duality of emotions are expressed through modal shifts. The frequent modulation between major mode and minor mode compliments the thematic tone. Where the major mode symbolizes the ease of doing a good deed, the minor mode contrasts it symbolizing the bleak pain of torture. The heaviness and abundance of chromaticism serves to convey uneasiness. By contrast, the listener notices Bach’s choice of tempo is relaxed. The pace of this movement creeps without urgency giving us the effect of Simon's (or Christ’s) peace of mind. Moreover, the sweetness of the vocal lines is marked by its even rhythms. These smooth, even rhythms contrast the angsty, dotted rhythms in the Viola da Gamba. “Komm sußes Kreuz” communicates emotional weight, but not quite terror.
We would expect that in the face of torture and death, an individual’s emotions would be expressed through chaotic frustration and resistance. Such features are not found here. Instead, there are notions of yearning, mental clarity, and inner peace. The vocalist’s ascending systematic phrases tell us his focus is aimed upwards – towards God and simultaneously towards the heights of Calvary. Moreover, we are moved to encounter a strong sense of longing for the horror to come. Such longing is expressed in composed cadential suspensions. We commonly hear these suspensions while listening to Bach’s music. Ornamentation has become customary in performance but is not actually scored. In the case of “Komm süßes Kreuz”, Bach wrote them in the score, necessitating the feeling of yearning as Simon and Jesus beg the sacrifice toward them. Furthermore, Bach’s choice of instrumentation changes in this movement as compared to those before. We are no longer engaged with a sea of many instruments. In fact, most instruments are omitted in this composition. The lonely Viola da Gamba (or lute) and basso continuo draw attention to the isolation of Jesus and his inner monologue. Jesus’s introspection promotes the listener’s empathy. By evoking empathy through these deliberate orchestrations, Bach asks us to consider our own sacrifices. What crosses have we to bear which could benefit our own communities?
On Picander's Poetry
Bach set his St. Matthew Passion to the text of the Gospel of Matthew in the Luther bible. The arias in the oratorio act as emotional reflections on the drama played. The text of these reflections do not come from the Bible. They are poetic inserts from German poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, otherwise known by his pseudonym Picander. Picander has nicely captured the sentiments of sacrifice.
Ja, freilich will in uns das Fleisch und Blute
Yes, willingly are flesh and blood,
Zum Kreuz gezwungen sein;
Compelled to the cross
Je mehr es unserer Seele gut,
The better it is for our souls,
Je herber geht es ein
The bitterer it feels.
Komm, süßes Kreuz, so will ich sagen,
Come, sweet cross, this I want to say,
Mein Jesu, gib es immer her!
My Jesus, give it always to me!
Wird mein Leiden einst zu schwer,
If my suffering becomes too heavy one day,
So hilfst du mir es selber tragen
You yourself will help me bear it.
The opening line alone, “Komm, süßes Kreuz” holds all the significance necessary. It is the essence of the entire composition in its depiction of goodness through sacrifice. The cross signifies absolute pain, terror, and death – three words that we traditionally categorize as the antithesis of good. But humanity, through its capacity for transcendence, can make an example of what it is capable of in the form of the pursuit of meaning. Simon, and likewise Jesus, beckons the cross to himself. This characterizes Simon as an authority over the cross. Through this characterization, Simon becomes stronger than the thing that is most terrifying. Beyond that, Picander uses the word “süße” (sweet) as he describes the cross in Simon’s perspective.
“Sweet” – Wow. What a remarkable word to choose! Imagine describing a torture device with the same words you describe a deliciously ripe fruit or a piece of candy. The cross, in this new perception of it, represents something good as it bears the potential to forgive all the sins of the world. How sweet would that be! It becomes something unobjectionable and delicious. Picander’s observation of the emotional duality of sacrifice helps us to understand how Bach set the same sentiments in his musical structure. The cross is a paradox as it can represent both good and evil simultaneously. Human beings are capable. They can transcend the problem of tragedy and malevolence. We all benefit from the idea that we can be stronger than the thing that scares us. That idea is profoundly meaningful and may be the catalyst for the advanced evolution of our species. It’s no wonder it appears again and again in the mythologies of our cultures. Acting on this idea guarantees a positive effect on your community, as it does in the Passion story of Christ. I struggle to see how this idea could be characterized as anything other than objectively good.
The Source of Goodness
If you find yourself frequently scrolling Instagram, you may have discovered the enormously popular page @natureismetal. It features the most fascinating, high-quality videos of the grizzliest behavior in the animal kingdom. Through this digital portal, I find myself humbled to witness how commonly a zebra can be ripped apart and devoured alive by a pride of hungry lions. Each published video reminds me of the remarkable difference between humanity and fauna. We too slaughter animals for our own benefit (and often in ways that are gruesome and malevolent), but what makes humanity remarkable is its willingness to turn the horror into beauty through ritual. Humans can recognize the ugliness of murder. So we found ways to ensure that living souls do not die in vain. From an anthropological viewpoint, we can admire how death can be made meaningful. When an animal is killed, people offer prayers for the beast and perform rituals to instill a feeling of meaning. As sparks fly upward from a ritual fire, they tangle themselves in the sparkling light of the stars, the jewels that shine forth from the darkness. Thus, the spirit of the animal is rerouted to the cosmos. Despite what some may assert, I think ritual is not a petty justification for man’s selfishness or its hunger for oppression over other species. Likewise it is not shallow or performative. Rather it acknowledges the sacredness of the animal. It is beautiful. It is artistic. It is transcendent. Humans have the capacity to transform a terrible thing into something meaningful. They have the integrity to create beauty out of horror. They can transform the barbaric into the transcendent. The idea of horror, in this context, can thus be filtered through integrity and empathy becoming meaningful and beautiful. That’s the weird way humans can be. It seems to me that this strange spirit within us is the embodiment of what we have evolved to call “God”.
“Don’t cry for me, for I go where music is born.”
- Johann Sebastian Bach
I have a suspicion that art itself is a force sourced from beyond the human consciousness. It is a substance that is filtered, sourceless and forceful, through the artist. When the substance of art is filtered through the artist properly, we observe that it seems honest, true, and objectively good. The glorious music of Mozart and Beethoven asks us to reflect on our emotions, nature, and our actions while their melodies please our ears. Bach’s music asks us to reflect on our souls. It forces us to meditate on the potential goodness of humanity. It is honest and humble in effect. It does not ask for praise. It engages with the soul and invites introspection. It meditates on the human condition and its relationship with the Divine. Such an accomplishment can only be defined as indisputably good, and as such, it is proof for the existence of God. The source of Bach’s music was a place within us all. It was the metaphysical kingdom that bears potential to expose ourselves to ourselves, nourishing in a self-sustaining cycle. This is a heaven beyond us that exists entirely within; a landscape of all the potential goodness; a collective unconscious.
Connecting music to divinity and objective goodness cannot be an argument for J.S. Bach’s music alone. Other composers have matched his greatness in their output of objectively good art. However, in my experience, no composer has matched his ability to intimately nourish the soul through Euterpe’s great art. I will not be so foolish as to suggest that other composers are incapable of producing music so rich with tonal coherence, thematic profundity, and the potential for transcendence. Although, my subjective opinion is that Bach does it the best. I simply make my case to emphasize the absolute magnificence of his life’s work and to explore what it is about his music that so effectively soothes my soul.
References and suggestions for further exploration:
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Zerfließe mein Herze
Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben
Komm, süßes Kreuz
Mache dich, mein Herze rein
Ich will dir mein Herze schenken
St. John Passion, BWV 245
Von den Stricken
Es ist vollbracht
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Messiah: “Hallelujah” chorus
Acis and Galatea, HWV 49a:
“Hush ye pretty warbling choir”
“Would you gain the tender creature”
Estampes, L. 100
Leaves of Grass:
Song of Myself
You’ll Be In My Heart
Kevin McSpadden | TIME Magazine, 2015
"You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish"
"Actor & Activist"
October 2022 | Ryan Mangan
Actors are being held at too high esteem, and because of that, I am skeptical of all these "Activists." I can’t help but see a clue that the activism we are seeing in contemporary politics is rooted in narcissism – not altruism. (Don't kill me!) Let me just break down my goofy little argument... In my adolescence and college years, I called myself an actor. Looking back at myself as an eight year old in the community theater, it is undeniable that my desire for attention was what really lured me in. I was the youngest child out of four. Asthmatic. Feeble. Agile, yet un-athletic. I liked the attention! What can I say? But my relationship with acting matured. I began to engage with it as a disciplined art form that was beyond me and my superficial desires. Any traces of vanity became shadowed by my passion for creating art with integrity. But undeniably a trace of it must remain today. I think it is probably true that most contemporary artists have a self-obsessed complex. Such a complex is at the root of their behavior in social forums. I am seeing that actors, and visual artists, have begun using their art to persuade. They are becoming political. (Sigh). It is so annoying. I see many of them creating websites for their personal branding and career development, usually with the terms “Actor and Activist” on the front page.
I once spoke with an opera director who explained his alternative production of Bizet’s opera Carmen. He and the creative team changed the ending of Carmen so as to not let the heroine die in the end of the story. They were concerned about letting such a symbol of feminine strength die at the end of the Opera. His good intentions were obvious, but it seems to me this rebellious approach to a theater piece is a misguided one. I hate to imagine if Romeo and Juliet were rewritten so that the lovers live through the end of the story. It would destroy all that was at stake through the rising action. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, my college production featured a lesbian version of the starcrossed lovers. The justification? “Love is love is love is love.” Ok, sure! I suppose as a fun theatrical experiment, this alteration was worth taking a stab at (pun intended). It certainly heightened the secrecy of the relationship and gave an extra layer to Juliet’s famous line, “Wherefore art thou Romeo”. But, I have to ask myself, would Shakespeare have written it differently if he intended the couple to be two women? Are we willing to admit that the characteristics of heterosexual and homosexual courtship are unalike; enough at least for its subtleties to have not been missed by a poet? The integrity of these stories is not ours to meddle with. Doing so raises eye-brows, but for the wrong reasons. It is a lazy way to be controversial.
We cannot normalize the tinkering of 100+ year old stories under the moral standards of 21st century audiences. It is unfortunate that stories can be so full of misogyny and racism. However, we must be content to preserve them as such. If the nastiest elements of human interaction such as sexism, misogyny, and racism, are going to inevitably poke their way into our social structure, I wonder if the realm of art (i.e. theatre, comedy, etc) is where they can be safely housed – in a place where we can see the foulness of ourselves and laugh. Maybe this is exactly why we need art. It seems to me that the optimal utility of art is to reflect the world as it is – in all its beauty and cruelty. A more appropriate and creative response to the contemporary socio-political standards is for the artist to create new works that end as tastefully as he sees fit. But he must take care not to let his work become propaganda. An artist must reflect the world, he dare not try to persuade it.
Actors and theater-makers remain outspoken at the forefront of politically progressive thinking. This is not where they belong. Indeed, it is the artists who stretch our cultures into the brilliance of the future reaching beyond the confines of conservatism. But, I wonder if that progression need not be intentional. The artist must accept that art is a metaphysical substance that does not belong to him. It is not born by his genius. Rather, it filters through him. His Unconscious acts as a vessel for Truth to be filtered through. The artist should be unaware of its meaning. If spoiled by the artist's ego, the art itself can become political and narcissistic. It is spoiled by his awareness of what the art means and what his use is for it. Only by observing the global repertoire of art, from sculpture and graffiti to poetry and song, can we sum up "Truth" down to its gist. That gist is quite undefinable but might be something like "pure beauty un-corrupted by the conscious mind; from God". So futile are these slimy insertions of political ideology onto the artwork in the Western canon. Most unsettling is that artists (actors in particular) are taken so seriously.
It is as if Hollywood became what the Promised Land (Zion/Heaven) once was. A mythological image/idea. The role that the Promised Land fulfilled in our collective unconscious before the 20th century is the same role that Hollywood fulfills today, with its Oscar-winning saints and it’s ruby red River Jordan. In college, I took an identity course where we watched a documentary on transgenderism. What I remember so clearly was that 80% of the “specialists” being interviewed during the documentary were A-List actors and performers. With a few psychologists and sociologists scattered in the mix. I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world Tom Hanks was doing in a “scientific” documentary? I’m concerned we have unconsciously categorized actors as deities. We seem comfortable being persuaded by Tom Hanks. Is it because he gained our trust when he saved Andy’s toys? And kept us safe on the polar express? And survived for years on a deserted island? Actors have become cultural heroes and are taken far too seriously. They used to belong to the world of commedia dell'arte; of the comedian, the jester, the entertainer, the puppeteer. They existed in the world of brash, naughty, offensive, phallus slinging, melodramatic buffoons who relish in the art of stereotype. In antiquity, actors were the only ones permitted to rudely criticize the powerful. Today, I think actors are most useful in society when reflecting the human race in all its nastiness, showing us what we are really like. When the time comes that good people are being politically persuaded by actors, it will soon be time to send in the clowns. Have we become so naive as to be persuaded by fools? If it is fools we hold sacred, then fools we shall ever be!
On Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings, Op. 31
Composed by Benjamin Britten
Composed in 1943, at the height of World War II, this towering masterpiece is a remarkable example of how Britten’s rich imagination could heighten a poet’s words unlike any other. In this eight-movement song cycle, the horn and voice play an equal part. The poems are not connected by a narrative but rather an evening theme; with a “serenade” being a song sung or played at evening time. Britten’s poetic sources span the 15th century through the 19th century. Serenade premiered at Wigmore Hall in London on October 5, 1943.
Prologue - Horn solo
Wild, raw, unobstructed; the horn is played here without the use of modern valves. Each note is more delicate than the one preceding it.
The sweetness of dusk encroaches. In the strings, Britten imaginatively incorporates the sensation of bending light and shadows being cast. Cotton’s poem gives us a sense of bedtime in the nursery; images of trodding elephants and the mighty Cyclops become the feature of this playful movement.
Britten paints the “wild echoes” of distant bugle calls that have been interpreted by some to represent the distant cries of soldiers at war. Featured in this piece is an exciting dialogue between horn and voice, as the strings paint the shimmering splendor of the setting sun on lakes, castles, waterfalls, and the snowy mountain peaks. The scenic and mythological elements in this poem may have been inspired by Tennyson’s visit to Eagle’s Nest in Killarney, Ireland.
In this piece, Britten manages to depict infestation and infection. He does this by means of three techniques. The first is his choice of meter being 12/8 in which the strings establish syncopation that gives the impression of a creeping inch worm. The second is his implementation of ostinato as this repeated syncopation “inches” through nearly the entire piece allowing for very little rhythmic contrast or development. This ostinato seems to emulate the incessance of festering wounds. The third technique is Britten’s clever puppeteering of the horn’s melodic lines. They stretch and snake up and down the music staff like a worm trail. The voice imitates this wormish melodic tendency and the piece finishes with several sinister scrunching effects as the horn’s pitch is bent between semi-tones. The ambiguity of this poem has inspired theoretical analyses ranging from the social prohibitions on sexual experience, the acknowledment of unconcious fears and desires, and the inevitable physical decay of living things.
We journey beside the soul as it passes from this life to the next.
The haunting lyrics detail the tumultuous death-march enroute to purgatory where Divine judgment awaits. The Brig O’ Dread is detailed here as an actual bridge from which all evil souls plumet to fire and thorns (whinnies). Britten enhances the floating loneliness of the naked soul by leaving the voice unaccompanied in the opening five measures. Then, the double basses introduce a low marching theme as the voice continues. The movement intensifies by incrementally stacking new instrumental timbres until the horn enters. It is here that we arrive at the dramatic climax of the entire composition with emphasis on “From Brig O’ Dread, when thou may’st pass, …. To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last”.
A hymn to the goddess Diana (Roman personification of the Moon and the Hunt) with her pearl crescent bow and arrow. Britten instructs this piece to be played Presto (very fast) giving it the momentum of a woodland hunt. Its style imitates music of the Baroque, perhaps an allusion to the re-immersion of Greco-Roman mythology in baroque Europe. The heavy use of pizzicato (plucked strings) seems to imitate the textures of twinkling stars that desperately try to compete with Diana’s glow – one of these competitors being the planet Venus (Hesperus).
In response to Keats’ poem, contemporary biographer, Andrew Motion, remarked on its “Delicious drowsiness”. One can imagine that Motion first heard the poem through Britten’s lush musical interpretation as it merits the same description. Britten balances delicate and unresolved chords throughout which lull and hum only finally resolving into a heavenly D major chord in the final measure. In his short life, Keats was witness to much sickness and death. The subject of this poem is the acceptance of death and choosing to exchange this life with the next.
The horn sounds again from a distance. This time a variation of the Prologue. It contrasts the opening movement in that now we have some context of what the horn means. It is the distant reminder of eternal sleep that awaits us. It is the enticing song from Tennyson’s paradisiac “Elfland” that soothes us. It is the somber battle cry that weeps over man’s thirst for War. It is the transcendent cry of mankind, Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”, echoing into the heavens and dying. The bugle is the horn which tells us to rise! And when we pass through that delicious drowsiness, leaving this life behind, may we awaken into a new one – thirsty for evermore life.