Living and Music: Bach for alleviating “the existential attitude”

I remember discussing King Solomon’s texts in their relevance/irrelevance to the Dvorak Cello Concerto with a friend last semester and I would find myself so discouraged afterwards thinking about the whole “vanity of vanities…nothing under the sun is new” text. After all, I work in a creative field…and I’m human. In my post-conversation “bourbon mood” I would think, oh god, it’s true! Nothing is new under the sun…what is the point of practicing, creating…living?
During the time I was having these conversations, I was auditing a theory class with Anthony Brandt at Rice and a lecture he gave on Bach (fugues, in particular) banished all further existential woes from my life. (so far.)
We studied the incredible efficiency of Bach’s motivic use. There is not a single note that does not stem from a seed planted at the beginning of the piece. Bach does every possible combination, permutation, amalgamation of these notes. It sounds so logical in an unmoving way when described like this but actually, it is a beautiful process. Each Bach fugue starts with a subject and an answer. This subject will shape the rest of the piece…to quote (loosely since I couldn’t write as fast as he was speaking! stress!)

” your identity shapes your destiny. The fugue subject lives its’ life through the fugue. Fugues are all character studies that have their own destinies. Their lives are seen through…maximized by the composer. At every point, the composer asks how the subject can be the most itself. A fugue is asking and exploring….how does something live? Survive? Perpetuate itself? Reproduce?”

And as he was saying that, I understood. Vanity of vanities. Nothing is new under the sun…but that mindset in a fugue…that cycling and recycling doesn’t make it any less thrilling, interesting, or inventive to listen to. Rather, it is exciting to listen to how we “create” or manipulate with the already created. These pieces are worth listening to, playing, and living through.

I was reminded of all this stuff from last semester because of a book I am reading by Ljubica Ilic. She writes:
“I put next to each other works by 17th and 20th century composers, trying to discover what it is about their music that awakens the sense that they are somehow similar. What is it in Marini and Monteverdi that resounds in Stockhausen and Berio, what is it in Grandi that we hear again in Schoenberg, and what is it about Stradella that resembles Weill?
And this got me thinking…is the history of music like one big Bach fugue? Is there a subject in one century and an answer centuries later? I don’t know and I’m excited for this book to shed light. But for now, her “thesis” statement sounds a lot like “Vanity of vanities- there is nothing new under the sun.” And that isn’t scary to me anymore. That takes the pressure off. Nothing new under the sun means my feelings have been felt before (or even now) in some capacity. My thoughts have been thought before (or even now) in some capacity. And my whole person can find bits and pieces of itself in the world… past, present, and future. Nothing new under the sun has come to mean that I am not alone.

Ling Ling

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2 thoughts on “Living and Music: Bach for alleviating “the existential attitude”

  1. These are interesting and beautiful thoughts, Ling Ling. As for whatever is new, it is either an improvement of an existing idea or the new combination of two existing ideas. (I recently found out this is the wording in the US Patent Office.) Nothing comes out of a vacuum, and all thoughts and ideas build on precedence. Those who are truly creative think beyond the literal, such as the printed page in music. There’s nothing wrong with being solely recreative, which is a challenge in itself, but art is not two dimensional. As for the fugue, I find it to be neither a song or a dance, but an intellectual exercise. It is built note by note much as a cathedral is built stone by stone. While the finished product may be impressive, the process is not inherently emotional. The fugue embodies the strict or controlled side of baroque duality, the other being the free and expressive.

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