What Art Can Do

Aria           J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

“The Church’s One Foundation”


We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that ‘artistic genius’ means one who is rather a loose cannon in society, a menace to those around him/her to a greater or lesser degree, of dubious morals and sanity, etc. etc. Let’s see: Schumann: committed to an insane asylum; Brahms – we’re pretty sure he had an intimate relationship with Mrs. Schumann. Beethoven – volatile to put it mildly, and Mozart – well, we’ve all seen the movie Amadeus. Or Wagner: a flaming egomaniac and anti-semite whom the Nazi’s adopted as their musical hero. And the archetype of the ‘great artistic genius’ whose ‘art’ is somehow supposed to excuse their being sorry human beings extends far beyond the domain of classical music composers. (See People magazine.)

But Bach was anything but. He was a devoted and faithful husband and father: in surviving correspondence his children expressed abiding respect for dad as a man and a father: no small accomplishment for any man. And his surviving sons followed in his footsteps to become successful composers in their own right (pursuing their own musical paths, of course): Johann Christian Bach became a composition teacher to Mozart (!), and Karl Phillip Emmanuel Bach became music director for Frederick the Great’s court.

Bach also had an ethic of ridiculously overdelivering. The ’job descriptions’ of the positions he held have survived, and what he delivered ridiculously exceeded the requirements.

And he was staunchly devoted to his Faith, in spite of a hard life: orphaned at nine years old, earned his own way through high school as a musician, too poor to manage any college education, and in the course of his life he buried a wife and FOURTEEN children.

But there is another story that is really motivating this Music Box: When I was 16 years old my 13 year old brother committed suicide. This was largely due to my brutal and alcoholic stepfather. Right away they put my other brother (15) on anti-depressants (such as they were back then), and I took one look at his flat-line almost drooling affect and said “I’m not doing that.” Not because I wasn’t experiencing my own profound despair. Instead, I would play Bach. Not LISTEN to recordings — there was something about PLAYING his music with my own hands (and feet). In my darkest hours I would play his music for hours at a time — sometimes the same piece over and over. There was something about his soul stance of “God is in his heaven, and all will be OK” (from someone who was well acquainted with grief) that got me through my darkest hours.

Time heals, and in time my musical universe re-expanded. But there is no question in my mind that I stand before you today a semi-whole human being because Father Bach reached across the centuries and helped me with his Art. And so, although I of course live in a very different world and have to find my own path, I still aspire to the basic values for which he stood: faithfulness to my wife and family, and to my Church; and to ridiculously overdeliver on my commitments.

THAT is what Art can stand for.