In February of 1685, James II became the last Catholic king of England when his brother Charles II died. To historians, and to those living under the rule of kings, it was a momentous event, but it was nothing compared to what was coming. The next month, in Germany, a child was born who would change the world more than any mere monarch could. That child would plant seeds that are still blossoming today. He gave people new melodies to hum as they struggle under the burdens of their kings, prime ministers, and presidents, and rhythms to dance to when their working days are done.
71 years before Mozart was born, and 85 years before the birth of Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach brought his unique sensibility to a planet that has not been the same since. Words are cheap, and as Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician,” so I will let some of the man’s music speak for itself, starting with this piece from one of his minuets:
I am (obviously) not a classical musician. Classical music is for perfectionists and I am an imperfectionist. But every musician, regardless of genre or instrument, would do themselves a favor by learning how to play a few pieces of Bach’s music to get inside the mind of one of the art form’s great minds. Here is my take on part of his Bourree in E minor:
Balance becomes measurably more valuable as you age. When you are young it is easier – even advantageous – to spin wildly beyond the reach of balance. It is exciting to feel the pull of assorted centers of gravity and if you fall, what is the worst that can happen? A bruise or cut that will heal completely within a week. When you are older, that slip on the border of balance can cost you a bruise that will last a year, if you are lucky enough to avoid a broken bone.
When I travel I anticipate what each destination will be like before I get there. I imagine what each place will look like, sound like, smell like, and feel like. I am always wrong, which is part of the excitement of travelling. I have anticipated other things in life too: what it would be like to be a lover or a dad, what it would be like to lose a friend, get married, or take on any of the jobs I have assumed. At least, I used to; I don’t see the future anymore.
I don’t see retirement or old age, the 2030s or a new president. I don’t see death. My curiosity about the future has evaporated, leaving me in a small pool of the present with no faith in memories of the past and no vision of what lies ahead. It turns out that the land of the ever-present is a barren place.
I am overly optimistic by nature. I blame my mother. In addition to being a never-ending fountain of unconditional love, she has the unique ability to see the light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. And I see it too: a better world of peace and love and unity that is closer to our grasp than it has ever been. The fact that it is coming to us out of long tunnels of unconscionable inequality, horrific violence, and a global pandemic, makes its own kind of natural sense. Nature is always in balance.
There is a wall between us. You didn’t build it and neither did I. The wall is ancient, embedded in a foundation of bedrock. Its age is a point of veneration to those who feel safest when they are hiding behind it but its age is also its greatest vulnerability.
I would take a sledgehammer to the wall and smash it to pieces if I could but that is not the way things work. Instead, I look for loose bricks and push and pull them until I create an opening to the other side. I see you in those places and you see me. We expand the holes more efficiently and effectively when we work at it from both sides.
Here is the dream: one day we will create enough holes to see each other clearly. Then, if we wield our greatest weapons – love and music – we might find that perfect note whose vibration will reduce this wall to ruins.