By David Timmer
J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue is a kind of musicological Summa, a summing up of his musical ideas composed near the end of his life. Like some of the great theological summae (think of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth), it is unfinished; Bach laid it aside six months before his death amidst deteriorating health and (perhaps) more urgent commissions. In his manuscript the final four-part fugue terminates abruptly in mid-phrase. As set for string quartet (at 1:21:51), just after “spelling out” the name B-A-C-H musically the viola skitters over those last eight quavers; and the silence afterward is deafening. . .
. . .until the viola enters once again, calmly leading the quartet into a short setting of the chorale “And Now I Stand before Thy Throne,” a setting that Bach had dictated from his deathbed. It was the inspiration of his son and posthumous editor, C. P. E. Bach, to leave the brutally interrupted fugue as it was, and to append the chorale setting; and this has become standard performance practice. The vision of the pious and pragmatic composer meeting his Lord with pen and staff paper in hand, offering the manuscript to the only One who could complete it – a sentimental contrivance, perhaps, but it works.
In a letter from a Nazi prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge in February 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on the disrupted and fragmentary lives of people in his generation – thinking no doubt about the derailment of his own academic and pastoral career as well as his separation from his fiancée. He cited J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue as an example of those fragments “which remain meaningful for years because only God could perfect them. . . .” He continued:
If our life is only the remotest reflection of such a fragment, in which, even for a short time, the various themes gradually accumulate and harmonize with one another, and in which the great counterpoint is sustained from beginning to end – so that finally, when they cease, all one can do is sing the chorale “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear” – then it is not for us, either, to complain about this fragmentary life of ours, but even to be glad of it.
So here we are, running up on another New Year’s Eve in our own fragmentary and disrupted lives. The completion of a calendar year is an apt time to consider those lives in light of what Bonhoeffer called the “cantus firmus,” the underlying theme that ties together all our human fragments into a divine unity we can now imagine only dimly. The Jewish liturgy for Rosh Hashanah seeks to do this in the great liturgical poem Unetane Tokef, calling Jews to teshuvah, repentance and re-alignment. Is there a Christian equivalent?
Otherwise, we can always give Bach another listen.
David Timmer teaches religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.