William Blake encouraged us to embrace spiritual maturity by holding both hands full: one full of grief, the other full of joy and gratitude. J.S. Bach is one of the wisest guides to being able to do just that. Orphaned by the age of 10, Bach endured a lifetime of unimaginable loss, burying eleven children before he died. And yet, he never lost the capacity for joy and exultation. Bach gathered his remaining brood of nine musical children to sing and dance and tell stories and make jokes; his humble home was a place of wanton generosity and hospitality for visiting composers and friends. The later part of his career found him establishing a community concert series in a local cafe in Leipzig and for which he composed and performed the delightfully silly "Coffee Cantata".
In July of 1720, Bach left his beloved pregnant wife at home in Cothen in order to compose and perform music at the summer residence of his employer, Prince Leopold. He returned two months later (sans cell phone or internet technology), stunned to find four bereft children in mourning for their mother: Maria Barbara was dead and already buried.
At the baptismal font of Cothen a year later, a young golden-haired soprano stood next to Bach. Together, the two recited vows to serve as the godparents for the rosy cheeked infant of their mutual friend. Soon, Anna Magdalena Wieck and Johann Sebastian were making music together, and by December of 1721, they were married. A stage of astonishing musical fecundity followed in which the Cello Suites, Violin Concertos and many of the masterpieces of keyboard literature poured forth ( A current media debate hinges on the question of whether Anna Magdalena merely inspired and helped copy out this outpouring of works, or may perhaps have had a hand in actually composing it. For more information on this provocative issue, see the October 2014 article in the New Yorker at http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/case-mrs-bach).
How did Bach not just survive, but actually thrive in the midst of a life filled with so much grief? How was he able, after the anguish of so much death, to still open up to the possibility of new life, new hope, new love, new joy? I am not sure, but I suspect it had something to do with a radical surrender to all that life had to offer, both in the moments of intoxicating sweetness and passion and in the bitter dregs of defeat and despair.
One of the greatest works to emerge following Bach's second marriage was the Well Tempered Clavier, Book One . I believe it would have been better named The Encyclopedia of Emotion. Written in 1722, it is a musical compendium of astonishing scope, alternating freely- formed Preludes and tightly constructed Fugues in a succession of light and dark color palettes. For this work, Bach has been justly celebrated as the first composer to write music in every key, even such "impossible" and thorny key signatures as C# Major and eb minor Beyond dazzling us with such technical expertise, however, the Well Tempered Clavier should move us with what such effort signifies: a radical acceptance of the full spectrum of human experience. In Bach's time, each key was associated with an emotional state. The darker palette of minor colors ranged from "solemn and introspective" f minor to "funereal and even suicidal" Bb minor, while the brighter major keys range from "simple and serene" C Major to the "unbridled and energetic joy" of Bb major. Many of these keys were thought not only to be unplayable ( because of the number of sharps and flats), but were viewed as downright distasteful, being too morbid or bizarre to listen to . Yet Bach uses them all. There is no key he will not explore, no musical emotion he will not give voice to. The quick alternation of dark and light, suffering and solace, despair and delight is truly one of the most profound works of alchemy every crafted: a total embrace of the tension of the opposites. I believe that the Well Tempered Clavier gives musical expression to a theme the 13th century Persian poet Rumi evoked in the following poem:
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
This Thanksgiving, I wonder if we can, like Bach and Rumi, give thanks for it all, for the whole glorious tragedy, the entire bittersweet and beautiful catastrophe of being human.