The Way of Beauty Catholic Education III: Fully Alive for Virtue

"I have come that they may have life, life to the full (Jn 10:10),"-the assurance of Jesus.  In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons gave the Church an equally-beautiful verse echoing that of the Jesus:  "The glory of God is man and woman fully alive, and the glory of man and woman is the contemplation of God (Against Heresies 4:20)."  It has been quoted countless times through the ages. To be fully alive is to develop one's gifts within the context of a virtuous life.  The end goal is life eternal. 

What Is Virtue?

"Virtue," writes Kenneth Woodward, "is a quality of character by which individuals habitually recognize and do the right thing." Virtuous living is moral living.  Children learn virtue in the family and from role models in schools.  

The reality of 'fully alive for virtue' may be seen in one of the greatest composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach.  You ask, "What does Bach have to say about education, if anything?" A glimpse into his life will give us some insight. 

A Composer for All Seasons:  Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The German word Bach means stream or brook, and Sebastian forms the deepest part of a long flowing stream of minor and amateur musicians, none more prominent than himself. "Not Brook but Ocean should be his name," adds Beethoven. Bach belongs in the Lutheran religious family, but his earlier Thuringian ancestors, beginning with Günther Bache (ca 1372), would have been Catholic prior to the Protestant Reform sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther.

Bach's mother and father died before he was ten, and the boy went to live with an older brother who cared for him like a son.  The youngster attended the Old Latin Grammar School in Eisenach where Martin Luther had once been a pupil.  There the expectations were high for those studying reading and writing, Greek and Latin grammar, a great deal of scripture, and singing in the choir. At the school, laziness was a non-existent word.  Bach's beautiful soprano voice won for him a scholarship in the choir of a nearby monastery. In addition to his formal studies, he studied musical composition and copied music, a habit he cultivated his entire life. 

Bach worked at several different musical posts, the last one at St. Thomas School in Leipzig for twenty-seven years.  There he achieved the status of music director.  He was chief organist, choir director, and composer.  His musical output is a sheer wonder, a treasure trove of more than 1,000 compositions.

Disappointments and Setbacks

Bach's life was far from rosy.  In all of his appointments, one thing was certain: If he wanted to keep his current position, he was forced to adjust to his employers' demands.  With a large family to support, he could not afford to incur their dissatisfaction. Keep in mind that, until Beethoven broke the mold in the nineteenth century, musicians were considered servants and subject to the patronage system.  If appointed to a court, they and their families were given room and board plus a stipend that depended on their talent and docility.  

Bach's appointments came with irritating demands. He didn't relish the idea of having to keep detailed reports on the good order of the organ and other instruments, teach Latin in the choir school, and work for low pay.  He was always asking for a raise for the sake of his growing family.  He complained endlessly to the municipal authorities about poor working conditions and sycophantic dedications to royal personages.  Flashes of anger, continual vexation, envy, and persecution would often interrupt his train of musical thought and keen sense of order. In 1717, while at Weimar, he fell out of favor with the authorities. As a result, he was jailed for a month before he was unfavorably dismissed. 

The grinding stress of composing music for every Sunday's four-hour liturgical service took its toll. The ink was barely dry on the manuscript paper before it was performed by the choir, soloists, and congregation. 

Faith, Industry, Hard Work, and Self-Discipline  

Is there any composer able to match Bach's output before his death at the age of sixty-five years?  Perhaps Mozart, had he lived another thirty years.  Perhaps.  Who could be so prolific without a keen sense of responsibility and purpose, hard work and industry?  Once when he was asked how he had set about to master the art of music to such a high degree, he replied:  "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well."  Laziness was not in the Bach playbook.

At the top or at the end of every composition, Bach inscribed sdg, soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone be glory."  Today, students are still encouraged to place a cross at the top of their work pages or amdg, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, "all for the greater glory of God."  

When One Door Closes . . .

From 1720 to 1723, Bach won a music position at Clöthen.  His Calvinist employer favored more instrumental music than music for worship. With one musical door closed, he was gifted enough to open another.  He concentrated on instrumental music, and this is the fruitful period when most of it was composed: the six delightful Brandenburg Concertos, the keyboard concertos, the concertos for harpsichord and orchestra, and the monumental Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II.  Here imaginative flights of fancy paired with highly-structured fugues are composed in every key of the twelve-note scale, both major and minor-forty-eight in all. The so-called Bach "Ave Maria" is the very first prelude of forty-eight gems.

More in The Way of Beauty

In 1720, Bach was required to travel with his employer, and he was away from home for four months.  Imagine the shock on his return home to discover the tragic news that his wife Maria Barbara, who had been in perfect health before he left home, had died and had been already buried in his absence.  Four children were left for him to raise.  A year later, he married a singer Anna Magdalena.  Their happy family increased to thirteen children in all, four composers among them.

The Fifth Evangelist

The word mediocrity was neither part of Bach's vocabulary nor of his effort.  On this point, Claude Debussy once noted:  "If we look at the works of Bach, we find a god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity."

From start to finish, Bach aimed high because all of his works were imbued with a deeply-felt religious faith. He cultivated the habit of perfection.  The sacred works are monumental in scope:  the great St. Matthew Passion, the Passion according to St. John, the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio to name a few.  Then there are the hundreds of cantatas he composed every Sunday for worship at St. Thomas in Leipzig. Is it any wonder that he has been dubbed "the Fifth Evangelist?"

Bach died in 1750 of a stroke brought on by an unsuccessful operation on his eyes.  Copying and composing music contributed to his eventual blindness. His reputation was virtually buried with him. Had it not been for Mozart who, as a boy, played duets in England with Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, and Felix Mendelssohn who conducted Bach's works in Berlin perhaps Bach might have remained a regional composer.  These two composers revived his reputation and thrust him forth as one of the grandest stars of the musical constellation.  With an eye for sharing him with the rest of the cosmos, astronauts have wished more than once that the complete works of Bach be placed in a time capsule and sent out into space.

Bach's Greatness

Bach was a great composer not because he was a devout Christian.  The goodness of art is ordered to the perfection of the work itself, irrespective of the good life of the artists who are concerned exclusively with the perfection of their work.  But that perfection in its turn does not depend essentially on the moral and spiritual condition of the artists. With Bach, the perfection of his gift and his own personal goodness were realized together.  

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Bach is a musical craftsman of the first order.  At first, his music can disappoint because it seems like a series of rambling notes.   Gradually patterns emerge. The fecundity of his ideas seems endless. He is never stale, never boring.  His music skips and dances, walks, marches; it weeps and wails, comforts and prays.  The Baroque beat keeps beating. With him, life seems ordered and good because he and his music are ordered and good.  

He does it all, and all we can do is marvel at this composer who never traveled beyond a 100-mile radius. Yet, his music has touched all ages, all musical taste of all nationalities, the devout as well as the lapsed.  Listen to the philosopher Alain de Botton: "Most contemporary music is about the love between two people.  What makes Bach's music particularly striking is that it's about the love of God.  This should present a hurdle for someone, who like me, doesn't believe in God-but doesn't.  What I appreciate in Bach is his ability to suggest to me what a belief in God feels like.  His music seems to me to be about devotion to a perfect ideal-something purer, better, higher."  

Michael Torke, an American popular composer writes: "Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?"

With a touch of hyperbole and a flair for the dramatic, William F. Buckley opines:  "If Bach is not in heaven . . . I am not going." 

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