The clip at the bottom of this post is a performance of an excerpt from the Art of the Fugue, by Johann Sebastian Bach.
There are a few reasons why this music opens emotional floodgates.
This piece was written under astonishing circumstances that speak to the essence of what it means to work and to be human.
Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue at the very end of his life as the culmination of his greatest achievement, which was perfecting the art of contrapuntal music. A fugue (the word means “flight”) is a musical work in which parts are assigned to different “voices” which weave in and out of the piece in “counterpoint” to one another.
The Art of the Fugue is the longest and most complex collection of fugues every attempted, written by the greatest genius of contrapuntal music who ever lived.
Bach didn’t write this work because anyone asked him to, or because there was any particular demand for fugues or counterpoint at the time. In fact, fugues were out of fashion.
The Art of the Fugue was written because Bach loved his work, and sought to create an expression of his best self – the most authentic self, the person he could be when fully conscious and expressing what was best in him.
How do I know that?
Consider the fact that this fugue, like several in the Art of the Fugue, is based on a four-note theme that spells out Bach’s name: B♭–A–C–B♮ (‘H’ in German letter notation.) Yes – he literally wrote himself into it.
Another point to consider: If you’ve listened to the clip below, you’ll notice this final fugue of a long, involved series is not only astonishingly complex – the highest mastery achieved in the art of counterpoint – it is also unfinished.
That’s because Bach died while he was writing it.
Bach’s son, the composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, scribbled a note in the original autograph of this final fugue:
“Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.”
(“At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH (which in English notation is B♭-A-C-B♮) in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died.”)
Yes – Johann Sebastian Bach turned his name into music, then he put down his pen and died.
This is that music.
There is some controversy over this story. It is possible that Bach lived on a few more days, and worked a bit more, dictating or correcting fragments of other pieces. Musicologists and historians have debated these matters. But there can be no doubt of Bach’s intention. He wanted to die working, and to leave this intricate, haunting series of notes as his last will and testament. This is Bach’s soul, translated into music – a fugue, the musical creation he mastered above all others.
The music itself? It moves the way a mind moves when deep in purest thought.
To create, to DO SOMETHING, is to assign meaning to our time on this Earth. We are human – we chase dreams. Dreams of creation. That is our work. That is what our work represents.
If you are not fulfilled by the work you do – if you are feeling lost, unsatisfied, uninspired – listen to Bach, and dream.
Find your inner voice, and express it through creation. That is your best self making itself heard.
In the meantime – here is a fragment of beauty: the work of a genius, left to ponder for the ages: