J.S. Bach, School, Work, and Life

A short while ago I read James R. Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason, a pop history book about the meeting in 1747 between Frederick the “Great” and J.S. Bach, probably the greatest musician who ever lived.  Bach had a difficult life even by the standards of the 18th century.  He returned home from one long trip to find his first wife, Maria Barbara, dead and buried.  Of all his children, only a small portion made it to adulthood.  It all seems more Medieval than Baroque to me.

As Gaines points out, Bach’s difficulties were not restricted only to the realm of health, life, and death:  He was once imprisoned in Weimar for trying a bit too persistently to get out of an employment contract; he was harassed by the rector of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, who clashed with Bach’s traditional approaches to both theology and music; and he was even disregarded in favor of other “more qualified” candidates during the vetting processes to fill some of the most coveted musical positions in the German realm.

That last bit is really important to understand.  Bach, though extremely well-educated (he knew enough Latin to teach it and was highly conversant in theology), never got a university degree.  He was therefore judged by many to be unqualified for any number of positions.  And yet today he is considered to be the greatest musician who ever lived.

When I finished college few years ago (less than a decade is as specific as I’ll get!), I was utterly drained and didn’t want to hear any more about more schooling.  As time passed, I began to consider graduate schools, and, one by one, options dwindled away.  Sometimes my lack of success in this regard made me feel guilty, other times it threw me into a panic.  But lately, I have come to accept it and to stop worrying about it.  If it should happen, fine.  If not, I have a library card and plenty of spare change on my desk to take care of any late charges.

What Bach teaches us is that one can excel without the fetters of formalized schooling; indeed, sometimes formalized schooling keeps us from truly learning (my gratitude to several of my most excellent professors, some of whom I still keep in touch with, not withstanding).  We are so obsessed in America with a one size fits all definition of success:  Go to public school, join eight thousand extra curricular activities, graduate with honors, go to college, go to grad school, get a good job, buy a house, a TV and a lazy boy and never read another book again.

At this point it should be said that matters have changed a bit since Bach’s day.  According to at least a few historians, the trend of specialization had begun by the 18th century, but it was not nearly as far advanced as it is now.  Bach, therefore, would have gotten more of a truly classical education and less glorified training, which is the raison d’etre of the modern day university, where people can major in such things as trumpet performance.  (Who would ever do that???)  Our parallel, then, has this one slight limitation.  In any case, even in the classical disciplines such as philosophy, one can educate himself, as Bach surely did.

After we Americans are finished obsessing about school, we fascinate ourselves with our careers.  We love to impress each other with the jobs we have, the money we make, and the amount of overtime we put in.  We love to specialize.

“I study the effects of cold air on squirrel’s tails.”

“Ah, that’s very interesting.  I work for the State government as a traffic engineer.  The benefits are great, and I have all bank holidays off.”

We like to go to conventions where we meet other people in our field and talk about meaningless minutiae that no one else gives a damn about.  All of this would fit under Richard Weaver’s designation of “fragmentation and obsession.”

Here, I think, Bach is instructive, too.  Yes, he was a musician, but he was not one of these artsy people like me who insisted on doing nothing but this.  (Again, he taught Latin.)  Moreover, he didn’t even specialize in a particular area of music, something which today is commonplace.  He was a composer, a conductor, a teacher, and he played several instruments.  Most importantly, he didn’t give a hoot about music theory.  Bach excelled at what he did, but he did not fuss over what he did.  If he fussed over anything, it was his salary.  Finally, he subsumed his  entire life under his grand discourse, which for him was Lutheranism.  He was ultimately concerned about righteousness.  (Not self-righteousness.)

Bach would seem an unlikely figure to teach this lesson to us, but I dare say that his example encourages us not to be too bound up in what we do for a living, or in where we went to school, or in how much money we make, on in whether or not we ever made the dean’s list.  Bach’s life seems to say to us:  do not worry so much about what you do; rather, attend to living well.

Live well.  Cultivate your own garden.  Educate yourself.  Improve daily as a man.

Everything else is on the periphery.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for posting this. I will be sure to show it to my husband, when he gets home from playing at a Methodist church. He is a good organist, but because he isn’t good at music theory he didn’t finish a college degree in music. Most Catholic parishes wouldn’t hire him, because he doesn’t have a degree. Thankfully the Methodists were willing to hear him audition, and realized that getting a college degree is not the only way to become a good musician. I hope that when he applies for jobs in future, his talent, experience and good recommendations will outweigh the lack of letters after his name, but the modern American obsession with university education (and turning universities into trade schools) causes some worry.

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