With Bach’s Resolve

By

Elbows on the stainless steel kitchen counter at a recent weekend retreat, I listened enrapt to a high school violinist describe his experience of music. With the waving arms and burning eyes of a poet or madman, Steven described music as an encounter with a whirlwind of color. Not a note could he play on his violin or a concert could he hear, but it came to his mind as a picture, a swirl of color in motion. Even better, he explained, each composer had a hue all their own.

Beethoven, he said, worked in blues. Cool, deep, starlit blues of pain and passion and crystalline violets like the coming of dawn. Mozart? Crimson was his verdict. A definite theme of red, with great flares of orange and little bursts of yellow like sunlight. How about Bach? But at this he sighed, and smiled a very knowing smile. “Bach is the best of all,” he sighed, “his music is pure, pure gold.” At my raised eyebrow and obvious curiosity he smiled. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.

Right there, as the clatter of last-minute dishes came and went and the kitchen grew slowly quiet with after-dinner ease, he spun a true tale (as he heard it from one one of his music teachers) from the life of his favorite composer. It happened one winter’s night, on an evening that was to be the premier of a great new piece of sacred music. Bach arrived at the church where the debut was to take place just as the stars came out in the evening sky. He stepped into the cold, stone building, expecting a crowd. Pin-drop silence was all he found, followed by the shuffling steps of the caretaker. With sheepish smiles and deep apologies he informed the masterful composer that no one had come.

Bach didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll still perform it,” he declared. The musicians met him, embarrassed, unsure, but he refused to let them go. “Get ready,” he bellowed, so they set up their instruments and ruffled the crisp pages of new-made notes into order. The scratch of each touch echoed off the cold stones and plinked into the darkened, empty corners of the church. Bach took his place to conduct. He held up his hands and drew his musicians to the taut pitch of battle-readiness, to the cliff-edge at which all good musicians stand, ready to fling new music into the darkness. His hands crashed through the shadows, the first notes were played, and the music of Bach, music that still echoes in our own age, filled the lonely, empty shadows.

“That’s why I love him,” Steven finished, “he understood that the music you make carries a beauty that is meant to be given, played into the world regardless of audience or recognition. It wasn’t about him. It was about what God had given him to create. He played it because it had to be played whether anyone heard it or not.”

His words struck me hard. I too, right now, create for an empty house. I am working on a novel, the first I have ever attempted. For the next two months, this is my full-time project, the work to which I must give myself every day and it is a great delight to finally be doing the work I have yearned to do for a good long while. But at this stage in the journey, I have no idea if it will ever be published. I’ve always worked quite well with deadlines, thank you, so this foray into serious writing without the strictures of audience, editors, or necessity is quite new. I began with high resolve and intense writing schedules. But I find it hard to keep those rhythms alone. When I become weary of long, isolated days, or the practical details of life scream impatience at my squandering of time, it’s all too easy to set my writing aside. Why give that almost painful attention of mind that writing requires, when success and publication and praise are unsure? The temptation to measure the value of what I create by the number (or relative importance) of the people who will receive it has stayed my hand more times than I like to admit.

That is why Bach’s voice thunders down to me as a mighty challenge. “Play on,” he commands, and I can almost see his fiery eyes staring me down. I suddenly want to leap upstairs and sit straight down in my writing chair, pen in hand. Steven’s voice echoes right after, “Bach played because God gave him that beauty and it wasn’t about him, it was about what God gave him to create.” Steven’s words cut even deeper than my dramatic image of Bach. His statement challenges me to think back, to consider what drove me to write in the first place. My answer is a memory.

I think I became a writer the day I stood in a summer field with the sudden knowledge that God was near as the golden wheat and close as the blue sky and ran straight inside to write it all down. I was eight years old and it was a laborious process. From that time forth, I struggled to make words contain the precious moments of insight or joy that I called simply knowings. As I grew older and began to think about vocation, it was beauty that made me choose to be a writer. The truth I knew in story and song, the wonder sparked by earth and art, the love I found when I least deserved it, the way my grief was met by hope I never expected. In my tiny way, I was witness to something sacred, something that could add to the healing of the world instead of its hurt. Steven is right; it was never about me at all.

A few days after my talk with Steven, I read back through the first chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water and found her depiction of the artist of faith as someone very much like Mary, mother of Jesus. For the Holy Spirit comes to us just as he did to Mary. He sets beauty before our imagination, gives us stories or poems, pictures or songs or even new ways to love and live, and asks us to bear them into the world. To create then, becomes an act of obedience, a joyous, faithful response to the gift of insight in which we have “tasted and seen the goodness of God.” Bach understood that. And Steven.

Now, I do too. And on this grey, solitary morning it sets golden resolve in my bones. Up the stairs I go, ready to take up pen and paper and craft this story that God has given into life. My mind simmers with characters and scenes that feel almost independent of me, with truths that came as gifts to comfort and liven my own heart. This tale may never be read by more than a few friends. But I’ll write on, like Bach, to empty house or full. The audience size doesn’t matter. The depth of the beauty does, for it was a gift. To write it is my thanks.

 

Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she’s not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.


47 Comments

  1. David

    Fantastic meditation, Sarah. Brought to mind this stanza in Dorothy Sayers’s “Christ the Companion” (in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs):

    When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
    And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
    Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
    Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?

    Bach is particularly good at chasing the last disquiet from the corners. Your essay very well gets at why.

  2. miles365

    Something I like about Bach: “At the beginning of his manuscripts Bach would write I.N.J. (In Nomine Jesu – ‘In the name of Jesus’) or J.J. (Jesu Juva – ‘Jesus Help Me’). He would then inscribe SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – ‘To God alone be the glory’) on the last page.”

  3. Brian

    This brings the sting of tears to my eyes… a little awkward at work! I can’t even list all the ways this resonates with the core of me. Your description of the birth of your vocational calling, the seed at the very beginnings of your pursuits as a writer/artist/responder to God’s movement, is the same seed that was set in my soil the afternoon I encountered the weight and gravity of God’s sweet goodness, a thick and tangible reality that hung in and through and upon the air – a love unspeakable – unspeakable not for a lack of will or desire, but for lack of language that could adequately grapple with the heights of holiness. Pursuing His beauty, seeking to share that profound goodness with language that resists the cliché and speaks truthfully, to “worship God in spirit and truth,” has become a desire that has followed me since that day. Music is currently the media through which I pursue the vocation that was stamped on my heart, and although the mode may change through time, I am thankful for the seed (the goodness that is God). Thank you for writing this! It is a declaration of God’s goodness, and for me, another declaration and confirmation of what I know God has built me for. As you said, and as Bach appeared to understand, the call is to be acted on, regardless of how we think it is being received. It is about what God had given us to create… it is to be shared whether anyone hears it or not.

    I know this is getting longwinded, and it’s hard to add anything to what you’ve already shared, but here is a lyric. It’s from an album I released last year. The song is called “If I Sit Still” and it’s about this very moment of birth. The chorus goes a little something like this, “I couldn’t speak when you told me that you loved me / I could not stand when you’re body lost its breath / and if I did not move when you danced all around me, I might not’ve moved, oh but I would love to.” Thank you again for sharing this!

  4. Shannon

    Thank you, Sarah, for expressing the vivid reminder to any artist, who is really any human being, that we create, do any work of any kind, live altogether for God alone. About the third reminder of this in the last few days. And thank you, Pete, for the link. I had not seen that post before. Another reminder.

  5. PaulH

    I never heard that story of Bach and am glad I stopped in and took the 1/2 of a day to finally read it through twice in segments. You words and human honesty breathed deep inspiration in me. Thank you, Sarah

  6. Suzanne Tietjen

    I, too, needed to hear this today. Just happened to pick up my copy of Walking on Water a few days ago and have been reading it again. God is being very patient with me.

    I’ll write on, too.

  7. Chris

    Sarah, it always seems like whatever you write is whatever I need to hear at the time. Thank you for coming through again. This is a good, good truth to hold onto in the midst of trying to make my voice heard in the crowd.

  8. Bonnie Buckingham

    Sarah, Your words reached into my heart and my eyes filled with tears. My daughter’s choir director asked what color each music piece sounds like and then they think in that color as they sing. Sound like misty grey or deep hues of gold. I loved how you went on to writing as I teach a tutorial to high school students. Sending this to them to read! May God baptize your imagination as you write.

  9. James Witmer

    Thanks for this, Sarah. The more I learn about Bach, the more I love him.

    Eugene Peterson wrote something like, “The adolescent believes self-expression to be the ultimate good. The rest of us are merely bored.” So many artists demand the right to express themselves, and this is what carries them through loneliness.

    How beautiful that Bach – and you – are carried instead by a relationship that pre-existed and transcends the empty moments:

    I’ll write on, like Bach, to empty house or full. The audience size doesn’t matter. The depth of the beauty does, for it was a gift. To write it is my thanks.

    Soli Deo Gloria!

  10. Loren Warnemuende

    Beautiful truths and beautiful words, Sarah. Thank you.

    In Jennifer Trafton Peterson’s Hutchmoot session, “Playing With Words,” we were each given a picture and told to write descriptive words all over it, aided by “tickets” Jennifer had with random words written on them. I picked up the words “heart” and “paintbrush” and realized that’s how music speaks to me. The instruments are the heart’s paintbrush. So often, music calls out my heart’s deepest emotions and thoughts and creates pictures in my mind. Bach’s music is key among many pieces.

  11. Rosie

    THANK YOU! Ah. Those exquist, simple knowings … water to my soul … And you, dear lady, be encouraged & look up.

  12. Victoria

    What a wonderful story to carry with you! I will not forget it. I’ve spent a lot of time worshiping alone, and there is nothing like the quiet closeness when there is no question for whom we sing.

    I am on the edge of the brink of creating that thing God has planted in me; the razor edge that means I’ll be falling, one way or the other. Thank you for the encouragement and re-alignment of my focus!

  13. Walt

    The color descriptions of Steven in this story reminded me of Alexander Scriabin, a Russian pianist and composer. Scriabin had synethesia, a condition involving the combination of multiple senses at a time. When Scriabin heard specific notes, he saw specific colors in his mind.

    He was considered by many to be a mystic, and wrote some pretty interesting music. He would also create colored light shows to accompany his performances so that the audience could experience his sensations, too.

    And, yes, Bach was an amazing musician, dedicated to serving God through his art. Something to remember about Bach, though, was that he didn’t view his music as great “works of art.” Making music was his job, indeed it was the family business. He saw himself more as a craftsman than an artist, someone who was required to make something that would serve a purpose (usually corporate worship) while being as well-built as possible. A very inspiring person.

  14. Amy Hunt

    He has been showing me that this is true worship lived out. When we do that which is undeniably something meant for us to do. No matter the cost, even if it’s for One. Amen!

  15. Julia

    My dear ma’am, I just want to let you know how much The Lord has used you to inspire me. I am a musician (I play the violin), and if that is not enough, I, too, am a writer. I have many different ideas in my head for stories and poems and tales unwritten that I am wry of writing because I don’t know that I’m good enough, or maybe now isn’t the time for them to be written, perhaps they aren’t good enough to be written. But the Lord has used this post in my heart, to show me that, whether anyone ever reads what I write, and whether it ever is perfect, I must obey. I must write. Thank you for those stories yet unwritten. For it will be in praise to God, and gratefulness to you, that I write them. God bless you.

  16. Julia

    My dear ma’am, I just wanted to let you know how the Lord has used you to inspire me. For I am not just a musician (I play the violing), but I, too, am a writer. I have many different ideas for stories and poems and tales yet unwritten, either because I think I’m not good enough to write them, maybe it isn’t the time for them to be written, perhaps they aren’t good ideas at all. But the Lord has shown me through this post that regardless I must obey: I must write. Thank you for this post ma’am, and for those stories yet un written. For it shall be in praise to God, and thankfulness to you, that I write them. God bless you.

  17. Cheryl

    Thank you so much for this reminder. In Ex. 35:31 the first person in the Bible that was filled with the Holy Spirit was the craftsman. We do glorify God when we create.

  18. cheryl

    Thanks so much for this reminder.
    In Ex. 35:31 the first man mentioned in the Bible to be filled with the Holy Spirit was the artist craftsman who was in charge of creating the tabernacle. We have a wonderful heritage.

    All language is symbolism, and when anything speaks intensely to us, our hearts hear in symbol.

  19. Valerie

    Beautifully expressed. As a writer laboring on my first novel as well, I totally relate. I will revel in the process, energized by the creative juices which give me a singular joy, even when blocked or having to re-write. May God bless your writing and use it for His glory.

  20. Susan

    “It was never about me at all…” It’s about giving thanks. And thank you, Sarah, for giving expression to the truth about creating. My heart resonates and (celebrates!) with every word.

  21. Kristen Strong

    Sarah, this is stunning. This classically trained musician thanks you for sharing the story on Bach, and this writer thanks you for reminding me why we write in the first place. May I never forget what you share here! So poignant, lovely, and true.

    And just so you know, Sarah? You are a beautifully gifted writer. Praying for you as you hammer out that novel!

  22. Julie @ Wife, Mother, Gardener

    Beautiful post, Sarah! I love thinking about Madeleine L’Engle’s description of the artistic life in light of what you had written already… whatever good comes out of us is a gift, already given, that we get to give again. That is very encouraging. Thank you!

  23. Julie

    Sarah, this a wonderful story for the beginning of Advent. I’ve shared it with many.

    I would love to know the origin of it. Any clue as to where Steven heard it so I can find the documentation?

    Thanks so much.

    Julie

  24. F.PauniJr

    Wow…
    Very inspiring….inspired by the Holy Spirit.
    Thank you for this little needle of inspiration that has so beautifully pricked my heart…as I write this I can feel the slow,
    warm,
    trickle,
    of passion dripping into the lonely chasm that used to be my low-self esteem and low-self image and is soon to become an overflowing spring of Courage, with a steady supply.

    May God bless you.

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