Johann Sebastian Bach and the Tent of Meeting

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 24 maart 2017

Sponsored Le-ilui Nishmatah shel HaZekenah Miriam Robles Lopes Cardozo, eshet HaRav Ha’Abir Neim Zemirot Yisrael Abraham Lopes Cardozo, by her daughters Judith Cardozo-Tenenbaum and Debbie Smith

Achilles: You mean, the composer was Bach, and these were the so-called “Goldberg Variations”?

Tortoise: Do I ever! Actually, the work was entitled “Aria with Diverse Variations,” of which there are thirty. Do you know how Bach structured these magnificent variations?

Achilles: Do tell.

Tortoise: All the pieces – except the final one – are based on a single theme, which he called an “aria”….every third variation is a canon. First, a canon in which the two canonizing voices enter on the same note. Second, a canon in which one of the canonizing voices enters one note higher than the first. Third, one voice enters two notes higher than the other. And so on …
Achilles: Wait a minute. Don’t I recall reading somewhere or other about fourteen recently discovered Goldberg canons …? A fellow named Wolff – a musicologist – heard about a special copy … in Strasbourg … and to his surprise, on the back page … he found these fourteen new canons, all based on the first eight notes of the theme of the Goldberg Variations. So now it is known that there are in reality forty-four Goldberg Variations, not thirty.
Tortoise: That is … unless some other musicologist discovers yet another batch of them … it might never stop!
Achilles: That is a peculiar idea … we shall start to expect this kind of thing. At that point, the name “Goldberg Variations” will start to shift slightly in meaning, to include not only the known ones, but also any others which might eventually turn up. Their number – call it ‘g’– is certain to be finite, wouldn’t you agree? But merely knowing that g is finite isn’t the same as knowing how big g is.

Since the Torah is normally very parsimonious with its words, nothing is more surprising in Parshat Pekudei (and Vayakhel) than the great amount of detail and repetition in the divine instructions relating to the building and the architecture of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Not even the smallest nuance is excluded, and nothing is left to human imagination. Preciseness stands out, and every pin and string is mentioned.

This seems to stand in total opposition to the spiritual condition and devotion that was required of every Israelite when busy building or helping to erect the Mishkan. It called for personal input, creativity and a great amount of inspiration, which could only come from the depths of the human heart. Yet the structure itself had to be built with ultimate precision, completely contradicting its purpose as a place that would cause a profound and spontaneous transformation in every human being.

How do we reconcile these contradictions: formality versus spontaneity; total commitment to the letter of the law versus unprecedented emotional outbursts of religious devotion? Are such notions not mutually exclusive and irreconcilable?

It is here that music becomes of vital interest, and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), probably the greatest musical genius ever to have lived, may provide an answer. In his music, we find a pattern in which distinct rules of composition had to be followed with great precision and detail, yet Bach simultaneously gave birth to a phenomenal outburst of creativity. With Bach, more than with any other composer, we find abundant repetition as well as a strict, almost mathematical, pattern combined with nearly limitless creativity. From the perspective of musical composition, we enter a world of unparalleled genius.

Dutch author and music critic Martin van Amerongen writes in his book His Lightning, His Thunder: About the St. Matthew Passion: "When one hears Bach's music, it feels as if he has been struck by an uppercut under the chin, remaining unconscious for the rest of the day." Van Amerongen also mentions, "Bach is the man of the iron fist, of controlled emotions, yet he shows great personal passion." When Bach played the clavecin (harpsichord), he was able to keep an eye on seven diverse musical patterns simultaneously, correct them, and write variations on them without ever violating the rules of the traditional music of his day.

It is the unyielding commitment to detail, accuracy and skill that stands out. True, there is the danger that one may fall into a routine and lose out on the real music behind every note when one simply plays it by rote. This is the major concern of every conductor. He has to draw his orchestra out of its confinement and move it beyond itself. The crucial question is: What does this music note want in this very moment?

But Bach did more. He went back to the original text and its score. He then discovered new perspectives, recreating the entire composition without changing one iota.

I would suggest that the reason for this wonderful talent is the mathematical preciseness, which does not allow for any expansion. The composer, or musician, is then forced to use his creative talents to deepen what he has already given. Instead of remaining on the surface and broadening only the musical spectrum, the composer is duty-bound to venture into the depths, search for all possibilities inherent to the grundnorm, and bring them to the surface. Like the archeologist, he searches for every little item; but unlike the former, he infuses new life into it.

This, I believe, was the approach to the building of the Mishkan, and this understanding solves the paradox of the need for architectural preciseness and repetition of detail on the one hand, and genuine religious passion on the other.

The Torah’s specifications of its architecture and emphasis on detail, in a way that left nothing to the imagination, are like Bach's "iron fist" that forced him to delve deeper and search for various approaches that otherwise would have remained unnoticed.

When listening to the nearly endless repetitions of musical patterns in Bach's compositions, his genius is revealed by his capacity to add one more note, or one more instrument, or even to make a small change in vibration causing the same musical patterns to sound totally different.

This is what was offered to the worshipper in the Mishkan. It was not the quantity of religious notes but their quality that was to be found in every pin and string in the Mishkan. And this is what would lift the spirits of the worshipper. As in the case of Bach, each repetition added another dimension, depending on the context in which it appeared and the slight variations that accompanied it. (2)

Just as every keen listener of Bach's compositions is indeed knocked unconscious, so every visitor to the Tabernacle would undergo a radical transformation when looking at the depths of its components and feeling their religious vibrations.

As Goethe would say, “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister/Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.” (3)

(1) Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Basic Books, 1999) pp. 392-3.

(2) For a full understanding of the religious and inspirational meaning of all the items in the Mishkan, see the commentaries of Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) on Vayikra (Leviticus).

(3) Translation: The master proves himself first by limitations/And only law can give us freedom – from the sonnet “Natur und Kunst,” by J.W. von Goethe (1749-1832).

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