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Silence Speaks (II)

Perhaps an even greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas (do I hear groans emanating from the Dominican House of Studies?) also lapsed into a rich and evocative silence towards the end of his creative life.

In the notes for his recent recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's The Art of Fugue, Andrew Rangell writes: "[Bach] unquestionably regarded it as a summa of his art." He further states:

The final movement, a huge unfinished fugue, has engendered enormous comment and speculation. Having the appearance of a triple fugue, it presents three themes in three sections, the last theme (B flat, A, C, B natural) spelling the name Bach in German nomenclature. There can be no doubt of the significance of this signature, in this piece, in this moment, in both the life of this piece and the life of the composer. Momentous as this entrance is, its exposition has been barely completed when, stunningly, the fugue "goes silent."

And somehow, the shock of this silence remains undiminished at every new hearing.

It is as though the great musician-theologian allowed his music and his person to fade into the fecund silence of eternity, fully embracing the prayer inscribed at the end of all his works: Soli Deo Gloria!

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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If there is one who could be, it would be Bach!

Sorry, Bob, but this is romantic mythologizing, much like the masterpiece-interrupted-by-death syndrome beloved by 19th-century theories of "genius".

As The Art of Fugue's recent commentators have noted, JSB's family misunderstood his intentions and misread the manuscript evidence in preparation for publication.  Indeed, the manuscript's "unfinished state . . . may tempt us to think that death stayed the composer's pen.  Even [his son] Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was misled. . . the incomplete form in which the ["final"] fugue has been transmitted does not correspond to what actually existed at the time of Bach's death" (C. Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician [2000], 436-37).

More recent research (summarized in Wolff, P. Williams, J. S. Bach: A Life in Music [2007], and elsewhere) strongly suggests that the "Et incarnatus est" of the B-minor Mass might indeed be the last original composition from Bach's pen.  And the recent discovery of the manuscript parts that JSB prepared of his uncle Johann Christoph Bach's "Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf" ("Dear Lord God, awaken us") dating from late 1749 or the spring of 1750, might indeed be the last music of all that JSB wrote, prepared perhaps for his own funeral.  "Conceivably, then, feeling that his end was near and wanting to make deliberate contingency plans, he selected a work by his most distinguished ancestor that set to music a traditional prayer text who words anticipated life after death" (Wolff, 452).

This doesn't eclipse the astounding brilliance of The Art of Fugue, nor the uncanny feeling we are left with on hearing the exposed tenor voice simply end without resolution.  But instead of claiming Bach for some feeling of transcendence that points nowhere, I prefer to think of Bach the believing Christian occupied with the Incarnation and the Resurrection.  Instead of silence, deeply-felt prayer -- just like Thomas.

Caro Antonio,

Many thanks for your informed and informative historical-critical exegesis of Bach's sublime and mysterious text. I am not so "19th century romantic" as to spurn such important data.

But I think, as your studies in Caravaggio also show, that we need to take account as well of "the world in front of the text" -- the world the classic "opens up."

My one point of dispute is when you characterize my post as "claiming Bach for some feeling of transcendence that points nowhere." Not at all! I explicitly read the work as pointing to "the fecund silence of eternity." This is not 19th century agnosticism, but Christian belief-ful apophaticism.

And why should silence not be a manifestation of "deeply-felt prayer?" I explcitly end with the prayer "inscribed" in all of his works: Soli Deo Gloria.

Grazie lo stesso,


claiming Bach for some feeling of transcendence that points nowhere - See more at:

Thanks, Bob, for your kind and generous response.

My apologies for my imprecision.  The comment about empty transcendence was not directed at you, but rather at Rangell's liner notes and more generally the comments of some recent Bach scholars -- they seem to want the uncanny experience of "transcendence" without acknowledging  the deep religious belief which grounded JSB's incredibly fecund musical imagination.

Your note on the "world in front of the text" is important: classics like The Art of Fugue open out to a richness and fullness that exceed our categories (hence the apophatic) and remind us why, as George Steiner argues in Real Presences, art gives us hope.

You did indeed end, as JSB did, with Solo Deo Gloria!  To which I would add only what JSB often started his manuscripts with: Jesu, juva!

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,


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