Individual verses vs. letting a fugue play out.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
After false justifications for racism, sexism, and other forms of abuse, perhaps no Bible verse is misused as this one from Jeremiah 29. It sounds comforting. One of my friends shared it with me when I broke up with my first girlfriend. God’s got this, he knows there’s pain but he also knows there are riches ahead. Sharing such sentiments with those who are hurting is a noble venture.
It’s not that sharing this verse teaches us something wrong about God. But it does miss the point of the verse. After all, the Bible wasn’t written with verses. It wasn’t meant to be cut up and shared piecemeal. Individual verses exist in a context. The context here is God promising to return Israelites from their exile in Babylon, 70 years in the future. It’s about reconciling God and his people, which is far more clear in the whole context of verses 10-14:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
At the keyboard, J.S. Bach is known for few things more than his set of 48 Preludes and Fugues which comprise the two volumes of his Well-Tempered Clavier. A quick lesson on some terms, if you aren’t familiar:
‘Well-Tempered’ refers to a tuning system, novel in Bach’s time;
‘clavier’ is a generic term for keyboard instruments;
‘prelude’ means exactly what it sounds like, a piece that comes before; in this case, before a fugue.
‘fugue’, so what’s that? This one requires more explanation
Fugue is the epitome of polyphonic musical texture. ‘Poly’, many; ‘phonic’, sounds. A fugue begins with a single melody we call the subject. After the melody is iterated (usually in a few bars), it continues developing the melody or shifting to a countermelody. At the same time, the subject is then heard in another voice. Both voices continue, then the subject enters in a third voice; sometimes a fourth voice enters, even a fifth. All voices continue simultaneously, thus, polyphonic texture emerges. Multiple independent voices are played at the same time, all unique and interesting on their own, yet also working together, all emanating from the original subject.
A fugue is a marvel at the piano. We are challenged to create the illusion of a multi-part choir, each singing their own melody, all with just two hands. Not only do we balance independent notes of the melody, but independent rhythms, articulations, and dynamics. We need to truly vocalize interesting parts with just two or three fingers per part. Writing two volumes of 24 fugues, one in each major and minor key, each with a prelude to comprise the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach achieved a true magnum opus of musical expressiveness, and keyboard virtuosity.
Here’s one of my favorite fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, played by one of the greatest Bach pianists of all time, Glenn Gould.
The subject is easy to hear, 6 simple notes. Each of the four voices in this fugue enter higher than the last. At first, the rhythm is rather plain, but discreetly it grows more and more fascinating. Bach reintroduces the subject later on in multiple different ways: for one, with stretto, where the subject is layered simultaneously in different voices, in different keys. Then, Bach takes stretto a step further, introducing the subject in different voices, in different keys, at different speeds, sometimes normal, sometimes twice as fast. The result is truly choral: with the right text, this could easily be sung.
Bach thought in polyphony like few composers since him have. It’s no accident that he was able to write with such complexity, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that he labored over creating subjects which could be treated with such complexity. It did seem to flow from him quite naturally, once he was an established, mature composer.
There’s a story of J.S. Bach hearing a fugue subject from another composer. He turned to his son, another composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and proceeded to explicate in detail all the possible permutations of that subject. Upon one hearing, he understood the implications of the subject, the way the fugue would play itself out. He asked to hear the entire fugue, turning again smugly to C.P.E. as his predictions played out.
Bach was a polyphonic master. Most musicians today can’t anticipate what will happen to a fugue subject. But everyone who hears a lone fugue subject can anticipate that there’s more, that a simple, short melody cannot be all that there is. The music isn’t yet satisfying with one voice, more are needed for satisfaction
Likewise, the big problem with sharing the verse from Jeremiah is that it misattributes who God is speaking to. “...plans for you, to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope…” The you is not an individual, it was a community.
If we share that verse to help an individual through their turmoil, we are neglecting to share the message God had. He’s not promising me individual prosperity, like the false prosperity gospel that’s propagated in some so-called Christian churches today. It’s about reconciliation of a group of people. We believe reconciliation comes from Jesus’ death on the cross, when he created a new family of believers. He warned his followers that following him would bring them suffering. Working through that suffering is not just a matter of hoping that God will make things better, it’s about banding together to bring reconciliation through grace, to work through the good and the bad so that God’s will may be done here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Bach isn’t God, but his mastery of his creations, his music, is a good metaphoric stand in to remind us how God operates. Simple melodic subjects are not enough for musical satisfaction alone. But they contain the seeds for fulfillment. Drawing out the subject, Bach can craft a masterpiece. Using the power found in simplicity, Bach creates a community for reconciliation and transformational healing, just like God delivers healing and reconciliation by banding his children together under the cross of Jesus.