This week, while visting my family, I got a chance to attend a classical violin concert, which was a real treat. One of the pieces on the program was J.S. Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin. The final part of the Partita is Bach’s very famous Chaconne, an absolutely exquisite piece of art (you must listen to it here and here). It was the first time I had heard the Chaconne performed live, and it was breathtaking.
Hearing Bach’s Chaconne reminded me of a speech I heard while in college that had an enormous influence on me. The speech was by Professor Christian Moevs and it was given at an event honoring Arts and Letters honors graduates at Notre Dame. I was a junior at the time and I worked at the Performing Arts Center, where the event was being held, and this is how I happened to hear this speech.
In it, Professor Moevs talked about a fascinating experiment conducted by The Washington Post—they hired Joshua Bell, a great violinist, to play his violin in a D.C. subway in jeans and a t-shirt. Among other things, he played Bach’s masterful Chaconne in D Minor, and he played it on his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin. They wanted to see what would happen.
Sadly, what happened was basically nothing. In the 43 minutes that Bell played, 1,097 people walked by on their way to work, and exactly 7 stopped. 27 people gave money. The other 1,070 went by without pause or notice.
I somehow (I can’t remember how) got my hands on a copy of Professor Moevs' speech, so rather than paraphrasing the part that has been so meanginful for me, I will let you read it here:
...the response to beauty is not really a question of education. It is innate in the human soul. In fact, one of the people most drawn to Bell’s playing was a 40-year-old career busboy in a cafe in the [subway]. He was working hard, but every chance he got, he’d stand at the very edge of the cafe, craning his head out to see and listen. When they asked him later, he said he had no idea what the violinist was playing, but it gave him peace.
Peace. Peace is the innate nature of man; it is a bottomless, shoreless ocean in the heart. Great music is the ocean calling to the wave, which is really the deep calling to the deep. When the soul responds to that call, it is awakening to its own infinity, its freedom, its transcendence of nature and time. That is the experience of beauty. This experience of the eternal in time, of the infinite in the finite, is what great music and art and literature are about; it is what Bach’s Chaconne is about. Our response to beauty is our response to God.
How do we lose God? Like those people at rush hour who walked by Bach and Joshua Bell. Those people had things to do, things to become, with an eye on their watches. We lose eternity, and enter the prison of time, by striving to be this or that. We lose being by becoming, by not knowing how to be still, how to simply be. We must play our roles in the world, do what God has given us to do, as well as we can. But we must not live for our roles. Let us live only for God, who has given us those roles. That’s what Bach did. He worked as hard as anyone ever has. He also inscribed “For the glory of God” on top of every piece he wrote, including the Chaconne.
I can’t read this without tearing up, and I must have read it two dozen times by now. He captures so beautifully what music is, what great art is, and as a musician it cuts right down to my core. In fact, this line—“Our response to beauty is our response to God”—is one of the major reasons I decided to continue my music studies in graduate school. I was a double major in college and was trying to decide which path to pursue after college. I happened to pull out this speech as I was packing up my room after graduation and that line spoke to me. God gave me a gift, I thought, the gift of music, and it’s a gift that brings beauty to my own life and to others. What I do with this gift is up to me, and how I respond is my response to God.
Professor Moevs concluded the speech by describing one incredibly telling, poignant, and unexpected outcome of the experiment:
There was one demographic group in that rush hour crowd that did respond unanimously to Bach and Joshua Bell. That was the children. Every single child was instantly mesmerized, tried to stop, kept turning back. And every single one of them was pulled away by an adult, who had someplace to go.
I want to leave you with that image: the child turning back to Bach, entranced by beauty, longing for the ocean, and being pulled away by an adult.