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Voices and Building Blocks

Text by: Amy Carpenter

It begins with a single voice. The left hand plays the haunting solo in the treble (right hand) area of the keyboard. The melody is crisp and logical, yet achingly beautiful. After a flourish of C and B, the voice jumps down to a G and then back to the trilling C and B, returning to the G before flitting back home to the C and B, and then finally hopping even further down to an F and running up a couple of notes to an A flat. Then it falls in graceful, quick 16th notes as the right hand begins a second voice. Johann Sebastian Bach's Fugue in C Minor from "The Well-Tempered Clavier" has begun.
© Jessica Ceason Photography

Bach (1685-1750) lived during the Baroque era of music. In fact, his music was the embodiment of Baroque music and came at the peak of the era. Composers of the time were just discovering the excitement of musical rules and form. Music was even linked to the workings of the universe. Baroque music is instantly recognizable by its ornateness, complexity, and rhythmical preciseness.

Bach worked as both a court musician and Cantor for the Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany. His duties as Cantor included both composing and teaching. He was also a superb organist. He oversaw the rebuilding of several organs and was in high demand as a tester of other organs. He wrote two sets exercises for keyboardists in 1722 and 1742, both of which have come to be known as "The Well-Tempered Clavier."

At first glance, "The Well-Tempered Clavier" seems like a pretty funny name. In fact, it refers to any keyboard instrument (clavier) and a method of tuning that instrument (well-tempered). "Clavier" is made of 48 preludes and fugues, all in different keys, which was very unusual for the time due to different methods of tuning. The well-tempered method made it possible to play in several different keys without having to retune the keyboard between pieces. Bach even left a map for tuning on the title page of "Clavier"— a series of loops and squiggles which can be translated into tuning intervals. Truly, Bach was a genius not just at composing but also at using his music to teach. His voice has reached down through his music, leaving a vast legacy for later composers. Many gifted composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, studied Bach's music (particularly "Clavier") to improve the technical aspects of their music. Some even made variations of his works. Charles Gounod's "Ave Maria" is actually Bach's first prelude from "Clavier," with an added melody. Bach's music is a voice of musical wisdom and clarity.

Enter the second voice of the Fugue. It is basically the same melody of the first voice, but with small variations and lifted up a fifth (five notes) to start on a G instead of a C. It flits along in a similar rhythm as the first voice but at a different point in time. Both voices begin ascending up the keyboard in a perfect duet, working together but still maintaining their individual voices. This is counterpoint. This is where the true genius and miracle of Bach's music begins.

When I was a child, I had a profound dream. I was riding on my blue, powder puff bike through our front yard on an ordinary, sunny day. There were rocky paths throughout our yard that I followed like roads in the city of my mind. I saw my father doing yard work, as he often did. I approached him with a question: "Where is the building of wisdom?" I envisioned the building of wisdom as an enormous palace with white, grey, and pale-salmon marble floors and columns. There would be a gorgeous fountain at the entrance, and a tall, wide staircase inviting visitors to explore the upper reaches of the palace.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

My father nodded his head and motioned for me to follow him. We journeyed through the yard on the gravel paths, eventually coming to my dad's truck. Sitting on the bed of the truck was a building of sorts, but it wasn't the ornate palace I had been expecting. It was a child-sized building, made of wooden building blocks—the kind with ABCs that I played with as a child. I was terribly disappointed. "That's it?" I exclaimed incredulously. Where was the marble, the fountain, the steps, the beauty, the richness?

The little building made of wooden blocks may have been a disappointment, but as I've gotten a little older and a little wiser, I've come to realize that the dream was a profound message of truth, and the truth is simple and sometimes unexpected. My father was also simple. He was not a scholar. He went to a trade school, served in the Merchant Marines, and fought in the Korean War. He worked in several blue collar jobs: tow-truck driver, nursing home janitor, security guard at an apartment complex. Yet he was a seeker of spiritual truth and wisdom, knowledge which he passed on to me every chance he could. After he died, his wisdom was my inheritance. His voice continues to run throughout my life like the first voice of Bach's Fugue, countering my own and offering his knowledge, his memory, and his love to correct and aid me in my own search for truth.

This counterpoint of voices, however, is not complete. Just when you think the music could not get any more complicated, Bach adds a third voice. This voice alternates between the right and left hands, always remaining sandwiched between the first two voices. Like the other two, it is independent. If played alone, it could be a melody itself. Yet it completes the sound of the first two voice's duet. Without it, the Fugue would lack richness and seem a simple exercise in finger work.

© Jessica Ceason Photography
Our world is a cacophony of voices. They proclaim themselves to be the truth, and yet they can't all be true because they often contradict each other. The truth is simple. It is logical. It makes sense.
It is like a building made of blocks. When a child makes a building of blocks, he may dump all the blocks out in a chaotic mess. Then he takes a block, lays it down for a foundation and begins building around and on top of it. Often, he will build an unstable structure—perhaps an impossibly tall, precariously leaning tower. But if he has a plan in his mind and is given a little knowledge, he can make a strong, wide foundation, building on that foundation little by little until he has created a magnificent castle, reaching up towards the stars. That plan, that knowledge, is wisdom.

It is the application of truth. It is order out of chaos. It is discernment of what is real and what is not. It is that final voice, tying the other voices together, leading them to a richer completeness and to that last, final, major chord of light.

© Brittany Knotts