On Tuesday’s in Holy Week, I usually present a half-hour program of music. This year, it’s Bach’s Partita No. 2 on the harpsichord. I wrote the following essay for the program. It includes a new translation I made of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We don’t know his shocking head,
where the apple of the eye ripens. But
his torso still gleams like a candelabra,
in which his gaze, spiraling back,
beholds himself and shines. Otherwise the shoulder
of the chest couldn’t dazzle you, and in easy turning
the loins couldn’t give a smile
to that middle, that carries the virility.
Otherwise this stone would stand disfigured and short
under the transparently fallen shoulder
instead of glimmering like the pelt of a beast of prey;
and not breaking out from all its edges
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Rainer Maria Rilke
In Martin Buber’s writing about art, he suggests that a work of art can “from time to time body itself against a receptive viewer” and “blaze up into presentness.” A work of art can sometimes challenge us. A piece of music moves us. A painting grabs hold of us. The passing face of a stranger grips us with feelings of empathy, and we wonder if we have “entertained an angel unaware.”
For Buber, all of these passing (and often too rare) experiences are confrontations of presence. Ultimately, the presence that confronts us in works of great beauty is the presence of God — and to be confronted by God is no easy thing.
One of the most common tropes in the Scripture is that of being in the presence of God without being aware of it until after it is over. Jacob has his dream of the ladder and says, “Certainly the LORD is in the place, and I didn’t know it.” Manoah is talking to someone when the person he is speaking with steps into a fire and ascends to heaven. “Then Manoah knew that is was the Angel of the Lord, and said to his wife: We must die because we have seen God.” Peter, thinks he is in a boat in a storm with a rabbi. Then he sees Jesus calm the winds and the waves and Peter says, “Go away from me Lord. I am a sinful man.” Mary Magdalene is particularly relevant to our reflections this week. In her resurrection encounter, she has gathered up her spices in search of a dead Jesus. The resurrected Jesus meets her, and she doesn’t recognize him. When she does recognize him, she wants to hold on to him, and he doesn’t let her. Things have changed, and she has a new task. She has to become —in the words of St. Ambrose — “the apostle to the apostles.” The encounter with God always means, as Rilke says, “You must change your life.”
Just like Rilke’s broken statue, things shine out from the edges of works of art and confront us with our own broken bits. Here, on the edges, the traditional transcendental categories of truth, beauty, and goodness can get blurred together. The glimpses of God that we catch “breaking out from all its edges like a star” unify things that we like to keep separate. Listening to the beauty of Bach becomes a great moral challenge to improve our character. A great painting teaches us about the true nature of things without using words. A bit of poetry makes us want to feed people — not so much by a direct call to action as by encountering the beautiful and wanting to make the world a more beautiful place.
Bishop Kalistos Ware liked to say, “You don’t read an icon. An icon reads you.” It is precisely this experience that we have when we encounter Bach. We get confronted by God, and we want our lives to be more like God’s life. We want our lives to be more true and beautiful and good. It is never an easy thing to be confronted by the presence of God. Every time it happens, you must change your life.
Tonight, I am playing Bach’s 2nd Partita. A “partita” is a type of suite that was fairly new on the scene when Bach was writing. It is a collection of pieces based on dances. This one has six movements.
1 The Sinfonia begins with a French Overture. The French Overture was developed by Lully to announce the arrival of King Louis XIV. Later, it became a rhetorical device to signify any sort of royal entrance. The Overture is followed by a lovely little “aria” which is in turn followed by a quick two-voice fugue.
2 The Allemande was a slow dance that was done with interlaced arms. Bach intimates this idea by having the parts copy each other in ingenious ways. Sometimes they copy each other exactly. Sometimes one part presents an idea, and the other part will repeat it but upside-down. The result is that unique way that Bach has of creating two voices that sounds like they are independent ideas having a conversation.
3 A Courante is a quick dance with running steps.
4 A Sarabande is a slow, stately dance. Normally, it is triple time, but Bach is stretching the definition of the dance. This movement is painstakingly gorgeous. I’m using the lute stop on the harpsichord to make it even more intimate.
5 A Rondeau is a piece of music in which a repeated idea continues to return throughout the piece. You start with a musical idea. Then you present a different idea. Then you return to the original idea. Then you present a third idea and return to the main idea and continue the process. The resulting form looks like A – B – A – C – A – D – A.
6 A Baroque Suite normally ends with a Gigue or some sort of fast piece in triple time, but Bach here elects to conclude with a Capriccio. It’s a free form virtuosic piece.
The piece is introspective and at times almost joyful. It’s a bright sadness. I hope that it gives you some time to reflect during this Holy Week.