Bach and sacred possibility

ParisBy Guest Blogger Natalie Hodges '19

A trip to a music program in Paris illuminates the glory of Bach's sonatas and partitas for a violinist. 


Natalie Hodges ’19, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in English with a secondary in Music, was awarded an Artist Developmen Fellowship to attend the Musicalta Festival in France and the Music&More International Music Festival in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to write a series of essays on musical temporality, performance anxiety and the human brain. Hodges has performed as a violinist at Carnegie Hall and in Acqui Terme, Piedmont, Italy, and was a fellow with the American Academy of Conducting Orchestra at Aspen. She currently serves as Concertmaster for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and plans to pursue a career as a violinist and writer. Listen to Hodges play Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor here. 

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson took a razor to six copies of the New Testament, excised the words of Jesus Christ from the text of the Gospels, glued them onto 84 pages of blank paper and bound them in a red leather book. Just before renouncing the Gospel and leaving the Church, Christians on the verge of losing their faith sometimes turn to this book, known as the Jefferson Bible, which is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Natalie Hodges
Natalie Hodges '19 (left) with friends after a concert on the steps of La Schola Cantorum in Paris. Photos courtesy Natalie Hodges.
For me, Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are a personal Jefferson Bible, the purest texts of the sublime and difficult religion of classical violin music. Unlike the massive “war-horse” violin concertos and the fiendishly difficult Paganini caprices, they are absent of show-offy runs and soaring melodies that are as much about the player’s ability to execute as about the music itself. Rather, Bach’s violin works are meditations on the progression of harmonies and the antiphony and simultaneity of contrapuntal lines.

My nearly-20-year relationship with the violin is fraught, to say the least. I love playing more than almost anything else, and wanting to play professionally has always defined who I am; but for the last few years, plagued by self-doubt and performance anxiety, I have questioned whether or not I should continue. The Artist Development Fellowship gave me the gift of a summer to focus on healing my relationship with music.

I attended the
European American Musical Alliance in Paris, a program for composers, conductors and chamber musicians devoted to the study of counterpoint and harmony, the fundamentals of both composition and performance.

Bach’s music formed the core of our curriculum. Every afternoon after class, I would come back to my dorm and play Bach, listening for the elements we’d talked about in class. Unlike most other composers, he himself is strangely absent from his music. He rarely marks dynamics or specific articulations, as Beethoven did, nor does he write particularly expressive melodies. (This impersonality goes beyond conventions of the Baroque period: Even the music of Vivaldi and Handel is more indicative of their personalities, at least to my ear, than is Bach’s of his.)

Instead, Bach is all about structures. He builds a cathedral with his harmonic progressions, a choir with his contrapuntal voices. Indeed, his music is less an expression of himself than a manifestation of something.

Bach wrote all of his music for God, and signed each piece SDG: Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. Even his seemingly secular music, the solo violin works included, are ultimately prayers addressed to God. And the mathematical precision with which they are constructed and which we studied at EAMA -- for example the D minor Chaconne, whose phrases abide by the Golden Ratio -- is, I think, meant as a demonstration of God’s glory, a celebration of the order of His universe.

I was touched by the humility of the way Bach composed. It reminded me very much of the philosopher Martin Buber’s definition of “the eternal origin of art”: “that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him.” Interpreting Bach requires the same kind of humility. His impersonality is an invitation to the performer to be personal, to encounter his music with one’s whole being, to honor the harmony of those structures and manifest their sublime meaning. Bach’s music is less about self-expression than about “the mystery of encounter”: between composer and performer, performer and listener, listener and listener. And between all of these and the music itself. If I have ever

Hodges with group
Natalie Hodges '19 and her brother with her teacher at Musicalta in Rouffach.
found God anywhere it is in music, at the intersection of all these encounters. Bach’s work -- music pared down to its harmonic and contrapuntal foundations, unencumbered by ego -- reminds me of this sacred possibility.

EAMA ended. I took a train with my younger brother, a cellist, to Alsace-Lorraine, the wine country near the French-German border, to attend a ten-day festival called Musicalta. Whereas every day at EAMA was quite structured, with lectures and master-classes scheduled back-to-back, Musicalta was basically a free-for-all, a great big jubilee of performance. There were lessons, masterclasses, recitals, and concerts almost every day. There were students of all ages and levels, ranging from young children to college and grad students to older amateur players, and anyone who wanted to perform had the chance.

I loved the festival’s aura of welcome, its invitation to come as you are and make music. One of the most special moments was when I sat in on the final cello studio class. The professor and his students, including my brother, played through the Preludio from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, a piece for cello choir. The movement itself is deeply stirring, but I was moved even more by how happy the students seemed to be making music with their teacher, and he with them. Even though it wasn’t a formal performance, and there weren’t many people listening, they fed off of one another’s joy. For me, it was one of the most moving musical experiences of the summer, and I feel grateful to have witnessed it.