ecades ago, as an amateur singer in Rome, I was lucky enough to find CIMA, a group that focuses on Baroque choral music. Thankfully, at least in my case, it accepted inexperienced newcomers without an audition. Luckier still, my chance to sing came at the tail end of what had been an insidiously gray period of depression.
I had lost all my creative energy and paid little attention to anything besides family and my work as a therapist.
I felt weighed down by old burdens and felt that all the doors were closed. I stopped reading for pleasure: no novels, no stories, no histories, which I’d always loved. I set aside my passion for drawing and calligraphy. I ignored new music and rarely listened to what I had.
I began therapy with a new analyst, an unpretentious man who had no publications to his name. Famous he was not.
Yet it was this man — who paid close attention to what I had to say — who would change my life.
Over the course of a year, I gradually began rediscovering all those loves I had set aside, a sure sign my gray depression was lifting. Doors began reopening, and one opened into music. I suddenly started buying classical music as never before, Bach playing again and again on my Walkman and making his way into my bones.
So it was that CIMA entered the picture and I began to study singing.
Now, many decades later, my adopted chorus is busy with Bach’s “Johannes Passion,” a piece I first sang 20 years ago in my early CIMA years. That Bach piece was partly responsible for restoring me to the world. How can a piece of music be therapeutic? It’s certainly not about loftiness. Even a child’s tune or Bob Dylan can work magic. Lyrics can be uplifting.
But in the case of Bach I didn’t understand German. So what was he doing, I asked myself, that somehow cut so deep?
I asked the same question about the effect of my therapist. What had this quiet man done to effect such a change in me?
Above all, he listened intently, forever ready to accept he might be wrong. Did Bach and my therapist somehow share a method?
I have no answer to this. I do know how each made me feel.
It was clear to me that Bach understood sadness. He made no effort to offset it by charging forward with positive reassurance. As I listened to his music I felt understood — as I did with my analyst.
Of course Bach couldn’t really understand me, but he did “get” the universal feelings of emptiness, loss, sadness that can burden human beings at different times in their lives.
The “Johannes Passion” concludes with a burial, not a resurrection, and yet hope prevails over despair.
“Johannes Passion,” works, through music, the same way an attentive parent seeks to soothe a weeping baby. The parent doesn’t use cheering laughter, instead entering into the infant’s discontent. A concerned look and quiet sounds are crafted to be in tune with the rhythm of the baby’s crying, only softer, and eventually slower.
Bach does that. He descends to the core of pain, sadness, and loss, familiarizing himself with those feelings at length and expressing them in music. “Johannes Passion” contains jeering and raging, pain and sadness. But finally, toward the end, comes one of my favorite choruses ever, Ruht wohl, “Rest well, you freed me from hell.” The tone goes up, then gently down, followed by a tentative reach upward. It then slides down again, each time resting a bit here and there, like a series of gentle musical sighs. Rest well. That’s about as happy as it’s gonna get.
But by the time the music ends there’s the sense of comfort that comes from feelings being understood. And what’s better than understanding?
Psychologist Robert Stolorow and George Atwood mention the concept of “emotional dwelling” as a way of understanding patients who are traumatized, depressed, and scared. Therapists, they say, should seek out their own feelings of trauma, sadness, and fear — and just dwell there with their patients. That is the place in which help is found, and where Bach travels to get it, and does.
How? By drawing on his own life.
As psychologist George E. Atwood notes in a beautiful essay of his own, “Time, Death and Eternity,” Bach lost both his parents and other dear relatives as a child. Many of his own children also died, as did his first wife. He dwelt with sadness. It throbbed constantly within him. Genius did the rest.