What does the Brandenburg Concerti have to do with building a just society? The St. Matthaus-Passion with Aristotle’s virtue of magnificence? These were questions to Thomas More students last Thursday evening by Dr. Kurt Poterack, a visiting professor from Christendom College. In his lecture entitled Bach, Justice, and the Common Good, he wove together the leitmotifs of art patronage, communal identity, and the tradition of Western music into a single composition focusing on the figure of Johann Sebastian Bach.
In addition to his work as Professor of Music at Christendom College, Dr. Poterack is also the editor of Sacred Music, a quarterly journal of Catholic liturgical music. He is also a regular contributor to the Church Music Association of America and the American Choral Directors Association. Needless to say, his offer to lecture on Bach—especially the unusual pairing of this great Baroque composer with the theme of justice—was enthusiastically taken up by the faculty and students of Thomas More College.
The lecture opened with the following question: “Can a society primarily based on commutative justice create great works of art?”
Referring to the philosopher Roger Scruton’s statement that “beauty is disappearing because it does not matter to us,” Dr. Poterack posited that because the virtue of public-minded liberality is absent from contemporary society, the possibility of art patronage—especially music—is also absent. Bach, so he argued, represents one of the last examples of an artist working under a system of patronage aimed at producing great public works of art, a system which gave way to the strong individualistic drive of the European Enlightenment.
To help the audience understand the importance of art patronage, Dr. Poterack drew a distinction between art music and popular music. While popular music follows a simple structure and is immediately gratifying to the listener’s ear, art music is distinguished by its contemplative character. Whether following the intricacies of a Bach concerto or the thunders of a Beethoven symphony, the listener experiences a form of music which requires patience and attentiveness to grasp in its totality.
Despite the extraordinary beauty of such works, Dr. Poterack argued that the genius of a composer like Bach is not enough. The production of great works of art—the Mass in B Minor, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor—also requires a cultural matrix in which the virtue of magnificence can be practiced. This is the virtue of large-scale, public-oriented liberality that Aristotle talks about in the Nichomachean Ethics. Dr. Poterack concluded his lecture with a discussion of this virtue and its near-disappearance from the modern world. Although the state of contemporary culture makes it difficult for the great tradition of Western music to have a status of public value, it continues to be performed and transmitted in other milieus, especially academic institutions.
Thomas More College is no exception. Music plays an important part in the life of the College, including in the College’s choir, the Ladies’ Schola, the Thomas More Madrigal Society, and a student-led string quartet. In devoting their abilities to the common good of the College, students are able to put into practice the principles they encounter in their studies. More than that, it provides a bit of light-hearted fun on the side. It’s not uncommon to find impromptu musical sessions on campus during the weekend. At Thomas More College, student take seriously the connection between the harmony of music and the harmony of justice, keeping in mind Lorenzo’s words from The Merchant of Venice. “The man that hath no music in himself/ nor is moved with concord of sweet sounds/ is fit for treasons, spoils, and strategems…./ Let no such man be trusted.”