A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach

[ by Charles Cameron – cross-posted from Zenpundit ]


The description of Egyptian troops attacking a Christian monastery that forms the first quote in this DoubleQuote is horrifying in many ways.


Recent events in Egypt had featured mutual support between Muslims and their Coptic Christian neighbors, each group in turn acting as human shields to protect the other while they were praying. Here, by contrast, the army – which is effectively now “ruling” Egypt in the interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and the election of a new President and government – is attacking the humans it is supposed to protect.

But what does that have to do with Bach?


Part I: a monastery attacked in Egypt

This is vile.

Those who are being attacked happen to be Christians and monks, no less human on either account, and just as subject to bleeding as others – so they might ask, with Shakespeare‘s Shylock speaking for the Jews:

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

That last question of Shylock’s is an interesting one, and gets to the heart of what I want to discuss here, as we shall see.

Specifically, these human beings were monks. Muhammad had a higher opinion of monks than of many others. In the Qur’an, we find:

The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.



These “followers” of Muhammad were attacking Christian monks with live ammunition and RPGs continuously for 30 minutes, wounding 19.

They felt superior to their compatriots the monks, they cried “God is Great” and “Victory, Victory” as they did it.

In this they resemble GEN Boykin, who famously responded to a Somali warlord claiming that God would protect him, “Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

I could easily have made that my second quote here, pairing it with the description of the Egyptian army attack on the monastery, for between the two of them they raise the question of whether weaponry is stronger than belief – and while some Christians might agree with General Boykin, some Muslims might agree no less strongly with the members of the Egyptian military shouting “Allahu Akbar”.


I believe that taking sides here misses the point.

Which I am happy to say, Abraham Lincoln made with considerable eloquence in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, almost a century and a half ago:

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

That point is one which HaShem made to his angels, according to rabbinic teaching:

The Talmud teaches us that on the night that the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, the first true moment of freedom for the Jews fleeing Egypt, God refused to hear the angels sing their prayers, and said “my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?”

So, no — revenge is not the way to go…


But please note that the point I am making is not one of moral equivalence.

That God which created “both sides” in any human conflict and loves each and every one of his own creations, might indeed find one creed superior to another, as he might find one scientific law more accurately describing the workings of, say, gravitational attraction than another – or the night sky at Saint-Rémy portrayed by Van Gogh more or less moving than the thunderous sky over Toledo of El Greco.

In the view I am proposing, the “God who takes neither side” in fact takes both, but with this distinction: he sides with the wounded more than with those who inflict wounds – not because one side has a better creed than the other, but because he made us to learn not to unmercifully maim and destroy one another…

…one of whose names is The Merciful, in whose scriptures it is written:

If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds.

…one of whose names is The Lord is Peace, in whose scriptures it is written:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.


Part II: Bach and contrapuntal analysis

All of which brings me to the second “quote” in my DoubleQuote above: JS Bach‘s “concordia discors” canon in two voices, BWV 1086 – which you can hear or purchase here.

Bach’s mastery was in counterpoint, the play of one musical idea against another, and in this particular work, the two ideas are exact opposite: in musical terms, the melody is played here against its inversion. And the point of counterpoint, if I may put it that way, is not to provide “harmony” but to show how discord can become harmonious and concordant — or to put that in the geopolitical terms that interest me, how conflict and opposition can be resolved…

Not, you understand, that this state of affairs then leads necessarily to the singing of Kumbaya or the kind of ending in which “they all lived happily ever after”.

Concordia discors: the resolution of the present conflict, in a continuing overall “music” of great power and beauty, in which further conflicts will inevitably arise and find resolution.


Here’s the essence: Bach takes contrasting and at times conflicting melodic ideas and makes music.

He teaches us to hear distinct and differing voices, to allow ourselves to hear and feel both the discomfort that their disagreements raise in us, and the satisfaction that comes as those disagreements are worked out. He does this by teaching us to hear them as voices within a choir, ribbons in a complex braid, making together a greater music that any of them alone could give rise to. And in this process, their differences are neither denied nor lost, but resolved and transcended.

Edward Said, whose politics my readers may dislike or like or even perhaps be unaware of, was for years the music critic for The Nation, wrote three books (and an opus posthumous) on music, and with his friend the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, named for the West-östlicher Diwan, Goethe’s collection of lyric poems.

Barenboim (the Israeli) wrote of Said (the Palestinian):

In addition to being well versed in music, literature, philosophy, and the understanding of politics, he was one of those rare people who sought and recognized the connections between different and seemingly disparate disciplines. His unusual understanding of the human spirit and of the human being was perhaps a consequence of his revelatory construct that parallels between ideas, topics, and cultures can be of a paradoxical nature, not contradicting but enriching one another.

And there we have it again: Bach’s insight, this time transposed by an accomplished musician into the key of thoughts and ideas…


Said talks quite a bit about counterpoint, both musically:

Musically, I’m very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.

[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 99.]

and politically:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 447.]


As I commented in an earlier post that ties in with this one, the great pianist Glenn Gould was also preoccupied with counterpoint, both in Bach’s music and in conversations overheard at a truck-stop cafe or on long train journeys — he too was “working” the parallel between melodic and verbal forms of counterpoint.

And JRR Tolkien made the reconciliation of discordant musics in a greater concord the central to his creation myth in The Silmarillion, “The Music of the Ainur”, which can now be read online at the Random House site.


Part III: invitation

May I strongly commend to your attention the movie, Of Gods and Men, which just opened in limited release, having won the grand jury prize at Cannes…

7 thoughts on “A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach”

  1. Well formulated view. I very much enjoyed your way of thinking this through and conneting to Bach’s music. I wonder if humans will ever ‘get it’, [probably Hashem does too] as per your Talmud excerpt, although I’d propose that the point of that quote is ‘do not be gleeful over another’s demise’.

  2. When I read of Muslims attacking Christians in the name of their god, I can only quote from the words of the Muslim prophet as to where he stood, and the statement he made.

    As quoted on the al-Jazeera website:-

    In 628 AD, a delegation from St. Catherine’s Monastery came to Prophet Muhammed and requested his protection. He responded by granting them a charter of rights, which I reproduce below in its entirety. St. Catherine’s Monastery is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai and is the world’s oldest monastery. It possesses a huge collection of Christian manuscripts, second only to the Vatican, and is a world heritage site. It also boasts the oldest collection of Christian icons. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1400 years under Muslim protection.

    The Promise to St. Catherine:
    “This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

    Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

    No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

    Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

    No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.

    No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

    Seems to me as though either the Egyptians can’t read, or they aren’t up to speed on their own religion!

  3. In the view I am proposing, the “God who takes neither side” in fact takes both, but with this distinction: he sides with the wounded more than with those who inflict wounds – not because one side has a better creed than the other, but because he made us to learn not to unmercifully maim and destroy one another…”

    From the Christian spiritual side, God still loves his magnificent creation Lucifer, even as he foretells of his eventual destruction. It might be explained that Satan devours himself in his own fires of hate, and separation from God’s love. And a big part of the HOPE of we mortals is that a savior will one day return in POWER … “vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord”.

    But a few bars of counterpoint …

    Perhaps “mercifully maiming” and destroying others is necessary at times. WW2 … appeasement, appeasement … then 55 million dead and massive destruction. Are our “preemptive wars” in the Middle East misguided? How many of our military do we sacrifice in fighting a kinder, gentler .. winning hearts and minds kind of war? Has our strong military kept more peace, or do the Tibetan monks have the greater claim on virtue (when they go to prison or die, rather than fight)?

    It may be that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual wickedness in high places”, but those battles drill down to the men holding tenaciously to beliefs on one side or another.

    God would seem on the side of good, regardless of professed faith. (eg. resurrections of just and unjust) The God of the Bible and the Koran would seem to condone or even favor extreme prejudice against those that take the side of evil, at least at some point. That may have been by Samson’s jawbone of an ass, or by Mohammad in his bloody conquests. In the future that may be in Christ’s return or the 12th Imam’s appearance.

    My point is that it really IS about creed … not Muslim or Christian creed, but good or evil “creed”, which even the “natural man” knows in his heart. If the “wounded” is imposing evil on men, would God side with him over his “wounder”? Unless you are a complete pacifist that believes we should never wound under any circumstances, it seems a rather amoral distinction placed on a wholly moral God.

    Placing this whole question of good and evil in the context of music is interesting in light of appreciating Bach, but seems less than enlightening in answering age old questions. I’d leave it to Hollywood to find the right music to describe the right war … Apocalypse Now comes to mind. :)

  4. Dan:

    I am very glad to hear it, and will try to be less opaque in future.


    Thanks. I’d basically agree with your phrasing of the Talmudic message (not that such things ever have only one strand of meaning), and if I can no longer use that reference to make one part of my point, I’d bring up “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense, against the time when their foot shall slip” from Deuteronomy / Devarim 32. 35, and/or “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance [is] mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” from Romans 12. 19.


    That’s an extremely helpful reference — many, many thanks!

  5. Bill:

    I very much appreciate your comment. A couple of quick points in response:

    The main purpose of my post was to propose counterpoint as an analytic tool, not to encourage appreciation for JSB — and thus the thrust of my example was to encourage simultaneous appreciation of the value of all human lives in a given conflict, rather than the value of “our own” only.

    That, however, leaves open the question of “moral equivalency” which i tried to address with my suggestion about God siding “with the wounded more than with those who inflict wounds”. But that’s one, very broad stroke in what is in fact a much more nuanced picture.

    From my Bachian point of view, the voices of the humans, thanking their God for their deliverance, the angels, reproved for rejoicing in Israel’s victory over the Egyptians, and their God must all be heard…

    Let me put that another way:

    Alongside Bach, I am drawn to the writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and in particular to his notion of the world as inherently “dappled” with contrasts and chiaroscuro, with “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim…”

    [ http://www.bartleby.com/122/13.html ]

    Stemming from my sense of the complex layering of moral issues involved in any human situation, I do not pretend to have a “one size fits all” answer to questions of the morality of force. I am not proposing pacifism.

    I am also not claiming to be a Christian, although I derive much of my culture and insight from a Christian upbringing (hence my love of Hopkins the Jesuit and Bach the Lutheran).

    On a theological level, I am suggesting that the considerations that go to the creation of great art (here, “dapple” in Hopkins and “counterpoint” in Bach, but let me also throw in “chiaroscuro” in Rembrandt and “drama” in Shakespeare) may well be representative of the nature of “creation” itself on the largest and most profound scale — and thus throw useful light on the otherwise intractable question of theodicy.

    Creation entails both conflict and resolution.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful response Charles …

    I quit clarinet after 8th grade, so won’t try to draw too deeply on those times where the main conflict was in being able to hear the woodwinds over the drums and brass. :)

    In our western world though, it would seem our current political correctness and insistence on diversity lead us toward a cacophony of alternate rhythms which drown out our “Christian heritage”. While I don’t take the Bible as “gospel” anymore, I do appreciate the building of a belief system that took centuries and seems full of reason, and has served the west fairly well. But counterpoint has become the main melody, with our heritage just marking time.

    Your point was not one of moral equivalence, yet I see a common refrain in our world that is worse than that .. after 9/11 Americans were warned to not seek retaliation on American Muslims, and there was basically none. When an American cartoonist proposes a draw Mohammad day, she is forced into hiding. Behind closed doors Obama derides those that cling to their religion and their guns … speaking of Christians of course, not Muslim terrorists. The empathy with the terrorists reaches the point where many believe we deserved it.

    I can appreciate culture that is dappled, fickle and freckled, but I prefer to (at least try) to not blind myself to harsh realities in deference to multiculturalism … or whatever name evil might hide behind.

    Unfortunately whole cultures can be “wounded” by dogmatic enforcement of an intolerant religion (or dogmatic government?) … Iran and Egypt coming to mind before Israel or the US. But I may have to consider our culture of corruption a religion of its own, with environmentalism, globalism, and cronyism playing their parts. Or maybe it’s not about real belief systems at all, but about power players stringing us all along to their own beat.

    But I don’t disagree with your point (as I understand it) … it is just that the obnoxiously loud brass and drums of late seems to come from the left, with their assault on the traditional melodic western values of the little woodwinds. :)

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