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Responding to genius with imposter syndrome

A group of classical musicians on a stage

Last night we went to hear Accademia Arcadia play Bach’s Musical Offering. John O’Donnell gave a short introduction to explain the work and the context around it: in 1747, Frederick the Great of Prussia had given Bach a theme and asked him to improvise a three-part fugue on the spot. He did so, but Frederick then challenged him to make it six parts. Bach took the theme away and produced the Musical Offering, a 16-movement collection of canons and fugues, including the Ricercar à six [listen here].

The music itself is like a puzzle box. Bach has the theme going forwards, backwards, upside down and around. The work is filled with asides, biblical references, numerological puzzles and, it has been said, a couple of digs at the king who dared Bach to write the thing in the hope that he would fail. Even the title is an acronym of the musical form; Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta (‘the theme given by the king, with additions, resolved in canonic style’) spells ricercar, a Latin term for an early type of fugue.

Just reading a little bit about it and listening to John and Calvin talk about what Bach did makes my brain ache. Listening to it was a whole other experience altogether.

What a massive task for the musicians. Although they are specialists in the field of baroque music, you could tell it was a challenging play. Listening was a demanding cerebral exercise. I could let the melancholy beauty of the music wash over me to an extent, but it was so dense, so layered, so complex that after a while I had to close my eyes to try and separate out the different lines (which was virtually impossible).

Afterward, I had a bit of an emotional response. I could have put it down to all sorts of things — hormones, that I hadn’t eaten, that I was tired after a day of work — but I think the music definitely tripped something in me and made me think about all sorts of big picture things…why am I here? What am I doing? What have I done with my life?

Being confronted by such genius (in both the composition and the playing) first stirred up joy at the beauty of the music, then awe at the talent, then a massive whack of imposter syndrome. What’s the point of even trying to be creative? You’re never going to live up to this sort of thing.

Never going to live up to the genius of Bach, eh? How ridiculous. As if anyone could!

The fact is, we’ve all been given various gifts. Some of us will develop them to their fullest. Some of us will barely scratch the surface. Some of us might even make a living out of them, but most won’t. But is that any reason not to exercise them? Do you have to be a genius or a ‘success’ for your art to mean anything?

The question has to be “What is your why?”, as Simon Sinek famously asks.

As a Christian, I believe in a Creator God who shares with us a little of that joy of being able to create, the ability to make beautiful things and put them into the world for its betterment. That thing might be a delicious meal, or an evocative painting, or a finely planted garden, or a heart-rending book, or a finger painting by a child. All have intrinsic value that is not connected to commerce. Our world would be all the poorer for it without those things.

Mum, as always, put it into perspective for me. She said, “You are a child of God, don’t forget that — and God made the music that even Bach composed.”

I think, given that he dedicated his life’s work to his Lord, Bach himself would be happy with that conclusion. Soli deo gloria.

Read more about Bach, numerology, puzzles, and the Musical Offering: Maestro of more than music