“And as with all music, so also the end and purpose of thoroughbass shall be nothing other than the glorification of God and the recreation of the mind.” – Johann Sebastian Bach
Especially in light of the popular association of legalism with all things religious, it is easy to read this statement by J. S. Bach merely in terms of moralistic stricture and obligation. I would submit, however, that to do so is to miss the point entirely. We tend to associate the verb “shall” with the imperative construction “you shall” (“du sollst”), even though it is used with equal legitimacy in declarative constructions like “it shall come to pass” (“es soll geschehen”). It is only this second declarative function that makes sense of Bach’s statement. Reading it in the imperative mood, a paraphrase would be something like this: “You shall make God’s glory, etc. the end and purpose [Endursache] of your music-making.” The problem is that Endursache is not a subjective term; I would not speak of a personal goal in terms of an Endursache: the term is the equivalent of the English “final cause” or Greek telos: drawing from Aristotelian thought, it implies not a personal goal or priority but an objective purpose, a thing’s reason for existing. Bach is making an existential statement about the nature of music: that its cosmic purpose, its ontological reason for existing, is the glorification of God and the recreation of the mind. This is a bold statement, and I’d like to use Bach’s comment as a point of departure for a brief and somewhat exploratory venture into the question of the existential foundation of music and all human creativity.
In speaking of the “recreation” of the mind, Bach is using language that inescapably accentuates the undertones of creation inherent in the concept of renewal. In doing so, he is implying that the renewal or “recreation” of the mind is a product of the creative act in which it engages. By extension, we could also speak of the creative act itself as being one of re-creation: that is, reassembly of certain basic “building-blocks” to formulate new patterns at the various levels of concept and craft that comprise the structure of an artistic creation. The reason for reformulation in the first place is almost always in order to convey some sort of meaning. Otherwise why reformulate? And the intent to convey meaning implies at least the prior perception of meaning or meaningfulness on the part of the artist.
But even perception itself is a function of re-creation: it is the processing of data gathered through the senses and mysteriously reassembled in the mind. But of course this mental construct goes far beyond mere awareness of the raw data perceived by the senses; we perceive not only matter but also relationship: our senses suggest the former, but our minds supply (some might say, ‘imagine’) the latter, inferring patterns and structures such as causality and various forms of meaning in an effort to make sense of the world, to make it explainable. Without these structures, there would probably not be anything that could be called consciousness; they lie at the foundation of what it means to be human as we know it: we have an innate need to perceive meaning, and so it is not surprising that we should also have a deep conscious or unconscious impulse and longing to do so. Organization into a structure of meaning necessarily implies contextualization; and being temporal beings, the patterns by which we perceive meaning necessarily take the form (at least at some level) of narrative. Our longing for meaning takes the form of longing to discover narrative.
And indeed this is a significant element of the ache humanity experiences in encountering beauty: the greater the beauty, the farther removed from the commonplace it stands, and the more scant the conceptual and perceptual “building-blocks” become that could even conceivably comprise the longed-for narrative (at least in such a way as to provide proper conceptual syntax). And it seems to be the nearly universal experience of humanity that there are beauties for which no satisfying narrative can be produced, though it would compel us to run as it were to the end of the world in search of it. Thus the great beauties seem to us like a whisper of the merest fragment of a story just out of hearing, like a lone glimmer from another world, a question that even our considerable powers of idealization cannot suitably address. The longed-for and sought-after narrative, then—whether objectively real or merely a product of our minds—can only be described in terms of transcendence.
 This applies equally if the composer is writing (as most do) primarily for, in Stravinsky’s words, “the hypothetical other,” whom Milton Babbitt equates with the creator him/herself [Milton Babbitt, “On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer,” The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 434.]