Organist Paul Jacobs: The Classics Give Purpose to Humanity’s Suffering

September 22, 2016 Updated: October 10, 2018

Paul Jacobs, the only organist to ever win a Grammy, believes that the classics transform humanity’s inevitable pain and give it meaning. It is the beauty of the classics that carry out this alchemy.

We naturally shun pain. But through art, beauty first attracts us, holds us, and allows us to contemplate that which otherwise we likely would not look at. And as we meet suffering through art’s transformative power, pain not only gains meaning, but also purpose. We have not suffered in vain, Jacobs said.

Until the 20th century, the arts were primarily concerned with Beauty—with a capital B. Along with Beauty came Truth and Goodness, “considered the universal virtues of Western civilization,” Jacobs said. Beauty guided artists until the late 19th century, when modernism arose.

Before modernism, “even that art which presented disturbing subject matter or dark emotions was—and remains—beautiful.”

For example, Bach’s “St. John Passion,” he said, is an oratorio that is primarily taken from John’s telling of Christ’s death. A most intense moment occurs with “the chorus shouting ‘Kreuzige! Kreuzige!’ (‘Crucify! Crucify!’)”

“We often forget that ‘passion’ doesn’t merely mean ‘intense emotion,’ but, more literally, ‘suffering’ or ‘enduring.’ Bach’s music expresses just this—the intense agony of Christ for the sake of the human race. Bach transforms the pain of Christ into the beautiful medium of music, and the music gives our own lives hope,” Jacobs said.

The “Death of Ophelia,” by Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, is another example. The painting captures the moment in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” when, just before she drowns, Ophelia sings as she floats in the brook, momentarily buoyed by her clothes filled with air.

Despite the morbidity of the subject matter, Jacobs believes we are transfixed by the voluptuousness and peculiar serenity of the painting.

“Through an expert [use] of color, light, and sensitivity for the natural world, we are carried into another one—a more beautiful one.”

And, in the classical sculpture of the Laocoön Group, sea serpents are trying to crush the life out of a Trojan priest and his sons. In a sense, it’s a horrific vision because it reveals agony without any apparent hope or possibility of redemption. And yet Jacobs believes the marble figures, as they emerge from the stone, are captivating.

“I’m astonished by the dramatic force of the work, the incredible technique of the sculptor, and, increasingly, reflect upon why it resonates so powerfully. The moment we begin asking the ‘why’ questions, we’re on a quest for meaning. And this is essential to the human condition,” he said.

The discovery of the deeper meaning of music has been gradual for Jacobs. He describes his attraction to it as mysterious, gripping him at an early age despite his being born to non-musical parents. His insatiable appetite for it led him to listen to classical recordings over and over.

Today, many consider Jacobs to be the greatest organist in the country, able to display feats of dazzling virtuosity on an instrument that is not always thought of in that light.

Jacobs’s acclaim began when he played Bach’s complete organ works in an 18-hour marathon at the age of 23. In 2003 he joined the faculty of The Juilliard School, and the very next year, he was named chairman of the organ department, becoming one of the youngest faculty appointees in the school’s history. In 2011 he received a Grammy for his performance of Olivier Messiaen’s last work, “Livre du Saint-Sacrement.”

Transformative on Several Levels

Of course, not every work of art or music depicts pain. In many cases, where the aim is lightness or joy, the work has the capacity to transform the suffering of a viewer or listener.

“Doesn’t the beauty offered from music of the past continue to soften our own sorrows and worries? … The sunshine of Mozart never fails to uplift my soul when it’s weary from the world,” Jacobs said.

Looking at the transformation from the opposite vantage point, the lives of artists themselves entail a great deal of sacrifice—enduring great labor and endless hours—to perfect their craft and to create new works.

The musical sciences of harmony and counterpoint, Jacobs explained, are disciplines that developed only through immense sacrifice on the part of many composers.  Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, for instance, all mastered the rules of counterpoint through “Gradus ad Parnassum,” an influential treatise by Austrian composer and theorist Johann Fux.

Mozart, like all composers of the past, spent painstaking hours studying, copying, and assimilating the style of earlier masters, much like apprentice painters did with earlier artists.

“There are no shortcuts to this process,” Jacobs said.

Mozart once wrote to a friend: “People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, nobody has labored more than I. … There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

Our Deep Need Today

The classics are especially important today, Jacobs asserts, because they can provide “an antidote to modern anxiety and despair, perhaps better than any medical drug.”

Nearly all levels of education today neglect exposing the rich history of the West to young people, and that’s tragic.

Nearly all levels of education today neglect exposing the rich history of the West to young people, and that’s tragic; they have been deprived of their own cultural inheritance. “Most people know almost no music conceived before their own generation and are indifferent to tapping into the artistic triumphs of past ages,” a vast reservoir stretching back centuries, Jacobs said.

The tragedy is in the realization that the classics that meet our most profound needs as humans—contemplating meaning and purpose—are mostly absent in hyper-busy contemporary life.

Jacobs believes the classic arts offer stability for the soulnot only as an aesthetic encounter but also a spiritual one. Sometimes this facet is too infrequently discussed or grasped, and is therefore neglected by many artists today. Jacobs observes a denial of certain aspects of reality that go beyond this physical worldnamely, parts that aren’t necessarily tangible, including and up to the existence of God.

Composer by composer, artist by artist, we can reclaim some of our heritage.

In Bach’s own words, “The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the refreshment of the spirit and the glory of God.”

The Reclamation of the Arts

“A person needs no formal training to be moved by the beauty of music. It’s not necessary to comprehend the intricacies of counterpoint or harmony,” Jacobs said.

We can think of our being moved by the beauty of classical music as just the starting point. Unsuspecting listening, purely to indulge the senses, can inspire one to dig more deeply.

Jacobs invites those who don’t know where to start to look to Mozart. “How could a person not be drawn to Mozart? His music is some of the most natural, the most pure, that anyone can understand and enjoy.”

Paul Jacobs. (Courtesy of Paul Jacobs)
Paul Jacobs. (Courtesy of Paul Jacobs)

For those who already find a particular composer compelling, Jacobs encourages them to make that composer a research project. “Study and expand your knowledge in any way that you can: Take a course, read a book, Google it.

“In other words, take responsibility for your own relationship with the past,” he said.

“When we love a person, we want to understand that person on every levelintellectually, emotionally, spiritually.” The same is true with music.

“We’re attracted to it because it’s beautiful. Exactly why we’re drawn in is the mystery. But, unlike the sciences, it’s not necessary or even possible to explain the mystery; rather, we must deepen it. Thankfully, beauty—even that conceived in an age long ago—has no expiration date,” he added.

Composer by composer, artist by artist, we can reclaim some of our heritage.

And these treasures continue “to comfort and console us, whispering a wordless knowledge.”

In our series “The Classics: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” practitioners involved in the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. For the full series, see