A sermon by Michael Jensen
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said: “It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart.”
I have to say that I once shared the opinion of Barth’s angels. My appreciation of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has been slow to awaken. I remember as a teenaged musician seeing his pieces as worthy, but not exciting. They were exact, and exacting – but who wants music to be a technical exercise only?
Where was the freedom, the joy, the heart in his music? The lines of his melodies seemed to wind and twist their way on, and on, and on, without a pause for breath. My clumsy fingers could not ever quite master him. At one school concert, I slammed the piano in disgust at my tangle of errors. Bach wouldn’t forgive me: why should I forgive him? (As my Dad used to say: “last night Michael Jensen played Bach. Bach lost.”) I found the music that grabbed me was played by jazz maestro Miles Davis, or composed by the Russian innovator Stranvinsky. This was music with a human heartbeat, rather than the mechanical pulse I heard in Bach.
Or so I thought.
My interest in Bach was fired a couple of years ago by a comment from the US theologian David Bentley Hart, who wrote in his masterful book The Beauty of the Infinite that Bach was ‘the greatest of Christian theologians’. Perhaps I had been missing something vital in the music of JSB, even its very essence. As a theologian myself, I felt compelled to look further into the work of the master.
So, trying to see what Bentley Hart might mean, I purchased for myself a copy of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a book of forty-eight preludes and fugues. There’s two complete cycles of pieces in every major and minor key in the scale. As I drove myself through a couple of the best known of these pieces, with my lazy technique and half-remembered scales, I found that the pieces were meticulously designed, and intricately patterned – and made beautiful sound. I think I had been taught to expect that music ought to be about something – it should have a theme, or a title. Whereas, the instrumental music of Bach has no other subject than itself. It doesn’t attempt to portray a landscape, or a storm, in sound. It just is itself.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye: Bach famously signed his pieces Soli Gloria Deo – to God alone be the Glory. He was extremely conscious of his vocation as a church musician to serve God and the people of God. The bulk of his work consists of cantatas and chorales to be performed in church settings.
But this sense of the purpose of music was not limited to his church music, which was ostensibly about something, because it had words. Bach once wrote:
‘The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
That is: even his instrumental music is itself a theological statement. A way of putting this might be to say that his work sings to us of the order in the creation – but also of its redemption from chaos. Bach’s designs test the limits of order. Trying to learn to play the C minor Fugue, I discovered passages of seeming harmonic chaos as the three fugal voices introduce and expand the main theme, before finally drawing to a frantic, whirlwind close.
But of course it is in his choral music that Bach makes his most obvious theological statement. A marvellous new biography by John Eliot Gardiner entitled Bach – Music in the Castle of Heaven (Alfred A Knopf, New York: 2014) offers for us an extensive and appreciative account of Bach’s religious music. Gardiner, an acknowledged Bach expert who has conducted and performed his choral music for many years, argues that the cantatas, which have been unjustly overlooked in the standard analysis of Bach’s work, actually form the heart of his oeuvre. In Bach, words and music form an impressive bond, which reflects his deep devotion to the Bible as a book which can shape a human life and open the human soul to God.
The bulk of Bach’s church music was composed after he was appointed as the Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (we would say “Director of Music at St Thomas’ School and Church“) in 1723. This was to be the post that he held for 27 years, until he died following an eye operation in 1750.
Bach worked furiously in his first few years at Leipzig, composing a cantata every week for some years. A cantata is a piece of several movements sung by a choir backed by a small orchestra. Usually, Bach’s cantatas involve the set gospel readings for the Lutheran liturgy; but they also incorporated well-known hymns and words that commented on the texts. They were designed to fit in around the liturgy, preparing for and reflecting on the readings and the sermon. They were an adornment to the word of God, not a distraction from it.
It is thought that he composed more than three hundred of cantatas, though more than a hundred have been lost. How did he find the creative energy to do it? He worked in cramped and noisy conditions, surrounded by students, working with a scratchy pen on expensive paper, handwriting all the parts for his musicians. He had to cope with their idiosyncracies and limitations (you can imagine him trying to figure out how to hide a lazy baritone, or a wobbly treble), and, as church musicians have always found, with the quirks and complaints of the clergy. Then he had to rehearse the pieces on a Friday and Saturday, and perform it on Sunday. He then turned around and did it all over again the next week!
Was Bach just a journeyman composer, composing music for his ecclesiastical masters to order, rather than from his own personal conviction? Written evidence of Bach’s personal convictions is very sketchy. We do know that he purchased and clearly read large and sophisticated Bible commentaries. He also had in his keeping a de luxe edition of the works of Martin Luther, the great German reformer. As Gardiner says, “Bach’s working library, estimated to have contained at least 112 different theological and homiletical works was less like a typical church musician’s and more what one might expect to find in the church of a respectably sized town”, or indeed, in a pastor’s study. Clearly, he was a committed reader of the Bible and of theology.
And it was more than that, as Gardiner shows through his analysis of the music of the cantatas and the other great works, such as the St Matthew Passion. Bach clearly resonated with Luther’s profound description of the Christian’s experience of life in the midst of suffering and death. The Christian hope is not given, like a greeting card, as a trite fix to despair. It is a wrestling of hope from despair. Bach, orphaned at the age of twelve, lost his first wife while he was away travelling and returned to find her long buried. Of his twenty children, only eight survived infancy. In his Christian music, we do not find a denial of the crushing reality of life’s hardships, and its bewilderments. We do not find an avoidance of doubt. Nor is everything simply neatly resolved. But we do also find lines of hope and joy; and we are drawn again and again to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Gardiner writes: “in his hands, music is more than the traditional analogue of hidden reality, more even than an instrument of persuasion or rhetoric; it encapsulates the role of religious experience as he understaood it, charting the ups and downs of belief and doubt in essentially human terms and in frequently dramatic ways, and rendering these tensions and quotidian struggles vivid and immediate.”
By all accounts, Johann Sebastian Bach was an ordinary fellow in person, and a bit grumpy with it. He once got into a mess when he called an inadequate bassoonist “a %&#& of a bassoonist” in a rehearsal – an argument that later on led to Bach attacking the man with a knife in (he claimed) self-defence. His correspondence is filled with complaining about his pay and conditions, just as any of us would. But his musical output clearly comes from somewhere real – a deep sense of the mercy and love of God in Jesus Christ.
Would that the church musicians of today could capture even a fraction of Bach’s inspiration, to the glory of God alone!