The Sweet Psalmist of Leipzig

Embarking on my “Bach Sabbatical” I looked first at the some of the claims recent recording artists made about him. That Bach’s sacred works are on a level with Scripture – the written Word. Or that Bach’s music is the voice of God in human form, the voice of Jesus Christ – the incarnate Word.

That led me to ask a number of questions of which I think these are some that stay with me 3 months or so later

  • What is it uniquely about the music of Bach that causes such claims to be made for it?
  • Is there something about the character, form, structure of the music of Bach that is uniquely suited to carry the inspired word and to be “the voice of God”?
  • Does the structure, order, harmonic and rhythmic richness and complexity (what Sir Thomas Beecham meant perhaps by “Protestant counterpoint”!) of Bach reflects God’s written Word in a particularly helpful way?
  • Does Bach’s music have anything to say about worship today. About contemporary Christian Music, or the so-called “Spiritual music” of composers from Olivier Messiaen to Arvo Part and John Tavener
  • Is our worship music today impoverished and does it need to re-discover something from what Bach can teach us

Although I’ve not followed my original scheme of spending every Friday there, I did spend my first Sabbatical Friday in January at Tyndale House. They only had one tiny pamphlet [1] which seemed at all relevant, which was by Robin Leaver who has made a special study over his lifetime of Bach as theologian, preacher and lover of Scripture. [2]

Leaver reminded me of Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17 ESV)

Bach’s music is perhaps the greatest exemplar and exposition of that exhortation. The word dwells so richly, as I hope to show, that no other composer or songwriter before or since has achieved anything close.

And it’s no accident.

Jaroslav Pelikan puts it like this:

[Bach’s] whole life and work were a living testimony to his conviction that man could not live bread or by beauty, but only by the Word that proceeded from the mouth of God. [3]

At the start of many of his manuscripts Bach wrote the letters JJ, standing for Jesu Juva or Jesus Help Me. As Leaver points out in a talk some years ago entitled “Bach. A Preacher?” [4] was that help me compose? or help me perform, or both? And at the end he usually wrote S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone).

In the same talk Leaver responds to a question about why Bach speaks to us today, even if have no Lutheran or theological background, by explaining how Bach often develops his music from one simple idea, something which Jeremy Begbie [5] and Lawrence Dreyfus [6] have both written further about, yet same time uses all the deep, layered complexity of scriptural, chorale, tonal, numerical and even visual references. Somehow in all of this he still creates such beautiful music that still speaks to us, without knowing anything of the deeper layers of meaning.

Perhaps the reason Bach’s music retains its impact today is hiding in plain sight. The Holy Spirit is saying to us today: this man so embodied what it means to have the Word of Christ dwelling so richly in his music, that I cannot help but bless it. Even if people today don’t understand the significance of the music or why the Word of Christ infuses almost every bar.

I think it’s safe to claim that Bach’s church music is unique (at least in the church music we know today) in being so completely grounded in Scripture rather than liturgical or non-scriptural religious texts. Melvin Unger has compiled a volume [7] entitled: Handbook to Bach’s sacred cantata texts: An interlinear translation with reference guide to Biblical quotations and allusions. Of its 750 pages, around 700 of show the text of each extant Bach Church cantata and direct quotations and scriptural allusions in them.

For example, the first cantata in the book BWV1 (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern – How beautifully the morning star shines) is a typical chorale cantata written in 1725 in Leipzig and based on the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (1599) by Philipp Nicolai. It is from Bach’s second annual cycle many of which were based on Chorales. Unger finds (at my rough count) 86 direct or indirect scripture references in this 6 movement cantata which lasts around 20 mins – completely typical of the majority of Bach’s cantatas.

If that’s not letting the Word of Christ dwell richly, it’s hard to know what is!!

Leaver in the same talk points out that the cantata cannot be divorced from the service and liturgy which it was designed to enhance. All of which was leading up to the sermon based on the same lectionary texts of the day that the cantata also illustrated.

And everything about the cantatas was surely designed to emphasise the Word. So many references to the chorales of the day, so would immediately ring bells. So many references to Scripture, which again would bring instant recognition.

Wolff points out:

Before composing the cantata, [Bach] had to select its text and prepare it for publication in the form of booklets that the congregation could read before during the performance. These booklets, in conveniently small octavo format, contained the cantata texts for several Sundays in a row, usually six. Beside the libretto of the Christmas Oratorio, five such booklets have survived… That twelve such booklets were needed per year gives us a inkling of the advance planning needed for carrying out Bach’s music program. [8]

These booklets were funded by Bach himself and sales were a source of extra income. Wolff also notes in his footnote that “details of the print run and sales for regular cantata booklets are not available, but information about a passion booklet for a Good Friday performance in 1738 suggests that Bach counted on 300 saleable copies…” Telemann did a similar thing in Hamburg. Not only was this a source of income, but it surely also emphasises the high importance Bach gave to the sung word.

Not everyone has agreed in the 20th century that Bach was indeed ““the classic Lutheran layman”, “a sign of God,” “the Preacher,” “the Teacher,” “the Theologian,” “the first great German voice since Luther,” and, more extravagantly still, “Bach, the fifth evangelist.”” [9]

Friedrich Blume cast doubt on whether Bach was more than a musician who worked for the church simply out of expedience largely because of work from Alfred Dürr which showed that “after his appointment as cantor in Leipzig in 1723, Bach spent the next give years or so in feverish activity, almost exclusively devoted to church music. The period from 1728 to about 1733 shows a distinct decrease in output, and after 1733 Bach apparently composed only a few occasional pieces.” [10]

Leaver believes it was not because he lost his faith or his vocation as a church musicians, but because of “lack of understanding and sympathy on the part of the officialdom in Leipzig” [10] something which certainly appears to be born out by his memorandum of August 23rd, 1730: A Short but Most Necessary Draft of a Well-Appointed Church Music with Certain Modest Reflections on the Decline of the Same [11]

One day perhaps I will to expand on some of these early thoughts to answer some of the questions posed at the start. But for now my overarching conclusion is that our worship music today could only benefit from following more of Bach’s lead and Paul’s exhortation to “let the Word of Christ dwell…richly”. After all, as Nick Page has said in his wonderfully titled book on worship song writing “And now let’s move into a time of nonsense” [12] – it’s a great source of lyrics.

More seriously, I am reminded of how the last words of David in 2 Samuel are described.

Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, the son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man who was raised on high,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel:
(2 Samuel 23:1 ESV)

perhaps the sweet Psalmist of Leipzig deserves equal praise?

[1] Leaver, R. (1982) Music as Preaching : Bach, Passions and Music in Worship. Oxford: Latimer House. (Latimer Studies, 13

[2] See for example, Leaver, R. A. (1985). J.S. Bach and scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House.

[3] J. Pelican, Fools for Christ. Essays on the True, the Good and the Beautiful, Philadelphia, 1955 p. 153

[4] Bach, a Preacher? University of California, Santa Barbara Robin Leaver January 17, 2001. http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/ retrieved 20/2/2015

[5] Begbie, J. (2011). Resonant witness: Conversations between music and theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

[6] Dreyfus, L., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1996). Bach and the patterns of invention. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[7] Bach, J. S., & Unger, M. P. (1996). Handbook to Bach’s sacred cantata texts: An interlinear translation with reference guide to Biblical quotations and allusions. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.

[8] Wolff, C. (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The learned musician. Oxford: Oxford University. p.259

[9] Leaver, R. A. (1985). J.S. Bach and scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House. p.13

[10] Ibid. p.14

[11] David, H., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (Eds.). (1998). The new Bach reader: A life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton., no. 151. See also nos. 152 and 162.

[12] Page, N. (2004). And now let’s move into a time of nonsense: Why worship songs are failing the church. Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media.

Solomon’s Manifesto

With just 46 days to the 2015 UK parliamentary election, politics and political manifestos and priorities are foremost in many people’s minds.

So I was interested to read Psalm 72, which is described as being “of Solomon”

On the prophetic level this is recognised as a Messianic Psalm, prophesying the reign of Jesus, which forms the basis for the great Advent hymn: Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.

But as this forms the end of Book 2 of the Book of Psalms of David, is it too fanciful to see this as one of the last prayers of David which Solomon adopted as the political manifesto for his reign. The ESV Study Bible seems to think it might.

The title, “of Solomon,” can mean that Solomon was the author (just as “of David” normally means that David wrote the psalm). On the other hand, it could mean that someone (perhaps David) spoke these words of (i.e., about) Solomon, setting out the goal for his reign (and for the reigns of his heirs).

In course of 19 verses we cover the justice system:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!

May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth!
In his days may the righteous flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more!

a brief outline of benefits system and social policy

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Optimistic economic forecasts:

Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!

May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
like the grass of the field!

Expansionist foreign policy:

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May desert tribes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

Long may he live;
may gold of Sheba be given to him!
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all the day!

May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May people be blessed in him,
all nations call him blessed!

Would that ALL political parties would adopt the commitment to justice and fairness outlined here.

There is one section, though, that’s pretty likely to be absent from any of the party manifestos. The section on the spiritual ambitions of the nation:

May they fear you while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen!

That’s the only sound basis for any of the other commitments promises and claims, and one that we will look for in vain in the next seven or eight weeks.

may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen!

The Bitter made Sweet

Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of a Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. Exodus 15:22-25

In my Bach Sabbatical studies have been reading a bit recently about Luther’s Hermeneutics of Bible Study.

According to Eric Chafe, Luther believed in the unity of the Old and New Testaments, Christ being the subject of the entire scriptures. He extended this through use of the “analogy of faith” to see in allegory and metaphor for example “comparing the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem the roles of Law and Gospel in the individual” [1]

Luther’s approach differed little from the Puritans in this regard, and I was reminded of this in the passage from Exodus I read today.

Daniel Whedon, in his commentary on the Bible quotes Luther as follows:

Moses causes man to murmur by the terrors of the law, and thus pains him with bitterness, so that he longs for help; and then, when the Holy Spirit comes, at once it [the law] is made sweet. Now this tree of life is the Gospel, the word of the grace, the mercy, and goodness of God. When the Gospel is plunged into the law, and into the knowledge of sin which the law produces, and when it touches a heart in which the law has caused sadness, anxiety, terror, and confusion, it is at once delightful to the taste. [2]

As a side note, I don’t know whether this precise comment was contained in Bach’s copy of the Calov Bible, which consisted largely of Luther’s comments on scripture, but it seems likely it was and Bach certainly read the biblical passage as he annotated in the margin both before and after. [3]

English authors, among them Matthew Henry, Spurgeon have drawn attention to the allegory of the cross in this passage. Matthew Henry, as always, is worth quoting:

Some make this tree typical of the cross of Christ, which sweetens the bitter waters of affliction to all the faithful, and enables them to rejoice in tribulation. The Jews’ tradition is that the wood of this tree was itself bitter, yet it sweetened the waters of Marah; the bitterness of Christ’s sufferings and death alters the property of ours. [4]

For myself I thought more when I read this of applying God’s Word and promises, and later of the Gospel as Luther does.

Whether the cross, or the gospel or the Word of God, it’s good to see how the Old Testament experiences of the people of Israel can still speak to our situation today.


[1] Chafe, Eric T. (1991). Tonal allegory in the vocal music of J.S. Bach. Berkeley: University of California Press. p.13

[2] Whedon, Daniel. “Commentary on Exodus 15:1″. “Whedon’s Commentary on the Bible”. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/view.cgi?bk=1&ch=15. 1874-1909

[3] Leaver, R. A. (1985). J.S. Bach and scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House. p. 71-73

[4] http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/exodus/15.html, accessed 18/3/2015

Norrington mixes it up

I have to recommend a wonderful concert we went to last night in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  It’s on the iPlayer and well worth a listen.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was conducted by the inspiring if slightly eccentric Sir Roger Norrington and his whole approach left me grinning from ear to ear.  We started with Haydn’s Passione symphony, which he believes was written possibly for use in church. It was a small band with four double basses arranged two on either side, which I have not seen before and Sir Roger in the middle conducting without a baton. I honestly believe the RSNO could have played the whole symphony without a rehearsal, so expressive were Sir Roger’s gestures and so clearly communicating what he wanted, with encouragements and coaxings galore. They responded magnificently.

Next came Mozart’s d minor piano concerto in another unique arrangement, piano in the middle, lid removed, with Lars Vogt facing the orchestra and Sir Roger at the back of the piano facing him and the audience. The woodwind were arranged flute and oboes on the left and bassoons on the right, and the strings turned slightly so they could see the conductor. Not quite sure how the cellos, with their back to Sir Roger, managed.  It was wonderful to see Sir Roger’s expression now, which along with his hands were again drawing out wonderful playing. The piano was a little distant without the added projection from the lid, but all in all it was a fantastic experiment which almost paid off, apart from some issues with wind ensemble, which was hardly surprising given they were separated on opposite sides of the platform and also give the speed of the performance which must be among the fastest on record.

After the interval a more traditional arrangement, with basses along the back Vienna Philharmonic style, delivered another engaging performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

The whole concert left me enthused about the possibilities of new ways of thinking around arranging musicians in different layouts, and the expressive and musical possibilities of gesture, expression and sheer enthusiasm from a man who will be 81 years old in two weeks time.

Love divine, all loves excelling

As a diversion from Bach I was listening yesterday in the car to a lovely album of Purcell from Voces8 – including a beautiful rendition of his song Fairest Isle (words by Dryden) from the semi-opera King Arthur (1691).

I started singing Wesley’s hymn, Love Divine all loves excelling, to the same tune and realised how well it fitted. Consulting Wikipedia I discovered that indeed the hymn was originally written to the tune of that song, using the words of the first stanza as a model for Wesley’s own first verse.

While Dryden had written the following:

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures, and of loves;
Venus here, will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.

Wesley’s is as follows:

Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.

What is more the latest Methodist Hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms, contains the hymn set to Purcell’s tune in a version from John Wesley’s Sacred Harmony of 1780.

It’s a haunting melody and wonderful words that ought to be re-united more often, as here.

The Essence of Bach

Part of my Bach musings and reading are seeking to answer the question “How is it that Bach’s music speaks to us so directly in such Spiritual terms today?”  This was a question which was raised at the end of an excellent lecture by Robin Leaver which I watched yesterday entitled “Bach, a preacher?”

http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/

The lecture started with a wonderful anecdote from when Robin Leaver was a pastor (his words) in England. He talks about a Polish Biochemist who walked into the service on Sunday as he was preaching. The biochemist was fortunate to have a scholarship to study in the west at a time when this was rare and had sought Leaver out specifically. He had Christian academic friends at Moscow University who were developing an interesting line in evangelism. It was not unusual for students to become disillusioned with communism, and when they did these Christians gave them a cassette tape with extracts of Bach’s music which had spoken to them particularly and simply asked them to listen to it. When they went back to talk to these people the conversation revolved around the basic question “What motivated this man to write this music. What is it about this man that he was moved to created such wonderful music”.

Leaver says this:

The answer was and is that Bach wrote the music self-consciously as a Christian composer and his understanding of the Christian faith is woven into the texture and fabric of his music.

He then goes onto explain how a deep appreciation of both scripture and of the role of law and gospel in the Christian faith is indeed woven deeply into piece after piece.

The understanding of law and gospel in Bach’s cantatas is something I want to come back to, as is Leaver’s description of Bach as a “preacher in sound.”  How Bach does this is indeed amazing and wonderful and worthy of exploration. It also seems to relate to a Reformed approach to preaching which is outlined in Paul Scott Wilson’s interesting book “The four pages of the sermon” [1] which my former minister Dr. Michael Quicke drew my attention to the other day. Wilson outlines an approach to all sermon construction which should cover the four “pages” of Trouble in the Biblical Text, Trouble in our World, Grace in the Bible: What God did, Grace in our World: What God does. Frequently we see a similar story outlined in the twenty minute “sermons in sound” which are Bach’s cantatas.

Plenty to explore there, but for now I want to come back to the question which interests me most.

At the end of the talk a women in the audience asked the following [1:26:53 in the video linked above]

I was fascinated by you talking about using Bach as an [evangelistic] tool now, and obviously we are far removed from the baroque Lutheran understanding of these chorale tunes and we don’t have this chorale tune vocabulary that Bach’s audience would have had. How do you think that this music speak to us now without that context?

Leaver responds by explaining talks about how Bach often develops his music from one simple idea, something which Jeremy Begbie [2] and Lawrence Dreyfus [3] have both written further about, yet same time uses all the deep, layered complexity of scriptural, chorale, tonal, numerical and even visual references while still creating such beautiful music that still speaks to us, without knowing anything of the deeper layers of meaning.

All true – but I don’t think this answers the question. For me, it’s still out there.  Expect me to come back to that, because whatever it is, we should take it and make it part of our worship!

[1] Wilson, Paul Scott (1999). The four pages of the sermon: A guide to biblical preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

[2] Begbie, Jeremy. Created Beauty: The Witness of J S Bach in Begbie, J. (2011). Resonant witness: Conversations between music and theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] Dreyfus, L., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1996). Bach and the patterns of invention. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

A good walk

…none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. (Psalm 25:3-8, 12 ESV)

The picture at the top of my blog is from the top of Causey Pike, overlooking Keswick in the Northern Lake District. It is Elizabeth’s and my favourite walk and we have walked up there almost every year since our first trip together 30 years ago.

It’s a nice mix of steep and gentle walking, with a rest at the col as the vista over Newlands opens up, which also lets everyone catch up, before a slog and a scramble to the summit.

There is a lovely balance of walking and resting in this Psalm too, or walking while waiting; and of looking back and looking forward.

I observed four things as I read it this morning.

1. Waiting on and waiting for God is normal Christian experience
2. No one who waits for God will be put to shame. Resting on God and his salvation is certain
3. While waiting we should remember all God has done, and all that he has saved us from
4. v8 seems to say that as we wait God will show us the way to go, but also that as we walk he will instruct us.

Jesus promises to teach us as we walk with him. Follow in his steps. We take his yoke upon us and LEARN from him

So perhaps it’s like a good walk in the Lakes with a good friend. Having an attitude of waiting and listening and teachability while walking, chatting sometimes, just pushing forward together when its steep, stopping to check the path against the map, catching breath not forgetting to  look back to from where you have come and admire the view, and looking up to where we are headed and our ultimate goal of the summit.