It was about 15 years ago when I first discovered the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach through the recordings of Masaaki Suzuki.
Suzuki introduction to his first recording of what ended up as a series of 55 CDs of 196 works which make up what we have today of Bach’s output of sacred cantatas, with the following words (dated in the CD liner notes as The 50th anniversary of VJ-day, 15th August 1995)
It may seem strange to think that the Japanese perform the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of the most important figures in the history of German music… ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ – this is typical of the sort of question with which I was often confronted when living and performing in Holland a number of years ago…
In his introduction Suzuki talks about what caused him to embark on such an ambitious cycle, finally completed 18 year later in 2013. He says that “the God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same.” Bach’s music is “a true product of German culture” which gives a Japanese some difficulties, but “what is most important in infusing a Bach cantata score in real life in performance is a deep insight into the fundamental religious message each work carries” [liner notes: Cantatas Vol 1, BIS CD-751]
Concluding his thoughts in the last volume (vol 55) of the series Suzuki implies that Bach’s cantatas are God-breathed in the same way as the scriptures.
Humbly I state that J S Bach and I believe in the same God. I am directly linked to the music of Bach through God. I have come to understand how Bach believed in God, as Bach inscribed his inner belief through his cantatas…With the help of his disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. This is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God’s message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria!
So with Bach’s “handle” with which he concluded all his sacred and secular works, Suzuki proclaims Bach, as others have done before him, as the fifth evangelist.
It is not only Suzuki who has been inspired by Bach’s cantatas. On Christmas Day 1999, in Weimar, John Eliot Gardiner embarked on his Bach Cantata pilgrimage with the aim of “performing all Bach’s surviving church cantatas in the course of the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.” Further cycles of the cantatas are underway or have been recently completed from Ton Koopman, Philip Herreweghe, Sigiswald Kuijken, and many others.
I too, have been captured by the cantatas of Bach since I bought that first CD. Like Suzuki, I have come to believe that there is something in His music which, to quote John Eliot Gardiner “gives us the voice of God – in human form” [Gardiner, John Eliot. Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.London: Allen Lane, 2013. p. 558].
I wonder if Gardiner or Suzuki truly realise the claims they are making? 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.
This leads me to ask a number of questions:
Looking at this first from a musical point of view:
- What is it uniquely about the music of Bach that causes such claims to be made for it? Claims that are made for the music few other composers as far as I am aware. Although Karl Barth made similar claims for Mozart.
- 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?
Then historically and theologically:
- What was it about the historical context that gave rise to Bach and his music?
- Was there something in the theology and emphases of Luther, Lutheranism, or Protestantism in general or the particular brands of Protestantism such as Pietism that pertained at that time, which influenced Bach’s music uniquely which makes it what it is?
- Bach’s music to me seems infused with Joy and Hope and Truth above all things – but that is a subjective view. Are there theological emphases or attributes of God and His character which Bach particularly emphasises? What are they? Are there other aspects of God’s nature which Bach misses, or which the Lutheranism of the time missed?
And finally culturally and sociologically
- What has caused such a resurgence in his music in recent years, and enthusiasm from musicians of all backgrounds, with or without a Christian faith?
- 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
- Are there parallels between the music of Bach and contemporary worship music today – especially Gospel music, which might illuminate this?
- Is our worship music today impoverished and does it need to re-discover something from what Bach can teach us?
- Have we lost something of the sense of beauty in worship, which looking at the music Bach can help us recover?
There area couple of other questions in my mind as I embark on this
- (This question has got me into trouble before) Is there truly a type of music which better reflects God than another type? Or is it just individual preference? Is there any type of music (or art) which cannot reflect the Glory and nature of God, music that fights against the words or ideas it is carrying? For example, does music that reflects God have to be, ultimately, beautiful?
- Does the type of music we like, and the type of music we find helpful in worship reflect the underlying nature of our relationship with God. A kind of music-language of worship, akin to the (in)famous “love languages” or the nine spiritual temperaments referred to by Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Pathways. What might those musical temperaments be?
And for me personally, how can a study of Bach show us more of who God is and his character and nature and so cause my love for Him to be kindled afresh, my relationship with Him deepen and my spirit to rise in worship and praise. It’s some of these topics I hope to be investigating during my Sabbatical. Soli Deo Gloria indeed!