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.

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One thought on “The Sweet Psalmist of Leipzig

  1. Pingback: Word and Music – taking it forward | Word and Music

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