If Bach were my worship leader…why bother with Bach?

Over 20 years ago a Japanese organist and conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, embarked on a project to record all the sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Suzuki introduced the 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…[1]

Suzuki talks about what caused him to embark on such an ambitious cycle, finally completed 18 years 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” [1]

Concluding his thoughts in the last volume (volume 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! [2]

So with the words, Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone, which Bach wrote at the end of his sacred and secular works, Suzuki proclaims Bach as the fifth evangelist, as others have done before him [3].

It is not only Suzuki who has been inspired to Herculean efforts 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 almost every week another cantata recording seems to appear, not least in this year (2017) of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  John Eliot Gardiner doesn’t mince his words as he claims that Bach “gives us the voice of God – in human form” [4].

I am fascinated by the impact that Bach’s music has had over the centuries and still has today. From Soviet communist students in the 1970s [5], to the Japanese of the new millennium, where Masaaki Suzuki has been reported as saying that he is convinced that tens of thousands of Japanese have been baptized because of Bach [6].  I myself have found Bach’s music to be very helpful in my Christian faith, pointing me back, as Suzuki puts it, to the God that Bach worshipped and that I worship today, and to his Word in the Bible.

Much research has been undertaken into the music of Bach, the cultural and social context and theology of the time, as well as the transmission of his music since, and impact today. Encouragingly, as Jeremy Begbie has noted, “there is much to suggest that the time is ripe for a new and rewarding conversation between theologians and musicians regarding this stupendously gifted craftsman of sound” [7].

But as far as I can determine, few if any have applied this to the context of a musician working in the church today. Even fewer have thought about his relevance to the work of a worship leader using contemporary worship music in the evangelical church, as I do. So, I have to ask myself, why not? Bach worshipped the same God that I do.  His pastors preached the Bible, as mine do.  And although Bach was not a committed Pietist, there are many aspects of Pietism that influenced the libretti of his cantatas [8], and appear to me to contain many of the same elements of mainstream evangelicalism and the charismatic movement (with quite a few of the same criticisms). We can trace a line from Pietism down to the present day, a recent example I have encountered being the influence of Count von Zinzendorf on Pete Greig and the 24×7 prayer movement [9].

Ruth Tatlow, in her book Bach’s Numbers, has written, in a musicological context, of the problem of hearing and thinking as Bach did.

The many philosophical and musical differences between Bach and ourselves are increasingly irreconcilable. A face-to-face conversation with Bach would be the simplest way to answer many of these questions, but as this is impossible the musicologist has to confront the problem and decide: either to give up any ambition to hear and think as Bach did, content to discover twenty-first-century resonances in his music; or to continue to attempt to hear as Bach did, and strive to understand the universe and music as he understood it. [10]

Like Tatlow, I choose the latter, and believe there must be value in attempting to understand the world in which Bach wrote, and therefore what makes Bach music speak to us of God so directly today, and how we could take those principles and apply them the worship of the church today, and especially to the context in which I mostly work – contemporary evangelical church worship.

I am not saying that all evangelical churches should add the occasional Bach Cantata to their repertoire of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman [11], although Keith Getty has used the music of Bach in at least one of his songs (A Worker’s Prayer) and has called him “my hero for sure” and “the model of a church musician’’ [12]. I am saying, however, that Getty is right. Bach is the model of a church musician and, as such, there are things in the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which can teach us how to be better church musicians, and something about how we use music in worship today.  That will help us in our day to day task of leading worship, and will also lead us to a deeper appreciation of Bach’s music itself.

It can legitimately be asked how a 20th Century musician leading a worship band can learn anything from an 18th Century musician leading concerted music with a baroque orchestra and choir in a cavernous, and often freezing Lutheran church.  I think this is a bit like the question that Suzuki has said was posed to him: ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ [1]. The issue for us is not simply geographical/cultural or theological but also chronological distance. But the answer is the same one Suzuki gave which I referred to above: we worship the same God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. As Christians, we may be able to find something in the music of Bach which people who don’t share his faith, although knowledgeable, might miss. Jeremy Begbie expresses a similar view when he asks:

Why should serious scholarship not consider the possibility that Bach’s music might articulate a disturbing resistance to some of the metaphysical and, indeed, theological (or anti-theological) axes on which modernity and much modern scholarship have habitually turned. [13]

If we use what Begbie calls a “biblically rooted perspective” [14] then I believe we can find the principles behind Bach’s music, and extract them from the time and place and give them a more eternal perspective which sounds down into the present day. Then we will have found something extremely valuable.  And if we think there is nothing to learn, then could we not be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery?

This is not just hagiography, along the lines of those who claim that Bach was “never known to speak a word of complaint” [15]. A quick flick through Bach’s letters in A New Bach Reader will soon dispel that illusion [16]. But there’s value there too. The frustrations Bach had are not that different from those of any church musician, and we can learn both positively and negatively from how he handled them.

In the end, none of the above is particularly controversial. You might suggest that I am largely wasting my time, but if something good comes out of it that’s fine. However, there are a couple of areas which have got me into trouble before which I would like to explore.

Firstly, Harold M Best’s statement that music is without moral quality has always troubled me [17]. It troubles quite a few others in the more conservative evangelical stable too, but seems to have been accepted as orthodoxy elsewhere.  I would like to explore the nature of Bach’s music and, if possible, unpack a thought that there is something inherent in way Bach’s music is put together which makes it particularly suited to carry Biblical (propositional) truth. In this context, Ken Myers has argued that “Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning” [18].  I will try to argue that Bach’s music is full of non-propositional meaning of the most Christian sort!

Secondly, the other orthodoxy is that music from all periods, all traditions of the Christian church is equally valid to be used in worship.  Let’s use (from a very non-exhaustive list) Gregorian Chant, the Eton Choir Book, Josquin, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Wesley, Fuguing tunes, Sankey, Elgar, James Macmillan, John Taverner.  My heart says yes, but my head says, wait a minute.  We would not use words from all periods of the Christian church in evangelical, bible-based worship.  We would recognise that there have been periods in the church that have been particularly fruitful in Christian thought, writing and preaching. We might cite (in another all too short short-list) the Reformation, the Puritans, the Wesleys and Whitfield, Spurgeon. Why could there not be periods in the Church that have been particularly fruitful in producing music for worship? I think particularly of periods of revival for example. I’m not so convinced of this second proposition. But I think it’s worth exploring, particularly in the context of understanding why Bach and his music came at the time it did.

So, if we can, in Ruth Tatlow’s words, “strive to understand the universe and music as [Bach] understood it” [9], and understand Bach’s music itself, perhaps we will be able to find why his music continues to have such an impact, and perhaps bottle some his “secret sauce” to pour liberally over our own efforts at leading music in worship today.


[1] Suzuki, Masaaki (1995). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.1 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 4

[2] Suzuki, Masaaki (2013). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.55 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 5

[3] According to Christoph Wolff, “The course was set in the nineteenth century. With the authoritative writings of Spitta and Rust, the concept of the ‘Fifth Evangelist’ was preordained.” In a footnote (12) he notes that “The notion of “Bach the fifth Evangelist” goes back to Nathan Söderblom, [1866-1931] the Swedish theologian, cf. Hans Besch, ‘J. S. Bach. Frömmigkeit und Glaube’ 2d ed. (Kassel, 1950), p. 3.” Wolff, C. (1999). Bach: essays on his life and music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 285 and footnote 12.

[4] Gardiner, John Eliot (2013). Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Allen Lane, 558

[5] Robin Leaver (2001). Bach, a Preacher? at 8’43’’. Retrieved from http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/

[6] Weigel, G. (2001). Bach Converts Japan. Retrieved from  https://eppc.org/publications/bach-converts-japan/

[7] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 41.

[8] Pelikan, J. (2003). Bach among the theologians. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 56-71.

[9] Greig, P. (2017). Dirty Glory. London: Hodder & Stoughton

[10] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 34

[11] Although, why not? One of the most wonderful performances of a Bach cantata I have heard was of Cantata 140, Wachet Auf, in the context of an evensong at an evangelical Anglican church, with a sermon preached (in this case before the cantata, not afterwards) explaining and expounding the Bible passages on which the cantata is based. It probably helped that my daughter was playing the oboe obbligato. The involvement of family for a worship leader is something we might explore further when we look at Bach’s own family and heritage.

[12] 9marks (2017). Music for the Church: Mark Dever Interviews Keith Getty. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/interview/music-for-the-church-mark-dever-interviews-keith-getty/, at 11’57’’

[13] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 72.

[14] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 48.

[15] Kavanaugh, P. (1992). The spiritual lives of the great composers. Milton Keynes, Eng.: Word Publishing, 34

[16] David, H. T., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (1999). The new Bach reader: a life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton. For example see Bach’s resignation letter from Mühlhausen on page 57, or his dispute with the Rector Ernesti of the Thomasschule, Leipzig, on page 189ff.

[17] See Best, H.M. (1993). Music Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperOne.

[18] 9marks (2014). Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/article/journalmusic-and-meaning-some-forms-are-better-others/

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