A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

God’s Word Dwelling Richly in Bach’s Cantatas (1)

O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe BWV 34

Cantata for Pentecost

As part of this blogs aim to look at how God’s Word can dwell richly in our music and worship, as Paul tells us it should, I hope from time to time to look at some of Bach’s Cantatas – works that seem to me to exemplify how this can be done above any other compositions I know.

Recently I was privileged to be in the audience for the last day of a week of masterclasses on Bach cantatas, and also for the final concert, both led by Mark Padmore at Snape Maltings, not far from where we live in Suffolk.

One of the arias explored during that week was from Bach’s cantata for Pentecost O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O eternal fire, O source of love) BWV 34, which was first performed in Leipzig in 1746/7.  The aria, for Alto, Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen (Blessed are you, you chosen souls), is a particularly beautiful one where the soloist is accompanied by two flutes and muted strings, giving it a particularly pastoral feel.  Mark Padmore made much of the players and soloist being at one in the way they phrased the music, following the words, Wohl euch, blessed are you.

The following weekend we heard the same aria, in the context of the whole cantata, when we attended the Bach Cantata Evensong at St John’s College, Cambridge. John’s perform a cantata each term as part of a Saturday evensong.  Although the liturgical setting differs considerably from what Bach would have known (his cantatas would have preceded a lengthy sermon on the same Biblical texts from the lectionary of the day which the cantata also sought to expound), it added greatly to the experience of the cantata to enter into the words and music as part of a service of worship (and evensong at John’s is, in my experience, always a service of worship rather than a performance).

In five short movements, the anonymous librettist first calls on the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in the hearts of the listener.  Drawing on words from the gospel reading of the day from John 14, he (or, indeed, she, since nine of Bach’s cantatas had their libretti written by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler), he goes on to claim the promise made by Jesus in v.23 that:

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 ESV)

Then in the alto aria and recitative that follows he argues that since God has promised to dwell in us by His Spirit, he cannot but then bless us, and this is the Lord’s doing (Psalm 118:23):

If God chooses the holy tabernacle, which he inhabits with salvation, then he must also pour blessing on them

The final chorus starts with the cry from Psalm 128 ‘Friede über Israel’, ‘Peace be upon Israel’ and encourages the listener to “be thankful: God has been mindful of you” (Psalm 115).

You will notice how much the librettist drew on Scripture, and this is a common theme in all Bach’s libretti, so much so that Melvin Unger has been able to write a companion, which runs to over 700 pages, showing all the scriptural references and allusions in the 200 or so church cantatas. In this cantata I count around 30 biblical references alone.

So apart from the way the Word of Christ “dwells” in the libretto itself, has Bach done anything else to draw out the meaning of the text in the way he has written the work?

The first movement (O ewiges Feuer, O eternal fire), starts with triumphant trumpets sustaining a long D (eternal?), while the rest of the orchestra have “restlessly flickering” semiquaver figures and runs (himmlische Flammen, heavenly flames, descending on each one?).   Schweitzer described them as “lambent flames that are to set the heart on fire.” This contrast of activity, and sustained long notes is passed around the orchestra, until the choir enters and the basses sing O ewiges, sustained over most of five bars, while the rest of the choir sings extended runs or melismas on the word Feuer. This is again passed around the choir, and the sustained note motif against melismas in the other parts is repeated throughout the first third of the movement, even as Bach writes a fugue on the words “enkindle our hearts and consecrate them.”  The middle section on the words “Let heavenly flames penetrate and well up…” is hardly less energetic, and then the whole first section is repeated.

As Theodore Glaser has written:

Bach paints fire and love with his music. The intentionally huge opening chorus for a large orchestra chronologically encompasses almost half of his cantatas. Musical fireworks go off as timpani and trumpets, stringed instruments, oboes and continuo make their entries. One sees and hears the crackling and licking of the flames. One feels the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit and the glow of love.

So far we have not noted the fact that this cantata is actually adapted from a Wedding Cantata written over 20 years earlier for a Lutheran pastor friend. This seems very appropriate if we recall that Pentecost is the birth of the Church, the bride of Christ. Once we know that the 3rd movement aria for alto makes much more sense. Voigt has noted that:

The beautiful alto aria gets its pastoral character from its original text which describes the peace that comes to a congregation through the protection offered it by the faithful shepherd (either Christ or the pastor.)

The original movement talks about the love Jacob had for Rachel and Bach takes that pastoral idyll of muted strings and the peaceful flutes moving in 3rds and 6ths to illustrate the “multitude of blessings” that accrue to the “chosen souls” that “God has selected for his dwelling.”

After a Bass recitative, which concludes the theological argument, the final chorus of “festive brilliance” runs on without a break using the cry from Psalm 128:6 “Peace be on Israel.”

There are other cantatas which I hope to consider in later posts, which perhaps use more complex musico-rhetorical devices, but few have a libretto that more richly engages with Scripture or a more helpful exposition of the gospel of the day. Truly, as Robin Leaver has said, Bach as Preacher.   I would encourage you to listen with libretto in hand and appreciate the promises of Scripture afresh this Sunday.

 

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.

 

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. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.

 

 

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.

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.

My Bach Project

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!