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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About Time

time-piece-puzzler-ftrAppropriately enough for a Sabbatical I have been reading a couple of books about time.

The first by Jeremy Begbie, Music, Theology and Time, [1] seeks to look at how time relates to music and what that might teach us about God. In other words “What would it mean to theologise not simply about music but through music?” (Begbie, p.4)

The second is The Sabbath [2] by one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

There are a couple of immediate insights I want to share here.

The first is that time is good. This is not obvious to the modern or indeed postmodern mind. In a chapter looking at the music of John Tavener, Begbie talks about a pathology of time where we experience awareness of the loss of what is good, are haunted by the sadness of the past we would love to forget but can’t, and either hold a fear of the future or pour into that future all kinds of hopes and expectations which may ultimately disappoint us.

But, there are number of Biblical reasons for stating that time is a gift, neither not “neutral nor inherently threatening.” (Begbie, p.97)

To start with, time is not a result of the Fall as we might suppose, but precedes it. With all the emphasis on interpretations of Genesis 1, as to whether God created the world in seven actual days and so forth and without wanting to resurrect that debate here, I wonder if we have at least partly missed the point. Which is that God created the world in time. The Hebrew word is יוֹם, yom meaning day or time.  And He did not create it in one day, but over six days, the creation of each day building on the next with the climax the creation of man on day Six. We will have more to say about that later.

Then, we see that God acts within time. Heschel has much to say about that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space…it is more concerned with history than with geography.”

…the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting himself in events of history rather than in things or places…The main themes of faith lie in the realms of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days. (Heschel, p.8)

Of course for the Christian, the day has both already come and lies still in the future. But we see that “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1) and that the whole of history, of creation, turns on 33 years of Jesus’ life, 3 years of Jesus’ ministry and 3 days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That the God of eternity fulfilled his eternal purposes ordained before the creation of the world at a point in time, when Jesus said “It is finished.”

Karl Barth has written:

The many philosophical theories of time which deny its reality and regard it as a mere form or abstraction or figment of the imagination can only be finally abandoned when we consider that God himself once took time and treated it as something real [3]

Begbie argues from that we can use music to build on the fact that time is inherently good, and a gift. He says, “To share in music is to find a temporality in which – at least to some extent – past, present and future have been made to interweave fruitfully.” (Begbie, p.150)

Second, the Bible points us to a further insight, that time is holy. Heschel’s little book on The Sabbath has many insights, but none more rewarding I think than this:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word קָדוֹשׁ qadosh, holy… Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen 2:3)…It seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.  (Heschel, p.9)

There is much more to be said, but for now let’s conclude with this. If time is good and time is holy then I must stop longing for the past or regretting the past; or longing for the future and loading it with expectation or dreading the future. I should recognise now as a gift and seek to enjoy it and savour it as good and holy; as a gift.

[1] Begbie, J. (2000). Theology, music, and time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Heschel, A. J. (1951). The Sabbath, its meaning for modern man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

[3] Barth, K. (1957). Church Dogmatics; Volume 2, the Doctrine of God, Part 1, Edited by G.W / Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. S.l.: T. & t. Clark. p.620

Learn from me

I was fortunate enough to be asked again to lead worship at the Friends International staff conference last weekend at The Hayes in Derbyshire. It’s always a really enouraging time for me – people are so appreciative and affirming and encouraging and the Bible ministry is always excellent and challenging.

At the start of the conference a staff worker from Edinburgh challenged us to expect to hear from God, and she had done last year – attending several seminars which didn’t seem that relevant at the time, but which as it turned out prepared her well for things God was doing in her work through the year that followed. I prayed that God would do the same for me, and for all of us that weekend.

And so, I believe, it proved, at least for me. It was wonderful to hear Desi Maxwell preach 3 times on the same passage – the end of Matthew 11

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

Drawing on his enthusiasm for Jewish teaching he set the words of Jesus in wonderful context.  Talking to him over lunch he recommended the writings of one of the foremost Jewish scholars Abraham Heschel and I am looking forward to reading two of his books, The Sabbath and The Prophets.

But thinking back, what has struck me most as very applicable to this Sabbatical I am taking are the words “Learn from me” and how they relate to a couple of Ccriptures.

One is Psalm 131 – a verse that God brought to my attention a few months ago in the middle of a lot of struggle which finally led to this period of rest I am currently enjoying:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2 ESV)

The idea of calming and quieting my soul was pretty appealing. But was my idea of study, of travelling to Cambridge “occupying myself with things to great and too marvellous for me”?  It had seemed that as I had gone on reading and seeking God, I was understanding less and less.

Then a second famous passage spoke with new force and seemed to provide a way forward

[Martha]… had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:39-42 ESV)

I saw that Mary was not being passive. She was not simply doing nothing and sitting doe-eyed at Jesus feet. She was listening to his teaching.[1] Learning from Him. Perhaps even talking, asking questions. We see in John 11 that she is quite prepared to challenge Jesus strongly – and that comes from a relationship which is far from passive.

So I think my Sabbatical is taking a new focus. Calming and quieting my soul. Taking some time away from being distracted with much serving. But also sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, studying and above all “learning from Jesus”.  Let’s see where that takes me. Ought to be pretty good.

[1] After posting this, I read Tom Wright about this passage from Luke for Everyone and he says this:

‘Sitting at someone’s feet’ doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, dog-like adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or a sports idol. When Saul of Tarsus ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 22.3), he wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting it together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There is no thought here of learning for learning’s sake. Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God.  Wright, N. T. (2004). Luke for everyone. London: SPCK. p.130

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!

Sabbatical musings

During the first few months of 2015 I am taking a mini-semi-Sabbatical from Church, and also from all but one of the choirs that I seem to have started leading over the past few years.  Due to some changes at work I am also managing to take every Friday off and and planning some reading and informal study around anything that interests me, but primarily (unsurprisingly) Word and Music.

Watch this space for I hope much more regular updates on what I am reading and discovering about Bach, music, theology, singing, the Bible and connections between them.

What’s the purpose? Apart from to re-group and re-fresh and listen to any fresh revelations of His purpose, I think (to quote from a talk I heard last weekend) “the goal is God”.  A greater understanding of who He is, leading to greater worship.  And if there’s one thing I am seeing more clearly than ever, understanding comes through hearing the Word and putting it into practice.

If you want to check up on me through this, then hold me to those overarching goals.