Friday, February 24, 2023

Thoughts about Bach

Beginning on June 11, 1724, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a brand-new cantata for every Sunday and feast day -- it was a creative period that lasted some nine months.  Some have called it his “chorale cantata cycle.”  Though Bach has composed cantatas before, this was his second cycle of cantatas while in Leipzig, for the 1724/1725 season.  For many of us, this is the most important legacy of Bach and it would seem that he believed for himself that these cantatas were the most important parts of his work worth surviving him. As is usual, there were Sundays and feast days that did not occur in that cycle -- twelve Sundays and feast days to be specific.  Later in life, Bach would composed a cantata to fill in the gaps of this period and complete his legacy. 

Bach was a Lutheran -- not simply one who gave nod to the church of his upbringing but as a passionate believer and servant of the Church. Typically Bach used one of the great Lutheran chorales or hymns within his cantatas, thus signifying the great esteem with which he held the liturgical tradition of his faith.  Many times Bach used one of Luther’s original hymns as the basis for a chorale cantata -- generally placing the hymn as an opening chorus, generally in the form of a motet, using a composition style learned from the Renaissance period.  Though it would have been considered rather old fashioned already in his day, Bach would take this musical form and explore every aspect of its to make it profound and worthy of the text which is being sung. 

Sadly, such pieces have become museum works -- performed in secular concert settings in which the text is less significant than its musical setting.  This would be something Bach abhorred and it is an offense we as Lutherans should take to heart.  But then again, we have done it to ourselves.  You are much more likely to hear a spiritual or pop gospel style choral work in a Lutheran parish than the music of Bach, our resident creative genius!  More than 200 cantatas survive Bach and, while not complete, they are testament not simply to his musical prowess but to the vitality of his Lutheran faith.  Around three quarters of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas have survived.  With them we have perhaps three full cycles of the liturgical year.  The message is clear.  Both the composer and his preachers saw life as a grand rehearsal for death -- not a hopeless death but of the death that is a door and gate to everlasting life. The people in Leipzig’s main churches were regularly reminded of their mortality and of the weightiness of their sin and this is certainly reflected in Bach's cantatas as well.  Lest we think these were depressing and sober warnings of impending doom, Bach also offered the faithful a musical foretaste of the eternal feast to come and a treasure of comfort and joy and peace.

I wish that we Lutherans had the same urgency and profound conviction as we see evidenced in the musical life of Leipzig and manifest in the music of J. S. Bach.  I cannot watch Glenn Gould perform Bach (especially the Goldberg variations) without getting caught up with him in the sheer uninhibited joy that is manifest in the sounds that come from his piano under the guidance of the master.  Academic performances of Bach's cantatas certainly get the notes right but they so often miss the exuberant joy that is driven by Bach's faith described in the words that are sung.  The decline of Lutheranism just might be halted if we could capture in our own time the unrestrained joy that results from God's forgiveness and His rescue from death -- the things that make the Bach cantatas sing!  I recall someone who said that he knew he deserved to be punished for his sins but he wished that this punishment would not take place in church on Sunday mornings!  Bach is a remedy for those who put a period after sin and its grudging confession.  The mercy and grace of God are always the center and joy of Bach's church compositions and no where is this more true than the cantatas.

How odd it is that Bach is more well known for the Brandenburg Concertii than for any other musical composition!   Listen to any classical radio station and they will cycle through one or more of the Brandenburgs as their only offering to Bach and that period in history.  Even stranger is the fact that it does not seem that these were ever performed during Bach’s lifetime or that the Margrave whose name is attached to them every paid the bill for their composition!  So this is my call to Lutherans to rise up and make sure that the world hears this evangelist speak the Gospel in the marvel of his liturgical output now largely unheard.  If we don't do it, who will?????

1 comment:

Chris said...

Reap what you sow. You Lutherans gave into the demands of praise band music and other banal musical forms (e.g. Haugen) and you now complain about Bach and other great of the Lutheran music tradition relegated to museum pieces. It's your own fault. Lutheran clergy gave in to the demands of the people thinking it would rejuvenate attendance and zeal for the Gospel even though everyone knew back then that no such thing would happen. So, quit complaining. This is what happens when you reduce the liturgy to a concert so people can be entertained. Reap what you sow.