IT TOOK a long time for Johann Sebastian Bach to be acknowledged as a musical genius. More than 250 years after his death in 1750, and despite the rich legacy associated with his name, he remains an enigma.
Although the letters of Mozart or Beethoven tell us a great deal about their private thoughts and feelings, we know comparatively little about Bach’s inner workings. He tells us nothing, for example, of how he coped with the sudden death of his first wife, the premature deaths of several of his children (he fathered 20 in all), or the myopia of a city council that — after employing him — recorded in the minutes of April 1723, “Since we cannot get the best man, we must put up with a mediocre one.”
Wiki/Creative CommonsJohann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1695-1774)
The familiar portrait of Bach, painted in 1746, four years before his death, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, confirms the impression of a private, even inscrutable, man of natural reserve. He is wigged and amply proportioned. The look in his eyes and his pursed lips conceal rather than reveal. In his right hand, we see a script representing his membership submission to the Society of Musical Sciences.
The document suggests how Bach was perceived by contemporaries and detractors. They viewed him as “a mere old-fashioned wig stuffed with learning”: a technical expert, admittedly, where the organ was concerned, but otherwise somewhat dull and out of step with changing times, and with only nine published works to his credit.
He was never a European superstar, never lived in Vienna, London, or Paris, and never wrote the operas that brought his contemporaries musical fame. From his middle years, he rarely strayed from the confines of St Thomas’s, a Lutheran church in Leipzig, where he directed the choir and taught at its affiliated school.
He could be prickly. Ecclesiastical officials vexed him, and his duties frequently proved onerous. Some of his greatest works went unappreciated, and, at one point, a decision was taken by seven votes to four to reduce his salary.
The modest fame that he enjoyed in life came late; and not until 80 years after his death — thanks, largely, to the prescience of a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn — did Bach’s name and music undergo the beginning of a revival.
And yet. . . it is in the years of relative obscurity, and positions tinged with disappointments and sporadic griefs, that Bach created a unique body of work which speaks not only of God, but also of “the joyous essence of being”, as it has been aptly described.
Paradoxes present themselves at this point. Far from being plodding, predictable, or even tediously mathematical, Bach’s music is frequently and gloriously tuneful, imbued as it is with the spirit of the dance. His Brandenburg Concertos radiate an energy and exuberance that can ease the anxiety or depression of our less-than-brilliant days; his cello suites are joyful as well as sorrowful; and his spiritual works convey an intensity of feeling which refutes the image of Bach as somewhat dry, remote, or cerebral.
In its place, we have Bach the believer, blessed with an astonishing ability to express deep and sincere emotions. He embarks on new compositions with the inscription “INJ” (In nomine Jesu) or “JJ” (Jesu juva: Jesus, help). Finished works are signed off with the letters “SDG” (Soli Deo Gloria: “To God alone be the glory”). His music is less a prolonged or melancholic farewell to life than a vibrant personal testimony to the Creator and Judge who sets our lives and deaths within a providential order.
WE LISTEN to Bach and we hear the thrill and promise of his Advent chorales, and the sound of the trumpets in the final “Dona nobis pacem” of the Mass in B minor. In his great oratorio, the St Matthew Passion, Bach unfolds for us, with unparalleled insight and grace, the mystery and pathos of the Christ who, in consenting to his own destruction, invites our allegiance to his cause, and the recognition of who he is.
Through Bach’s music, we also witness a skilled theologian upholding the faith of Luther and the German Reformation. Bach attended the same Latin school as Luther had attended two centuries before, and grew up in the shadow of Wartburg Castle, where Luther found sanctuary after his famous “Here I stand” speech.
Bach’s education steeped him in orthodox Lutheran theology. He used Luther’s translation of the Bible. Scholars examining Bach’s library after his death found that it contained 18 folio volumes of Luther’s writings. Bach knew and taught the Lutheran Catechism, and signed the Formula of Concord — not once, but twice, stating that he endorsed Lutheran doctrines and rejected other more radical or pietistic Reformation beliefs.
More than this, however, he shared Luther’s deep and consoling conviction that “music is next to theology — that next to the Word of God, only music deserves to be exalted as the mistress and governess of the human heart”.
BACH’s character and achievements reveal what his portrait hides: a life of creative energy and faith; a lack of pomposity or corrosive ambition; and an attitude of acceptance towards his death. At the end of his life, after an unsuccessful operation on his eyes which left him exhausted and, eventually, blind, Bach dictated the last of 18 chorale preludes to his son-in-law. He asked that it should be given the title “I come before thy throne of grace.”
He died a few days later, in his 66th year; a pilgrim to the end, holding fast to the God who, in the words of Luther’s famous hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, had proved “a safe stronghold and a trusty shield”. Four decades later, Mozart heard a Bach motet at a church in Leipzig. When the double chorus had finished, he remarked, “This is something we can learn from.”
Bach remains our teacher, and never disappoints.
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer and theologian.