28 July 2008

Commemorating the Fifth Evangelist

Today we commemorate the life and work of J. S. Bach, Kantor, sometimes called the Fifth Evangelist for his incredible testimony to the Gospel of Christ in sacred song. This was the day he rested from earthly music and entered the heavenly choir. On a personal note, learning and performing some of his great pieces in college was truly one of the high points of attending a Lutheran college: Jesus, Priceless Treasure (all 20 minutes worth); Be Not Afraid; and many others. From our Synod's website:

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is acknowledged as one of the most famous and gifted of all composers past and present in the entire western world. Orphaned at the age of ten, Bach was mostly self-taught in music. His professional life as conductor, performer, composer, teacher, and organ consultant began at the age of 19 in the town of Arnstadt and ended in Leipzig, where for the last 27 years of his life he was responsible for all the music in the city's four Lutheran churches. In addition to his being a superb keyboard artist, the genius and bulk of Bach's vocal and instrumental compositions remain overwhelming. A devout and devoted Lutheran, he is especially honored in Christendom for his lifelong insistence that his music was written primarily for the liturgical life of the church to glorify God and edify his people.


wmc said...

I kind of view Bach as the father of contemporary worship. (smelling salts administered) Here's why:

1. He was a musical innovator, using a synthesizer (pipe organ) and band (orchestra).

2. He wrote new music for each Sunday.

3. He reinterpreted old tunes and recast them in a contemporary setting.

4. He elevated the role of the musician and music well above what it was in the 17th c. and especially what it was in the Roman and Eastern churches.

5. He set the liturgy to a contemporary setting.

Like it or not, Bach was an innovator. I wonder what he would do today? WWBD? We might be surprised.

Laura Short said...

"Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern/How lovely shines the Morningstar" is my absolutely favourite Bach hymn...that's #515 in the Trinity Hymnal (Presbyterian).

I have long studied Bach's music, starting in High School when I first heard "Sleeper's Awake" (Cantata #140) on guitar with Christopher Parkening. Since then, I've delved past the Cello Suites, the Cantatas, the Brandenburg Concertos, into the more unusual bits of Bach; as always, God is honoured in the music and the lyrics (and there are always lyrics, even within the instrumental pieces which "speak" in their melodic structure). The Gospel is preached and eternal hope is imminent, even in such pieces as Bach's Violin Chaconne in D-minor where Christ's monogram "XP" is spelled out gematrically. Such genius! Such love!

No matter to what one listens, what one performs or reads, Bach's music epitomises the ideal of Soli Deo Gloria.

And, gosh yes! I wish he were the Worship Leader at MY church!!! ;)

wmc said...

I read that Bach was very high maintenance and miserable to work with. I'm not sure there are any Lutheran congregations today that could handle his temperament.

Laura Short said...

Mmm...maybe. But at least he could read music...

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Rudemann666 said...

...not to mention the fact that, as a condition of employment as Cantor, he was asked to sign the BOC both POSITIVELY (affirming) what the BOC affirmed and NEGATIVELY (decrying) what the BOC rejected. A theologian AND a musician...hmmm...
I would like to quote the Joker from an OLD batman movie (with respect to JSB the theologian and musician): "Where can I get me one of those toys?"

Sean said...

I'm sorry wmc, but I'm not sure your list of 5 reasons are accurate, excepting number 2.

Bach was not an innovator. His music was behind his time, and he was by no means "in style". He was respected by some musicians of his day (such as his sons), but they respected him as the "old master", not the new cutting edge genius. He simply wasn't making new things up. He drew on pre-existing styles and pieces to influence his work. He could be seen as the culmination of the baroque style, but by no means was he an innovator of it. He came at the end of that era and was a product of it.

So also was the liturgy and hymnody not Bach's recasting or reinterpreting, but honestly it was already a past thing. Lutheran orthodox hymnody and liturgy was already gone for the most part, due to pietism. Leipzig was kind of the exception in its day, and with the death of Bach, that was the end of the "orthodox period" that had really already ended 20 years earlier.

The orchestra and pipe organ had been in use in churches for years, and the organ was common from the 14th century on.

The "elevated role of music/musician" is hardly unique to Bach considering Palestrina, Byrd, De Prez and others who preceded him in the Roman church. I think you could be correct if you expand the scope of that statement to Lutheranism. Bach didn't really come out of the blue, but was the product of the foundation of Lutheran kantors that preceded him. He, once again, is the culmination of what came before him.

Anonymous said...

Peter Schickele, aka PDQ Bach, has a side-splittingly funny parody of Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, his Bach portrait.
On You tube here:
Real letters written by JS himself, generally complaining about his pay, his duties.
Pastor Cwirla made me think of it, referring to Bach's temperament.
Give it a listen, Lutherans. It sounds much like a church council meeting, long about budget time.
Susan R

wmc said...

Yup. Old JS was a piece of work, and a general pain to the consistory that set the budget. Anyone who doesn't think Bach is an innovator needs to have another listen. Mind you, when I call Bach the "father of contemporary worship" I mean this as a high compliment. Would that our so-called "contemporary Christian music" types had the theological acumen and the respect for the tradition that JSB had! We wouldn't have the problems we have today. Hey, the dude held Rationalism at bay, after all! Who can argue?

And yet...the stick in the mud liturgical conservatives need to take a cue from Bach in his context. The guy pushed the frontiers beyond his contemporaries.

Actually, for my personal tastes, Bach is a bit overcooked. The musicians, especially the organist, have taken over, like those services at liturgical conferences where the preachers can barely get a word in edgewise. Give me the 17th century any day for Lutheran liturgy/hymnody at its finest - Buxtehude, Schütz, Praetorius, Hamemrschmidt. Those boys rocked.

But that's just my own personal preference.

Past Elder said...

It was my great good fortune in the underclassmen years as a music major to have and Eastman grad teach the two years of music theory from the old Eastman series, which is pretty much Bach chorales.

One of the great experiences of my life. You learned Bach partwriting, you learned music. You can hear the construction and motion of about any music after that. I taught myself how to improvise from a figured bass, then was able to apply linear listening, so to speak, to teach myself how to improvise Jazz.

Just in time too. That was 1968/9 and 1969/70 academic years, and with the liturgical progrom accompanying the promulgation of the novus ordo in 1970, Father was dismissed from his teaching position at the University, the curriculum changed, dismissed from his position as director of the schola cantorum and the schola replaced by a "folk group", and dismissed from his position as abbey organist, to which he had been ordained "ad organum", and assigned to parish duties in his home state 2,000 miles away.

Life in LCMS is a walk in the park after a few Roman brawls.

He was considered kind of stodgy, and his kids had a greater reputation in the years after his death. As to being a bit cranky, I'm the last person who would find that an objection.

My favourite Bach recording: Blues on Bach, by Modern Jazz Quartet. Several pieces by Bach arranged for the quartet, with a blues in the keys (German style)of B, A, C, H in between them. I think JS would have loved to sit in and give John Lewis a run for his money improvising!

Improvising? What's that? OMG, a musician actually making music rather than only reproducing someone else's.

Maria said...

Oh snap, Sean beat me to it. In some ways Bach was an "innovator" in his use of chromaticism, but this wasn't so much innovation as music genius. The use of the orchestra and pipe organ had been around for centuries, and by the latter half of his life, Bach was considered the ol' stick in the mud who just couldn't get with the times. As Sean pointed out, he was the culmination of the Baroque art, but very much within his period. Essentially, the Baroque period died with Bach.

wmc said...

My favorite Bach remains his unaccompanied cello suites, magnificently recorded by Yo-Yo Ma. I used to be able to play a guitar transcription of one of them (I believe #1), though skills have left me as I pursue other interests.

I still remember every note of the St. John Passion, which I've sung with the Bay Area Lutheran Chorale back in the 1980's. Simply marvelous.

JW said...

To compare the music of J.S. Bach (arguably the greatest composer who ever lived) to the banal and trite garbage that spews forth from writers and performers of so called "praise music" is as asinine a comparison as I have ever read. Bach's sublime music draws deeply from the well-spring of the sacred music of the past: Gregorian chant, the Lutheran chorales, the great choral works of the Renaissance by composers like Palestrina and Victoria, and from the earlier Baroque composers such as Schutz, Monteverdi, Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, and many others. Bach imbibed the works of his musical ancestors. If he can be called an innovator, it is in the sense that he took what came before and built upon it to a degree of astounding depth, complexity, and majesty. He was a life-long student and a craftsman of the highest order. These purveyors of "contemporary" trash have no regard for the past whatsoever. Their music is not grounded in the great treasury of sacred music throughout the ages; rather, it is a deliberate BREAK from it! Also, Bach was not an innovator in that he used organ and orchestra. These had been in use in the church for many hundreds of years. As was pointed out above, the only correct statement you made in your list of 5 is #2. Yes, Bach composed new music; but this "new" music was deeply indebted and rooted in the old. To compare Bach to the contemporary hacks is to compare Shakespeare to dime store Romance novels, Michaelangelo to Thomas Kincade, or Luther to Joel Osteen.