J. S. Bach: the unity of music and faith

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, the capital of a small German duchy, on March 31st, 1685. The town is also noted for the fact that, before Bach, a Christian church reformer, Martin Luther, had attended there a gymnasium and hid himself to escape persecution; also there, he had translated the New Testament into German.

The family name ”Bach” means a “brook” in English. Such a “discrepancy” would give occasion to some for puns. “Not a brook, but sea should be his name”, – Beethoven used to say, referring to his great predecessor. However, the Russian writer Yuri Nagibin in his research on J. S. Bach suggested that this name stemmed from a distorted verb “backen”, which had originally meant to “bake bread”. Thereby, Bach’s belonging to some “handicraft guild” is emphasized, which is not just that of bread bakers, but, in a broad sense, that of creators.

The great composer-to-be was born into a musical family. In 1694, his mother died, and in another 8 months, his father followed her. A 10-year-old orphan moved to his elder brother’s home. Guided by his brother, Johann concentrated on the study of music, in particular, playing the clavichord. The brother familiarized him with works by various European composers of the time. The young Bach also acquired organ playing skills.

At the age of 14, Bach, together with his school friend, won a scholarship entitling them to attend the elite school of St. Michael in Lüneburg. It was a long journey, so the friends made it now in a carriage, now on foot. The two years spent there were very important to Bach in terms of familiarizing with the greatest achievements of European culture. He sang in a choir, played a 3-manual organ and harpsichord. He studied French, Italian, and Latin languages, history, geography, and physics, and also received basic training in theology. During his school years, he made some valuable acquaintances with noble children who were being prepared there for the careers of diplomats, government officials, and military officers.

After finishing St. Michael’s school in 1703, Bach worked for many years as a church organist in various cities of Germany. At the time, he started to compose cantatas, the number of which finally totalled nearly 200. When in Weimar, he started composing pieces for keyboard instruments and the orchestra. His early opuses were written under the influence of Italian masters, in particular, A. Vivaldi. Also in Weimar, Bach continued playing the organ and composing music for it. Besides, he began writing preludes and fugues, out of which his fundamental work, “Das Wohltemperierte Clavier” (The Well-Tempered Clavier), was subsequently formed.

In 1723, Bach was appointed as a choir master (cantor) and organist at the St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) in Leipzig, and also music director of all major churches in the city. He kept this position for 27 years, until his death.

In 1733, Bach composed Kyrie and Gloria for the mass in B minor. Later, he added to them Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. As a result, a full-scale mass came into being. The music for it had been borrowed by Bach from his earlier cantatas. The mass in B minor became one of the greatest compositions ever written for choir and orchestra. Apart from this mass, we have his other two monumental canvases available, the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion.

In 1747, Bach received an invitation from the King of Prussia, Friedrich II. Actually, it was a meeting of colleagues, since the king was himself a good composer and performer. The enlightened monarch familiarized the great musician with a new variety of clavier, the Silbermann piano. Bach responded with his “Music Offering”, a cycle of pieces written on a theme offered by the king. Incidentally, one of J. S. Bach’s sons, C. F. E. Bach, worked as a harpsichordist in the king’s orchestra at the time.

Bach died on July 28th, 1750, at the age of 65, reportedly from the complications of an unfortunate eye surgery. Apart from numerous musical instruments, His belongings were found to include books written by the famous religious reformer Martin Luther.

Bach’s popularity as a composer began to rapidly decline after his death, and his compositions were considered “old-fashioned” for quite a while. It was his sons who were far more well-known to their contemporaries. What they wrote, however, was actually pop music of that time, which, having reached its heights with Haydn and Mozart, became known as “Viennese Classic”. Contributing to the restoration of Bach’s heritage to its original grandeur was a performance of his “St. Matthew Passion” arranged by the romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn in Berlin in 1829. The philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who attended the concert, would subsequently call Bach “a great and true Protestant”.

J. S. Bach’s music is always somewhat lifted above the earth. The source of its greatness is to be found in the author’s faith, in his faith in the true existence of a single God. Therefore, Bach lived and created in a measured manner, without fuss. And emotions expressed by his music are not just those of a human proper, but rather, of an incarnated God. Those are His joys, His sorrows, and His suffering. The musicologist Boleslav Yavorsky had every reason to call Bach’s music the “sounding Gospel”.

It is also no wonder that Bach’s music written for the church meant more than execution of his official duties. He wrote it, because he believed, and not because it ensured bread and butter for him and his extended family.

Music and faith went hand in hand with him. In the Bible belonging to Bach, one can find his commentary to the following excerpt from 1 Chronicles 25: “All these men were under the supervision of their father for the music of the temple of the LORD, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry at the house of God…” The composer wrote: “In devotional music God always is present with His Grace”.

Accordingly, Bach’s music can only be perceived and performed in a proper way by a deeply religious person. This idea, in particular, was supposed to be emphasized by the Russian organist A. V. Fiseisky in his 19-hour long marathon, during which Bach’s all known compositions for organ were played. This event took place in 2000, in Germany, in the city of Dusseldorf, and was timed to the 250th anniversary of death of the great Cantor.

That is why J. S. Bach’s music has such an irresistible impact on the listener, awakening in him the feeling of something inconceivable and inescapable. The poet Joseph Brodsky, emphasizing Bach’s fundamental status in music and playing on the concordancy of the words “Bach” and “God” in Russian (Ba:kh and Bo:kh, respectively) put it (translated from Russian) as follows:

Each man before God
Is naked.
Pitiful,
Naked
And wretched.

In every piece of music
There is Bach,
In each of us
There is God.

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