The following is a brief and temporary note on what I plan to write on Bach.
Yesterday I received from Amazon the New Bach Reader. I have the original Bach Reader, which is good, but the vastly expanded and developed New Bach Reader is a superb resource on Johann Sebastian Bach. Presently I have writings by leading Bach scholars for study and for writing some little essays on what I have been calling “the spirituality of Bach.”
Titles are fittingly the last thing written (after or along with a Preface or Introduction). Still, an adequate description of the planned brief essays as presently conceived would be “Bach, evangelist of joy in Christ.” For such joy is, I maintain, the central experience communicated by Bach’s music, and this phase summarizes the heart of my understanding of Bach as master-musician. His own hand-written dedications to his compositions, copies of manuscripts, and above all, the music itself, give an abundance of testimony to his self-consciousness as a Christian firmly grounded in the Lutheran tradition. I fully concur with scholar Christoph Wolff’s claim (editor of the New Bach Reader) that Bach’s “religion” (his term, not mine) shows up as much in his “secular” music as in the bulk of his works, which were written for use in Lutheran liturgical services.
In 1735, around the age of 50, J S Bach wrote out a lengthy and descriptive genealogy of the Bach family, dated back to the 16th century. His second son, CPE Bach, added commentary later, and scholars have added more (with additions duly noted by Wolff). Two quick points: First, as Wolff summarizes, the Bach family can justly be called “a clan.” It was highly integrated, lived in a small area of central Germany, and amazingly numerous from fertility. Second, and astoundingly, the family produced many notable musicians of the day: they sang, played instruments, built instruments, conducted, and composed. It is no wonder that “Bach” can be used to signify a musician in German. (The noun “Bach” literally means stream in German, which I assume is cognate with our English word “brook.” To call a German “ein Bach” is understood to mean, “a musician,” for so many musicians came from the Bach clan.
How good it is to find such excellent resources for one’s studies. Now I have the works of leading Bach scholars at hand; through Apple Music access to numerous recordings of virtually all of his extant music (a huge amount of music); and significantly, the scores for a number of his major works (such as St Matthew and St John Passions, Mass in b minor, perhaps 15 cantatas [out of over 200], as well as scores for solo violin, cello, viola da gamba sonatas, and complete violin and harpsichord concertos, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Ouvertüren [“Orchestral Suites”], and so on. Online one has free access to the scores of all of Bach’s extant cantatas, as prepared by the 19th century Bach Gesellschaft edition of his complete works.
It is also reassuring that such a leading Bach scholar as Christoph Wolff confirms some of my main insights on Bach, and is able to express them in the language of a knowledgeable musicologist. For example, Wolff confirms my summary insight that in a given composition, Bach seeks to bring the whole diversity of things, of “all creatures great and small,” if you will, into the One, which Bach symbolized as “God” (Gott). In general, every work of art, whether in music, graphic arts, or poetry, is a little world; and the artist imitates the Creator by creating a little world. In Bach’s case, the imitative work is self-conscious, with an extraordinary effort to arrange all the parts in as well ordered a structure as possible, within the one Whole. In other words, the world as experienced by Bach is God’s well-ordered and beautiful creation. Each composition is a remarkable feat of engineering, shall we say: of imagination, of design, of knowing exactly what to include (and what not to include), of ordering all the parts to illuminate each other, and to “give glory” (Bach’s phrase) to the ultimate Creator, rather than to the composer as artist. As evidence of Bach’s intentions, he wrote at the beginning of each manuscript the letters, J.J., standing for Jesu Juva, a Latin phrase meaning “Jesus, help.” And at the end of each composition, Bach wrote the letters S.D.G., standing for the Latin, “Soli deo gloria,” meaning, “to God alone be the glory.” Now, one could dismiss his beginning and ending prayer-words as irrelevant, but the fact that he wrote them at the beginning and end of each composition is by no means to be dismissed as accidental or as incidental, anymore than one dismisses “Love” at the end of a letter, despite its frequent use. And why did Bach write in Latin, when he was a German? Because in the 18th century, Latin was still the nearly universal language of scholars and educated people throughout Europe; Latin was the one language understood throughout the vast area.
In sum, Bach was a devout Lutheran Christian, and his music stands as a testimony to extraordinary “faith working through love,” using the Apostle Paul’s phase. The closest analogue I can call to mind for a Bachian composition would be a Platonic dialogue, such as the Republic, or the Laws: everything is exactly in the right place, unfolding, step by step, until the whole work is well-ordered and complete. To call such a work “genius” is an understatement. It is a work of wisdom, which arranges all parts in a completely well-ordered whole. For my part, all I can do is to observe, to seek to understand, and to be awed at such a work of the divine Spirit.
Love in Christ to all
Brother Paul, on my feast day
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