Home > Bach > The New Yorker Takes a Swing at Understanding Bach’s Sacred Music and Misses

The New Yorker Takes a Swing at Understanding Bach’s Sacred Music and Misses

April 9th, 2011
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No matter how often one is disappointed by articles on Bach’s sacred music, published in secular periodicals, there is always hope that maybe, just maybe, the article will be objective enough actually to recognize that J.S. Bach was a committed orthodox Lutheran composer, no, make that a Kantor, a servant of the church, and…there are actually committed Christians who keep his sacred music alive, like Masaaki Suzuki, of the Bach Collegium of Japan, precisely as a way to witness to their Christian faith, but alas, the latest example of such an article is another disappointment. It simply boggles my mind that such a key ingredient in really understanding who Bach was and why he did what he did is so blithely ignored and overlooked, even when there are references to the specifically Christian content of his sacred music works. I suppose it should not be a disappointment, but alas, it is.

Here’s an example from the New Yorker article of a reporter, perhaps struggling valiantly, to grasp the meaning of the St. John Passion, but failing utterly, to come up with anything more than a recognition of morality and human helpfulness, which, I suppose, is the right place to start, but the glorious good news of the Passion of Jesus Christ, is missing entirely from the reporter’s view.

We feel both the blind mechanics of catastrophe and the desperation of those caught in its midst. Perhaps the most uncanny example is the opening chorus of the “St. John Passion.” The orchestra begins with a divine maelstrom: swirling sixteenth-note figures, stinging dissonances, a pulsing drone in the bass. Three times the chorus cries out “Herr!”—“Lord!”—and then is caught up in the rapid-moving instrumental rhythm, in an image of mortal helplessness.

In contrast, the now retired, UPI Religion Editor, Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto “got it” when he wrote this article for, yes, Christianity Today, about how the sacred works of Bach are bringing people to the Christian faith in Japan. Uwe wrote a number of years ago, in an article titled Bach in Japan:

During Holy Week, Suzuki’s performances of the St. Matthew Passion are always sold out, although tickets cost more than $600. After each concert, members of the audience crowd Suzuki on the podium asking him about the Christian concept of hope and about death, a topic normally taboo in polite Japanese society. “I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a biblical one,” Suzuki told me. But why do Bach’s melodies and harmonies, so alien to the Asian ear, appeal to the Japanese? Musicologists attribute this to Francis Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Gregorian chant into Japan and built organs from bamboo pipes 400 years ago. Though Christianity was soon squashed, elements of its music infiltrated traditional folk song. Four centuries later, this curious fact is now enabling tens of thousands of Japanese to come to Christ via Bach. The surprising success of this music in evangelizing one of the most secular nations on earth has led Lutheran theologian Yoshikazu Tokuzen to call Bach a “vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”



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Categories: Bach
  1. Jonathan Trost
    April 9th, 2011 at 17:01 | #1

    A Univ. of Michigan professor told us students years ago: “Bach was not only an organist and composer; he was a theologian, as well. To fully appreciate much of Bach’s work, you’d better learn some Lutheran theology, for he regularly put it to music.

    The secular press, with all of its “sophistication”, is ignorant of such words as “incarnation”, “redemption”, “resurrection”, “sin”, “expiation”, and “justification” used theologically. Consequently, they see, and comment upon, only the “horizontal” (human) expressions in Bach’s music, to the exclusion of the “vertical” (divine) ones. They hear his music with a “tin ear”, for they hear only “art for art’s sake” rather than “Soli Deo Gloria”. And, as to the latter, they ask: “What’s that?”

  2. April 9th, 2011 at 20:06 | #2

    It’s amazing that so many will ignore the theology of Bach’s music. Considering how loaded his music is with allegory and musical-literal references, it’s sad that so much of his music will remain hidden from the listener if Bach’s theology is ignored. Even much of his “secular” music is rife with trinitarian and catechetical references: http://www2.nau.edu/tas3/ubung.html.
    Other clearly non-sacred music are in fact small theological masterpieces. See for example his Fugue in B minor (which is also the earliest known example of a tone ladder!) from the well-tempered clavier. I once saw online a real-time analysis of this fugue with its tone ladders and chiasma. I’m having trouble finding it right now. Great stuff.

  3. April 9th, 2011 at 20:38 | #3

    Ah, here it is:
    Fascinating analysis of Fugue #24 in b minor. I believe this is the first 12-tone row in musical history – what foresight!

  4. April 10th, 2011 at 21:16 | #4

    I can’t add much to the Johan Sebastian Bach but… In the general category of music, has anyone seen Eric Whitaker’s Virtual Choir 2.0? It is absolutely stunning…


    Yes, I would just about half a heart attack if I heard some of the great chorales done sort of like this. I make a great audience… Tears running down my eyes and everything.

  5. Jonathan Trost
    April 11th, 2011 at 07:56 | #5

    @Lisa Stapp

    Whitaker’s is a nice sound. But, it would have been more enjoyable for me if the words to what was being sung had been shown on the screen. I had no idea what they were singing about. A pleasant, ethereal sound, but…. (Or, maybe I just have a hearing problem?)

  6. Lisa Stapp
    April 11th, 2011 at 14:18 | #6

    Jonathan Trost :
    @Lisa Stapp
    Whitaker’s is a nice sound. But, it would have been more enjoyable for me if the words to what was being sung had been shown on the screen. I had no idea what they were singing about. A pleasant, ethereal sound, but…. (Or, maybe I just have a hearing problem?)

    @Jonathan Trost.

    That is why I cannot help but wishing that some of the great old German Chorales could be “virtual choir-ized.” The original thought that popped into my head is old members of the seminary Kantorei getting together to do… Pretty much anything they have done. There are lots of current and previous members, I am sure! Some of them probably miss singing some of the challenging stuff they were able to do as students.

    New agey, pleasant, and ethereal is quite nice ever so often, but it would not be the same as something with such substance.

  7. Jonathan Trost
    April 11th, 2011 at 16:39 | #7

    @Lisa Stapp

    Lisa — “Right on!”

    The great early 20th century RC organist/composer, Max Reger, once admonished Lutherans: “You must never forget what gems you have in the treasury of your chorales!” Exacly!

    Yet, even among some Lutheran laymen today, there is a seeming penchant for tunes such as “How Great Thou Art”, “Amazing Grace”, “What a Friend We have….”, etc. I think this happens by default, unless pastors (new and old) begin to catechize congregations on this subject. Just as each Sunday is “a little Easter”, so, too, are the words of each chorale “a little sermon”. As my grandmother use to say, they are “bei der Sache!” (on the mark!) Always Christocentric, with not one “fluffy”, subjective “gumdrop” among them!

    Oh, for a return to the great chorales of the church, to their being put on CDs, and distributed among the congregations as catechetical tools. (I fear my ELCA won’t do it. But, maybe Concordia?)

  8. Jonathan Trost
    April 13th, 2011 at 10:36 | #8

    @Lisa Stapp

    A further (last) comment about chorales….

    Now in the ELCA, I was reared and confirmed in the ’60s in a congregation of the former (Prussian Union) Evangelical Synod of N.A. (Wince, I know, Pastor!) At confirmation, the practice of that congregation was for the pastor to give (assign) to each confirmand a confirmation verse and, to assign to the confirmation class, a chorale, both to memorize and carry through life.

    Our class’ was “If you but trust in God to guide you” (“Wer nur den lieben Gott laesst walten”) – Neumark. Not an Easter hymn, per se, but it’s been one of assurance and hope throughout life.

    I commend this practice to all congregations.

  9. Michael Heidle
    April 14th, 2011 at 00:10 | #9
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