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Commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach: Kantor

July 28th, 2013 16 comments

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 studied with various family members but was mostly self-taught in music.

He began his professional career as conductor, performer, composer, teacher, and organ consultant at age 19 in the town of Arnstadt. He traveled wherever he received good commissions and steady employment, ending up in Leipzig, where the last 27 years of his life found him serving as Kantor, responsible for all music in the city’s four Lutheran churches.

Acclaimed more in his own time as a superb keyboard artist, the majority of his compositions fell into disuse following his death, which musicologists use to date the end of the Baroque Period and the beginning of the Classical Era. However, his compositional ability was rediscovered, in large part due to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn. The genius and sheer magnitude of Bach’s vocal and instrumental compositions remain overwhelming. Also, whether due to nature or nurture, he was but one of the giants in, perhaps, the most talented musical family of all time.

Christendom especially honors J. S. Bach, a staunch and devoted Lutheran, for his lifelong insistence that his music was written primarily for the liturgical life of the Church, glorifying God and edifying His people. For an overview of the Christological basis of his work and a strong argument that he was among the theological giants of Lutheranism, please read J. S. Bach: Orthodox Lutheran Theologian?.

Today we remember his “heavenly birthday,” for it was on 28 July AD 1750 that the Lord translated Mr. Bach to glory.

Soli deo gloria — To God alone the glory! These words appear on most manuscripts of Bach’s compositions as testimony to his faith and his idea of music’s highest, noblest use.

A friend, Mr. Bob Myers, drew this to my attention. It would be best for you to watch this while it still remains up on YouTube. This is a recent documentary that offers a fairly good overview of the Reformation and the work of J.S. Bach as the servant of the Lutheran Church that he was, laboring away in near obscurity, using limited resources. It’s kind of quirky, in a typically British way. It is good that it focuses on the music as Bach actually wrote it and for the purpose he wrote it. Everyone is familiar with Bach’s instrumental works, but in fact his massive cycles of Church cantatas are his greatest achievements. This documentary “gets it” as well, if not better, than anything I’ve seen before. There are some great scenes filmed in St. Mary’s Church, Wittenberg; St. Thomas, Leipzig, and St. George, Eisenach. The churches are not always clearly identified. It’s a shame they didn’t subtitle the chorales and cantatas as they were sung. But that’s often the way it is: people focus more on the music and not the words, which, to Bach, were the most important reason why he wrote his music. The Word of God was conveyed by Bach’s music in powerful ways, but it is not the music, per se, that is the thing, it is the Word of God, and … most importantly and significantly of all Bach was interested in conveying Christ and Him crucified. This aspect of his work is hinted at but never specifically articulated. We can only assume the American Lutheran pastor who is interviewed in this piece did explicitly confess Christ, but his remarks were edited out. That’s usually how it is with Bach. People grow increasingly uncomfortably the more specifically Christian the talk gets. But Bach’s great church music was all about Christ. They can’t help but tell us that when they feature the popular chorale from Bach’s Cantata 147,  Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Renowned actor and former chorister Simon Russell Beale explores the flowering of Western sacred music in this documentary series for BBC FOUR. Simon’s travels bring him to Germany where Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation led to a musical revolution and ultimately to the glorious works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther, a Catholic monk who was also a composer, had a profound effect on the development of sacred music. He re-defined the role of congregational singing and the use of the organ in services. Crucially he also developed the hugely important tradition of singing in the vernacular which would characterize protestant worship for the next 500 years. Martin Luther’s reforms – and the century and a half of music that followed – shaped the world of JS Bach. Although today he is considered by many to be one of the greatest composers in history, in reality Bach spent most of his life working for the church and unknown to anyone outside of a small part of Germany. Simon’s journey includes Eisenach, in Eastern Germany, where Bach was born and the extraordinary space of the Thomaskirke in Leipzig where the composer spent much of his career. Here he discovers how Johann Sebastian Bach was in many ways a one man music factory, who for many years produced for the church work of the very highest quality, week after week after week. Bach wrote over a thousand pieces of music, and nearly two thirds of them he produced for the Lutheran Church. Throughout the programme, in the period setting of St George’s Lutheran Church in East London, conductor Harry Christophers leads singers from ‘The Sixteen’ and a small group of baroque instrumentalists through some of the key repertoire – including: ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’, one of Bach’s most celebrated religious works, which is based on a Lutheran hymn tune.

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dAC1lLYJpg

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7-fUPwPHaE

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu1rfLUTzow

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gZKv19KEtA

Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lecMZDofRw

Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wr6g9B4nCnI

HT: Bob Myers.

McCain observation:

Lutherans, ask yourself why it is that it takes the BBC to do a documentary like this, and why “we” can’t muster the will and resources to produce this. I say this to our shame. While we fritter away our time chasing after whatever is popular in American Evangelicalism, the very things that can, and do, make Lutheranism an absolutely unique and distinct confession of Christianity are ignored, set aside, or worse yet, spoken of with derision—by Lutherans! Lord, have mercy on us all.

Cool J.S. Bach Website

July 21st, 2013 1 comment

Received this nice note from Robert Eickmann and wanted to pass this along to you. I stumbled across a number of related websites this morning and knowing your love of Bach thought of you. I realize that you might already be aware of BinAural Collaborative Hypertext, however if you are not it would be sad to rob you of this tool through thoughtlessness.  http://bach.nau.edu/index.html Be sure to check out the “Showcase”

Categories: Bach

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – Recorded Live at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany

December 23rd, 2012 6 comments

One of but many wonderful things about this recording is that it was done in St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany, and you have a beautiful view of the magnificent Cranach altar painting throughout. Enjoy! You can find the rest of the parts on YouTube.

Categories: Bach

Radio Interview on J.S. Bach and Link to Where You Can Purchase the BBC Documentary

July 28th, 2012 Comments off

A couple of years ago, I was able to spend some time with my friend Todd Wilken, on Issues, Etc. talking about Bach. And, here’s the link to the interview. Also, a reader pointed me to where the great BBC documentary on Sacred Music can be purchased. The episode on Bach titled “J.S. Bach and the Lutheran Legacy” is very good, the best, and frankly, only, documentary that actually “gets” Bach. Here’s a link to where you can buy it via Amazon.

Categories: Bach

News Flash: J. S. Bach was a Christian – Why Suzuki Gets Bach

July 28th, 2012 8 comments

One of the world’s premier interpreters and conductors of Bach music is the Japanese musician Masaaki Suzuki. And he gets Bach, unlike many Westerners. I am sick and tired of discussions of Bach by secularists who do everything they can to avoid, dismiss, denigrate and intentionally ignore the fact that J.S. Bach was an orthodox Lutheran Christian. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty to do so. But not Suzuki. I was reading my friend, Pastor Weedon’s blog and he has a great post of some YouTube clips of Suzuki performing Bach and Robin Lee offered this comment [the Bach clips follow]:

I like what Masaaki Suzuki wrote in the liner notes to the first recording of Bach Collegium Japan. Responding to the question of how the Japanese could “dare play the music of Bach”, Suzuki wrote:

“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

Categories: Bach

Bach and the Church Year

November 13th, 2011 5 comments

Since we are fast approaching the end of the present church year and the beginning of the new church year, on December 3, the First Sunday in Advent, I thought you might like to see what J.S. Bach’s Church Year was like. Here is an excellent chart showing you the Sundays in the Church Year as celebrated in Leipzig in the early 18th century, and you will see which cantatas that Bach prepared for the various Sundays and fixed festivals and minor festivals. And, as always, do remember, “The more Bach the better” is a fine general rule for life, because friends do not let friends go without Bach.

Categories: Bach

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

April 9th, 2011 9 comments

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.”

 

 

Categories: Bach

Highly Recommended: Bach Cantata DVD

August 15th, 2010 5 comments

I stumbled across a wonderful DVD of the performance of several of Bach’s Cantatas, five sacred, one secular, performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, directed by Ton Koopman.

What was a delightful surprise to me is that the DVD features explanations and comments by Koopman about the music of the Cantatas and how Bach wrote his music and the style, etc. It is really very wonderful. If you are interested in being introduced to Bach’s Cantatas, I could not recommend a better way to get to know them than this. You are able to turn on English subtitles so you can easily follow what the singers are saying.

The DVD features BWV 106, BWV 13, BWV 140 (the great Wachet Auf/Wake Awake cantata), BWV 147, the Coffee Cantata BWV 211), and BWV 56.

I found it on Amazon for $23.

Categories: Bach

Bach’s Cello Suites: A Sublime New Recording

June 16th, 2010 10 comments

If you are fan of Bach’s cello suites, which I believe are truly some of the most sublime music Bach wrote, and that’s saying a lot, then you are going to love this recent recording of them by Zuill Bailey, a performer I featured in a blog post recently, showing him playing some of the cello suites. I highly recommend this recording. You can get it from Amazon for only $13. The instrument Bailey uses for this recording is truly a one-of-a-kind cello that fully captures all the voice-like quality of Bach’s compositions. Before Bach came along with his cello suites, the cello was kind of a, ok, are you ready?, kind of a second-fiddle instrument. But never again after Bach gave us these cello suites. People much more in the know than I am about such things tell me that for a cello player, a complete recording of Bach’s works for solo cello is the “Mt. Everest” of cello playing. Bailey has clearly planted his flag on the top of the mountain with this recording.

Categories: Bach

A Beautifully Unique Cello With the Most Beautiful Cello Music Ever Written

June 9th, 2010 4 comments

You will enjoy this video, which will make sense of this photo for you.

Categories: Bach

Icon of J.S. Bach

May 22nd, 2010 7 comments

I stumbled upon a web site with a large collection of icons, in a more modern style. One of them is, yup, of J.S. Bach. You can not only buy a copy of the icon in various formats, you can purchase it on a t-shirt and coffee mug. I’m not sure what to make of this, but…for what it is worth, if you have been looking for an icon of J.S. Bach to add to your collection, here you go.

Categories: Bach

Happy Birthday Dear Sebastian!

March 21st, 2010 4 comments

Happy 325th Birthday Kantor Bach!

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday. Since many male relatives in Bach time shared a common first names: fathers, grand-fathers, uncles, cousins it was common to use men’s more unique middle name to address them personally, and so, if we were to sing “Happy Birthday” to Bach, we would probably sing it “dear Sebastian.”

What a precious treasure and gift J.S. Bach is to the world. His music is perhaps the most influential ever written. When scientists were discussing what should be beamed into outer space to reach potential alien cultures, biologist Lewis Thomas said, “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space. We would be bragging, of course.” And so we did. When the Voyager space craft was launched, it carried with it recordings from earth, the first being the first movement of Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F.

Our beloved fifth evangelist was born on this day in 1685. To celebrate let’s watch and listen as the incomparable Glenn Gould plays a piano version of Bach’s Cantata BWV 1058, followed by his interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, 1-7, concluding with a movement from one of the Brandburg Concertos. By the way, you might wonder what Gould is doing while he is playing. He was famous for singing in a low voice along while playing, often vocally harmonizing with the music.

Categories: Bach

The Bach Project is Complete and Ready for Purchase

February 6th, 2010 Comments off

I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time, and now it is finally finished: The Bach Project. It is a fascinating series of interviews with various world-class musicians all discussing Bach’s music. Check it out here

Categories: Bach

Bach and Japan: How Beauty Serves the Truth of the Gospel

January 28th, 2010 8 comments

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a YouTube video of Masaaki Suzuki discussing the reason Bach is so important to him. It is a wonderful witness to Christ and the Gospel. Nearly ten years ago my friend Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto wrote a piece for FIRST THINGS about the powerful impact Bach’s music has had in Japan for the sake of the Gospel.

J. S. Bach in Japan
Uwe Siemon–Netto

Twenty–five years ago when there was still a Communist East Germany, I interviewed several boys from Leipzig’s Thomanerchor, the choir once led by Johann Sebastian Bach. Many of those children came from atheistic homes. “Is it possible to sing Bach without faith?” I asked them. “Probably not,” they replied, “but we do have faith. Bach has worked as a missionary among all of us.” During a recent journey to Japan I discovered that 250 years after his death Bach is now playing a key role in evangelizing that country, one of the most secularized nations in the developed world.

When Bach died on July 28, 1750, after two botched eye operations performed by John Taylor, a quack from England, his last major work, The Art of the Fugue, remained incomplete. It culminates in a quadruple contrapunctus bearing his signature, for it is formed from the letters b–a–c–h (in German musical terminology b–natural is called “h”). Just as you might expect the final section of Fugue 19 to begin, the music stops eerily. The blind man no longer had the strength to pull together its various themes to a perfect ending. Instead he dictated to his son–in–law a powerful last chorale—Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before thy throne I come herewith)—and then he departed.

The Art of the Fugue is perhaps Bach’s most abstract and intellectually challenging work. Yet its pristine grace led Arthur Peacocke, the English theologian and biologist, to aver that the Holy Spirit himself had written it, using Bach’s hand. A quarter millennium after the composer’s death, this quality of his music provides Christianity with a curious inroad to a group of people who in the past had resisted evangelization more effectively than any other: Japan’s elite.

Read more…

Categories: Bach

Interesting Story on the Manuscript of Bach’s Great Mass in B Minor

December 5th, 2009 1 comment

b00p2cq0_512_288Many regard J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass to be among the very best, if not the best, music ever written. I would tend to agree. There is an interesting BBC radio show on the manuscript, one of which is held by a library in Berlin. You can listen to it here. Thanks to Bach fan, TN, for the link to the program. But, ahem, “et incarnatus est” does not mean, “and he became flesh.” And, you have to put up with the post-modernist twaddle at the end of the show, where, ironically, in the background is the sound of the praise of the Great and Eternal Almighty God, we have an announcer prattling on totally ignoring the meaning of the Mass in B Minor. And so it goes. But… Bach gets the last word after all.

Categories: Bach