If you were to provide a narrative about the life and music of Bach you might expect that some comment would be made about the composer’s faith. I attended a concert that featured the music of Johan Sebastian Bach and included images and a narrative about the composer. It was a fine concert and an interesting narrative but there was virtually no mention of the faith of this great composer.
In a post-enlightenment culture it is common practice when speaking of the work of an artist for whom faith was a key component of life – to simply ignore the faith element and speak only of the art and the artistic genius. Van Gogh would be an example in visual art and this is what happened at the concert I attended. This marginalizing of faith has inspired me to look again into the life of this composer and I
offer here some observations.
It is assumed that Bach got a good amount of religious instruction as a youth and was from his early days well acquainted with both scripture and Lutheran theology. He was hired as Cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and remained in Leipzig from 1723-1750. Most of his Cantatas were composed in this period and of the 300 or so that he likely wrote only about 200 remain today.
These are liturgical works carefully crafted around the scripture readings for the Sunday for which they were written. One can think of Bach’s Cantatas as musical proclamations of the gospel and they lie at the heart of his extensive corpus of compositions. Bach lived at a time of great transition in European culture and he gave voice to one of the main currents of the Protestant Reformation.
In addition to the Cantatas there are the Passions, St Matthew and St. John and the rich and beautiful Mass in B minor. These religious works evidence a strong Christocentric understanding of theology and provide a powerful coming together of word and music. The canon of Bach’s music extends well beyond these religious works and includes a varied masterful collection of instrumental music. He had a clear sense of the goodness of creation and of his own vocation to create and to do so as a divine calling. It was common practice for him to write SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) at the end of his scores.
He understood that the writing of music was an offering to God and there was no requirement that it have religious content. Such works as the Brandenburg Concertos, English Suites for piano, the magnificent Goldberg Variations or the Art of Fugue all capture something of the beauty and orderliness of creation. They are echoes of the beauty of the world around us and speak forth a hopefulness that is found in the story of the gospel.
Bach was both well versed in his Christian faith and committed to Christian practice. Great art it seems requires that one live in a great story. I am not suggesting that Bach’s faith is what made his music great – many composers and artists of distinction stand outside a faith tradition. But there is no doubt that what Bach believed contributed profoundly to both the shape and quality of his music. It is impossible to do justice to considering Bach’s work without also attending to the faith he professed that was woven into the fabric of all that he did as a composer.
I have been putting together this newsletter as Pentecost approaches and have featured three images by Gerard Pas that are part of his “Tongues of Fire” installation work. “Tongues of Fire” is an engaging linguistic image and in its original context speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the hearing of the gospel each in their own language – essentially a reversal of Babel. At the latterthe interest was to “make a name for themselves”.
At Pentecost the invitation was to proclaim the name of the One who has come to redeem and transform all creation. I have long been thinking about links between art and the Holy Spirit. I wonder if it might be acceptable to think of art as akin to “tongues of fire” symbolizing the presence of the Spirit and a dynamic movement that has the capacity to bring change and transformation to our lives and our communities.
Could it be that in those many places where the music of Bach is played we have the presence of a tongue of fire – that speaks to the dynamic reality of the Spirit at work in the world? Might the art work that you do be like a tongue of fire that opens a way for an experience of divine presence in the world? Is the dance, the drama, the poetry opportunity for some to discern in their own language what they have
not been able to discern before?
I am thinking of course about art not as mere entertainment but as something – that engages us, arrests us and leads us to take time to reflect, to mull over and to discover. But it is art that may also energize us, inspire us and move us to unprecedented action. And it may feed us, nurture us, comfort us and give us hope. In these possibilities we have an account of the work of the Spirit. We must of course not confuse aesthetic experience and the Spirit but it seems there is a connection which merits consideration. I have offered here only a beginning.