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Archive for July 28th, 2012

Johann Sebastian Bach, Kantor

Bio:  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is acknowledged as one of the most famous and gifted composers in the Western world. Orphaned at age ten, Bach was mostly self-taught in music. His professional life as conductor, performer, composer, teacher, and organ consultant began at age nineteen in the town of Arnstadt and ended in Leipzig, where for the last twenty-seven years of his life he was responsible for all the music in the city’s four Lutheran churches. In addition to being a superb keyboard artist, the genius and bulk of Bach’s vocal and instrumental compositions remain overwhelming. A devout and devoted Lutheran, he is especially honored in Christendom for his lifelong insistence that his music was written primarily for the liturgical life of the Church to glorify God and edify His people. (from The Treasury of Daily Prayer, Concordia Publishing House) 

Reflection:  On this day in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach died, thus it is for the saints in Christ, a “heavenly birthday”.   When I was at  Concordia Junior College, Milwaukee (Now Concordia University, Mequon Wisconsin), I took the one credit on Lutheran Hymnody.   Professor “Ollie” Ruprecht pointed out that Bach’s library had around 80 volumes in it.  Prof. Rupprecht pointed out that back then book were quite expensive and about 60  of those volumes were books of orthodox Lutheran theology.  

Now I may not remember the professor’s numbers correctly but the impression has lasted.   Orthodox Lutheran theology is all about proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God.  And so did Bach’s music.  One of Bach’s most marked set of volumes was Abraham Calov’s 3 book set of Luther’s Bible, with Calov’s commentary.  Bach, spending a large fraction of a year’s salary, purchased a 7 volume edition of Luther’s writings which Calov has based his commentary.  Calov wrote regarding Luther:

“It hinders a preacher greatly if he wants to look around and concern himself with what people want to hear and not hear.”

Bach double-marked that sentence for emphasis (from Evening in the Palace of  Reason by James R. Gaines). That sentence sums up Bach’s understanding of music, “his” music, as he would mark on his scores AMG, ad mairorem Dei, to the greater glory of God.  In his day, the Enlightenment, ‘modern’ music was suppose to reflect how the composer felt and what the people wanted to hear.  Sound familiar?  Not for J. S. Bach:  it was to proclaim the Gospel.  In fact, one author’s book on Bach is appropriately entitled, The 5th Evangelist.

 Bach in the age of the Enlightenment was already becoming a ‘has-been’ and not well-received.  Only two of Bach’s works were ever published in his life time.  But the word of the Lord endures forever and the Lord gave Johann a gift that he did use to the greater glory of our Lord.

On the blog Cyberbrethren, there is a good article on Bach and the writer observes,

.. 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.

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, You have taught us in Holy Scripture to sing Your praises and have given to Your servant Johann Sebastian Bach grace to show forth Your glory in his music. Continue to grant this gift of inspirationto all Your servants who write and make music for Your people, that with joy we on earth may glimpse Your beauty and at length know the inexhaustible richness of Your  creation in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives,and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Luther on Music:

I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone…. Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions—to pass over the animals—which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found—at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate—and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3:15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel (1 Sam. 16-23)

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words. After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words. (The Treasury of Daily Prayer)

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