Uniquely Bach

Editor’s Note: David Berger offers additional reflections on worship music in light of a recent service at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Des Peres, MO, where a choir and orchestra performed one of Bach’s Christmas Oratorios. Berger is Professor Emeritus of Concordia Seminary, former director of the library, and a well-respected bass soloist who regularly performs Bach’s music with the American Kantorei.

I second Kent Burreson’s comments and observations, especially regarding the place of music of such quality in God-pleasing worship, and offer a few comments of my own.  Regarding Bach’s consummate artistry, he has no peer in relating the music to the text. But he also provides opportunity for musicians to make their own “remarks” in the context. The sixteenth notes that trailed away in a downward fourth on the word “vanish,” were an ornament that I thought fit the context. Bach simply wrote the C to G interval as two notes on the German word “vertreiben” (to drive away or banish). And so the “vanishing” 16th notes in a downward scale would work just as well in German: Death is driven away, banished, by Christ.

Will there be another Bach?  Well, you can’t duplicate the unduplicatable. Here is my (probably controversial) hypothesis: The Reformation was an electric shock to church music. The foundation of church music in Gregorian chant is well known, and there was / is much great music in that tradition, e.g., that of Palestrina, to cite but one example. But the music of the people (folk music, in the best sense of the word) was also present, operating on a plane parallel to chant and early polyphony in the (Roman Catholic) worship context. During and after the Reformation, as the people took a more active role in worship, most notably in the singing of hymns (chorales, if you will), the melodic content of folk music blended its way into church music. In the following centuries, Lutheran composers used the changing musical language and the rapidly emerging Lutheran chorale tradition to marvelous effect: the three Ss – Schütz, Schein, Scheidt – Praetorius, Buxtehude, the Bach family both before and succeeding J. S., and, of course, Johann Sebastian, himself. J. S. Bach was the culmination of a musical form, polyphonic music (every voice equally interesting – Bach “thought” in fugues), as well as the fount and source of all music that was to come. Even today, no composer or musician worth his salt can ignore Bach.

If a more spiritual “spin” is to be put on it, it must be said that Bach was / is indeed, literally, the “Fifth Evangelist” – the composer who grew out of the Reformation (he most certainly was a Luther scholar) and became its never-to-be-surpassed musical peak, preaching the Gospel in music and reaching far beyond his time and place. (Today, one of the best series of recordings of Bach’s works is coming out of Japan, performed by the Bach Collegium Japan. What would Bach think of that?!)

That Bach and Handel were born in the same year (1685) is truly an embarrassment of Lutheran riches. Had Handel written only his Messiah and Bach his Mass in B Minor and his two best-known Passions (John and Matthew), we would have the sum of all great church music.  Everything we need to know and believe is in those works.  But, of course, both wrote much more, making the first half of the 18th century the pinnacle of music of the church.  That is not to belittle such composers as Gabrieli and Monteverdi or (much later) Mozart and Haydn, Mendelssohn and Brahms, but merely to recognize a marriage of biblical text and great music that can never be equaled, certainly not at that level and that quantity.

Lest we romanticize Bach’s life and work, we must recognize that Bach “kicked against the pricks” (a good biblical expression) for almost all his time in Leipzig.  He rarely had the resources to perform the music the way he knew it should be done and, it could be said, was constantly rebelling against the authorities. He was also over-worked and under-valued.  One might well ask, Would Bach find kindred spirits in the music directors in some of our congregations, that is, in those that still have directors of music trained in one of our synodical church work programs? How many congregations (let’s limit it to those that regularly have 500 or more in worship services) are willing to support not only an organist and choir director, but even pay a modest stipend to a quartet of reliable vocalists and to the occasional instrumentalist(s) to assure that the music of worship is maintained at a high level?  Surely, there is nothing wrong with volunteers, but even in the church we must recognize that we are likely to get what we pay for. In worship music, as in other aspects of the life of the church, the level of quality will reflect the resources – time, talent, and treasure – that we are willing to devote to it.

Note that the “Bach at the Sem” series of concerts resumes at Concordia Seminary on Sunday, Feb. 12





One response to “Uniquely Bach”

  1. Rev. Ryan Drevlow Avatar
    Rev. Ryan Drevlow

    I appreciate David Berger’s comments. I do think that Bach’s unique musical gift was however due to slightly different elements. His genius is without question. It is hard to talk intelligently about Bach and not acknowledge the sheer greatness of his genius and also sadly resolve that this kind of greatness will never come again.
    However, there is one element that is missing here. Bach stood at a virtual doorway between the Homophony of the past (ie Palestrina) and the Polyphony of the future. This influence would come from the influence of the Italianate school and that is was widely popular. The homophony of the past was also rooted in church modes and the Cantus Mollis and Cantus Dur.
    Simply to say, Bach was operating with one foot in the past using easily identifiable church modes and Hexachord treatments, while also using Italianate Polyphony and Baroque ornamentation like a master. It was his ability to stand firm in that threshold and neither turn to the left or right that made him unique and his music lasting.
    A good book for this study is Eric Chafe “Analyzing Bach Cantatas” Where you will find more than just this to analyze Bach.

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