Saturday, February 25, 2012

Johan Sebastian Bach

By Rick Marschall,, 192 pages.

Marschall shows how deep Christian belief builds culture. In Bach's day (died 1750) northern Germany around Berlin was deeply Lutheran, which meant that it was deeply musical. The liturgy was much more intense than it is now. This meant much music and a lengthy, even hour-long sermon.

Bach came from a long line of musicians who served the church and Christianity. The author shows how Bach's deep faith made him a great evangelist. Bach took this evangelism through music seriously. He believed that his musical gifts, obvious at a young age, were from God and were to be used in the proclamation of the gospel.

We can only understand Bach when we're aware of his Christian spirituality, Marschall observes: "He sought to praise God by making his church music to be sermons in song."

Yet Marschall goes a bit far when he argues, "what Newton was to science and physics, Bach was to music." Most people today would be unable to identify a song by Bach, and the author himself admits that the Baroque genius lived at the very end of that age, when Italian operas were sweeping Europe and Baroque was rapidly becoming outmoded.

Importantly, this book parallels the observations of Pope John Paul II on the importance of culture. Bach's genius was amplified and set free by his faith. Unlike countless artists today who claim that God would trap their talents, Bach's greatest freedom came at the service of God. The musician saw himself in his various church music roles as a minister.

Marschall reminds the readers repeatedly that Bach never felt constrained. He personified the Baroque Christian culture of the day. Through him also came the highest expression of Lutheran piety and adherence to tradition.

Bach's Christianity was broader than simply Lutheran, the author shows. Bach's Mass in B Minor, perhaps a strange composition for a Lutheran, took many years, which was uncharacteristic for him. Marschall observes that it includes many medieval and renaissance elements. In other words, though a Protestant, Bach appreciated and respected the Catholic and medieval artistic achievements, and made them part of his own work.

Readers get a good sense of the historical and cultural surroundings in which Bach lived. Marschall notes for instance that the Mass in B Minor was something of an oddity because Calvinism, with its rejection of the flowery and the artistic, was making quick inroads into the northern Germany of Bach. This was completely at odds with the great composer's style. Yet, just as opera hardly influenced Bach, neither did this new religious direction.

Readers also get a good sense of the Lutheran liturgical and church culture of the day. Such notes as the following give readers a sense of Bach as an individual, of what his daily life and ministry were like: "Bach played the organ during the Communion with plenty of spontaneity for improvisation, suggested by his many chorale preludes upon Communion hymns."

Marschall makes a good case that Bach the artist was so free and wonderfully creative because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and faithful to his Christian tradition, even respectful of the older Roman Catholic roots.

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