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Bach and God

I am dipping into the Bach Christmas that BBC Radio 3 is now indulging in. I am not disorganising myself to listen to particular items, if only because I already have all the big stuff on CD. But I am taking in occasional gobs of what comes, whenever it is convenient and I feel in a Bach mood.

And what I am getting from it all is how extremely religious it all is. I realise that this is a very obvious thing to be noticing. But hearing cantata after cantata introduced with its German wording, and then being told in English what it all means and why the contralto aria in particular is so deeply felt and beautiful and then what the chorus will be singing about at the end, has connected all this music to religion in a way that I have preferred to – not ignore exactly – just not pay all that much attention to. Of course I know what the St Matthew Passion is about, but for me the harmonies and melodies are the reason for listening. The religion of it is, for me, merely the platform Bach used to build the thing, even as I am aware that for Bach religion was the point. Bach also wrote a lot of purely instrumental music, such as the Brandenberg Concertos, the violin and the keyboard concertos, and the solo works for violin, for cello and for keyboard, and of course I cannot get enough of those.

But if you want to understand Johann Sebastian Bach, as opposed merely to enjoying him, you cannot ignore religion. Here is yet another historical circumstance which twentieth century atheists like me are now able to understand that little bit better, now that once again we have in our midst people who really believe in this kind of stuff, and who believe in combining their beliefs with the exercise of secular power, in ways that Christians mostly now do not. Listening at around midnight, early on in the proceedings, to one march-like tune from a cantata, and remembering what the announcer had just said that it was about, I suddenly felt scared. My God, I am being attacked by an army of True Believers. In short, I got the message. The Bach story illustrates what artistic treasure can come out of things like the current time of Islamist, er, enthusiasm. Once – although, as with Protestantism, this is a big once – this latter enterprise stops deluding itself that it can take over the world, or even very much of the Middle East or the North of England, it will settle back into its mosques and resort to more peaceful methods of propagandising, and of keeping up the spirits of its faithful. I do not say that there will necessarily be an Islamic Bach, in the sense of a great musician. For starters, I do not know just what the attitude of Fundamentalist Islam is towards music. I rather think they may disapprove. Whatever. But I do confidently believe that Great Art of some sort will result, even though I will not live to see it or hear it or read it. I know what the commentariat will say. Islamism now is about as philistine and artless as it is possible for a bunch of artless philistines to be. They do not create art, they destroy it. I know that. But first generation Protestants were little better. The point is, artistically, what happens when their original True Vision fails to materialise, and they then have to apply their energies to more peaceful methods of spreading their True Faith.

Meanwhile, the religious enthusiasm that animated Bach’s inner life and which paid for his musical career goes a good part of the way to explaining his greatness. Would Bach even have been able to manage things like the 48 Preludes and Fugues, or the Double Violin Concerto, without the expressive momentum drawn from him by his God? We can never know, of course, but my guess would be: not.

For artists to be great, greatness needs to be demanded of them or at the very least permitted to them, by their surrounding culture. Art does not work properly if there is no contemporary response to it. The starving artist in his garret, his genius recognised only by posterity, is largely a myth. Almost all the great artists had at least periods in their careers when they were all the rage. Yes, they would often go out of fashion and fall on hard times, but they almost all of them had some good times as well, when they could really feel that they were getting through to people in a big way, and they could then feel inspired by that response, or by the recent memory of it, to attempt more great things.

And for Bach, his licence to be great, so to speak, was the greatness of his God and of his religion, and his determination to express this, to God, and to and on behalf of his contemporaries and fellow believers.

This, paradoxically, is what makes Bach so modern, to our ears. Bach had a kind of musical ambition – a demand to be attended to, as it were – that separates him from his contemporaries, and puts him, to our ears, alongside the likes of Beethoven and Wagner. In giving full voice to German Protestantism, Bach brought to his task a combination of mathematical intricacy and rigour and lyrical depth of feeling that has never since been surpassed. (When I hear the music of Bach’s contemporaries, like Telemann or Vivaldi, I sometimes say to myself: I could do that. Silly I know, but I do say it. I never say that when I hear Bach.)

To his musical contemporaries and to his immediate successors, Bach was an old-fashioned figure rather than any sort of pioneer, somewhat as the Victorians were thought of during the twentieth century. All that ponderous and high-minded seriousness! All those fugues and hymns! All that intricate counterpoint! Relax old man, said those musicians of the later eighteenth century who still knew about him, as they supplied elegant musical wallpaper for the aristocracy. Actually, there is, in among all the fervour and solemnity, a lot of dance in Bach, a lot of salon gracefulness and jollity. Nevertheless those later composers were right to regard Bach as not really part of their team. He was indeed out on his own.

What we now thrill to, they found technically admirable, but also rather embarrassing. It was left, appropriately enough, to the post-Beethoven nineteenth century to rediscover Bach, and he has been adored ever since.

But Bach did not do it only for us. He could not have done it only for us. To do what he did for us, he also had to be doing it for God.

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10 comments to Bach and God

  • Stevey

    Why do guys like yourself insist on claiming that all religeous movements are the same, just because they have a theist rather than an athiest model of existance? This is like saying libertarianism and communism are identical, because adherants of both ideologies do not believe in God.

  • RAB

    Given that Bach had one of the best left hands of all time. I think had he been alive today he would be playing with the kickingest, rockingest stoller rollers he could find.
    What’s god got to do with it?
    It’s obsession and passion. That’s music!
    If you find god in the music that’s fine, but if you find the music only in god , well that’s deafness.

  • “Here is yet another historical circumstance which twentieth century atheists like me…”

    The twentieth century is so passe.

  • Effra

    Atheists are always with us: as Prof. Paul Vitz has argued, this rare psychological disorder (under 2% of the population, mostly males) is probably a displacement of a bad or non-existent relationship with the professed atheist’s father. His non-belief system tends to break down in times of stress: ‘no atheists in foxholes’.

    What was peculiar about the period c.1800-1950 was the attempt to assimilate this perceptual disorder to the cults of democracy and materialist science– as if methods of studying the nuts and bolts of sublunary life could somehow become an alternative to religious rituals, and as if all men (a fortiori, women) were equally fit to govern themselves and others. These top-down doctrines never captured the innermost hearts of ordinary men, and are now evaporating– alongside much else that was ‘modern’ 100 years ago– as the natural piety and humility of Man reasserts itself.

    Awareness about the folly of thinking that fulfilment lies in tinkering with the surface of things becomes more widespread, and participation in democratic rites less so among nations which have endured them longest. Next, men must be cured of the idea that human beings ‘progress’ from one time and place to another, which has produced so much slaughter and misery as fanatics try to instal Heaven on earth. Is Harrison Birtwistle, or even Stockhausen, 300 years better than JS Bach?

    We have choked on our riches and are bored by them, and hag-ridden by the effort to accumulate them. We now stand at the brink of a new age of faith and resignation, in which we shall be poorer in goods and richer in spirit. The true battle is not between varieties of trust in a higher power, such as Islam and Christianity, but between faith and the official faithlessness embodied in such monstrosities as legalised abortion and forbidding Nativity scenes in town squares. The godless intelligentsia which procured these impositions on the instincts of the majority are, however, now demoralised and bereft of trust in their own Victorian positivism and scientism. Many are defecting to cults of pseudo-religious irrationality, oriental mysticism, home-made pantheisms such as the ‘Green’ movement, magickal hocus-pocus. A few swing to the opposite futility of proclaiming themselves autonomous ‘individuals’ with some non-God-given right to what they call ‘freedom’. Hardly any still profess the mechanistic superstitions drawn from ancient Greek thought which makes figures such as Richard Dawkins look so quaint.

    It is not surprising that the revival of piety should throw up absurdities and monstrosities of its own, but these will sort themselves out. Realisation that official godlessness can produce nothing but lousy art is one important way of understanding why it is such a sterile contradiction of Man’s nature: a wilful self-mutilation of the only impulse that can do him any good or do others good. The uninhabitable public housing of these times, the unlistened-to discordant music and derided gimmicks of the plastic arts, the unread ‘literary’ novels and rhymeless poetry, are all monuments to what happened when Man cut himself off from his Creator. Enjoying Bach, and understanding whence he was inspired, can be the beginning of wisdom.

    A blessed Christmas and spirtually enlightened New Year to all Samizdata readers.

    AMDG

  • “We now stand at the brink of a new age of faith and resignation, in which we shall be poorer in goods and richer in spirit.”

    Leave me out of your “we”. If you want to be poorer in goods and richer in spirit that’s your business but if you come for my stuff I’ll be waiting in defilade.

  • ADE

    Excellent post, Brian.

    The dilemma of Belief – if your genes are to survive, you must believe in the future. To define precisely what that future is is a mistake – particularly as you will not be here to see it. So you must pass on belief, but not say what that belief actually is. That’s a lot easier when your language is music.

    There is another discipline that resolutely refuses to say WHAT it is talking about – mathematics (per Bertrand Russel). Little wonder that the two talents go so often together.

    And that’s the problem with Islam – it believes that it is the final belief. Of course so did Christianity – and the only solution was to ditch Christianity.

    But belief in your culture that made it possible to ditch Christianity when its time had come, and at the same time created Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Beatles… let’s pass it on.

    ADE

  • Thanks for the post. Listening to Bach outside of church services strips from the music the associations you note in the first few paragraphs. The music wasn’t intended to be heard outside of church services.

  • Stevely

    ADE-

    What amazing arrogance. “And that’s the problem with Islam – it believes that it is the final belief. Of course so did Christianity – and the only solution was to ditch Christianity.” I have news for you – Christianity remains the largest religion in the world today and our numbers are growing. Perhaps the solution for you was to ditch Christianity, but this is far from the case in the world, or even in our culture (though maybe atheism is strong in Australia than the United States, could be).

  • Jacob

    The uninhabitable public housing of these times, the unlistened-to discordant music and derided gimmicks of the plastic arts, the unread ‘literary’ novels and rhymeless poetry, are all monuments to what happened when…..
    Man cut himself off from his Creator. ??

    All these horrible things are out there for anybody to see, I agree.
    But I don’t know what they are monument to …. monument to the cult of ugliness ?

  • Alex Nagy

    Thank you Brian for your blog. I am a student of The Urantia Book and I have been opened up to center my life – my mind – on God. It is not easy in this secular age. I am studying Bach, and he is a God-send. Just today I found something he said to his students, but I believe what he said he could have divulged anywhere at anytime to anyone about centering one’s life on God. ==> Bach himself reportedly said: “The thorough bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delectation of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough bass should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”