Friday, May 6, 2016

"Aesthetic surplus"? Or the highest expression of his piety?

This morning, a musical colleague forwarded an interesting article about JSB from today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal. The author, Markus Rathey (professor of music history at Yale University and president of the American Bach Society) reflects on the profound differences between the way Bach’s sacred works are heard in modern times (that is, in concert) compared to when they were presented as originally intended (that is, during worship services). This is nothing new; these differences are well known to Bach scholars, Bach performers, and Bach lovers, and necessarily inform many aspects of presentation and interpretation of JSB’s sacred works.

I was surprised however, that Rathey used most of his allotted word count to speculate on the idea that “We don’t know much about Bach’s own faith.” Here’s what he said, in part:

A similar problem [lack of definitive knowledge of sermons preached alongside Bach’s music] arises when we try to find out what Bach’s own religious beliefs were.  He is the composer of moving works of sacred music.  His compositions show a deep understanding of Lutheran theology.  Admirers have even labeled him the “Fifth Evangelist.”  And yet, we don’t know much about Bach’s own faith [emphasis mine].  He left almost no personal letters, and even the texts he set to music were not written by himself but by contemporary poets and theologians.

Bach was clearly interested in religious questions.  He owned an impressive collection of theological books, and he made annotations in his copy of the Bible.  But that isn’t enough to draw up a profile of his faith.  ... What exactly did he believe?  While we cannot reconstruct Bach’s faith, we can try to understand the religious context in which he lived and how it might have shaped his music.

The religious language of Bach’s time was drenched with emotional images: Christ as the bridegroom, the believer as the bride; the heart as the dwelling-place of the divine; the relationship of God and mankind was understood as a sign of deep love.

We find this language all over Bach’s works [and here Rathey quotes some of the tenderest texts from various of Bach’s sacred works]. ... Bach’s compositions frequently employ a musical language that underscores ... this theology of love.

Is this what Bach believed as well?  It was the way his time expressed its faith and there is no reason to assume that Bach viewed his relationship with God any differently. [emphasis mine]  In one movement of the “Christmas Oratorio,” he ran out of space when entering the text and instead of writing the German word for heart (“Herz”), he drew a little heart in the corner of the page. [OK, I love that.]

Yet in Bach’s music there is an aesthetic surplus that transcends the composer’s own piety [emphasis mine]—listeners don’t have to see themselves as brides of Christ to feel the longing in the opening chorus of “The St. Matthew Passion.” Belief in God isn’t required to feel for the suffering of Jesus when the alto voice laments, “If the tears of my cheeks cannot achieve anything, o, then take in my heart.”  ... Bach’s music transcends its immediate religious and cultural context. 

Let’s think about a few of these interesting assertions.

“We don’t know much about Bach’s own faith.” Au contraire. I am staggered that anyone who knows Bach’s music—or especially, anyone who has sung the sacred works—can come away from the music with any understanding other than this: that Bach was probably one of the most profoundly devout Christians in modern history. He could have turned his extraordinary art toward secular expression, as did many of his peers, but he chose (albeit ambitiously so) a career as a sacred musician, and explicitly framed his artistic talent and endeavor as the highest expression of his piety. He wrote, explicitly, on his scores, that he composed solely for the glory of God: There it is, on the score: SDG — Soli Deo GloriaWhat clearer statement can we ask for to inform us of his faith, and especially, how he turned his musical talent to the service of God?

“There is no reason to assume that Bach viewed his relationship with God any differently.” You’ve answered your own question.

“In Bach’s music there is an aesthetic surplus that transcends the composer’s own piety.” I believe it's the exact opposite — that what Rathey calls "aesthetic surplus" is in fact a reflection of Bach's piety, the glorious instrument by which he expresses the breadth and depth of his love of God and calls others to faith. To me it has always seemed this way — I thought it was obvious! The term “surplus” implies (and offensively so) an undesirable excess; what Bach gives us, rather, are abundant riches of inventiveness, technical mastery, and exquisite beauty. Though Bach was well aware of the depth of his talent and the extraordinary beauty of his work, he never indulges; he is never excessive; on the contrary, his music is concise and precise and elegant (that is, always combining beauty and utility) in its economy and discipline.

And of course, Bach’s power is that within the highly-disciplined frame of musical form, he creates the most exquisite, almost luxurious beauty; to the casual listener, the flood of beauty might seem to be an “aesthetic surplus,” but those who truly understand Bach understand the underlying structures, which, I believe, are analogous to his faith in God.

The enduring power of Bach’s music is not only in its perfection and intrinsic beauty, but particularly in the underlying fervor of his piety and honest faith. His faith is the reason for the music, and I think it can be understood, and interpreted, in no other way. And though I'm an atheist, I sense this intrinsically and believe it without reservation.

Post Scriptum – I am coming back to change the title of this post to “Aesthetic Surplus” – I just can’t get over that! The sheer beauty of Bach's music can make us forget, or perhaps fail to notice, the superb architecture that underlies it all, the economy and elegance of the technical achievement. Perhaps it is so overwhelmingly beautiful that we are swept away in what feels like excess. If so, then that's our failure (of comprehension), not Bach's failure (of composition).

Post Post Scriptum – In Bach's own words:

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul

Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.


Rathey, Markus. “The Religious Heart of Bach’s Music.” The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2016.

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