It seems fitting that, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach be presented as both a rousing tribute and rousing celebration of the Christmas season. On Sunday, December 10 at 4 p.m., the Sanctuary Choir, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and outstanding soloists from the choir will present “Part One” of The Christmas Oratorio and the celebrated Magnificat in D (last presented at BMPC in 1995).
Johann Sebastian Bach was not only the greatest composer of all time, but he was also a devout Christian, a man who as a child studied the Lutheran catechism and the Bible in Latin and Greek. Orphaned at age 10 and raised by his brother, he attended a secondary school that placed theological instruction at the center, followed closely by musical studies. The same teacher taught theology and music and instilled in young Bach the idea that “music makes the heart ready and receptive to Divine Word and truth.” (Bach and the Dance of God, Wilfrid Mellers).
At age 18, Bach held his first church position. Nine years later, he moved into the world of the German court in Weimar, turning his focus to secular works (e.g. Brandenburg Concertos). In 1723 he left the world of cantankerous royalty and moved to Leipzig, where he spent his remaining 27 years as Cantor of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. There he was responsible for the musical education of the boys and the liturgical music of the four major churches of Leipzig.
As impressive as this curriculum vitae might appear, it speaks nothing of the hardships that he faced. Bach, with his wives Maria Barbara (m. 1707-1720) and Anna Magdalena (m. 1721-1750), fathered 20 children over his lifetime. His first child was born in 1708 when Bach was 23, with his last coming into the world in 1742, when the composer was 57. Sadly, only 10 survived through to adulthood. As impressive as his position was in Leipzig, his employers treated him abysmally. Constant criticism abounded. Imagine a young Bach receiving this letter from his employer:
“Complaints have been made to the Consistorium that you now accompany the hymns with surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments, which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation. If you desire to introduce a theme against the melody, you must go on with it and not immediately fly off to another. And in no circumstances, must you introduce a tonus contrarius.” (Terry, Charles Sanford. Bach: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1933).
Poor eyesight, beginning around age 40, led to catastrophic eye surgeries that left him blind months before he died with few financial assets at 65 years old.
Of the more than 1,000 musical works that have come down to us, only eight were published in his lifetime, and hundreds were lost (many manuscripts were sold after his death to butchers, to be used to wrap meat).
“Bach did not make what is called a brilliant success in the world. He had, on the one hand, a lucrative office, but he had, on the other, a great number of children to maintain and to educate from the income of it. He neither had, nor sought other resources. He was too much occupied with his business and his art to think of pursuing those ways which, perhaps, for a man like him, especially in his times, would have led to a gold mine. If he had thought fit to travel, he would (as even one of his enemies said) have drawn upon himself the admiration of the whole world. But he lived a quiet, domestic life, constant and uninterrupted occupation with his art, and he was, as we have said of his ancestors, a man of few wants.” (David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel. The Bach Reader: A Life of J.S. Bach in Letters and Documents).
The devoutly Lutheran Bach saw his calling of creating music appropriate to God’s praise. His love for Scripture and the Church was translated into a fusion of faith and music, theology and liturgy. He set the biblical story to music in such a way as to reveal God’s presence to the congregation and to bring about a conversation with the Almighty. In Leonard Bernstein’s book, The Joy of Music, we read that, “for Bach, all music was religion; writing it was an act of faith; and performing it was an act of worship. Every note was dedicated to God and to nothing else. And this was true of all his music no matter how secular its purpose… [Bach] was a man of God, and his godliness informs his music from first to last.”
Please join us this Sunday for a special tribute to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, celebrating that occasion and the Season of Christmas with the sublime music of Johann Sebastian Bach.