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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Bach still celebrated today

Robert Shaw, whom Paul Westermeyer observed as “a perceptive sleuth of quality” and one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed conductors, said that J.S. Bach might be the “single greatest creative genius” in the “whole history of the Western world.” According to the same source, Mozart spoke of Bach’s work, “Now there is music from which a [person] can learn something,” and Brahms said, “Study Bach: there you find everything.” Leonard Bernstein, the famed orchestral conductor of the 20th century, wasn’t a Christian, but even he gave detailed regard to the influence of faith that pervaded Bach’s music as much as his technical quality.

Portrait of J.S. Bach seated at the organ. image: The British Museum

It isn’t only experts who know that Bach stands high on the list of creative geniuses. Recordings of his music can be found everywhere, books continue to be written analyzing his work, Bach festivals take place in places such as Pennsylvania and Oregon, and he is popular not just in Germany but also in Japan such as with the conductor Masaaki Suzuki, who wants to bring the message of Christian hope to a highly secular nation.

Bach’s music is heard more often in the concert hall than in the church, though ironically most of it consists of cantatas written for worship. In the fact of this concert-hall success, why should we 21st-century Christians listen to the music of a German Baroque composer who died in 1750? And given many modern churches’ inclination toward relevance and multimedia marketing, can we use his music at all in 2017, the year we commemorate 500 years of Reformation? If so, how?

Bach’s cantatas proclaim the good news of God’s mercy in Christ. They don’t seek to manipulate or sell anything. They simply announce what God has done, continues to do and will do. By doing so, they extol God with “boundless freedom” that is “paradoxically bound to form because of the Incarnation,” to quote Jaroslav Pelikan. Bach’s music lives out the church’s presupposition that music is for the glory of God and the edification of one’s neighbor.

Part of Bach’s appeal, like the gospel itself, is the grace and shalom of such a perspective. Much of what passes for church music today assumes with the surrounding culture that music is a tool for selling things. The boundless freedom of Bach’s music proclaims the freedom Christ brings and gives the lie to all stealthy notions of manipulative control by music or any other means.

With this freedom comes the major themes of the Christian faith. We don’t have all the cantatas Bach composed for the church’s Sunday services and festivals, but we have more than enough to hear him embody these themes musically as well as or better than any other composer in history.

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