I was walking into the Tattered Cover Bookstore this afternoon, and happened to walk by a woman who was standing by her car and sobbing. I asked if she was all right. She then chuckled and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I was just listening to Bach." Yes, that would explain it.
In recent years, I've begun to define myself more as a "Bach Lutheran" than a "Luther Lutheran." Yes, Luther's genius is towering. Even someone so hard to please as the existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said toward the end of his life that "truly, that man Luther is the master of us all."
Luther was a man of action, but he comes to us today in thought and word. For our time, he is almost exclusively "left brain." Johann Sebastian Bach is the whole package--intellectually deep, theologically astute, musically magnificent, emotionally passionate. (The man had twenty children, after all.)
Many people think Bach was not highly regarded during his lifetime, though that is not quite true. The entire Bach family was widely known for their talent. When a church or town wanted to enhance its musical reputation, it was known to search for "a Bach." The name itself was a guarantor of quality.
It is true that Johann Sebastian Bach was rather quickly forgotten after he died. For one thing, his mastery was so complete that an entire era of music, the baroque, came to an end with his death. Nobody could figure out how to improve on Bach. Also, after his death, the Bach musical spotlight moved to his children--C.P.E., Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedman, and Johann Christoph.
Another factor in Bach's temporary eclipse may have been that the Age of Enlightenment was dawning during his lifetime. The Enlightenment was devoted to reason, explicitly rejected religious "superstition," and attempted to separate the secular and the religious.
There was no such place, no middle ground, for Bach. Devoted to Luther's theology, Bach understood himself as simul iustus et peccator--at the same time, both saint and sinner; after a fashion, one might even say, "at the same time, both sacred and secular." In his own filing system, Bach did separate his secular music from his religious music, but both categories were filed under the epigram S.D.G.--soli deo gloria, "for the glory of God."
It is estimated that we have only about one-third of the entire J.S. Bach repertoire is available to us today. Most of his music was simply lost. Some of his manuscripts, it is said, were used for butcher paper or to wrap butter. Even at that, the music we do have is one of the greatest achievements of the human race.
We owe a huge debt to Felix Mendelssohn, himself a great composer, whose performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 led to a great Bach revival which has profoundly influenced the world of music ever since. It is said that, when the performance ended, the audience didn't quite know what to do. Should they applaud the crucifixion? There was a pregnant silence, and then a huge deluge of applause. Even the grumpy philosopher, G.F. Hegel, was said to be visibly moved.
The word "Bach" means "brook" in German. Beethoven, no slouch himself, once said: "Nicht Bach, sondern Meer"--"not a brook, but a sea". Johannes Brahms urged his students, "Study Bach. There you will learn everything." Even that little twirp, Mozart, upon hearing a Bach motet, said, "At last, here is something to learn from." (I caught one of my seminary profs listening to Mozart one day, whereupon he said that this is the music God listens to, and I thought, "You're not as smart as I thought you were.")
What would it have been like to be a member of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany during Bach's tenure? For weeks on end, he would write an original cantata early in the week, practice it with his chorale late in the week, and sing it on Sunday as the church's liturgy. This may have been one of the reasons that Bach never wrote an opera. Why would you bother with opera when you can write a cantata based on the Bible readings for the week?
Once asked how human beings should communicate with the universe, Lewis Thomas said, "I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later." Which is what we did with Voyager back in the late 1970's.
The great cellist, Pablo Casals, once said, "Bach is the supreme genius of music...This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it."
Johann Sebastian Bach is buried in the sanctuary at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Fresh flowers are laid at his tomb every day.