Celebrating Bach's Legacy to the Church: After 250 years, he still preaches powerfully through his music

Fifty years ago, on the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, composer Paul Hindemith gave a speech titled “Heritage and Obligation.” Like Hindemith, many composers since the time of Mozart have felt some kind of obligation to Bach’s heritage—composers as diverse as Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Stravinsky, and the jazz pianist John Lewis.

Composers are not the only ones who have paid homage to Bach (1685-1750). This year marks the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Concerts and festivals around the world will draw innumerable attendees. Recordings of Bach’s music are proliferating. Teldec and Hänssler have both issued the “complete” works of Bach in boxed sets of 153 and 170 CDs respectively, and two projects are underway to record more than two hundred of Bach’s cantatas.

Where is the church in all this? Karl Barth said that the fifth commandment, honor father and mother, refers to more than our immediate parents. It refers to our fathers and mothers in the faith. So what are we doing to honor this “father” who many claim to be the greatest composer of all? His cantatas, passions, oratorios, and chorale preludes comprise a repertory of music that stands unexcelled, perhaps unequalled, among artistic expressions of the Christian faith. During this anniversary year, we have a wonderful opportunity to honor him and to consider how we can become better custodians of his legacy.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 into a family of musicians. By that time, Bachs had been employed Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 into a family of musicians. By that time, Bachs had been employed as musicians for so long in Germany that the name had become synonymous with “musician.”

Bach followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, taking various musical positions in town, church, school, and court. Except for six years at the court at Cöthen (1717-1723), his musical duties involved church music—planning, composing, playing the organ, preparing the choir. Although people recognized his unparalleled skill as an organist and composer, Bach did not achieve widespread fame during his lifetime. His music was considered old-fashioned, and he never sought fame and fortune where it was chiefly to be had—in opera. Rather, his primary goal was, in his own words, “a well-regulated church music.”

Bach’s Approach Toward a Well-Regulated Church Music

At least three primary ingredients went into Bach’s achievement of that goal.

  • First, dedication to his art. For Bach that meant developing his skill, honing his craft. Bach could have said with the poet George Herbert, “With my utmost art I praise thee.” With his utmost art, because being a good steward and making a worthy offering of thanks required it.
  • Second, theological knowledge. Theology pervaded Bach’s education at home and at school. When he left school, he continued to study theology. The entire contents of his library were theological and included two editions of the complete works of Luther. Of all the books in Bach’s library, only the Bible survives. It is in three volumes and contains the complete Bible in Luther’s German translation and extensive commentary by Luther, along with additional commentary by Abraham Calov. What is particularly interesting about these volumes are the marginal notes and underlinings in Bach’s hand that reveal thorough and thoughtful reading.
  • Third, rootedness in tradition and selective use of the new. Bach was very much aware of what was going on in the musical world around him. His music is a synthesis of old and new and of various national styles. Though basically conservative, he used the new styles coming out of opera—recitative and aria—and was heavily influenced by the new concerto style of Vivaldi. When a new style of cantata text became popular, Bach, to a certain extent, joined the crowd. But in none of these cases did his use of the new uproot him from the tradition.

He never abandoned the old. He didn’t, for example, abandon the Scripture texts, chorale texts, or scriptural dialogues that were the core of the older cantatas. Rather, he selectively added new texts into the mix. He never abandoned the sturdy old chorale tunes for the newer, sentimental ones coming out of Pietism, nor did he leave the older, intricate counterpuntal styles for newer, simpler, “galant” styles. He used the newer styles to fulfill a particular expressive function, or he transformed them into something richer and deeper.

Whatever reticence Bach had toward the new styles was not based on reactionary opposition. Rather, he was cautious about them because, under the influence of the Enlightenment, Western civilization was becoming increasingly secular.

Two Views of Music

Two seemingly opposing strands of musical thought developed during the Enlightenment. Bach could not buy into either one. One had too low a view of music, the other too high.

Charles Burney (1726-1814) expressed the low view of music, defining it as “the art of pleasing, . . . an innocent luxury, . . . a gratification of the sense of hearing.” The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) placed music lowest on the hierarchy of the arts because “it merely plays with sensations.”

Bach could not have subscribed to such a low view of music. The “refreshment of spirit” mentioned on some of his title pages was certainly something higher than a mere “gratification of the sense of hearing.” Bach saw music as a powerful rhetorical art for conveying the truth of the gospel. And beyond that, he saw it as an art that brought glory to God.

The high view of music involved an Enlightenment aestheticism that held that humans could know and will that which was ethically desirable, and that beauty had “a power to transform or to consecrate its patrons and to give them the Holy by teaching them to know the Beautiful” (Jarislav Pelikan). Bach’s theological orientation, however, was completely at odds with such ideas. He knew that original sin made it impossible for humans “to will that which was ethically desirable” and that the Beautiful had no power to save. The aesthetic of the holiness of beauty was utter anathema to Bach, who was one of the last spirits of the middle of the eighteenth century to swim against the leading theological currents of his time. “He refused to join in the idolatrous quest for the eternal feminine in the Beautiful. [Rather] he found in his service to the Holy a new and more profound conception of the Beautiful as well” (J. Pelikan, Fools for Christ, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955, p. 155).

His primary goal was, in his own words, “a well-regulated church music.”

Learning from Bach’s Example

Church musicians today can learn much from Bach’s example. Even though none of us is likely to achieve as much as he did, we, no less than he, are called to do our job with our “utmost art.” But our utmost art needs to be guided by theology. To do our job right, we need theological knowledge as much as we need musical skill. And when the currents of our culture run contrary to our Christian faith, we can find encouragement in Bach’s courageous swimming against the cultural currents of the Enlightenment.

But what about practical use of the rich repertory he has left us? Admittedly, there are problems. First, Bach’s music is not easy. Even musicians with long training have to work hard to perform it well. Second, at the core of his church music are the cantatas. Few churches have the musical resources to perform them. Third, even those that have the resources will not often have liturgical space for works that last twenty or thirty minutes.

However, all this does not leave us without ways to use his music. Consider the following:

  • At the heart of Reformed worship is congregational singing, and Bach’s chorale harmonizations are without equal. We can make greater use of them than we do (see sidebar p. 34).
  • His chorale preludes should be central to church organists’ repertories. And they need not be limited to organ. Many of them can be arranged effectively for instrumental ensembles (see box p. 40).
  • Although much of Bach’s vocal music is difficult, it includes movements that can be learned well by choirs of modest abilities.
  • Those who compose new music for the church should study Bach’s music intensely. When Mozart first heard one of Bach’s motets, he exclaimed, “Now, there is something one can learn from.” If Mozart could learn from Bach, then Bach has something to teach any composer.
  • Not only composers can learn from Bach. We all can. Careful, devotional listening to his sacred vocal work—the cantatas, passions, and motets—can be wonderfully nourishing. No other composer wrote music that so vividly conveys the gospel and plumbs its depths of meaning.
  • Fifty years ago Hindemith talked of an obligation to Bach’s heritage. Many are honoring that heritage in this anniversary year. The church’s obligation to that heritage, however, runs deeper than the obligation of the music lover. But what a sweet obligation! While we honor this “father” with attentive ears, he in turn nourishes and refreshes our souls with music that honors his and our Lord and Savior.



My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach

Over the years I have spent a good amount of time listening to Bach’s "sermons." I wanted to write a small book that would serve as an introductory guide to Bach’s text-related works, especially for listeners who would like to use them devotionally. The main part of the book provides guidance through specific works that express, interpret, and vivify some of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. The principal doctrine expressed by a given work is made clear by quotations from that simple, yet rich, exposition of the Christian faith, the Heidelberg Catechism.

When I was learning the Catechism as a boy, we were given two alliterative sets of words to help us remember the three main divisions—sin, salvation, and service; guilt, grace, and gratitude. My subtitle provides a third alliterative trio—death, deliverance, and discipleship—which says pretty much the same thing as the other two but whose third word, discipleship, fits particularly well with a pervasive theme in Bach’s works.

—Calvin R. Stapert, My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000. 241 pp. $16.00. 616-459-4591.


Ideas for Including the Music of Bach in Worship

The Church Organist’s Golden Treasury, a three-volume (alphabetical) anthology of choral preludes (Oliver Ditson), includes several cantata movements arranged for organ. Those arrangements from choral and orchestral parts, however, are often very challenging on keyboard. One delightful solution is to use additional instruments or voices you may have available in your congregation. Each movement also includes a Bach harmonization of the chorale that could precede and/or follow the cantata movement. Here are two examples from that collection:

For Advent: “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (Wachet auf). Bach himself arranged this for organ from his cantata by that name; rather than simply playing it on the organ, have the tenors of your choir sing the melody and/or have the melody played by trombone or baritone.

For Advent or Palm Sunday: The tune best known with “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” is also often set to the Advent text “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (Valet will ich dir gebin). Bach’s setting from Cantata 95 can be played with organ and violin and/or cello. The “right hand” part can be played by violin as originally composed, with the left hand and pedal part then played on manuals. Or have the pedal part played by cello or bassoon.


Bach for All Seasons

Church choirs and organists who are up to the challenge of doing cantata movements should take a look at a new choral collection and CD released during this anniversary year. Bach for All Seasons (Augsburg Fortress) includes about forty pieces, half chorales and half cantata movements, all scored for organ. Here as well, the introduction encourages use of instruments.


Calvin R. Stapert (stap@calvin.edu) is a professor of music at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 57 © September 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.