Thursday, March 21, 2013

Celebrating the Birth of the Greatest Composer in the History of the West: the Lutheran, Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach Monument, on Exterior of St. Thomas Ev. Church - Leipzig, DEToday is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring, and in 1685, the same can be said of musical excellence, both in the Church and in the West, as within them the full vibrance of musical life was born, as well – with the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the man known as the Greatest Composer in the History of Western Civilization. We have written much on Intrepid Lutherans about this creative Master, a fiercely orthodox Lutheran who infused his faith into his compositions through the language of counterpoint, in it battling not only Pietism but, as we detailed in our post, Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 3: Johann Sebastian Bach, the apostasy of the Enlightenment. The first post in which we first featured J.S. Bach, Music for Holy Week, Part 1 – excerpts from Matthäus Passion, we summarized Bach's life and accomplishments, as follows:
    Bach perhaps needs little introduction: he was and remains the master of counterpoint and represents the pinnacle of Baroque musical achievement. In addition to his many secular works, as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he composed a full series of Cantatas to accompany the Lutheran liturgy for each week of the Church Calendar, along with many other Sacred works as he was commissioned... It is worth noting, however, than in addition to his status as a composer, Johann Sebastian Bach was also fiercely orthodox in his Lutheranism. Being active as a composer during the rise of German Pietism and attempting to ward it off through the Sacred works he was often commissioned to compose, his professional library was proliferate with personally annotated works of Lutheran theology – he had the library of a theologian, and he used it as reference material in the composition of his works.
Bach's genius as a composer was not entirely his own. He is known to have studied the Masters of the previous generation and incorporated their genius into his own art: men like Michael Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Schein, and especially Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)the greatest German composer, second to Bach, who, having composed exclusively for the Lutheran Church throughout his career, has been the subject of numerous posts on Intrepid Lutherans, as well.

Schütz studied under the Renaissance Master of antiphonal and polychoral composition, Giovanni Gabrieli, at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. So remarkable was his performance as a student, that Master Gabrieli was compelled to recommend him with the words, “In Schütz you will have a musician such as one will not find in many other places”. Indeed, upon his death in 1612, Gabrieli willed his signet ring to Schütz. Heinrich Schütz was appointed Kapellmeister at the Royal Court in Dresden in 1615, and from there through the remainder of his career, he masterfully wedded the highest musical art of the Renaissance with the German language, the purest manifestation of which, for him, was Martin Luther's translation of the the Bible.

Bach's relationship to Schütz is almost serendipitous. Recall from our post, Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 2: Heinrich Schütz ... and other thoughts to ponder over the New Year Holiday... the concern Schütz had in the second third of his life over the decline in compositional integrity he had witnessed, for
    the advent of the chordal style dispensing with linear but rich polyphonic textures made it possible for technically less accomplished composers to shine with concertante figured-bass music. According to Schütz, there were hardly any younger composers in Germany willing to deal with the more profound aspects of composition. So their tonal idiom was bound to become increasingly shallow and banal.
As a result, he published his Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choral Music) in 1648, dedicating it to the choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, to “encourage budding German composers, before they would try their hand at the concertante style first demonstrate their skill in this area.” O that today's Lutheran composers would follow this advice, and avoid their own “shallow and banal tonal idiom!”

Johann Sebastian Bach Monument, on Exterior of St. Thomas Ev. Church - Leipzig, DEIt seems to be unknown whether Bach took the recommendation of Schütz to heart, or whether those responsible for calling Bach to be Cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig were seeking to diligently live up to the encouragement Schütz obviously meant for them, or whether his Geistliche Chormusik had any such impact by that time at all. But it is, at least, an interesting coincidence. Other interesting coincidences include Bach's place in time: Heinrich Schütz died as Pia Desideria (published 1675) was percolating in the mind of Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705); Bach was born as plans for the Pietist learning center, University of Halle were being drawn; while Bach served in Leipzig, the last of the Lutheran theologians from the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy, and vigorous opponent of Pietism, Valentin Ernst Löscher (1673-1749), served as Superintendent and as pastor at the Kreuzkirche in Dresden (practically a stone's-throw from the Royal Court, and a place known to benefit from regular collaboration with Schütz); and both Bach and Löscher, being in such proximity, battled with fierce dedication against Pietism in their respective vocations. Löscher and Bach died at the opening of the Enlightenment, in 1749 and 1750, respectively – with no one, really, to take their place.

With the death of Bach, accompanied by the demise of the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy, the Spring of musical expression also came to an end, and along with it was left behind the Source of New-Life, the True teaching of God's Word upon which this Spring emerged. God's Truth gave way to Man's pride, the searing heat of Enlightenment notions, such as the “perfectibility of man,” invading both the Fine Arts and Christian Theology, first vaunting the objectivity of man's intellect, then vaunting the subjectivity of man's social and emotional existence, each iteratively warring against the other. Today, we live in the Autumn of both the Arts and the visible Church, the clouds of post-Modernism increasingly obscuring the light of Truth, upon which true art and true theology depend. We await with dread the dark Winter that is fast upon us, ready to endure it for the sake of Christ and the benefit of our neighbor, yet wondering what misery it will bring. But we remember the Spring. And we long for its return.

Johann Sebastian Bach is recognized as the Greatest Composer in the history of Western Civilization; and the work recognized as the Greatest Work of the Greatest Composer is nothing other than a Lutheran MassBach's Lutheran Mass in B-Minor. We offer for our readers today, in celebration of the birth of the Greatest Composer to have ever lived, and in fond remembrance of the Spring that once was, this, a full performance of Bach's Greatest Work.

Lutheran Mass in B-Minor – by Johann Sebastian Bach


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