Johann Sebastian Bach and the heavenly choir

Johann Sebastian Bach and the heavenly choir

Fr Finbarr Flanagan

According to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), "The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed there will be no music but only a devilish hubbub".

J.S. Bach came from a long line of composers - generations of Bachs - but none were as illustrious as he, nor as saintly. J.S. Bach was not only the greatest genius in the whole family, but was also a genuinely holy man. In every one of his musical manuscripts he ended with: "Soli Deo Gloria" (To God alone be Glory), having begun with the prayer "Jesu Juva" (Jesus help!).

In fact if Bach had been a Catholic, his exemplary conduct and inspiring works would have led to his canonisation long ago!

A delightful book written just after the Second World War by the German author Johannes Ruber, called Bach and the Heavenly Choir, tells the fictional story of a violin- playing Pope Gregory, who reigned after the Second World War and attempted to get Bach's name entered in the list of saints. He believed this would help reunite Catholics and Lutherans and bring about Christian unity.

It is not so far-fetched when one looks at Bach's life and work. He was a good husband and father who was generous in the time he devoted to his wife and many children, as well as being an extraordinarily hospitable person with his home always full of visitors. In Ruber's book, Pope Gregory's Devil's Advocate was at a loss to unearth anything negative about J.S. Bach in the canonisation process.

Though he was a good Lutheran, Bach left a huge corpus of sacred music to cover the entire liturgical year and this included Latin Masses written for the Catholic Court of Dresden.

Albert Schweitzer in his monumental study on Bach said that "the distinction between Protestant and Catholic church music, of which we hear so much, had not made its appearance at that epoch". Even Bach's mighty arrangement of Ein Feste Burg is based on an earlier Gregorian chant.

In fact Bach was very catholic (with a small 'c') in his tastes. Not only did he have Luther's books on his bookshelf, but also the sermons of the German Catholic priest and mystic Johannes Tauler OP.

Schweitzer believed that Bach's real religion was mysticism and "in his innermost essence he belongs to the history of German mysticism. This robust man, who seems to be in the thick of life with his family and his work, and whose mouth seems to express something like comfortable joy in life, was inwardly dead to the world. His whole thought was inwardly transfigured by a wonderful serene longing for death".

Like St Francis of Assisi, Bach could welcome "Sister death, that most loathsome of things", with his works appearing to have an unhealthy emphasis on death, given the disproportionate amount of time he devoted to the subject.

Yet, according to psychologists like Carl Jung, this is not a bad thing. The latter maintained in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul that it is good to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive and that shrinking away from it is actually unhealthy and abnormal.

Bach certainly found a goal in death - the best goal of all - for one notices in Cantatas like "Come Sweet Death" that, for Bach, death and Jesus were interchangeable terms. Like St Paul, he faithfully believed that "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21). To the believer nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, neither here nor in the hereafter.

Bach's catholicity

Bach's catholicity (still a small 'c') extended to other composers like the Catholics Couperin, Palestrina, Albinoni, Carissimi, and especially the Italian priest Antonio Vivaldi, many of whose works Bach arranged for other instruments. Sir Kenneth Clark (in Civilization, p. 226) maintains that "to some extent Bach's music grew out of the Italian Style".

Bach's son, Johann Christian, inherited his father's catholicity as he eventually went to study in Italy under the Franciscan composer and priest Padre Martini and became an organist at Milan Cathedral, eventually becoming a Catholic himself. Bach's most famous son, C.P.E. Bach, thought nothing of taking commissions from Catholic Austria.

Bach, as I have said, was catholic in his tastes and his admirers have also been universal, from the philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche to Jean- Paul Sartre, who was a passionate lover of Bach's music and became a believer in God before he died - perhaps in some measure due to Bach's influence.

There are reports of hundreds of secular Japanese inspired by his music converting to Christianity. Indeed Bach's popularity in Japan is so great that the classes at the Felix Mendelssohn Academy in Bach's home town, Leipzig, are filled with Japanese students desirous of learning more of the spirit that made Bach compose such inspirational music. Roger Fry once remarked that "Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian".

The secular Jewish philosopher Edith Stein had suffered doubts about the existence of God in the face of evil and tells in her autobiography of how she was freed from the pain of this doubt by attending a concert of Bach's music which brought her joy and restored her hope.

No wonder Johannes Ruber in his little book refers to Bach as a "Fifth Evangelist" since "even his secular pieces are hymns to the glory of God and God's joy".

In 1977 two Voyager spacecraft were launched to contact aliens in outer space. Among the items on board was a 90 minute disc of music that included three pieces by Bach, one of which was the "Partita Number Three for Solo Violin" so loved by "Pope Gregory" in Ruber's book.

The biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what message he thought should be sent to the outer space aliens. He answered, "the complete works of J.S. Bach". And then he added as an afterthought, "But that would be boasting".

Fr Finbarr Flanagan OFM is located at the La Verna Franciscan Retreat Centre in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa.

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