Today is the birthday of J.S. Bach, on whome First Things has published a good deal over the years. Here are some selections.
Uwe Siemon-Notto’s “J.S. Bach in Japan” on Bach as the fifth Evangelist:
Twenty–five years ago when there was still a Communist East Germany, I interviewed several boys from Leipzig’sThomanerchor, the choir once led by Johann Sebastian Bach. Many of those children came from atheistic homes. “Is it possible to sing Bach without faith?” I asked them. “Probably not,” they replied, “but we do have faith. Bach has worked as a missionary among all of us.” During a recent journey to Japan I discovered that 250 years after his death Bach is now playing a key role in evangelizing that country, one of the most secularized nations in the developed world.
A briefly noted that references Bach’s great ode on tobacco “Edifying Notes on a Tobacco Smoker” (pasted above):
Gately provides a witty, informative, and frequently surprising account of how tobacco, beginning in South America thousands of years ago with cigars three feet long, conquered the world. . . . He cites many notable philosophers and poets who praised the benefits of the leaf, but somehow missed Johann Sebastian Bach’s marvelous Erbauliche Gedanken eines Tobackrauchers, which ends each stanza with the refrain, “And so on land, on sea, at home, abroad / I’ll smoke my pipe and worship God.”
Michael Linton’s “Bach to the Future,” a review of Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck:
Other biographers have placed Bach as a synthesizer of various national styles, the cul-de-sac of Reformation music, or the artistic antipode of that other great figure of the age, Isaac Newton. Geck’s Bach, and in particular the Bach of the late instrumental works, is instead the conduit through which the primarily text-based aesthetic of the Baroque is transferred to the motive-based music of later centuries. Thus Bach not only becomes the culmination of the music of his predecessors but also the source for the compositional aesthetic of composers all the way down to Mahler (and perhaps even later). This is an original insight-or at least an original way of putting the matter-and I suspect it will prove to be foundational for future views of the composer.
Stephen Barr’s “The Devil’s Chaplain,” which references Richard Dawkins’ immensely boorish and uninformed view of Bach:
Dawkins gave an interview to Belief.net recently. He was asked whether he could think of anything, just “one positive, if minor, thing” that religion has done for the good. No, he replied, he really couldn’t. What about great religious art? “That’s not religion,” said Dawkins, “it is just because the Church had the money. Great artists like . . . Bach . . . would have done whatever they were told to do.” So Johann Sebastian Bach was just in it for the money. What this sordid remark reveals, apart from amazing ignorance and philistinism, is the mind of a true fanatic. It is not enough for Dawkins to say that religion is bad on the whole; it must be wholly bad.
Michael Linton’s “One Man’s Bach,” a review of The True Life of J.S. Bach by Klaus Eidam:
Writing to the somewhat dissolute son of the Elector of Saxony, Luther commends to his grace the Magnificat and in particular its fifth and six verses, for there is nothing to fear on earth, he wrote, “not even hell itself, so much as that which the Mother of God there calls ‘the imagination of their hearts.’” For Luther, those very words, “mente cordis sui,” were the summary of the whole text. At least that’s what he wanted the Prince to remember. Bach apparently owned nearly three complete sets of Luther’s works (they are mentioned in the inventory of his estate). It is highly probable that Bach’s unusual setting of these words is the direct result of his reading of Luther’s commentary.
And Richard John Neuhaus returning to the evangelistic potency of Bach’s music in his November 1998 Public Square:
I do not go so far as to claim that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is a sacrament, but it is sacramental in its potency. Play around with the aesthetics of it long enough, and grace is likely to take hold. All these centuries of missionary effort, it is said, and so little to show for it. But then there is the Bach Collegium Japan, playing the most fulfilled musical expression of the Christian faith, which expression plants the seeds of faith in an intuitive and intellectual culture that might grow those seeds according to its own genius. Or so we may think, and so we may hope.