BACH, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750)

By Robert Brow   (  November 24th, 2000

Last night St. George's Anglican Cathedral here in Kingston, Ontario, was packed to the galleries for a 250 year anniversary of Bach music. Mollie and I were given complimentary tickets by Beth Morris, one of the singers in David Cameron's huge choir. I was moved by Bach's Magnificat (1623), and I decided to read over the notes I had in my card index.

Bach wrote about 800 compositions for Christian worship services, but he was kept cruelly poor all his life. This was partly the result of fathering seven children with Maria Barbara, and another thirteen with Anna Magdalena. "When he died, the church officials contrived to defraud his widow of as much of his salary as possible; she died ten years later an 'almswife' in poverty and neglect." After the composer's death in 1750 "his works were not considered fit for publication" (Richard Dinwiddle, Christianity Today, March 15, 1985, p.21).

Over thirty years later in Vienna at the age of 32 Mozart (1756-1791) discovered Bach's The Art of Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier, and they influenced his later work. An appreciative biography by Forkel appeared in 1802. But Bach's music was virtually unknown for 79 years, and could easily have been lost for ever.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to Saint Matthew is now considered to be "The supreme cultural achievement of all Western Civilization." Exactly a hundred years after it had been performed just once in Leipzig (1729) Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) decided it was time to honor it. When he was only 20 years old he managed to gather a choir and orchestra and finally got it performed in England. That launched the Bach revival, and in the process Mendelssohn became a Christian. When Nietzsche heard the Saint Matthew Passion in 1870 he said "One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel."

I wondered what was the secret of Bach's creativity? "When he was 48, Bach acquired Luther's monumental three-volume translation of the Bible, which he studied intensively. He corrected errors in the text, inserted missing words, underlined passages, glossed Johann Colov's accompanying commentary, and made numerous personal annotations that not only reveal his personal spiritual concern, but also his attitude to toward Scripture and how it should be set to music" (also from Richard Dinwiddle's article, Christianity Today, March 15, 1985).

I never figured out what counterpoint is, or harmony, and I sing like a crow. But I love the joy of the six Branderburg Concertos ( 1721). And having checked out Bach's story, I love his Magnificat: Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo; dispersit mente cordis sui, Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles (the song of a woman who had a tough time, but was finally honored for what she did, Luke 1:51-52)

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