In the beginning… was Bach: A Bach Primer

This article is intended to shed some insight and road maps to some of the great church music of the past and present. There seemed to be one obvious place to start which is not stylistic or chronological: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The enormity of Bach’s talent, standing, and output can put off those who might like to delve into his art. Where do we begin? We will have a brief look at his life, some salient musical categories and then end with some suggestions for reading, listening, and congregational use.

Bach: His Life
Bach (1685-1750) came from a working class family of musicians. His parents died when he was ten and his brother raised him. His gifts, coming from such a family, were not a surprise, although surely his genius was. He took up posts in Arnstadt, Weimar and finally Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. His compositional gifts and as an organist and harpsichordist marked his work throughout his lifetime—although he was far better known as a performer than as a composer. Bach was also well respected as a tester of organs, often asked for his opinion of a new or refurbished instrument.

He was an orthodox Lutheran, with a pietistic bent. His religion was personal, as we can see by the autograph scores that are marked at the beginning “JJ” (meaning Jesus help!) and SDG at the end (for Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone be the praise.) We also see this clearly from his annotations in his copy of the Calov Bible.

One is staggered by what he accomplished as a musician, both as a performer and composer. In addition, he married twice (Bach’s first wife died in 1720) and was the father of twenty children, eight of which survived infancy. He dealt with a great deal of frustration and grief in his life but enjoyed the riches of loving spouses and children, and the respect of fellow musicians.

Bach: His Music
Bach’s output was tremendous in all the expected areas save opera. For church use, we can narrow the list to the following areas: Liturgical/cantatas, motets, passions and masses. Even with this limitation the amount of music is enormous. Let’s look at a few examples.

One of the near perfect pieces of church music ever penned is Bach’s Magnificat. The song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) was written for Christmas, 1723, to be performed at the Thomas Kirke in Leipzig. Scored for five soloists (two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass), choir, and orchestra (with brilliant trumpets and tympani), the work (at roughly 35 minutes) is a great introduction to his music. Each of the Bible verses is scored in a fresh manner with an astonishing degree of vocal and instrumental color. Bach’s love of numbers and artistic/theological understanding is clearly seen in the weighting and arrangement of the movements. By any standard, this is an energetic, beautiful, and meticulously prepared piece of worship music.

The cantatas are the largest of Bach’s copious output. They were written as liturgies for Sabbath worship at the various Lutheran churches. They are meant to illustrate the scripture of the day in what one might call a pre-sermon. Some are very intimate works for solo voice and small orchestra while others are grand works employing choir, soloists and orchestra (much like the Magnificat). Ranging in duration from 15 to 45 minutes, Bach composed over three hundred cantatas, of which something over 200 have survived. (Amazingly, he planned to compose 500!) He often composed, copied, rehearsed, and provided the works for worship in the same week. It should be noted that the numbers assigned to the cantatas mean very little. The early editors of the Bach Ausgabe (complete works) were faced with a staggering task of publishing and editing this magnum opus. They simply numbered the works as they came to them.

Two places to begin are Cantatas 140, Wachet auf, Ruft uns die Stimme (“Awake, call the voices”) and #82 Ich habe genug (“I’ve had enough”).

Cantata 140 was written for the 27th week after Trinity, right before Advent, an unusual Sunday as it only occurs when Easter comes early in the year. Bach premiered this work in worship on November 25, 1731. The text is taken from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the parable of the wise virgins. We see the brilliance of the formal construction, the seven movements climaxing in the fourth with the well-known chorale melody. The unusual scoring of using two oboes and the larger oboe da caccia together gives the first movement a peculiar and anticipatory sound. A French horn, doubling the soprano part, also makes an excellent juxtaposition with the brightness of the oboes and draws attention the uniqueness of the message. The coming of Christ the bridegroom is announced by the tenor, the famous middle chorale movement being flanked by two duets for the soul and Christ. The first is in minor key with an impressive violin obbligato. It displays a questioning flavor-is the soul prepared to meet its savior? The second—after a reassuring recitative (a section of speech-like character) from the bass speaking reassuringly the words of Christ—is a joyous love duet with a lilting oboe melody. The whole congregation joins at the end with the hymn setting of the original chorale melody.

The title of Cantata 82, Ich Habe Genug, can be loosely translated as “I’ve had it!” It is a solo cantata using a bass, an oboe, strings and continuo. The dark colors are most helpful for the times in life when things are difficult, life is sad and grey, and one had hoped for more. (With over half of his children dying in infancy, Bach must have known these feelings well.) The text is taken from Luke 2: 22-32, as Simeon prophesies of the birth of Christ. This canticle is known as the Nunc Dimitis (“Lord let thy servant depart in peace”). The cantata sympathizes with us and then points us to Christ with the reassurance of his grace and goodness. The lovely oboe melody in the first movement is quite similar to the famous aria Erbarme Dich (“Have Mercy, Oh Lord”) from the St. Matthew Passion. The plaintive quality of the first movement leads to a lengthy middle movement that is reminiscent of a lullaby. One imagines the calming words of our Savior as he comforts the believer in his arms. The energetic final movement is again in minor key with the believer praising God and looking forward to death with the assurance of Christ’s love. If one tires of art that seems to lack the reality of the real Christian life, try out Ich Habe Genug—here is the truth of the matter.

The motets are few in number (6) but are superb. Some were written for funeral services, and are thought to have been sung at the gravesite. (With such intricate music, this must have been some feat.) Their difficulty points to performances by professional musicians Bach would have at his disposal in Leipzig. They are scored for choir and continuo (bass instrument: cello, bass, bassoon), and keyboard (organ or harpsichord).

The incredible richness of the settings can be seen in Jesu, Meine Freude (“Jesus, Priceless Treasure”). As always with Bach, the texts are always underlined by the musical setting. The eleven movements are symmetrically put together to underline the sovereignty of God in all manners of life, and most importantly in death. The chorale stanzas are spaced throughout the motet to give the believer time to meditate on Christ as savior and friend in sorrow.

The St. John and St. Matthew Passions are the telling of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion of our Lord. The St. John is more intimate while the St Matthew is grander in scope and uses larger forces. One can hardly imagine greater meditations on sin and the meaning of the cross. These are not short works (the St. Matthew clocks in at about 3.5 hours), but the size of the canvas is necessary for such a subject. Bach patterned his passion settings after Handel’s Brockes Passion, which used liturgical and operatic means to set a remarkably dramatic story. The chorales (we are all familiar with “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”) were used as devotional moments of praise and meditation for the congregation. Although there is much energetic discussion over whether the choir or the whole congregation sang the chorales, clearly everyone in the church would be familiar with texts and tunes. In their brilliance, richness of artistry and theological sensitivity there are no greater pieces for worship for Good Friday.

Although Bach composed several settings of the mass, the Mass in b Minor is the summation of his work. He put it together (with no plans of a complete performance) as a testament to God’s faithfulness, and as an outline of his life’s work. It uses the richest possible compliment of voices and instruments to set the text of the mass, familiar to Lutheran worship. From the imposing opening statement of “Kyrie Eleison” to the brilliance of the “Gloria,” to the breathless energy of the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” to the grinding, painful dissonances of the “Crucifixus,” to the dance-like exaltations of the “Et Resurrexit” and the “Sanctus,” the bitter-sweet character of the “Benedictus” to the warm piety of the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” this fabulous work is one of the most complete musical statements of the Christian faith.

Instrumental music
Although I have attempted to stay within the world of Bach’s liturgical music, I am compelled to include one remarkable instrumental composition. He served a Calvinist court where church music was minimal compared to the Lutheran manner. Bach turned his genius to writing mostly instrumental music. Many pieces for harpsichord, chamber ensemble and orchestra were written at this time (1718-1722).

The unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for solo violin include the extraordinary “Chaconne in d minor.” It has long been a work favored by the great virtuosi for both its technical demands but also its range of emotion and handling of variation form. A Chaconne is a set of variations on a given theme. What was not known for many years was how Bach integrated at least six chorale tunes into this fourteen-minute work. Professor Helga Thoene of the University of Dusseldorf demonstrates that Bach meant this piece to be an epitaph in music for his first wife, Maria Barbara. It was a means of working out his grief from the loss of his first wife and a testament to his faithful Lord. The breathtaking way he wove the chorale tunes into the brocade of the formal working out of the Chaconne is extraordinary by any definition. That he would take the time to do such a thing speaks eloquently to the depth of his genius and faith.

Congregational use
Where can we begin using Bach in congregational worship? Begin with the hymnal. “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” (coming from the Christmas Oratorio) is a splendid chorale, as are “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” and “Now Thank we all our God.”

There are many editions of the chorale setting “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It comes from Cantata 147 and is accessible for most congregations. A piano or string quartet (or combination) would do very nicely. Note: it should go much faster than it is normally heard—check out Joshua Rifkin’s recording: it becomes a Gigue, a dance! Instead of the normal tired-sounding piety it becomes truly “Jesus is the JOY of man’s desiring.”

The chorale tune “Wachet auf” (“Sleepers, Awake!”) comes from Cantata 140 and is not terribly taxing as it is performable with one voice and keyboard. Adding the rest of the string complement and the rest of a men’s choir will add additional color to a wonderful composition.

The cantatas are available on CD Rom and are quite inexpensive although they are without English translations. A great place to begin is Bach for All Seasons, a well-edited collection, usable for many churches, published by Augsberg Fortress. (It comes with English translations and a CD.)

Recommended Reading
The New Grove Bach Family
Drawn from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, these articles are erudite and a good introduction to Bach’s life and work. There are lengthy sections on the different genres of Bach’s music and a splendid works list.

The New Bach Reader
These are documents written by Bach, to him, or pertaining to him after his death. Included is his famous letter of 1730 detailing the needs of a well-appointed church music. In addition, one finds a series of letters from the mid-1730’s where a feud with the head of the school of the school in Leipzig is documented. It fleshes out the difficulties of a man who not only thought of composing masterworks but also dealt with the week in, week out preparation of musical worship and education.

Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig
(Günter Stiller) A classic work describing how the Lutheran liturgy was used in Bach’s time and how he served the church.

My Only Comfort
Calvin Stappert (a professor at Calvin College) uses portions of the Heidelberg Catechism as a basis for a discussion of death in the music of Bach.

by Phillip Spitta
The classic biography of Bach, it is not as accurate as later works.

Johann Sebastian Bach by Christian Wolff.
Professor Wolff teaches at Yale and is one of the preeminent Bach scholars of the day. His biography includes the most up to date scholarship.

Recommended Recordings
Dr. Masaaki Suzuki, Bach Collegium of Japan. Dr. Suzuki was trained in the Netherlands and uses authentic performance practice (as close as we might get to what Bach would have known or desired). His performances are well polished, with exciting rhythms and rich colors. This author attended an outstanding performance of the St. Matthew Passion directed by Dr. Suzuki, which proved to be both musically and spiritually rewarding.

Helmut Rilling. Rilling’s complete recordings of the cantatas and the major choral works can be purchased at a budget price. He uses modern instruments but the balances are well thought out. Nicholas Harnoncourt, Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardener, Joshua Rifkin. These four conductors are truly exemplary musicians, all favoring authentic performance practice. To some their readings are a bit dry but they shed valuable light on the textures of Bach scores.

Karl Richter (10 CD set). Richter served St. Thomas’s church in Leipzig as cantor, as Bach had. Richter’s interpretations were an early rethinking of Bach textures but with tremendous warmth and drama. Some of his tempi are slow to modern ears but the dramas of the passions are vitally brought forth. Deutches Gramophone has issued an ultra budget set of 10 CD’s that includes the Passions, the Mass in b minor, the Magnificat and the Christmas Oratorio. This author was drawn to Christ by Richter’s TV account of a St. Matthew broadcast on public TV.

Karl Munchinger (10 CD set). Similar to Richter’s work, Munchinger’s set includes the Passions, the Mass in b minor, and the Christmas and Easter Oratorios. If the choral work is not the most beautiful, it is serviceable. The solo work (especially of soprano Elly Ameling, tenor Fritz Wunderlich and baritones Hermann Prey and Tom Krause) is the best. The conducting is quite fine as well.

Morimur. This is the CD recording of the Ciaccona (Chaconne) from the d minor Partita, performed by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble. A quartet of singers sing the chorales as Poppen plays the Ciaccona. It is an amazing recording creating an eerie and brilliant effect. The liner notes are outstanding.

So, go forth, learn and enjoy. There are huge amounts of this man’s work I have not mentioned. His example and opus is vast and rich, there for us to discover and share.