The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

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18 thoughts on “The Comfort of Bach

  1. The only thing I can possibly recommend is to listen to St Matthew’s Passion during Lent every single year. I’ve been doing it for . . . I don’t know six years now? It’s amazing. As for the rest, my only system is to listen to whatever Bach my 17-year-old violinist is currently infatuated with. Also playing from Anna Magdalena’s notebook, which I haven’t done in far too long.

  2. After my Dutch friend told me that they do not listen to Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, they save that for Easter, but grew up going to hear Bach’s Christmas Oratorio’s performed in Holland during the Christmas season, I have added that to our Christmas music too.
    I like how you explained that his music both levels and lifts you, I feel that way too about some hymns, but didn’t really know it. 🙂

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard of his Christmas Oratorio. I looked it up and see that it has six parts, meant for five of the days of Christmas (Days 1, 2, and 3, New Year, and the first Sunday of the new year) plus Epiphany. Definitely adding it to my list. Thanks for mentioning it!

  3. All very listenable – The Brandenburgs, Violin Sonatas and Partias, of course the Cello Suites (I have them on cello, viola and even classical guitar.) “Wachtet auf” cantata also fine. Thanks for the nudge on the Catechism. Been wanting to read them a bit each AM.

  4. I’m so sorry to read about your loss, but I do understand turning to Bach in times like this. These past few months my choir has been preparing St. John Passion for a concert at Carnegie Hall in February. This very month I lost both my grandfather and my great aunt, his sister. As hard as it has been, Bach has given me something to place my grief into. I can barely get through it without crying, but now that I can’t help but think of my loved ones while singing it, I work that much harder.

    Love and healing to you and your family.

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