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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Awake Thou Wintry Earth

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Chives growing in my garden, February 12, 2016

Awake, Thou Wintry Earth is almost a life anthem. I came to Thomas Blackburn’s poem by way of Bach’s Cantata 129. When I heard it, I came to understand in a new way that spring is an annual demonstration of resurrection. Listening to this still gives me shivers. Singing it means I end up whispering to tell that dead is dead over a voice that is breaking.

I took a walk around my backyard this morning and was delighted to hear garlic and chives laughing at winter, death, decay.

Awake thou wintry earth,
fling off, fling off thy sadness;
ye vernal flowers laugh forth,
laugh forth your ancient gladness.
A new and lovely tale
through-out the land is spread;
it floats o’er hill and dale
to tell that death is dead.

Here is a joyful organ. 1 1/2 minutes that will lift your day high. Sing along! It’s pretty loud; turn your sound down. Or don’t. The organ is a dominating instrument and its volume is glorious!

For the Bach Lover on your list

I wrote this book because I have always loved Bach’s
music and always wanted to know the man who made
it. But I was also drawn to investigate the opposition
of reason and faith. ~ James R. Gaines

“I have just finished a book that I am going to count among my favorites of all time. It is that good. You have GOT to read it.”  After Gene Veith’s emphatic review, I had to read James Gaines’ Evening in the Palace of Reason.  It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in 2010.

Evening in the Palace follows two trends: first to tether an entire book around a single piece of art, as in Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party; the second to interweave two biographies, á la Plutarch’s Lives or Julie and Julia.  Gaines writes an overview of the lives of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great but focuses on a confrontation between the two men and the music that resulted from it.

What Gaines does exceedingly well is to illustrate the difference in Medieval / Reformation assumptions and those of the Enlightenment. 

[A]mong the Enlightenment’s least explicit legacies to us is a common understanding that there is a gulf, a space that defines a substantial difference, between spiritual and secular life. For Bach there was no such place, no realm of neutrality or middle ground that was not a commitment to one side or the other in the great battle between God and Satan.

What most divided him [Bach] from them [the next generation] was their motive for making music at all, of whatever sort.  The new “enlightened” composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience.

[Carol sets up her soapbox and mounts it. The shrill voice emerges.]

People!

There is one and only one way to read this book: that is while listening to  The Art of Fugue Musical Offering (or here or here) while you read. When Gaines brilliantly exposits the complexity of this particular fugue, you must have the notes in your head. Listen while you commute, listen while you cook, listen while you clean. 

I highly recommend this book.  I highly recommend Bach.  Even if you have no musical background, no previous exposure to his music, Bach’s music will seep into your soul and water the parched places. If you love someone who already loves Bach, get him or her the book and the CD.   

We can talk about his brilliantly melodic part writing,
the richness of his counterpoint, the way
his music follows text the way roses follow a trellis,
in perfect fidelity and submission but at
not the slightest sacrifice of beauty.
Finally, though, one comes up against the fact that
the greatest of great music is in its ability
to express the unutterable.