So many of us love the music of J.S. Bach, especially the sacred music in all its forms. But we never hear it as he intended it. I ran across this at Cranach. It’s originally from the Wall Street Journal of all places. Yes, it is behind their easily evaded pay-wall, if you are not a subscriber. Here’s some of it.
Modern performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s magnificent vocal works, his passions and oratorios, take place in almost sterile environments: plain churches, functional concert halls with audiences that listen attentively while focusing on the music’s aesthetic pleasure.
This mode of listening, which emerged in the 19th century, was quite foreign to Bach and his contemporaries. Bach’s sacred vocal works were composed for the Lutheran liturgy. They were part of a long worship service and embedded among biblical readings, hymns sung by the congregation and an hour-long sermon.
Bach’s music and these other elements were thematically related, and they provided a polyphony of voices that eludes the modern listener. Consider the passions as an example. A listener who witnessed the first performance of “The St. John Passion” in 1724 would not only have heard the words set by Bach but also interpretations of the death of Christ in framing hymns and in the sermon that separated the two halves of the passion. In a modern performance, we normally use the time between the two parts to stretch our legs or to have a quick chat with our neighbor.
If these other voices in Bach’s worship services were so important, what were they? This is where the problem begins. We don’t have the sermons that went with the original performances of Bach’s passions or his “Christmas Oratorio.” However, what we do have is a large number of printed sermons from that period (often collected in voluminous tomes of 1,000 pages or more) that allow us to reconstruct what a Lutheran preacher in Central Germany might have said on a Good Friday afternoon in 1724.
There’s that, and he also talks about the fact that we really don’t know very much about Bach’s own piety. He shows though, a very deep understanding of the Lutheran liturgy, to the point that he has been called ‘The Fifth Evangelist’. Although we can be fairly certain that it was rather in the mainstream of the times, we don’t know, he left almost no letters, and the words to his music were not his. But set against that, he had a large collection of theological books, but again we don’t know which ones he read. (That idea rings a bell with me, bet I’m not the only one here with quite a collection of books, I haven’t read yet.)
Do read the linked article, there’s quite a lot there. Including the rather obvious fact, that we don’t have to be Lutheran, or even Christian to love his music. The really great music has about it a symmetry that is closely aligned to mathematics. In fact, I found as was common knowledge when I was young, a love for music, is often a guide to the ability to understand, for lack of a better term, ‘How things work’.