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Bach And The 20th Century

[Bach And The 20th Century]  [Bach The Preacher]  [Bach The Teacher]  [Bach The Tone Poet]  [Bach And The Organ]  [Bach And Hausmusik]  [Bach Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow]  [Bach And Volksmusik] 



By O. P. Kretzmann

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH died on July 28, 1750. The two centuries which have become history since that day are without parallel in the history of mankind. In terms of cataclysmic change they were longer than any other centuries in the memory of man. The distance which now separates the man of the mid-twentieth century from the half-blind musician who died quietly at Leipzig two hundred years ago is almost beyond measuring. It is a truism of history that the mere counting of the years is seldom a complete measure of the intellectual and spiritual gap between men and events of different eras. Only the content of the years is the ultimate standard of measurement. In this sense some centuries may be very short; but when the floods of great and profound changes sweep over humanity they may become very long. For example, the century between 1500 and 1600 A.D. certainly produced a different world and the man of 1500 would have found the spiritual and intellectual climate of 1600 confusing and strange.

This historical axiom rises like a forbidding and almost insurmountable barrier between the mid-twentieth century and the work of Johann Sebasian Bach. The world is not merely two hundred years older. It is a different world. Its artistic and spiritual idioms have changed. Its intellectual climate would be strange to the cantor of Leipzig. When he died, the tide of faith was still full and strong and the Western world had not yet decided to believe in unbelief. True, the cold hand of rationalism was already abroad in Europe, but it had not yet touched the heart of the Western world. The world of 1750 was a comparatively quiet world in which the music of a man, singing greatly to his God and Saviour, could be heard and loved by men and women who lived and believed simply. When they heard "Gottes Zeit ist die beste Zeit" they understood the music and the message. Seated at his organ or his desk the great cantor spoke to them in the idiom of their faithful hearts. True, not a11 of them understood him clearly, for the language of supreme, surrendered faith was raised to its highest power. The massive truths of Christianity were expressed, perhaps for the first time, in a music which, though bound by a11 the limitations of earth and time, approximated most closely the towering grandeur and glory of their meaning for the hearts of men. The inscriptions above most of his cantatas, for example the S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria) or J. J. (Jesu Juva) -were not merely in keeping with the custom of his day; they were an honest expression of an attitude of mind and heart. All this magnificent music was really to the glory of God and needed the help of our Lord incarnate for its composition and performance.

It must be evident, therefore, that the barrier between Bach and the twentieth century mind rises in several areas. Great art in the service of high religion is foreign to us. Whether our neurotic age has produced any truly great music I must leave to the judgment of artists, critics and posterity. If an age is known by what it tolerates, in art as well as in all the other areas of the life of the spirit, we of the mid-twentieth century will not be favorably known to our children and the children's children. We wander helplessly between atonality which we cannot understand and the saccharine sentimentality of popular songs which we take to our hearts as a partial escape from the pain and terror of life.

CONFRONTED BY BACH, THE TWENTIETH CENTURY man must be bewildered. The gap between the Rhapsody in Blue and the Mass in B Minor is too great. But even more tragic is the amazement of the modern mind when it is confronted by Bach, the man of faith. What shall the new pagan do with a man who so magnificently fused high art and high religion? Or how can many modern Christians, accustomed to shoddiness, emotionalism and subjectivity in their religious life, understand a man who humbly accepts the great objective truths of Christianity and pours them into music which makes them live and breathe and march into the souls of men? That sort of thing is beyond us. We cannot love the music of Bach because we do not share the faith of Bach. In the truest sense of the word his approach was sacramental. He used the mechanics of music-the arduous task of composition, the limited but honest resources of the eighteenth century organ, the oboe and the harpsichord-as means to an end. Under his heart and hands, they became vehicles of a faith that used them to their highest potentiality. They now spoke of God, of life, of death, of faith, of hope, of atonement and forgiveness in terms so sure and magnificent that our anxious and questioning age hears only faint and far trumpets from a forgotten country.

IN A CERTAIN SENSE BACH IS A PARADOX. When we speak of his art as a reflection of his faith, one might conceivably think of him as a highly subjective artist. As Schweitzer has pointed out, exactly the opposite is true. With the exception of a few occasional pieces there is hardly a single echo of his personal, subjective life in his compositions. He is the greatest objective artist in the history of the Western world. Wagner once wrote that Beethoven's c sharp minor Quartet, was an actual day in Beethoven's life. Nothing like that could ever be said of the cantor of Leipzig. True, his music and his faith are inseparable; but his faith was grounded in given, objective materials. It was mystic and immediate only in a limited sense. In this respect there is an astonishing similarity between Bach and Shakespeare. Generations of English scholars have been puzzled by the ability of the great dramatist to submerge himself, for example, in the half-forgotten, tenuous legend of a Danish prince and build it into Hamlet. They have scanned every word and every line of his plays in a vain search for more light on his personal life and fortunes. They have found so little that the gap between the facts we know about the simple, practical bard of Avon and the greatness of his dramas is almost incredible.

Something similar is true of the man who made and played music in Germany from 1685-1750. An examination of his life reveals a bourgeois pattern which seemingly could never have produced the Mass or the Passions. He has petty quarrels with his councils and boards, he is triumphant over an increase in salary, he worries about the fact that funerals are being conducted without music {and, therefore, without fees for the musician) , he writes dedications to princelings which are almost fawning pleas for a little more consideration, especially financial.

And yet-this man, completely typical of the eighteenth century middle class, wrote the Et Incarnatus and the Cruci fixus. There were no tantrums, no mystic rhapsodies, no shattering emotional storms which so many of us have come to associate with great art. What was his secret? How could he spend hours at the tedious task of mastering the fingering of the oboe d' amore and then set the Last Supper to music which is incomparable in its radiant majesty and unearthliness?

THE ANSWER LIES, I believe, (and here is the difference between Shakespeare and Bach) in the value and power of the materials of his faith. Specifically, he had at his command two inexhaustible treasures of material for great music: the facts and words of the Gospel story, and the hymns of the Reformation, especially of Martin Luther. The former became, under his genius, the Passions, the cantatas, the Mass. The latter provided the melodic structure for the endless beauty of the chorale preludes. Many critics have emphasized the surpassing brilliance and sensitivity with which Bach accomplished this task. The music never overwhelms the words. Even at first hearing one feels instinctively that this music is the final and perfect garment, purple and gold, for the truths expressed in the words. Especially Schweitzer has pointed to this perfect wedding. Bach gives the words of Holy Scripture, or the Creed or the Lutheran hymn a rhythm which seems to be inevitable. "Not only the body but the soul of the message is converted into tone." Examples of this tremendous reach for the inner meaning of the text are almost innumerable. Into the joy of the Christmas Oratorio he introduces the solemn strains of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded and the shadow of the Cross suddenly falls, properly and truly, over the Manger. The music accompanying the words of the Eucharist in the Passion According to St. Matthew has no trace of grief or approaching death but only peace and triumph. The Credo in the Mass in B Minor is sung against the measured confident beat of the Church Militant marching to its consummation. Schweitzer writes: "If the text speaks of drifting mists, of boisterous winds, or roaring rivers, of waves that ebb and flow, of leaves falling from the tree, of bells that ring for the dying, of the confident faith that walks with firm steps, of the weak faith that falters insecure, of the proud who will be abased and the humble who will be exalted, of Satan rising in rebellion, of angels poised on the clouds of heaven, then one sees and hears all this in his music."

IF ONE WERE TO SAY that this unique achievement is the result only of his musical genius, the twentieth century would probably be content with the explanation and accept it. We could then understand Bach as much or as little as we understand any other genius. Unfortunately for the modern mind, however, that would not be the whole truth. Coupled with his astonishing musical genius there is something equally important and just as vitally necessary for a complete understanding of his achievement. As we have noted, a part of the wall between our age and the cantor of Leipzig is in the realm of faith. He was a humble child of God in a sense which we have almost lost in our time. He was always the wondering child on Christmas morning. The most mysterious and most misunderstood declaration of our Lord, "Except ye become as little children," finds one of its most illuminating commentaries in the work of Bach. The sense of wonder, of adoration, of unquestioning faith which is the mark of childhood is focused in him and his music. What he was singing and playing was true, eternally true, and because it was, its garment of music had to be good and true and beautiful. The technical equipment of his genius and the incredible richness of his invention were servants, willing and glad, of a God who, at a given moment in time, joined the human race and became a baby, a carpenter, a suffering servant, a risen and triumphant Lord. That, Bach thought and believed, was wonderful beyond all wonder; and the music through which the story was told had to be as full of wonder as man could make it.

In this achievement he was, of course, in the great Christian tradition of high art. The medieval stone mason carefully chipping at a figure in the chancel of the cathedral at Chartres would have understood him well. Francis Thompson, reaching for heaven from the gutters of London and expressing the inevitability of God in the Hound o f Heaven, was Bach's brother. Martin Luther, singing of the coming of God to his little boy Hans, was one of the men who made the cantor of Leipzig possible. They were-and are-spiritual contemporaries, united in a single greatness which is not touched by the passing of the years.

CLEARLY, OUR AGE, CYNICAL AND SOPHISTICATED, 1S ill-prepared to understand these wondering and brilliant children of God. Curiously, however, we have witnessed in our time a revival of interest in Bach which is one of the most astonishing and promising phenomena of recent years. It began, of course, as far back as 1VIendelssohn and has grown steadily through the years. It is probably true that more Bach is being played and sung in the middle of the twentieth century than ever before. Much of it may be done poorly and with little understanding of his music, but the fact remains that it is being done. If the barrier between our age and Johann Sebastian Bach, still very real and very high, is both artistic and spiritual, it is probably true that its partial crumbling is due also to pressure in both areas. Artistically, we have grown weary of noise and confusion. We know now that the first half of the twentieth century has been bad from every point of view and we no longer want to see and hear its badness -social, moral, artistic and spiritual-reflected in our art forms. We know the terror of hate and war. We have heard the roar of our great cities. We have seen the barbarian within ourselves, the sudden animality and savagery which has brought the Western world to the edge of doom. We now know our world for what it is and we see no reason why our artists should remind us of it with wearying monotony. Just beneath the surface of life there is a new longing for order, dignity, and beauty, for art that is more than a reflection of the momentary and the evil, for artists who will write and paint and sing with the accent of the eternal. All this may still be vague and unexpressed but it is very real.

No observer of the overtones and undertones of our age can afford to ignore it. A few weeks ago I watched an audience of more than a thousand people in one of our midwestern cities at a concert which consisted largely of the music of Bach. They listened with silent and wondering attention. It was clear that some of the most difficult numbers left them bewildered; but it was also evident that they were aware of the return of greatness to the twentieth century. This was not a momentary, trivial musical idiom. This was, they felt, however dimly, a form of art which could speak to them and their children's children with equal power and vigor.

THE RISING TIDE OF AWARENESS OF BACH results finally, however, from the pressure in the area of faith. If we have grown weary of artistic shoddiness, we have grown even more weary of our long wandering in the spiritual desert of the twentieth century. Perhaps it is too early to say that the tide of faith is running strong again, but it is certainly true that unbelief is beginning to ebb. The prophets of science have failed us. We have multiplied things and added nothing to our joy. Our roads to happiness and peace have ended in blind alleys. The few remaining voices from the exhausted wells of twentieth century thought no longer have either relevance or power. We want something better and stronger and wiser than the ideologies which have made the world of 1950.

To such a world in transition-anxious, afraid and lonely-Johann Sebastian Bach speaks with singular power. He has something to say which meets our condition. Whether it be through the marching confidence of the fugue, or the crying of the despairing soul in Ich ru f' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, or the arrangement of Ein f este Burg ist unser Gott, he is using a language, universal and permanent, which we are beginning to understand again. The musical idiom may still be strange and new to us but the spiritual power for which the music is the vehicle comes to the wounded spirit of our time with startling and healing relevance. In Bach, the music and the faith were inseparable; in our own age, their fusion could easily be one of the distinctive marks of a turning-point in history.

These lines are being written in a hotel room in the early spring of 1950. A few moments ago I walked down the streets of the great city, entered a little shop, and asked the proprietor to play a few Bach recordings. His eyes lighted with joy. Together we listened quietly as the twentieth century rolled by the door. Here were the two worlds in burning focus and contrast. Our world, I knew, could return to the joy and peace of God without Johann Sebastian Bach. We do not need music, however great and faithful, to believe. I also knew, however, that the humble cantor could tell us about his God and his Saviour in a language and tone which would bring us near again to the power and glory which rings forever through the ages of faith. The tumult and the shouting would die, and in our hearts, now silent too long, would echo again the music of trust and hope and love. We would listen once more to Johann Sebasian Bach and the world would be better for it.