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By Martin J. Naumann
WE DO NOT HEAR THE SERMONS OF LUTHER. We read them as we read the sermons of other great preachers who have long since joined the Church triumphant. We do, however, hear Bach's sermons. The works of other great musicians speak to us, but the works of Bach preach to us. These sermons, his cantatas, and particularly his St. Matthew Passion, proclaim the glory of the God of the Bible in a thousand voices in all places where men have learned to treasure the eloquence of the Thomaskantor. Other musical sacrifices have been offered in true humility by men to whom God has given the gift of faith and the talent to confess it in music, but anyone who has sat in church when Bach called together "1VIenschen und Engelzungen" to hear what God said knows without the testimony of expert upon expert that this is the work of one preaching in the wilderness!
Pastor Erdman Neumeister of Hamburg knew it. Author of about 600 hymns and pastor of St. Jakobi, he knew Bach and wanted him in his church as Kantor. But Bach did not have the 4,000 Mark to "donate" ,to the church if he were selected as Kantor. For this reason, he never even stayed to play for the worthy trustees. A man much inferior to Bach was chosen, and St. Jakobi passed up the chance of becoming the center of church music. Erdman Neumeister was furious. It was Christmas time and he preached on the song of the heavenly host, but before he finished his sermon he said what was in his heart-that he was firmly convinced that should one of the angels of Bethlehem came down from heaven-one who played divinely-to apply for the post of organist at St. Jakobi, he might just as well fly back again, unless he had not only talent but money.
It was not only the musical genius of Bach that Neumeister wanted. He also wanted Bach in his church as his helper and co-worker in preaching the pure word of God. He knew of Bach's stand against Pietism; he knew Bach to be a staunch Lutheran, and he knew that Bach preached God's Word in his own powerful way.
When historians claim this man only as an artist of highest rank they do him an injustice. Certainly he stands as a giant even among the great in music, but no one gives Bach his proper place who neither recognizes the message in his music, nor his music as the messenger of the Word. Bach had something to say by reason of his faith and by reason of his office. He said it in a language that fits the grand theme. He preached Christ and Him crucified. He extolled the Son of God as the Saviour of the world. That is why we may call him a preacher.
THE HISTORY OF THE COMPOSITION Of the St. Matthew Passion need not be developed here, nor need we emphasize the fact that by it Bach not only brought the story of Christ's suffering and death to men but presented the sacred story in a setting that expressed not only his own, but all Christendom's reverent confession to the Crucified. The music is charged with spiritual power and emotion. From beginning to end Bach preached not only the text of St. Matthew, but he gives his exposition on it. We do not refer to the words written to fit the movements. To Bach the words of the Scripture were the most important part of the composition. With his own hand he wrote out a perfectly complete score of the St. Matthew Passion and underscored with red ink the Words of the Holy Writ. For the most part the libretto was not written by Bach himself, but was written at his request by Picander. The marvelous structure of the music, so well known and so often and so highly praised, is Bach's confession and Bach's sermon. Bach has reached the height of Christian music by doing what so many a composer is unable to do.
Through the music of The St. Matthew Passion he confesses his own personal love and adoration; he brings his great ability into full play; he puts himself forth, heart and soul, and yet he is not subjective, not sentimental. The many beautiful effects he adds are not "Geziertheit." They are the manifold large and small gems that he uses in many places, but always in the right places, to enhance the crown that he lays at the feet of The One crowned with thorns. He gives his best in this Passion as so often he does in his cantatas without adorning himself as the gifted giver. This, after all, is as a characteristic of a true preacher. Many a modern admirer of the great Bach has sung or played his music as if it were necessary to add sentiment and feeling. In our opinion Bach has written his music to speak for itself. As soon as a preacher begins to scintillate with his art he has denied the Word of God. The preacher Bach felt that. His best was to him not good enough to serve God, but what he gave, he dedicated simply and humbly to God.
THIS DEDICATION TO GOD becomes still more evident to the Bach student or lover when he considers the cantatas. When Bach got to Leipzig he had been on a detour. Some biographers of Bach cannot understand why he should have taken a post as Kapellmeister at Coethen. It had been his declared aim in life to "advance the music in the divine service toward its very end and purpose, a regulated church music in honor of God." Why should he go to Coethen and serve as a secular musician? For a while he seems to have lost sight of his goal in life. But this only lasted from 1717 to 1723. Then Bach was back in his true element again. For 27 years he was Kantor in Leipzig and here he showed his true form as servant of the Word of God. Here and now, he wrote most of his cantatas. In our day we ought to evaluate these masterpieces anew. Cantatas were written to fit into the Sunday worship. They had their place between the reading and the sermon. They usually were fitted to the character of the Sunday. As a rule a well known chorale or hymn was chosen. Usually the text of the first stanza was used at the beginning and the final stanza at the end without textual change, but the intermediate stanzas were altered to fit the movements. Again Bach realized that his work must serve the Word of God. He treated Gospel or Epistle of the Sunday, not only according to the text of the chorale used, but according to his understanding of and faith in the words read and preached. In our day these works of Bach ought to be used more often not as concert pieces, for they were not written for exhibition, but as parts of the divine worship of the congregation. They may be too long; they usually last about 30 minutes, but they could be shortened. Some of the wording is in the somewhat pompous and stilted style of the time. No one does Bach an injustice by adapting the texts to present day needs, for although many are beautiful, some are rather shallow. Most of them are not by Bach. The music, however, is all Bach and all Soli Deo Gloria: "alone to the glory of God."
THE LUTHERAN CHURCH was given this "Fifth Evangelist," as Bach has been called, not to bring a new Gospel, but to bring the old Gospel anew in a time when so many had fallen prey to the subjectivity of Pietism. In Ohrdruf, from 1695 to 1700, when Bach was still a child, he witnessed the conflict between orthodox and Piestistic elements. Ohrdruf was known to be a stronghold of the Pietists. Again, during his stay in 1Vluehlhausen, Bach met with Pietistic opposition. This time he was drawn into the dispute and, no doubt, became more familiar, not only with the extreme subjectivity of the movement, but also with its better parts. His library contained a number of the standard works of leading Pietists. But he remained true to his Lutheran confessions. His whole attitude testifies to this. He was a confessionalist. He was colloquized in Leipzig in May, 1723, and found doctrinally sound. This examination was required of him since he was to teach in the Thomas school.
His character, as a Lutheran, becomes evident not so much by this formal acknowledgment of faith as by his musical confessions. The Lutheran confessions like all true confessions of the Church are in praise of God. This praise of God contains both the confession of sins and the confession of faith. Bach's works are usually bracketed by the letters J.J. and S.D.G. At the beginning he asks: "Jesu, Juva: Jesus Help!" and at the end he says: "Soli Deo Gloria: To God alone be glory." The first, Jesu, Juva, not only admits his own unworthiness and inability to do anything pleasing in God's sight without His help, but also confesses his faith in Jesus as his Saviour. The Soli Deo Gloria is the praise of God flowing from his gratitude for help received. Wherever there was true faith there was praise of God. Luther's hymns abound in the confession of faith. Paul Gerhardt could praise God sincerely because his heart was certain of the truth of God's Word. Bach was born in a time when such praise of God was disappearing. Not a few pastors were indifferent to doctrine, and Pietism came as a reaction to the coldness and indifference paralyzing the church. Pietism's protest against what was called "dead orthodoxy" did not, however, revive interest in the pure doctrine. Instead, it paved the way for a complete abandonment of the Scriptural truths to rationalism, a reaction to the emotionalism of the Pietist. Is the fact that confessing the truth was going out of style, an answer to the riddle of why Bach's church music was practically buried with him? Bach's preaching was orthodox.
BACH'S PREACHING IS POWERFUL because it 1S an answer to the question put by Christ Jesus to all his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?" Bach's answer is clear and great. His music shares the power of the straight-forward confession of true disciples of all times. "Thou art Christ, the Son of God." His church music unites the preacher and the congregation as all true confessional sermons do. He never felt, composed, or played as if he had to exhibit himself as the inventor of the praise of God. He played what the Church believed. That his expression was at times not understood by his contemporaries is due to the fact that it was new to many, that it had the character of the Italian masters, and it was simply not appreciated by the common man. Even today, many Lutherans prefer the subjective and all too shallow tunes of reformed hymns to the powerful language of the preacher Bach.
A TRUE LUTHERAN PASTOR and preacher adjusts his sermon to the time and the circumstances, but not in regard to the truth. The confessions of the church are timeless and are not to be adapted or suspended for the time being. The Church of Christ confesses its faith for all times and for eternity. This characteristic of the Lutheran confessions is evident in Bach's religious works and also in his daily life. The Formula of Concord closes the Solida Declaratio with these words: "Since now in the sight of God and of all Christendom we wish to testify to those now living and those who shall come after us that this declaration herewith presented concerning all the controverted articles aforementioned and explained, and no other, is our faith, doctrine, and confession, in which we are also willing by God's grace to appear with intrepid hearts before the judgment-seat of Jesus Christ, and give an account of it." To this Dr. Herman Sasse writes in his letters to Lutheran pastors: "Is this the voice of the false security of presumptious orthodoxy? Are we here dealing with decadent Lutheranism that has outgrown the humility of the Reformation? No! Here speaks not the wrong securitas of a human but the certitudo of God-given faith." The confessor of Christ always stands between time and eternity. This is the character of Bach's confession. They who frivolously and thoughtlessly claim that Bach's music is "heavenly" do not realize how true they speak. Bachs' eyes are ever on eternity. He stands in spirit with the old confessors before the throne of the judge of the quick and the dead. He speaks with St. Paul and Luther of the victory of life over death, of the "wunderlicher Krieg, da Tod und Leben rangen." Death and Life are victory. Luther uses the childlike but so eloquent "unser letztes Stiindlein" in his explanation of the Seventh Petition, and Bach echoes this in his "Komm susser Tod," and in his other cantatas and chorales in which he reveals his faith.
There is full agreement among all of Bach's biographers that Bach's music was his religion. To some, as for instance to Albert Schweitzer, his music is full of mysticism. These people find Bach's looking beyond life an indication of this mysticism. Others find much of Pietism in Bach. Yet it is, after all, the Christian, the staunch Lutheran, who speaks to us. The eschatological character of the Lutheran confessions is evident in many of Bach's works expressing his attitude toward death. In a little poem, Edifying Thoughts o f a Tobacco Smoker which Bach set to music, we have an example of the type of poetry written in that time. The edifying thoughts on death and hell presented in this poem seem almost ridiculous to the present day smoker, yet they demonstrate how much the mind of Bach was concerned with the idea of eternity. But there is no romantic sentimentality in Bach's religious music. Romanticism develops, but Bach's music is static. This lack of sentimentality in a time when there was so much "Ueberschwenglichkeit," exuberant , extravagance, so much obsequiousness and polite phraseology is hard to appreciate in our matter-of-fact day. Bach is a preacher who despises the use of affectations. His music is not vitalized by double forte and triple piano, by tremulos and vox humanas. The greatest Bach scholars play him as he speaks to God and man, with greatness in simplicity. All the embellishments of his art emphasize the truth of what he is saying. Their complicated structure does not detract from the beautiful whole, but affirms it.
A little book recently published as a refresher course for preachers lists seven secrets for good preaching as quoted from an old volume dating from the time of the Reformation. Curiously, these seven arcana of good sermonizing came to our mind again and again in the consideration of Bach's service to the church. Alexander Loewentraut sums it up in these words:
"Predige den Text der Heiligen Schrif t aus begeisterter Liebe und lebendiger Anschauung, nach deiner eignen Predigtart, fur die gegenwartigen Verhaltnisse deines Wirkungskreises und zum ewigen Heile der Menschen."
Preach the Text of Holy Writ,
Prompted by fervent love, With utmost clarity,
Doing your own mining and minting,
In accordance with your own manner of presentation,
Supplying the needs of your own particular field of labor,
For the eternal salvation of man.
Translated by H. C. Fritz
Bach fulfilled these requirements of good preaching in his work. Holy Scripture was his text; the love of God his driving force. With utmost clarity he developed his themes and illustrated them beautifully. His was the work he presented and his stamp and character does it bear. In his own style and for the purpose he had in mind he shaped his music, and all this to the glory of God and the salvation of mankind.