November 25 – J. S. Bach

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

J.S.Bach, faithful servant

Johann Sebastian Bach  (1685-1750)

There were evidently 53 members of the Bach family, between 1520 and 1809, who were distinguished musicians. The most famous by far was Johann Sebastian, born on 21st March 1685 at Eisenach in Thuringia, Germany.

His massive output as a composer is often classified into the three periods of his working life as organist, choirmaster and composer, the first at Weimar (1708-17), then Kőthen (1718-23) and finally Leipzig (1723-50). Most of his greatest works were composed during the last  –  and longest  – of these periods, when he held the prestigious post of Kantor at St Thomas’. In this appointment he was in charge of the music at the school, at St Thomas’ Church and in neighbouring churches.

In Leipzig, and before that period as well, he composed cantatas, which are liturgical works involving choir, a small orchestra and (usually) several vocal soloists. When a new cantata was required, which was almost every week at one stage, Bach would compose the music to suit the forces available that particular week. Most cantatas were based on a hymn-tune, which was already in use in the Lutheran Church at the time. Bach would arrange the tune with new harmonies for the choir and set one or more arias and recitatives for the soloists. These latter would elaborate the Scripture readings for the day. Lutheran pietism was at its height, so the texts would often describe an intimate relationship between the believer and the Lord Jesus. Bach’s own faith was expressed in the intensity of the music.

The chorale preludes for organ had a liturgical function also, being rather like meditations on the main hymn-tune (or tunes) of the day. Still played frequently by organists around the world, the chorale preludes numbered 143 by the end of Bach’s life. Young organists, to this day, cut their teeth on the preludes and fugues, of which 26 survive.

Bach’s St John Passion and St Matthew Passion are monumental works. One commentator has described the St Matthew as one of the greatest, if not the greatest achievement of Western art, in any medium. Other sacred works on a large scale are his Mass in B minor and the Christmas Oratorio.

Bach also composed a great many secular works. It has often been remarked that the style of these is the same as his sacred music, which raises the interesting question of what makes music “sacred”. In Bach’s case the answer is probably the context in which the music was intended to be performed. His orchestral suites and other chamber works such as the famous Brandenburg Concertos were performed at court or in large households. His solo works for harpsichord and clavier, also his unaccompanied works for violin, could be performed in any venue. Thousands of young pianists today are introduced to his Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, commonly known simply as “the 48”. Not all his keyboard works are short: the  Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue are long and extremely demanding.

In the last months of his life Bach became completely blind and he died in Leipzig on 28th July 1750 at the age of 65.

Although he was famous in his lifetime, Bach’s music was almost neglected in the latter half of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th. It was Felix Mendelssohn who was mainly responsible for the revival of interest in  – and performance of  – the works of Bach. The huge circulation of recordings since World War II has meant that millions of people have come to appreciate the genius of Bach. His mastery of composition has exerted great influence on later composers, not only those of the Romantic era but also those regarded as avant-garde.

by Rev D’Arcy Wood