Bach’s Lost Classics

csl bach


Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?

I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.

J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.

Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.

Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?

Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.

Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.

Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.

Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.

In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”

In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.

Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?

Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.

Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.

And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.

11 thoughts on “Bach’s Lost Classics

  1. The Gospel of Barney

    great gaps in history and the arts exist sadly due to carelessness, we don’t often appreciate the works of our own time!

  2. And Lewis is one of those who lost everything not published, and some of what was published!
    Think of this next generation, though. I’m doing a post now what it must mean to be a historian of Lewis or Bach or Shakepeare or Julian of Norwich today. We would have to go through millions of bits of data: emails, texts, tweets, blogs, facebook notes. Imagine Bach on Pinterest.
    A mess!

    1. True. Because of the “controversy” about the loss of some of Lewis’ works, I decided not to venture into that territory.

      I hadn’t thought about the conundrum you raised in your second point. Wow, that would be a nightmare. There will be so many tiny pieces of data out there that you could never hope to gather and analyze them all!

      From a paucity to a flood.

  3. “Soli Deo Gloria,” amen.
    I was listening to an audio-book of “God in the Dock, Weight of Glory, and Letters to Malcom” and there is a forward by a noted expert on Lewis (whose name escapes me, you might know if off the top of your head) talking about the time he spent with Lewis. One moment stands out to me as being related to this, when Lewis is asked if he is aware that he is “winning worship” through his writing. His response is something like “One can never be too careful NOT to think of it.” Glory be to God alone, indeed.

    1. Prominent figures such as Lewis are wise to remain vigilant about those dangers. Most of us never “win” a following, so there’s little temptation to pride. Still, in the modern era we are so obsessed with self-esteem that we arguably encourage nearly everyone to think more of themselves than they ought…

  4. louiseroques

    I really enjoyed this post! Love the cartoon at the top which I wholly echo in my own embryonic attempts at writing. Like the encouragement you offer to those with a creative urge to offer up what they can for the benefit of others. Very helpful in an age where many are muted by fear of the savagery of the critics.
    Bach and Lewis are two of my big heroes too!

    1. It would be difficult to choose more worthy heroes. Yes, critics can be a scourge… but the constructive criticism of friends in a writing group can be invaluable.

Offer a Comment or Insight

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.