Archives For Composers

Bach’s Deathbed Hymn

April 28, 2015 — 13 Comments

jsbBlind and restricted to his deathbed, Johann Sebastian Bach asked a fellow organist to play one of his own hymns. Bach then did what any brilliant composer would have done.

No, he did not criticize his colleague for the way he interpreted it musically. Bach, in his final hours, revised his own composition, making a number of musical improvements.

And the genius did not rest there, he retitled the work and modified its strains in a manner which perfectly addressed his circumstances. Anticipating his imminent encounter with his Creator, he changed the name to Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Your Throne I Now Appear). The first and last verses of the hymn are as follows.

Before your throne I now appear,

O God, and beg you humbly

Turn not your gracious face

From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,

On the last day waken me Lord,

That I may see you eternally:

Amen, amen, hear me.

As a Lutheran, Bach was well acquainted with his sinful nature and utter dependence on the grace of God. He was a serious student of the Bible, and his annotated edition of Luther’s translation is held in the collection of Concordia Seminary. (Two of the three volumes are currently on loan to Leipzig.)

The medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer, was a renowned Bach scholar before he left a promising career in music performance to pursue medicine. Schweitzer wrote:

At heart Bach was neither pietistic nor orthodox: he was a mystic thinker. Mysticism was the living spring from which sprang his piety. There are certain chorales and certain cantatas which make us feel more than elsewhere that the master has poured into them his soul. These are precisely the mystical chorales and cantatas.

Like all the mystics, Bach, one may say, was obsessed by religious pessimism. This robust and healthy man, who lived surrounded by the affection of a great family, this man who was embodied energy and activity, who even had a pronounced taste for the frankly burlesque, felt at the bottom of his soul an intense desire, a Sehnsucht, for eternal rest. (Albert Schweitzer, The Life and Character of Bach).

During his lifetime, Bach’s international renown arose from his performance skills. It was nearly a century later that the gifted Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and the world grew to admire Bach as the brilliant composer he was. Referring to his partnership with a playwright in the effort, Mendelssohn said, “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”

Bach remains quite popular, although not everyone shares an appreciation of organ music. In 1956, C.S. Lewis provided insight into his own preferences in the following correspondence.

Concerning hymn singing and organ playing: if they have been helpful and edified anyone, then the fact that they set my teeth on edge is infinitely unimportant. One must first distinguish the effect which music has on people like me who are musically illiterate and get only the emotional effect, and that which it has on real musical scholars who perceive the structure and get an intellectual satisfaction as well.

Either of these effects is, I think, ambivalent from the religious point of view: i.e. each can be a preparation for or even a medium for meeting God but can also be a distraction and impediment.

In that respect music is not different from a good many other things, human relations, landscape, poetry, philosophy. The most relevant one is wine which can be used sacramentally or for getting drunk or neutrally. I think every natural thing which is not in itself sinful can become the servant of the spiritual life, but none is automatically so

When it is not, it becomes either just trivial (as music is to millions of people) or a dangerous idol. The emotional effect of music may be not only a distraction (to some people at some times) but a delusion: i.e. feeling certain emotions in church they mistake them for religious emotions when they may be wholly natural.

That means that even genuinely religious emotion is only a servant. No soul is saved by having it or damned by lacking it. The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbour is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part so much the better).

So that the test of music or religion or even visions if one has them is always the same– do they make one more obedient, more God-centred, and neighbour-centred and less self-centred? ‘Though I speak with the tongues of Bach and Palestrina and have not charity etc.’!

Fortunately, even the “musically illiterate” can be blessed by the anointed ministry of Bach. Lewis is correct that musical brilliance, without a gracious component, is empty. Fortunately, in the case of J.S. Bach we encounter a man who truly lived by the words he appended to much of his music: Soli Deo Gloria, to Glory to God Alone.

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You can listen to Bach’s music for this chorale here. This performance is from the church in Leipzig where Bach himself performed.

poetsWhen does our appreciation of a particular writer border on literary idolatry? Well, not idolatry proper, since even shrines like Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey don’t endorse “worship.”

We naturally appreciate the memory of those whose work has contributed to our lives. And that’s fine. But when we begin to focus more on them, than on the real, breathing people around us, our priorities are skewed.

In 1989, Hollywood released a film entitled “Dead Poet’s Society.” It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and ironically won the Oscar for Best Writing. In the movie, an English teacher awakens his moribund students to literature, and the more reflective aspects of life.

At last week’s writers meeting, we were introducing ourselves to a visitor, and as part of that process, mentioned the type of writing each of us pursues. I listed several genres and concluded with the words “but I’m not a poet.”

A member of the group immediately “corrected” me, since I have, in fact, written several poems during the past couple of years. Well, I guess I should get used to saying something like, “I don’t consider myself a poet.”

Poetry, some poets insinuate, carries a more artistic air than other, pedestrian genres. Fiction, of course, has its own advocates, and they too occasionally look down on folks like me who typically muddle around in the nonfiction worlds history and religion.*

In the following paragraphs, C.S. Lewis offers some provocative thoughts about how we should rightly feel toward departed writers. His argument is really about how we must not neglect our duty to living humanity by focusing on those who are “gone.”

A special treat in the selection is his coining of the word which inspires the title of this post.

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little.

It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious. You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify.

Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you.

He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come. I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace.

If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour. Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy).**

Lewis alleges our emotional “bonds” with departed writers are fruitless, imaginary, and perhaps even detrimental. I agree that when they displace our connections with living people, it is tragic.

While I rarely disagree with the Magister Lewis, I will in this case. I would make an exception to his argument—in a single sense. For Christians, our filial affection for a departed Christian writer, is a unique case. The distinction being the fact, that in light of the resurrection, and the gift of eternal life, we are not talking about others who are permanently severed from a genuine relationship with us.

On the contrary, there are many other disciples of Jesus living today who feel a powerful connection to writers like Lewis himself. And, with all eternity ahead, there should be ample time for each of us to enjoy his company, and thank him for the blessing he bequeathed to us through his work.

Postscript:

I recognize that it may be in questionable taste, but the subject of departed artists reminds me of a humorous song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s called “Decomposing Composers,” and the modestly disconcerting lyrics are rendered in a somber, classical manner. If interested, you can listen to it here.

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* I intentionally refer to “religion” as nonfiction, since I regard it to be just that. (And also because I know that pushes some people’s buttons.)

** Last year I approached this same passage by Lewis from a different perspective. If you would like to read some thoughts related to pet fads, check them out here.