Archives For Concordia

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.

_____

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

Human Filth

June 6, 2013 — 14 Comments

washI’m writing this from lovely Saint Louis. It’s a “far piece” from my home in Puget Sound, but I love it here. My wife and I spent two years just across the Mississippi, at Scott Air Force Base.

I’m here to begin study for my Doctor of Ministry degree, and it’s off to a grand beginning. As I said, I like Saint Louis, and Concordia Seminary has a first class faculty.

The only problem about coming here was precisely that . . . the process of getting here.

I hate flying these days. This trip was particularly trying. I wasn’t troubled by the fact that both my first flight and my connection were more than an hour behind their scheduled departures. (Although they were.) Nor was I troubled by being selected (once again) for a full body scan. (Must be due to using my military ID rather than a driver’s license that could more easily be counterfeited.)

Nor was it because the airline misplaced my luggage and was reluctant to give me an overnight toiletry kit until I insisted that although a hotel would offer me a toothbrush, what I really wanted to ensure I had the first day of class was deodorant. (They got the last laugh by giving me a bar of Lady Speed Stick; let me assure you that the elegant Powder Fresh scent turned more than one head that day in class.)

No, what really disturbed me as I traveled was encountering filthy people in the restrooms I used as I traveled across the continent. By filthy, I mean those disgusting people who choose not to wash their hands. When I observe 50% of the men exiting the bathroom without pausing to use one of the many available sinks, it’s all I can do not to say something. It makes me want to call up their aged parents and ask how they managed to raise such a disgusting son.

I love animals, and just this week I’ve seen dogs, cats, rabbits and deer grooming themselves. They have better manners and hygiene than the pigs I’m talking about here. Yes, they are disgusting enough for me to refer to them as swine . . .  although pigs are only being true to their nature, when homo sapiens are supposed to possess a higher character.

C.S. Lewis was writing about the shortcomings of only doing what is right because it is mandated, but it has a slight bearing on the disgust I’ve described above.

We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and to associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).

While Lewis is certainly correct that insincerity strips kindness and honesty of their virtuous essence—when it comes to cleanliness, I’m willing to settle for the “forced” variety!

Well, enough about human filth. I just needed to get that out of my system. Parents, please teach your children better than this. And ladies, please don’t dispel my naïve notion that 100% of women clean up after using their facilities.

Please forgive me for this disgusting post, and I promise that my next column will be much more pleasant and edifying.