Bach, 250 years later

Culture | A Christian composer, his anniversary, and a contemporary disciple

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

July 28 marks the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. In 1750 the "immortal god of harmony" died in Leipzig, Germany, leaving behind hundreds of hours of music in manuscript or published form. No composer since has reached such pinnacles of artistry. Marking this 250th anniversary, Teldec has released a collection of Bach's complete works, consisting of no less than 153 CDs, performed by some of early music's great artists: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, and ensembles including Concentus musicus Wien.

Although newspaper anniversary accounts are unlikely to mention this, Bach was a great Christian composer. He believed that all work, including the composing of music, should be done to the "glory of the highest God alone." Even the God-hating philosopher Nietzsche was moved by Bach's imaginative setting of texts in St. Matthew Passion: "Whoever has completely forgotten Christianity will perceive it here as truly gospel." However Nietzsche meant that, Bach over the years has been a musical evangelist teaching transcendent biblical truth throughout his sacred works.

Many composers have sought to do likewise. Arvo Pärt is one of the best contemporary Christian composers, and his new release, Tabula rasa, is both engaging and relaxing. The CD includes Mr. Pärt's spiritually evocative Symphony No. 3 (1971); its otherworldly musical language, along with the delicate silences in its three movements, produce a spellbinding effect. It's clear that Mr. Pärt believes art's function is to provoke contemplation of things eternal and permanent; he once said, "It is enough that a single note is played beautifully."

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His calmness resonates in a postmodern world. "The more we are thrown into chaos," he said, "the more we have to hold onto order. This is the only thing that helps us to restore our sense of balance, even if only a little, and allows us to see things in perspective and to be aware of the value of these things. The greater the sense of order and the greater our ability to stand back and feel the wing-beat of time, the more powerful will be the impact of the work of art."

Bach would agree. It may seem strange to hear someone advocating order in our age of chaos. It may seem even stranger that Mr. Pärt's orderly music has made him one of the most popular of serious composers. Apparently, today's relativists respond to absolutes after all.


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