The Gospel According to Bach

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

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Much of the joy of the Christmas season comes from music. Many of the world’s greatest composers have written some of their finest music to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.


Johann Sebastian Bach is one example. His Christmas Oratorio offers beautiful, festive songs by orchestra, soloists and choir that lift our spirit and help us to rejoice at God’s wonderful gift to the human family.


But in Bach’s case they do even more. Through his genius and artistry, the music itself conveys the Christian message that God has become a man in order to save us from sin.

Words of Hope’s David Bast invited Dr. Calvin Stapert, Professor of Music at Calvin College and author of a recent book on the Christian message in Bach’s music, to sit down with him in conversation and explain how Bach’s Christmas Oratorio bears witness to the gospel.

Bast: Let’s talk a little bit about the music of Bach. He had his prodigious output over the course of his life: different places, he would focus on different styles of music. But all of it of such an incredible quality that it still astonishes the world today and many people would say he was the greatest composer of all time.

Stapert: Yes, I expect that he would be the leading vote getter for that title. You simply have to start with the fact that he was a prodigious talent. He was surrounded by music in his home so he had the long heritage and he was insatiable in terms of his wanting to learn more. So he kind of, you might say, just absorbed all of the musical environments that were in existence. But, what can you say, he simply was deeper and more skilled, both. His music has a depth, a profundity that you just don’t get to the bottom of. It’s inexhaustible, and certainly one has to bring in the depth of his Christian faith.

Bast: There’s a spiritual depth to this music that touches the human spirit, but especially the Christian dimension is something that’s at the very heart of Bach’s genius.

Stapert: Absolutely. In all of his music you get the sense that you’re dealing with a composer who’s not simply skillful at writing music to convey this message, but you’re dealing with a composer who believes that message down to the bottom of his heart and who is not merely conveying it but conveying it with a sense of invitation.

Bast: We have developed the idea that the purpose of art, including music, is simply to convey beauty. But this romantic view of art of the 19th Century is that art is in the service of beauty. For Bach, that’s not it at all.

Stapert: No, it’s in the service of truth.

Bast: Truth, yes, for him his art was intended as a means of communication, of proclaiming, of driving home the truth. You could even talk as some have of Bach the preacher, Bach the evangelist.

Stapert: Bach’s music is not continuously pretty or beautiful. He can be ugly when he needs to be, and he needs to be because one side of the gospel is sin. And he can portray that, but that’s never the end. There’s always the redemption. His music can be torturous and at the other end it can be the most gloriously beautiful.

Bast: One of the problems that we have as modern listeners is that we no longer are conversant with Bach’s rhetoric, his musical rhetoric. We no longer speak the language, in effect. We don’t naturally understand what he’s doing in using music to bring out the message of the text that he’s setting. Help us a little bit. Give us sort of an introduction to some of the common features of that music of that era, of Bach’s music in particular that would be used to convey the message.

Stapert: Bach, and any composer of that time, would have a whole arsenal of rhetorical devices available. Some things are very obvious; for example, the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. Nobody, I think, whatever time they lived in, whatever culture they came from, could fail to hear the festive joy, the trumpets and tympani, the lively triple rhythms, the flourishes. It’s the obvious kind of . . . .

Bast: Merry Christmas

Stapert: Merry Christmas, right, cheers.

Bast: Let’s talk a little about the Christmas Oratorio since it is the Christmas season. Can you give us a little introduction to this work and help us to listen for some of the ways in which Bach conveys the deeper message of Christmas through this beautiful music?

Stapert: Yes, first let me give you a little overview of the Christmas Oratorio as a whole. There are six parts, and the six parts are designated for six festivals during the Christmas season. The first part is for Christmas Day. The second part is for the Second Day of Christmas, and the third part is for the Third Day of Christmas.

Bast: In other words, December 25, 26, 27.

Stapert: Yes, and then the fourth part is for the Feast of Circumcision which is January 1. The fifth part is for the first Sunday of the New Year, and then the last part is for Epiphany, which is January 6.

Bast: So this is really a 12-day work. It took 12 days to perform it, though not every day.

Stapert: Not every day. Right.

Bast: But the people at Leipzig would go to church for all of these festivals and feast days.

Stapert: Right.

Bast: And then this music would unfold, one part after the other.

One of the main points of your book, My Only Comfort, which traces the faith of Bach as it’s revealed in his music is that the music itself, not just the words, but the notes of the music also were employed by Bach to convey the foundation truths of the Christian faith.

Stapert: Right.

Bast: Explain a little bit about that and let’s use as an example the opening of the second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, the one for December 26, where we can hear Bach doing just that.

Stapert: All right. Yes, that second part of the Christmas Oratorio tells of the angels announcing to the shepherds that Jesus is born, that they will find him in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Bast: So it’s that section of Luke 2.

Stapert: Just that little section of Luke 2.

Bast: And many of us, I think, probably know that by heart.

Stapert: We know that pretty well. Right. It begins with that passage, “There were shepherds abiding in the field.” So Bach begins this second part with an instrumental piece which he calls a symphonia. And this is a very good example of how the baroque composer can take advantage of conventions that everyone would know. It’s a pastoral movement. It’s meant to evoke shepherds, a rustic, rural scene. Instrumentation might have something to do with it although not necessarily, but if wind instruments were involved, they would be the oboe type instrument, the reed instrument, the reed pipe, again the kind of thing that you would associate with shepherds out in the field. Even keys, the keys tend to be on the flat side. The more sharps, the higher. He more flats, the lower. The more sharps, the greater tension. The more flats, the less tension.

Bast: Calmer.

Stapert: Calmer, quieter, gentler, that whole. . . .

Bast: Peaceful, relaxed. And even if we don’t understand again the way technically the music works, we feel that. We feel that.

Stapert: Right. And now you’ve got this quieter, milder, gentler, with this swaying, lilting rhythm.

Bast: So what else is he trying to do in this music besides set up the idea that: all right, here come the shepherds.

Stapert: You hear first of all some of the pastoral conventions but not all of them. You hear this lilting rhythm. It’s played by string orchestra but you don’t have a drone and you don’t have simply rustic kinds of harmonies. But you have a moving base and rich harmonies. So you use some of the conventions but you don’t use them all and it would make the perceptive listener wonder. Then, a few measures in, the strings drop out and the oboes and bassoons play. And the oboes and bassoons play a passage of music that has all of the pastoral conventions, the rhythm, the drone and the instruments themselves.

Bast: So here come the shepherds, in other words.

Stapert: Here comes the shepherds. And then they go back and forth antiphonally. And you also have to now bring in visual conventions because in the old paintings you see angel musicians and they are typically playing stringed instruments. You see earthly music makers and they’re playing the wind instruments. And so you have, as it were, antiphony between heaven and earth: the angel strings playing a pastoral, but [playing it] with this rich, wonderful, heavenly harmony. And then you have the shepherds, with their reed pipes, and their drones, and their simple rustic harmonies playing their pastoral. And it goes back and forth, but the wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t continue to go back and forth but that they merge and they blend.

Bast: So what Bach is doing, really, is by slightly altering the conventions of his day, he’s saying that: here are the shepherds, this is a pastoral scene, but the angels in the strings are in dialogue with the shepherds, the oboes, and they’re talking back and forth until they finally, heaven and earth, come together.

Stapert: Heaven and earth come together. This event that we celebrated yesterday, that we’re celebrating today, that we’re going to be celebrating for the next several days, this event broke the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and humankind, and this is the event that sets in motion the bringing together of heaven and earth again.

Bast: It’s the Incarnation.

Stapert: It’s the Incarnation.

Bast: Where God became man in order to redeem us, to lift us to heaven.

Stapert: Yes.

Bast: The next section that we’re going to talk about in the Christmas Oratorio is a Lullaby. Tell us what’s going on here.

Stapert: On the surface it’s just as you say, a lullaby. The shepherds have been told by the angels, “Here’s the sign. You go to Bethlehem. You’ll find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” This is immediately followed by chorale in which the choir sings: “Look, there we see him lying in a manger, the one who is the Lord of all, the Lord of the universe,” this wonderful paradox, baby in the manger who is indeed the Lord of all

Bast: Infinite God contained within the body of one small child.

Stapert: One small child. Right. And then a base soloist sings a rested octave and urges the shepherds to go. It’s as if we’re there, we’re the congregation, we see it. Shepherds, you go too and see this thing. A base soloist ends after urging the shepherds to go, and says, “and sing to him at his cradle, sing in sweet voice and with full choir this lullaby.”

Now there’s some interesting things about that. First of all, we presume there are more than one shepherd, but this lullaby is sung by an alto soloist, and furthermore, this reference to singing with sweet voice and with full choir suggests again singing with the angels. But again, all we’ve got is the one solo voice. But Bach has done a very subtle thing here. In this symphonia that we’ve just talked about, the oboes associated with the shepherds and the strings with flute, I should add, the strings and the flute were the angels.

Bast: That’s the voice of the angels.

Stapert: Right. Now what he does is he takes the flute and has it double the alto soloist so the flute is playing exactly the same thing that the alto is singing and then he takes the oboes and has them double the strings. So he takes the shepherd oboes as it were and has them play exactly the same thing as the angel strings.

Bast: As the angel strings. And the angel flute plays the same thing as the human singer. So Bach at this point needed to have a solo for the overall shape of the work, for artistic reasons really but for the message he needed a heavenly choir and an earthly choir combined, so he does it with the subtle musical touches, to say this is everybody, everyone, heaven and earth, are singing this lullaby now.

Stapert: You’ve got shepherds and angels on this solo vocal line and you’ve got shepherds and angels in this instrumental accompanying part. They are one. Shepherds and angels together singing to this Christ-child in the manger. And the text is a good lullaby kind of text. “Sleep my dearest, enjoy thy rest, from henceforth, watch over the well-being of all, refresh the breast, experience the joy, there where we gladden our hearts. But sleep is also a common literary image of death. And I’m quite convinced that Bach intends a double meaning here that this is sleep, but it also looks ahead to the time when Christ will be sleeping, so to speak, in the tomb.

If you take the context of the Christmas Oratorio as a whole, Bach makes it really quite clear that he’s putting this whole Christmas story within the frame of the crucifixion, the frame of the cross. At the end of the whole Christmas Oratorio, at the end of part 6, there’s this wonderfully festive concluding chorale with trumpets and tympani and the whole works but the chorale tune that the choir sings is the passion chorale tune, the chorale that we know today as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Bach is framing this in the same way that visual artists often would show manger scenes where the manger is in the middle of a cross shape or where the light shining on beams of the stall cast a shadow that is in the shape of the cross over the manger. I think it’s the same kind of musical way of saying, “This is why he came.”

The trumpets and drums are associated with resurrection, but the tune is passion and the piece that they’re ending is the Christmas Oratorio, so that whole thing is wrapped up there in that final work.

Now are you well avenged for upon the host of your enemies Christ has broken that which was against you. Death, devil, sin and hell are quite diminished. The whole human race has its place at God’s side.

Bast: But not simply through the incarnation. It’s going to require the passion, the suffering and death, and then finally the resurrection.

Stapert: Right. Yes.