Why Bach Was an Awesome Worship Leader…
…and Why His Music Still Speaks Today Guest post by Terri Moon
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Terri is an accomplished violinist, who performs at various classical concerts in town and also teaches private lessons. She and her husband are wonderful members of the Body of Christ in Colorado Springs, and have served faithfully in a variety of capacities at New Life Downtown.
I have often called musical style a kind of ‘cultural language’— I don’t know if that’s quite right or not. But if so, then using the cultural language of our day would be to employ the musical styles of our day. I have compared using contemporary music to a preacher preaching in conversational English rather than, say, Shakespearean English. But I think Terri’s post offers a helpful counter-narrative— to see Bach as a kind of spiritual discipline that results in an enriched faith. And, I’m with Terri: I love Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and have listened to it every Lent since buying it a few years ago.]
Here we are in the midst of Lent, and I am trying to take time to spend in this season contemplating the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. Music is always something that speaks to my heart, but especially in this season I return to music that has ministered to my soul in a meaningful way, that invites me into a deeper place of contemplation. I always find singing the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” a central moment in a Good Friday service. It conveys a depth of emotion and meaning, the words uniting with the melody and harmony, echoing and guiding the cry of my own heart.
Most people who have sung “O Sacred Head” know that it was written by J. S. Bach, but fewer people know that this hymn is part of a much longer multi-section work for double choir, double orchestra, and soloists written by Bach especially for a Good Friday almost three centuries ago. The oratorio St. Matthew Passion tells the story of the Passion of Christ, taken word-for-word from Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 26-27. It was 18th Century Germany’s version of a Passion Play, “The Thorn,” if you will. “O Sacred Head” is a hymn (called a chorale) that along with several others interspersed throughout the musical drama, gives the congregation a part to play in the story, inviting the audience watching the drama to cry out with a response from their own hearts. “O Sacred Head” is sung just after the crown of thorns has been placed on Christ’s head, and right before He carries the cross to Golgotha. The words are full of power and emotion:
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down, Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown; How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn! How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
In thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry, With thee for my salvation upon the cross to die. Ah, keep my heart thus moved to stand thy cross beneath, To mourn thee, well beloved, yet thank thee for thy death
After finishing a master’s degree in music, I was given the opportunity to study for one year in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I remember the cold, drizzly grey winter, followed by the emergence of bright tulips perfectly timed with the season of Lent and Easter. As springtime came, there were special concerts—of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It turns out this piece is beloved of the Dutch people, much like Handel’s Messiah is to Americans at Christmas, only more so. I found that if I wanted to, I could hear a performance of the nearly two-and-a-half hour piece every day by traveling to different towns in succession! It was a tremendously meaningful experience for me, both as a musician and as a Christian. My soul rejoiced in the beauty of the message, the words and music so finely crafted and blending together in harmony as my spirit worshiped my Savior.
Altogether, the St. Matthew Passion of Bach is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music, and Bach possibly the greatest composer of any kind of music that has ever lived. But his music is not just any kind of music, it is Christian music, expressing a deeply personal faith, born out of Luther’s Reformation and one of the highest artistic achievements of his time period. Bach fleshed out Martin Luther’s idea that the way we worship forms what we believe, not the reverse. His gift to us includes the original congregational song, instead of the exclusively Latin music sung only by the choir of pre-Reformation days. Is this not the heritage of the church even today? It speaks to us across the centuries, and even challenges modern skepticism. One of the world’s most noted living conductors who specializes in Bach’s music, John Eliot Gardiner, has spent a lifetime studying Bach and authored the book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. An agnostic, he says he comes close to becoming a Christian when he performs Bach:
“It’s irresistible in its persuasiveness,” he admits. “I cannot deny that even if my logical mind says ‘no’ – my soul, my spirit says, ‘This can only have come from somebody who has a totally credible and believable sense of godhead and the futility of human existence; [these are] the aspirations that are necessary to make sense of our lives…’”
Bach wrote his music as an offering to God, for the worshiping Church. Along with the St. Matthew Passion, Bach wrote St. John and a St. Mark Passion, plus more than 300 cantatas, music inspired by the Scripture readings for every Sunday of the entire year, some of which have since been lost. And I’m not even talking about his instrumental music yet! He was one of the most prolific musicians in history, and all of this was dedicated to the glory of God. So, why isn’t this music more a part of our worship today? Is Bach and his music irrelevant now, only to be lost to future generations of worshipers?
Some folks reading this may be thinking, “I know why we’re not singing Bach in church—it’s hard. Hard to understand, hard to sing, it requires an effort that I just don’t want to put into worship. Classical music seems too formal, too OLD, not for our time. I’d rather sing what’s familiar, simple, and easy.” I know what you mean. Bach’s music takes some work, it challenges me to the core as a musician, it stretches me to the absolute limit mentally and spiritually. No other music exposes my inadequacy, or changes me, like this music. But think. How do we as a church approach the study of Scripture? The Bible is also challenging, a two edged sword dividing the tendons from the joints in our thinking. If we only read Scripture shallowly we will probably have a shallow faith. If we are willing to drink deeply and broadly, we will grow roots deep into its riches. This kind of effort pays us back hugely in growth and maturity. Would we be willing to make the same kind of effort with our worship?
The legacy of Bach, his life’s contribution to the church was to give us music deeply rooted in Scriptural truth, involving the entire congregation, and crafted with unsurpassed expertise and beauty. To quote John Gardiner again, “Other composers… have achieved greatness in various ways, but it is Bach…who gives us the voice of God—in human form.”’ What more do we want in a worship leader?
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend, For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
My days are few, O fail not, with thine immortal power, to hold me that I quail not in death’s most fearful hour; That I may fight befriended, and see in my last strife To me thine arms extended upon the cross of life.
I love the depth of these beautiful words. I also have a great appreciation for new music, and will gladly sing songs being created by today’s worship songwriters. But, does that mean we should forget the prophetic worship leaders from our history? Wouldn’t keeping our collective heritage alive help us to grow? As G.K. Chesterton says, “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.”
So, this Good Friday, since I don’t know anywhere to go to hear a live performance, nor do I expect to hear just one chorale in church, I will set aside a little time to listen to my recording of St. Matthew Passion. I will let Bach help me find the words to sing to Jesus, meditating on all He has done for me, and let my heart pause to join in a worship that spans centuries, languages, and cultures. Would anyone like to join me?
Find the album on iTunes HERE.
Clemency Burton-Hill (Sept. 2014) “Can Any Composer Equal Bach?” [BBC Article] Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140917-can-any-composer-equal-bach
The Economist (Oct. 2013) “The Voice of God” [Article] Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21587753-conductor-explains-how-ordinary-man-produced-such-miraculous-music-voice-god