Posted on Oct 2, 2013 by Tom Gilson
I’m working from memory, but it seems to me that Pablo Casals, once widely considered the world’s greatest cellist, said that he began each day playing Bach on the piano. It was like praying, he said.
Since I have recently moved my place of work into a home office, with enough acoustic separation from the rest of the world, I’ve taken to playing Bach on the trombone during breaks from work. Some of his solo music, particularly his d minor cello sonata, lays well on that instrument. I played it for my junior recital in music school; which is to say, I played some of it. I got all the notes; never in my wildest hopes, however, did I ever expect I would play all themusic that was in it.
Now there is a new book out about Johann Sebastian Bach the musician. I have access only to Daniel F. Johnson’s review, “Is Bach the Voice of God In Music?“, which includes,
Christianity is central to Bach’s music, not just because his was a deeply religious time and place, but because only a composer who saw music-making literally as worship could have produced works of such a kind and on such a scale. Bach annotated his copy of the Calov Bible, now preserved in Leipzig, with 348 marginalia, including the following, which might serve as his credo: “NB. Wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.”
I experience something like that even in my distant approaches to Bach in my own private playing of his music. Something divine seems to move closer within reach.
Later in his review Johnson writes,
Yet Bach’s humanity is inseparable from his faith in God’s mercy. Blind, crippled by a stroke and dying, he dictated his “deathbed” chorale BWV 668a, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (“When we are in desperate straits”), which directly addresses God: “Turn not Thy gracious countenance / From me, a poor sinner.” Nothing, it is safe to say, could be less congenial to the “Olympian” mentality of modern man. “It is Bach,” Gardiner defiantly declares, “making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form.” For that reason Bach must remain a closed book to those for whom the category of divinity is meaningless, and hence deny that it is possible “to make divine things human and human things divine”. Music — even Bach’s music — cannot be “divine” unless God is a presence, unseen and perhaps unconscious, in our lives. We instinctively reach for theological metaphors when we experience the numinous quality of sacred art and music. But for these words to mean anything, we must have at least some confidence that the universe itself has meaning. Bach puts us back in touch with that numinous, on occasion even visceral, presence of the divine. And this involuntary response tells us that there is something transcendental within us, at the very core of our being, that recognises itself in this music. We are made in the image of God, the Bible tells us; in the same way, our music is a distant echo of Paradise.
Or at least Bach’s music is that distant echo.
At least one prominent atheist, A.N. Wilson, agreed with Peter Kreeft’s statement, “there is the music of Bach, therefore there is God.” Kreeft reportedly knows of others. It is easy to imagine that being so. As philosophical arguments go, it is no failure: it is not in that category. I am well aware that there are many musicians and listeners, including possibly the late Pablo Casals, who have not heard the voice of God speaking through music like Bach’s; it is no proof of God in that sense, either.
And yet it is proof, I think, of something deeper within us than the naturalists think is there. In my last post I spoke of glory in the heavens. BillT pointed most appropriately to the glory within us. Great music displays glory among us. You could miss God there: but why would you want to?