Tom Gilson

Bach: The Voice of God In Music

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.

Initials for Soli Deo Gloria: To God Alone the Glory, From One of Bach’s Manuscripts

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?


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9 thoughts on “Bach: The Voice of God In Music

  1. Kurt Vonnegut – “if I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'”

  2. This is a great example of CONFIRMATION BIAS…..all 5 respondents have contributed nothing BUT.

    Bach was, in all likelihood, driven by what society indoctrinated him with, and perhaps, MORE IMPORTANTLY, what society WANTED from him. Ehhhh. Can you write beautiful music that personifies “God”?

    “God” can, and IS, in my opinion, anything beyond anything any of our wild imaginations could ever conjure up!

    Tom, is your aim REALLY to seek and find truth, or ultimately just to reinforce YOUR views of God?

  3. Kurt,

    I’ll ENGAGE with your posts (here and here) at some POINT but first I’d like to request that you CALM DOWN your online elocution so that it’s NOT SO HARD to READ without feeling like SOMEONE’S YELLING. OKAY?

  4. Meanwhile, labeling (“confirmation bias”) is not to be confused with explaining, arguing, reasoning, or any such thing. It’s more akin to playground name-calling than to any of those things. If you have something substantive to say besides your unsupported (here, at least) opinion, feel free to share it. This is a blog for thinking people.

  5. By the way, I know that on the other thread you sensed some condescension in me, and I’m sure you’ll sense it here as well. Please consider it in context: you have made loud affirmations here of essentially nothing whatsoever, complete with pseudo-sophisticated name-calling. Such things are hardly worthy of high respect.

    I do not doubt that you are a thinking person. I’m trying to provoke you into demonstrating it, while reminding you that anything less than that will be quickly identified for what it is.

  6. Just had to exhume this thread because I’m currently in the midst of a Bach organ-music mania. I’m grateful that my wife is so forbearing.

    I don’t agree with Johnson when he says Bach must remain a closed book to those for whom the category of divinity is meaningless . As a nonbeliever, I don’t relate to the religious texts Bach set to his amazing music. However, at the same time as I recognize Bach’s religious devotion, I give him credit for the immensity of his talent and the truly transcendent artistic imagination he had. Listening to and studying a masterpiece like the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, I hear not the voice of God, but the pinnacle of human potential and artistic inspiration.

    You don’t have to be religious to be staggered by the music of a genius like Bach.

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