by Patrick Kavanaugh
Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Messiaen . . . Men of genius as different as their music - but all inspired by deep spiritual convictions. Peter Kavanaugh uncovers the spirituality of twenty of music's timeless giants, revealing legacies of the soul as diverse as the masterpieces they created. Warmly written, beautifully illustrated, and complete with listening recommendations for each composer, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers is a fascinating look at the inner flame that lit the works of these masters.
Johann Sebastian BACH 1685-1750
Through the autumn countryside of Germany, a young man of twenty walks briskly, soaking up the faded October sun and crunching fallen leaves underfoot. It is 1705, and the young man is on his way from Arnstadt to Lubeck--a two-hundred mile trek. The miles pass quickly as he anticipates the music he is determined to hear. One of the great organists of his day, Dietrich Buxtehude, will be performing evening musical devotions at the Cathedral this time of year, in preparation for Advent.
Traveling on foot to hear concerts was nothing new to this young organist; many times he had tramped thirty miles to Hamburg to hear the renowned organist Reincken and had even walked sixty miles to Celle to attend programs of French music. But to hear Buxtehude! For this opportunity, he needed at least a month's leave of absence from his position as a church organist. His superiors had grudgingly consented after the organist entreated them relentlessly for the necessary leave. Arriving at Lubeck, footsore yet charged with excitement, the young musician drinks in the organ concerts of the master with a profound sense of personal inspiration. He sends word back to his employer at Arnstadt that he needs two months off instead of just one, knowing he risks being fired.
Three years after this experience, he announces his ultimate purpose in life: to create "well-regulated church music to the glory of God."
With an insatiable appetite to learn and a propensity for ceaseless work, he set about doing just that. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach.
Throughout history, Bach has been acclaimed as the Christian composer, almost a kind of "patron saint" for church musicians. All around the world, he is recognized as one of the greatest composers in history. This is not to say there were no great spiritual composers before Bach; he actually represents the culmination of centuries of Christian music. The sheer number of works he composed is staggering, however, and so is their diversity. They include chorales, cantatas, masses, oratorios, passions, concerti, and solo works for virtually every instrument of his day.
Bach was prolific in other areas of life as well: He worked in a variety of demanding jobs (often with many extra-musical duties), and fathered twenty children, several of whom also matured into noted musicians.
When Johann Sebastian was born in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, the Bach name was already synonymous with the musical trade. More than fifty musicians bearing that name are remembered by musicologists today. Even as a boy, Bach appeared eager to find expression for his emerging musical talent. Orphaned at the age of nine, Johann moved in with an older brother, and his musical training began. He soon developed into an outstanding singer and demonstrated a remarkable ability to play the organ, the violin, and numerous other instruments.
Bach's brother owned a set of compositions, which he forbade the younger Bach to use. Perhaps because it was placed off-limits, that musical manuscript grew irresistibly attractive to the young musician. And so for weeks, Bach stole the precious pages and hid them in his room, where he stayed up late night after night copying the musical scores by moonlight. When his brother discovered the copied pages, he angrily confiscated them. But Bach had already gleaned valuable lessons in composition, as well as discipline and devotionto music, from the clandestine exercise.
Throughout his life he was known much more as an organist than as a composer. Amazing to us, only ten of Bach's original compositions were published during his lifetime. It was not until the nineteenth century that his brilliance as a composer was truly appreciated. Only then would he be revered by such masters as Beethoven, who claimed, "His name ought not to be Bach [Bach is the German word for brook], but ocean, because of his infinite and inexhaustible wealth of combinations and harmonies."
Like so many other masters throughout history, Bach's personality had many facets. On one hand, he was free from personal vanity and generous and encouraging toward his many pupils. The Bach family also had a great reputation for their hospitality. His first biographer, Forkel, notes, "These sociable virtues, together with his great artistic fame, caused his house to be rarely free from visitors." Once, when an acquaintance praised Bach's wonderful skill as an organist, he replied with characteristic humility and wit, "There is nothing very wonderful about it. You have only to hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument does the rest." Yet he could be stubborn and irritable, especially with an unappreciative employer or an incompetent musician. At the age of twenty, Bach ridiculed a colleague by calling him "Kippelfagottist"--a "nanny-goat bassoonist." The offended musician picked up a stick and struck Bach, who drew his sword. A full-blown duel would have ensued, but fortunately, friends who saw the argument intensify threw themselves between the two adversaries to keep them apart.
Bach spent his entire life in Germany, working primarily asa church musician. For the two centuries prior, this region had been permeated by the legacy of Martin Luther, with his radical emphasis on a living, personal, Bible-based Christianity. Luther himself had been a musician, declaring music to be second only to the Gospel itself. Bach was to be the reformer's greatest musical disciple. Bach resoundingly echoed the convictions of Luther, claiming that "Music's only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit."
As he set about composing, he would frequently initial his blank manuscript pages with the marking, "J. J." (Jesu Juva--"Help me, Jesus"), or "I. N. J." (In Nomine Jesu--"In the name of Jesus"). At the manuscript's end, Bach routinely initialed the letters "S. D. G." (Soli Deo Gloria--"To God alone, the glory"). To Bach, these were not trite religious slogans but sincere expressions of personal devotion.