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Psalm 96.1-9

Romans 12.3-13

Basically Biblically Bach

Trinity Sunday

On this Trinity Sunday, which occurs each year the Sunday after Pentecost, we’re going to be spending some time with the first person of the trinity.  No, not the Father Son Holy Spirit Trinity, but the musical trinity of Bach Beethoven and Brahms, the three B’s.  In fact, it is in their honor that I have continued last Sunday’s tradition of using three Bs in my sermon title:  last week it was Dylan’s Busy Being Born, this week it is Basically Biblically Bach.  Basically Biblically Bach – try to say it three times fast.  And since the church likes to do things in threes, I’ve already begun thinking about next week’s sermon, which will look at the decision by a school committee in Utah to pull the Bible from a school library because of some of the inappropriate material it contains.  Banned Bibles gives me the first two Bs, and since Utah is known as the Beehive State, well, you can see where this may be going, and I think for all our sakes we better pray.

In the 1930s a German immigrant family in Frankenmuth, Michigan, made a rather startling discovery: among the belongings they had brought with them from the old world to the new was a three volume study bible that once belonged to Johann Sebastian Bach. It was extensively marked with his own annotations in his own hand.  As Michael Marissen, author of the 2016 book Bach and God wrote in the New York Times not long ago,

“Picture the people of Bach’s household on free evenings, gathered in their living room for the activity of reading aloud.  The children take turns reciting from a family Bible for practice in reading and elocution, not to mention spiritual edification.  The patriarch follows along in his magnificent study Bible, in part to make sure there’s no passage-skipping from the [readers], and in part to allow him to reach for his inkwell wherever he spots [a necessary notation].”

Handwriting experts and musical scholars have been able to prove that the handwriting is indeed Bach’s  and it is a rich trove of biblical passages and ideas that were important to the composer.

But before he ever composed a note, Bach was surrounded by music.  As the eighth child in the family, his seven older siblings were all musical and he quickly picked up on the family tradition.  His father taught him violin and, along with the rest of the family, harpsichord.  His uncle was the organist at the Georgenkirche in his hometown of Eisenach.  (Incidentally, Eisenach is the town where, a hundred years before, Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek into the vernacular German.  Some of you Deacons may recall that I was planning a study trip to Eisenach before the pandemic closed the world down.)  Legend has it that when young Johann was nine years old, he took note of an older brother’s small musical library, which he would never let his younger brother see.  But Johann, determined to learn the writing of the music which filled his household, stole into his brother’s room at night, copied the music by the light of the moon and replaced it before morning.  When his brother found out, he destroyed his little brother’s copy, but the story illustrates the lengths to which the young Bach would go to master the music that surrounded him.

As an adult, Bach held three principal offices in succession.  When he was the organist at Weimar, Germany, he produced what is considered to be the greatest mass of organ literature ever written by one person, and he did it all in nine years.  He next became Kapellmeister, roughly equivalent to the minister of music at Cöthen, where in addition to his regular duties he led an orchestra, composed orchestral and chamber music, and wrote concerti and suites as well.  His third and final position is the one for which he is best remembered, at Leipzig.  There Bach played the organ, composed regular service music, taught both Latin and music, trained the choir, and gave occasional solo performances.  And of course, it was his job to write a piece for choir and instruments for every Sunday of the year, which has given the world hundreds of cantatas, motets, Passions, oratorios, chorales and sacred songs.  In fact, both hymns we sing this morning can be traced back to him, and he has either composed or harmonized at least eight hymns in our church hymnal.  Without Bach, there would be a notable void in the music of the church.  Paul’s words to the Romans that Deb read for us remind us that whatever gifts we possess we should employ with gusto and zeal:  “Prophecy in proportion to faith, the teacher in teaching, the giver in generosity the leader in diligence, the compassionate in cheerfulness.”  In Bach’s case, Paul might add “The composer, in musical abundance.”

But the question that has vexed both music historians as well as theologians over the years is, how much was the result of Bach’s spiritual devotion and how much was the result of him simply doing his job?  After all, while the world of ecclesiastical music boasts The St Matthew and St John Passions, the Mass in b minor, and, because of his long profession as organist, composer and choir director there are multiple sacred songs, motets and arias for each Sunday of the church year.  Additionally, it was his habit to annotate each sacred work with the initials JJ at the beginning, for Jesu Juva, meaning “Jesus, help,” and concluded with the letters SDG, for Soli Deo Gloria, “To God Alone be Glory.”  But his sacred output is close to matched by his keyboard and instrumental concertos, secular pieces like the Coffee Cantata, the Peasant Cantata, the Brandenburg Concertos, the French and English Suites, and other music that is more at home in the concert hall than the church.  In fact the piece that Eileen and I played this morning, Bach’s “Air,” while perfectly suited to a devotional setting as this morning’s worship service, is actually from his Orchestral Suite #3 in D major.  Again, how much of his music was inspired by his personal faith, and how much of it was just a matter of Bach going to work every day and doing his job?  (A job which, by the way, paid so poorly that he once confessed he made more money playing weddings and funerals than he did at his day job!)

Bach’s personal Bible may help answer the question.  It may be that the Bach family’s evening Bible readings were as much for the children’s learning to read as they were for spiritual edification.  But it is the composer’s personal notations in his copy of the Bible that tell the tale.  A good deal of Bach’s sacred music is drawn from the scriptures – not really verbatim, but between the Psalms and the gospels, we hear a lot of familiar biblical words and ideas in the music of Bach.  But he also employs his own biblical annotations in his compositions.  That is, his notes reveal an engagement with the text that goes beyond the mere taking of notes.  If you were to read through my own personal Bible –  and, in the spirit of Trinity Sunday, I’m currently on my third personal Bible, having worn out the spines and pages of the first two – if you were to read through mine, you’d find multiple verses underlined, textual notes in the margins, some circles and arrows a lá Arlo Guthrie, some cross references between verses, chapters and books, and I think it would give you a good idea of what I think is important as well as the ways I approach my own Bible reading.  Bach’s notes reveal much the same about him, and the picture that emerges is of a composer who is doing more than just looking for inspiration for his next Sunday anthem.  A close reading of his compositions reveal a conviction that the Bible is a dependable source of truth, that humanity is contingent on the grace and mercy of God, and, not surprisingly, a clear strain of Lutheran theology that courses through his work.  I think Psalm 96, among others, gives a good feeling of Bach’s approach to sacred music:  “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth, sing to the Lord and bless God’s holy name – tell of salvation from day to day, declare glory among the nations, and God’s marvelous works among all the peoples.”

Johann Sebastian Bach has given the world an incredible number of new songs to be sung, and it hardly matters whether the inspiration is secular or sacred, because he has genuinely employed his gifts to the greater glory of God.

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