Grappling with Bach’s theology

bach-787703_640Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker has written a fascinating piece on Bach’s theology.  He says that while much research of the past tried to look at Bach in purely secular terms, today’s scholarship is attempting to unpack the musical impact of his Lutheranism.

Ross reviews several recent books on the subject, including one that tries to read into Bach’s music elements of anti-semitism, as if that is what Lutheranism is all about.  (Despite Luther’s senile ravings at the end of his life, Lutheran theology at the very least removed the stigma that Jews are to be blamed as Christ-killers–what the book in question is looking for in Bach’s Passions–since Lutheran theology sees Christ’s death as the result of all human sin, making possible their redemption.)  In reading the review of the books, which touches on the struggles and spiritual dynamism reflected in Bach’s music, I was struck by how little outsiders know about the distinctive, unique  elements of Lutheran spirituality, such as the contrast between Cross and Glory, and the spiritual desolation known as Anfechtung.  These would be highly relevant to Bach’s music, accounting for some of what these scholars otherwise struggle to explain.

But I love Ross’s close readings of Bach’s music, particularly, St. John’s Passion, in which he shows the Biblical and theological meaning of the musical structures the composer employs.  I love this quotation of one the authors:  “Marissen identifies himself as an agnostic, but adds that in the vicinity of Bach’s music he will never be a “comfortable agnostic.”  I love that so much of this research draws on the copy of Bach’s annotated Bible held by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, which Ross discusses.  And I love the overall question asked by this article and by the books themselves:  How is it that music based on such archaic theological ideas can connect so profoundly with people in our time?  (I would answer that Bach is evidence that Lutheranism itself, properly understood, can connect profoundly with people in our time.)

[Read more…]

Theological music for Christmas

Ken Myers has written a wonderful post on Christmas music, emphasizing particularly how it is sung by choirs and its connection to worship in the liturgy.  He includes a fascinating discussion of how music can be a contemplation of divine mysteries, as in the harmonies of this piece, “Mirabile mysterium” to this text:

“A wondrous mystery is declared today, an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man; that which he was, he remains, and that which he was not, he takes on, suffering neither commixture nor division.”

The composer is Jacob Handl (sometimes called “Gallus”), not to be confused with George Friedrich Handel.  Read what Myers says about it after the jump.

[Read more…]

Leon Russell dies

Another icon of my youth, Leon Russell, passed away at age 74.  A piano player from Lawton, Oklahoma, Russell became a member of the “wrecking crew,” that set of session musicians who were responsible for most of the pop music coming out of L.A. in the early sixties, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds.  From there, he started playing with British stars, of the magnitude of John Lennon, George Harrison, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton.  Also Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and. . .you name it.  The man knew everybody and his eclectic taste meant that he played just about everything.

He was also the main originator of the “Tulsa Sound,” with its country rock boogie-woogie shuffle that made a mark in the 1970s.  I grew up in the Tulsa area around then, and Leon was part of that silly teenaged scene on local late night TV with Mazeppa Pompazoidi (Gaylord Sartain) and Teddy Jack Eddy (Gary Busey).  I remember driving to Tulsa to hear a free concert in a park with Leon and B.B. King, one of the best concerts I’ve ever heard.

After the jump, a link to an informative obituary and a video of what he could do. [Read more…]

Bob Dylan was just “speechless”

What was Bob Dylan’s reaction to the news that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature?  Nothing. He made no reference to it in the press or in his concerts.  He didn’t call or take a call from the Swedish academy.

Lot of people, including the Nobel Committee, considered this to be arrogant.  We fans considered it just another example of Dylan’s utter coolness.  To ignore the Nobel Prize!

But now Dylan has responded.  It turns out, he says, the award just left him “speechless.”  Read more after the jump and follow the links. [Read more…]

Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize.

The Peace Prize for “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”?  No.  The Chemistry Prize for his duets with Joan Baez?  No.  The Prize for Music?  There is no prize for music.  He won the Prize for Literature.

OK, even many of us Dylan fans responded to the news with a “huh?”  Are songwriters to be counted in the ranks of novelists, dramatists, and poets?  Well, why not?  Poetry used to be accompanied by music anyway, which is why we call it “lyric.”  And Dylan is nothing if not a poet.

So congratulations to the one true Bob.  And I hope that Pete, our resident Dylan scholar here at the Cranach Institute, weighs in.  I can’t wait to hear what Dylan will say at his acceptance speech. [Read more…]

A meditation on Elvis 

Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977.  In honor of that anniversary, Sarah Condon at Mockingbird posted a meditation that is both nostalgic and moving. [Read more…]