A tin ear for religion

Last month, I highlighted media coverage of campaigns to get worshipers to confession. I needled the Miami Archdiocese a bit for using Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major to accompany their television advertisement. Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite Lutheran composer, in a very crowded field. I was surprised that a couple of commenters didn’t know he was Lutheran, on account of how well regarded he is as a musician, composer and theologian.

Lutheran churches throughout the world offer Bach vesper services where the rigorous theological underpinnings of a given work are explained before they’re performed by choirs, soloists and ensembles. When I attended my first of these, at a Lutheran church in Baltimore, I was shocked to learn that the different parts were written to express various theological concepts. Learning these things helps make the music even more sublime. You can get a taste of this from reading this brief explanation of the Trinitarian and Catechistic Connotations of the Clavier-Ubung III.

I mention all this because quite a few readers sent along a recent New Yorker review of Bach performances and releases. It’s actually a lovely review from a very talented music critic. And being that it’s a review of Bach’s sacred music, it attempts to engage the religious throughout the piece. Here, for example:

More than half of the sacred cantatas were written between 1723 and 1726, when Bach was in the early years of his long, and often unrewarding, appointment as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig. For extended stretches of the liturgical year, he produced one cantata a week, and for the most part he refused to take the easy path of reworking older pieces, whether his own or others’. Instead, in what seems a kind of creative rage, he experimented with every aspect of the cantata form, which traditionally served as a musical meditation on the Scriptural readings of the week. There are intimidating fugal choruses, sublimely extended operatic arias, frenzied instrumental interludes, weird chords galore, episodes of almost irreverent dancing merriment. To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bach’s imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.

Readers also submitted the response to the New Yorker piece by Lutheran publisher Paul McCain, who found the review wanting. He describes what it’s like to read secular media coverage of Bach’s sacred works:

No matter how often one is disappointed by articles on Bach’s sacred music, published in secular periodicals, there is always hope that maybe, just maybe, the article will be objective enough actually to recognize that J.S. Bach was a committed orthodox Lutheran composer, no, make that a Kantor, a servant of the church, and…there are actually committed Christians who keep his sacred music alive, like Masaaki Suzuki, of the Bach Collegium of Japan, precisely as a way to witness to their Christian faith, but alas, the latest example of such an article is another disappointment. It simply boggles my mind that such a key ingredient in really understanding who Bach was and why he did what he did is so blithely ignored and overlooked, even when there are references to the specifically Christian content of his sacred music works. I suppose it should not be a disappointment, but alas, it is.

Here’s an example from the New Yorker article of a reporter, perhaps struggling valiantly, to grasp the meaning of the St. John Passion, but failing utterly, to come up with anything more than a recognition of morality and human helpfulness, which, I suppose, is the right place to start, but the glorious good news of the Passion of Jesus Christ, is missing entirely from the reporter’s view.

He goes on to quote a portion of the New Yorker review that focuses on one portion of the oratorio to the exclusion of the ultimate message. As soon as I read this critique, I realized that the review never even mentioned that Bach was Lutheran, much less anything about the Gospel message so many of his sacred works highlight and celebrate.

A commenter to McCain’s critique wrote:

A Univ. of Michigan professor told us students years ago: “Bach was not only an organist and composer; he was a theologian, as well. To fully appreciate much of Bach’s work, you’d better learn some Lutheran theology, for he regularly put it to music.

The secular press, with all of its “sophistication”, is ignorant of such words as “incarnation”, “redemption”, “resurrection”, “sin”, “expiation”, and “justification” used theologically. Consequently, they see, and comment upon, only the “horizontal” (human) expressions in Bach’s music, to the exclusion of the “vertical” (divine) ones. They hear his music with a “tin ear”, for they hear only “art for art’s sake” rather than “Soli Deo Gloria”. And, as to the latter, they ask: “What’s that?”

I wanted to highlight these responses not only because they explain so clearly what anyone who knows about Bach’s theology finds lacking in a review such as this (again, as otherwise brilliant as it may be). But doesn’t it seem like something similar could be said about so much coverage of religion news?

So many reporters and editors aren’t even really familiar with the vocabulary of religious adherents, much less how one’s theology informs day-to-day affairs. That ignorance leaves stories about religion and its adherents muddled, or at least less vibrant than they should be.

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  • michael

    Clearly the article from the Plains Dealer didn’t make you stupider. This is a very good analogy for the understanding that is perenially lacking in religion coverage.

    I’d be curious to know what you think as a Lutheran, though I don’t mean to impute to you a degree of theological expertise that you do not claim for yourself. Would you go so far as to say that Bach is the greatest Lutheran theologian?

  • melxiopp

    This is actually not comparing apples to apples. Pastor Paul McCain (it should have been noted he is a paid minister of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the head of that church’s publishing house and not simply a “Lutheran publisher”) contrasts an example from the now retired UPI Religion Editor Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto with the piece written by the New Yorker’s music critique in a section titled “Musical Events”. I think we would all agree that a Religion Editor will properly and necessarily deal with the religion content of any story whereas a music critique may just as properly not deal directly with the underlying theology of a composer or a piece of sacred music as music. While the unnamed “Univ. of Michigan professor” is correct that theology is a prerequisite for deeply understanding a composer such as Bach, such context is not necessary for many if not most music criticism. The same goes for the motives of Masaaki Suzuki for doing what he does. (To compare, if fame and fortune are the stated motivations for another musician, should this necessarily be put front and center in musical reviews of their work?)

    Additionally, it should be remembered that this is a review not of Bach and his sacred cantatas but of the Bach Collegium Japan and it performance of Bach’s B-Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall, as well as the recordings of Gardiner’s performances of Bach’s sacred cantatas. Were this a critique of Bach himself, the topic and texts he chose should necessarily have been addressed, but that is not the case here where the interpretation and performance of the pieces is the focus.

    In short, when critiquing performances of Bach, what’s important to a pastor (and pious Lutheran) is not what’s important for a music critic.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    “The same goes for the motives of Masaaki Suzuki for doing what he does. (To compare, if fame and fortune are the stated motivations for another musician, should this necessarily be put front and center in musical reviews of their work?)”

    If it is the primary concept around which the music is written (e.g. Andrew Lloyd Webber) than yes, it should be front and center.

    It’s interesting, but while I love Neil Diamond’s music, his renditions of Christmas Carols fall rather flat. Probably because he’s Jewish and can’t put the reverence into the performance that they really require. When theology is as central to a composer’s worldview as Bach’s, unless you at least appreciate the theology – either as performer, conductor, or critic – you will miss most of the beauty in the music.

  • melxiopp

    Again, Alex Ross was reviewing not Bach and his compositions but performances and interpretations of Bach by Suzuki and Gardiner. The religious views of Bach, Suzuki and Gardiner need not necessarily be part of a critique of these particular recordings and performances – though they would necessarily need be part of a critique of Bach’s compositions on their own.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Paul McCain

    “Melxiopp” has an interesting take on this situation. He/she is saying,in effect, that a review of Bach’s sacred music, which makes an effort actually to account for what is “sacred” about the music, featuring an illustration showing Bach as a monk, should not really be expected to deal with what precisely makes the music “sacred,” even while it is quoting the very texts of the music that make it sacred.

    I do not understand the logic behind his/her remarks.

  • Mollie


    The point is that the piece is just so much weaker for failing to miss everything that Bach was working toward, much less how Christians such as Suzuki interpret same.

    I myself called the review “otherwise brilliant” but the point is that the ghosts make the piece weaker. In fact, it stands out so much because the rest of the review is so good — what it does, it does very well. Maybe it’s like trying to explain some culture when you don’t speak the language, much less understand its jokes. It’s not necessarily bad, so much as off.

  • Mollie

    And Michael,

    I don’t rank, as a rule, but Bach is certainly one of my favorite theologians. No one better integrates Lutheran systematic theology and the higher things.

  • texag_98

    I think to even review a performance an understanding of the underpinnings of the music is essential. Otherwise, how can you evaluate their presentation of a work? So, I think Mollie is right to bring this point up in her critique of the review.

    The response to McCain’s review is very telling. If the reviewer does not get the vertical aspect of the music they cannot give a full review of a performance, because they are lacking half the needed information. This is particularly true when evaluating performances surrounding pieces written for religious purposes, Bach’s pieces were written with a specific venue and purpose in mind and one needs to understand that to see if an interpretation honors and brings out that aspect of a piece.

  • GhaleonQ

    I wouldn’t go as far as Mollie; I won’t demand that all thematically religious music receive theological analysis (though Bach’s musicology is far more dependent than most religious composers’/arrangers’).

    I do think that it’s seldom analyzed compared to works’ political, historical, or familial implications. Did this specific piece necessitate religious interpretation? I don’t think so. Is it representative of the art world’s bad habits? Certainly.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I don’t mean to come off as churlish, but just a brief response to GhaleonQ:

    I never expect any review of Bach’s music to make even passing reference to Bach’s faith and his life’s work as a church Kantor. That is simply par for the course these days.

    But, when a piece is published that deals specifically with Bach’s sacred music and even quotes from it with the express intention of talking about the text of the sacred music, then it is not unreasonable for there to be, no matter how brief, an analysis of what the texts carried by the great music that Bach wrote, to support the texts, actually means to those who believe what the words say.

    That’s why I think this piece from the New Yorker failed rather miserably, unfortunately.

  • JWB

    I thought the Ross piece was quite good for a secular publication in terms of emphasizing the centrality of the religious component to the power of the cantatas. He emphasizes the cycle of the liturgical year. He even says “The pivotal moment comes at Eastertime (Volume 22), where the sepulchral chants of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ lay in the bonds of death”) give way to the brassy shouts of “Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret” (“The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”),” so it’s not like he’s unaware of, you know, the whole Resurrection thing. (He talks about one part of the opening of the St. John Passion w/o implying nothing else happens in the balance of the piece.) He certainly doesn’t say anything to suggest that Bach’s religious views were wishy-washy or other than mainstream Lutheran (for the time and place, way back when there were no LCMS bloggers grumpy about the ELCA), and even makes clear that Bach or his librettist had a “ballistic” view (no squishy liberal ecumenism!) of “the Turks and the Papists.” He finds it moving that one of the recordings was made in the church where Bach was baptized and which still has the same font lo these centuries later. So I’m a bit puzzled by Pr. McCain’s (and Mrs. Hemingway’s) criticisms. What do they think Ross didn’t say that rendered what he did say misleading or (within the space constraints of the piece) significantly incomplete?

  • Julia

    While we’re at it, why no mention that at the latter part of his life Bach wrote music for the Catholic Dresden Court? And that Bach’s eldest son Carl labelled the B minor Mass as “the Great Catholic Mass”, which was likely meant for use in Dresden’s new Catholic Hofkirche or other Catholic venue? Lutheran liturgy of the time did not use the entire Ordinary of the Mass.

    See 2003 book, Bach, the Mass in B Minor: the great Catholic Mass by Bach scholar George B Stauffer, published by Yale University Press:


    See also: http://www.flagstaffsymphony.org/documents/programNotes_january.pdf

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    JWB, there are some good things said in the article, but ultimately the reporter either simply did not understand, or did not want to dig into, the real meaning of the St. John Passion, but instead ended up skirting the essential content of the Passion, which is setting the record of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death for the salvation of the world, as recorded in John, to beautiful music. The texts of the Gospels are set within singing of classic Lutheran chorales (hymns) which reveal the meaning of the texts.

    It is the meaning of the texts that is overlooked. That meaning being that we are all sinners, in need of salvation, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was sent by God into this world to become a real man, and as true man, suffer and die to receive on Himself the punishment that our sins deserve. The shedding of His blood is the salvation of the world.

    One does not have to believe any of this, to “get it” and to understand this is precisely what Bach’s St. John Passion is all about.

    For Bach the music was a servant of this theology and one can only, in my opinion, fully appreciate Bach’s music when one has a good working knowledge of the belief system that animated Bach’s purpose and his work.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Does the theology of the composer matter in purely instrumental music? Does it matter if the singers are singing in a language they do not understand?

    This brings to mind the Everett, Washington case where a group of students found administrators would not allow their instrumental performance of “Ave Maria”. Here is an article on it http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=130605 . Here is another article that relates to the issue http://www.thespiritualherald.org/index.php?article=77 . It may indicate an attempt to frame the issue in a particular way that the article has a photo of people singing and it is not until the 11th paragraph that banning non-vofal performances of “religious” music is discussed. At least to me this seem such a different issue than singing religious music that it should be treated as a dinstinct issue. I think even Muise misses the point. There are going to be many in an audience who do not know the words to some pieces.

    Whatever the outcome of the issue “does non-vocal music still count as religious” it seems that it should be focused on more throughly by reporters. Here is a NYT connected blog which discusses the issue of the New Jersey case, admits that it applies to “religious instrumental music” and never bothers to even consider what that means. http://maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/24/appeals-court-upholds-soma-holiday-music-policy/ .

    Another question that journalists fail to discuss is “who decides what music is religious?” I can think of multiple sets of music that are the music for both religious and non-religious texts. This is a complexed question that seems to be too often assumed to be easy to answer.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Paul McCain

    @John: Thank you for your interesting comment. It would be my contention that a good working knowledge of J.S. Bach’s belief system does in fact enhance the listening experience of even his purely instrumental works. We know, as Bach himself says, that in a number of his instrumental works the music is purposefully structured to reflect the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Do you have to understand that to appreciate his music and like it? No. Does having a working knowledge of what the Christian belief about God is help you *further* understand and appreciate Bach’s music? I would say, yes, of course. And again, a person does not have to believe an iota of this to benefit from understanding Bach’s theology.

  • JWB

    See this review http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/16/arts/music/c-p-e-bach-st-matthew-passion-review.html of the U.S. premiere of a long-lost St. Matthew Passion by C.P.E. Bach which claims that it reflects a “more liberal theology” than his father’s St. Matthew Passion.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    And here’s an interesting preview of Bach’s St. John’s Passion.