Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hymnody Review: J. S. Bach

Bach & Friends: World-class musicians reflect on the power and genius of Bach's music and perform his greatest masterpieces (A two hour documentary on Johann Sebastian Bach). Michael Lawrence Films, 2010. 116 minutes. Subtitles: English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese. 2-DVD video set. $39.95. (H)

For all of the superlative praise of Johann Sebastian Bach in this excellent documentary, there is something missing. The world-renowned, virtuosic musicians all speak about it, but their words similarly dance around it, the 500 gorilla in the room. Nearly all the musicians speak about "it," but appear to lack the proper words, words Bach freely confessed. "It" should refer to the One who made J. S. Bach who he was, the One to whom Bach dedicated his music: God in Christ. As St. Augustine reportedly said in prayer,  "Our hearts are restless, until they find rest in Thee."

I am not impressed by seemingly-scholarly discussions of the "Cosmic Bach," nor does my heart warm when some exceptionally talented musician speaks of playing Bach in words like "this is as close as I get to religion" or something of the sort. I grieve when Bach is spoken of merely in the politically-correct, secular terminology of modern American and International academia.

Although the text and tune antedate Bach by just over a hundred years, Bach and Friends would benefit from the perspective of the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

Bach is identified as a religious man, a Christian, even as a Lutheran, but the latter idenification occurs after over 90 minutes have passed in the main film. And his spirituality is featured near the end. The following text is mentioned, but not explicitly quoted, his last musical effort on this text and its setting:

Before Thy throne I come and pray:

Cast not Thy sinful child away!

Do not Thy gracious help remove

From me who needs forgiving love!

A blessed end do Thou, Lord give;

And then that with The may live,

Awaken me by Thy great power,

Amen. Oh, help me in this hour!

This is, after all I have said, an amazing DVD. The musicians and performances are nimble, lively, and full of emotion. Dextrous fingers dance across keyboards, fretboards, keys, and even crystal glasses. Bobby McFerrin uses his voice in wondrous ways.

The companion DVD features uncut performances that were edited and woven together into an inspiring, but largely secular narrative. That additional disc is a natural outgrowth of recording and experiencing so many phenomenal performances. It is at times religious, but not explicity Christian. This DVD could likely be shown in public schools, universities, libraries, and other institutions without causing anyone much offense. As a pastor and church musician, I would recommend a second DVD set about Bach's faith life as a Confessional, Bible-believing, Church Year composing, Book of Concord reading Lutheran Christian. His music bears inscriptions call upon Jesus for help and attribute all glory to God.

Buy the DVD set. Do what you can to show it (legally) to groups in your community. It will be appreciated by people of nearly all backgrounds and ages. Revel in the genius of both the composer and his many modern musician friends. But also share "the rest of the story," Bach the Christian musician.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.