MISSIONARY AT LARGE
Johann Sebastian Bach

A number of Bible believers today are making a point of separation over music, and I hear of people shucking off the sloppy southern Gospel and CCM tripe. What are they listening to? First, the old hymns of the faith. You will find these on our Music Page.

But another taste in Christian music is developing as well. It is for classical music, and Bible believers are now making strict distinctions that the classical music be Reformation era and Reformation composers. While we resist the deadness of Calvinism, we appreciate the zeal and fresh doctrinal breezes of Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn (after Mendelssohn was converted to Reformation faith in Christ).

Recently, we learned that Mendelssohn had converted, so we did a little research. We have found that his works from before his conversion are the favorites of the worldly performers. His Reformation Symphony is nearly impossible to find, and his other post conversion compositions are pointedly avoided by the devil's performers. This is a powerful evidence of his genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

The following story gave me the warm fuzzies folks. I feel like screaming, "I told you so." There is now an attempt to destroy Bach's reputation by telling lies and tales about his personal life. The same is being done for King James II who commissioned the King James Bible. Men HATE those past champions of the faith who continue over the ages to stir the hearts of men and point them to the Lord Jesus Christ. The following story also shows me that, where modern missions is going dead as a door nail, Christ is, in a strange and mysterious way, using "The Fifth Gospel" of Bach to reach lost souls.

I admit, this is hard to handle in a way. The things in the following story do not involve a Fundamental Baptist preacher from Oklahoma. There seems to be a lack of things I consider familiar in the work of evangelism. But, I notice that this thing happened without ecumenical and big organized religion. If souls are being saved, I love it.

Also, some of you stereotyped missionaries and pastors better sit up and take notice. Francis Schaeffer, in the 70s, tried to do this in his little corner. It didn't work, but we learned later that he tied his wagon to organized religion and tried to revive the dead horse. About a month before he died, Schaeffer went to a Fundamental Baptist conference in the USA and said he was giving up on organized religions and big denominations. What a sad tale. He waited too long to do much good.

Preacher, who do you suppose you could reach for Christ by getting a little zeal up for Reformation music? Do you suppose someone up at the local University would take a liking to this, and perhaps you could get next to them with the Gospel? Bach was at war with the Whore Church in his Gospel teaching music. We dare not give an inch in that war, even in our music. Our family is down to just Reformed composers like Bach and Handel.

Thus, I was truly blessed when Dr. Ron Graeser of Michigan sent me this item. I hope it blesses you and gets you into this issue:



St. Thomas Church
Leipzig, Germany
Here Martin Luther
occasionally preached,
and Bach was choir master.

Drawing by Erwin Weber
See the artist's note below.






Johann Bach's Missionary Work Today

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

The famed German composer died 250 years ago, but his Christ-centered music is drawing international audiences to the faith.

Bach has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old, when my mother first took me to St. Thomas Church, Bach's primary workplace in Leipzig, Germany.

Every week we attended the Friday motet service or the Saturday cantata service, both sung by the church's famous boys choir, the Thomanerchor, which Bach once directed. The composer's portrait dominated the music room in my parents' apartment, where an amateur ensemble of local notables fiddled fugues once a month and where my mother sang "Willst du dein Herz mir Schenken," [will you send me your heart] a love song Bach wrote for Anna Magdalena, his second wife.

Now, 250 years after his death, an enormous Bach resurgence is underway-particularly in Japan. There, in one of the most unreligious countries in the world, thousands of people are converting to Christianity after listening to Bach's cantatas. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I was astounded at the enthusiasm there for music that seems to me to have such a specific, and alien, genesis.

My Japanese interpreter came to me one morning and said, "Let's hear some Bach to start the day." She pulled out the CD of the cantata Vergnugte Ruh, beliebte Seeleelust, [pleasurable peace, beloved soul's desire] whose lyrics say that God's real name is Love. "This has taught me what these two words mean to Christians," she said. "And I like it very much." The founder of the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, has said, "Bach is teaching us the Christian concept of hope." Yoshikazu Tokuzen of Japan's National Christian Council has called Bach "a vehicle of the Holy Spirit."

 

A COMPOSER WITHOUT HONOR

To judge by his international reputation today, one would never know how little regard Bach enjoyed in his own day. Bach was a municipal civil servant hired to oversee the music in four downtown Lutheran churches in Leipzig. At one point, he was responsible for writing a cantata every week, directing the Thomanerchor, [(St.) Thomas choir] and serenading visiting royalty. The visitors stayed in the Konigshaus [King's Inn] next door, and Bach and his musicians performed on the cobblestoned square below. The town's occupants were less than thrilled with the man whose compositions would be cherished centuries later.

Bach had not been their first choice, and after hiring him they grumbled about having to make do with "the mediocre" because "the best," Georg Philipp Telemann, had turned them down. Being governed by fools was no rarity for Leipzig. The most noteworthy exception was Lord Mayor Carl Goerdeler. Elected before Hitler came to power, Goerdeler resigned in 1937 after the Nazis blew up a monument to Felix Mendelssohn. The Leipzigers loved Mendelssohn, a Protestant of Jewish descent; it was thanks to his 1841 performance of the almost-forgotten St. Matthew Passion that the musical world was awakened to Bach's genius, and it was Mendelssohn who in 1842 founded Germany's first music conservatory which now bears his own name.

After his resignation, Goerdeler became the civilian head of Germany's conservative resistance against the Nazis; he was hanged shortly before the end of the war and is now revered as a local hero. Not so another Leipziger, Walter Ulbricht, the Last German party leader and creator of the Berlin Wall. Ulbricht loathed his hometown's bourgeois, academic and Christian way of life so much that he ordered the destruction of virtually every symbol of these traditions. Thousands of Leipzigers wept on May 30, 1968, when a blast of dynamite lifted a late-Gothic church off the ground. For a moment, the structure hung suspended in midair, before collapsing into a heap of rubble and dust.

The church's organ, built by Johann Scheibe and beloved by Bach- he claimed that it alone in all of Leipzig met his standards- perished along with the sanctuary. For the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Leipzig has treated itself to a new $1.2 million organ that resembles, at least in appearance, Scheib's murdered instrument. It has four manuals, 60 registers, and 4,800 pipes, and now dominates the northern balcony of the St. Thomas Church, opposite stained-glass windows dedicated to Luther, Bach and Mendelssohn. "It was our aim to create the perfect instrument for the performance of Bach's work," says Ullrich Bohme, the church's senior organist.

 

"THEOLOGY SET TO MUSIC"

As I sat in this stark but beautifully restored church, my mind wandered back to the early 1950s, when Ulbricht launched a singularly vicious attack against Fast Germany's Christians. I was on a Christmas break from my boarding school in West Germany and had gone to the New Year's Eve motet service. The Thomanerchor had finished singing, and everybody had already gotten up to leave.

Suddenly Gunther Ramin, then the cantor, went to the massive organ. Quite unexpectedly, he started to improvise on the wonderful hymn, "Abide, O Dearest Jesus." When he came to the point where the hymnal says, "Satan may not harm us; nor we to sin give place," he dispensed with all frills and let the instrument roar. This musical message sent shivers down our spine, for if there was one thing Leipzigers knew in those days, it was the Lutheran chorales.

No longer, claims Johannes Richter, recent dean at the St. Thomas Church. "Secularizing this part of Germany has been communism's only success. For many, the motet and cantata services are the only contact with our Christian traditions." Moreover, the few who have kept their faith have lost the lust to cheerfully belt out the chorales. They sit silent and embarrassed, moving their lips. Richter sees this refusal to sing as "a symptom of a national soul in disarray."

This is why Georg Christoph Biller, the 16th successor to Bach as cantor, states, matter-of-factly, "I am a missionary." In this belief he is joined by other musical luminaries in Leipzig, notably Herbert Blomstedt, the Swede who is Kurt Masur's successor as musical director of the Gewandhaus orchestra. "I am fully behind Biller," he says, "and I have discovered that Bach often provides a road to faith."

The road from Bach to faith- and from Tokyo to Leipzig- is well trafficked these days. The Japanese convert, then converge: They go to St. Thomas Church, in front of whose altar Bach is now buried. They follow the opulent liturgy performed by the Thomanerchor and Gewandhaus. They fill the classes of the Felix Mendelssohn academy.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a theologian; his compositions have been called "theology set to music." Twenty years ago, several members of the Thomanerchor told me that the composer worked as a missionary among them; today, Bach preaches to many more than just the choir. Musicologist Keisuke Maruyama once undertook the eccentric study of Lutheran lectionary cycles and how they influenced Bach's cantatas; it soon became more than merely an academic exercise. When Maryuama finished, he went to Johannes Richter and said, "It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me."

Uwe Siemon-Netto is a New York-based journalist and Lutheran theologian.

English translations of Bach's vocal works can be found at http://www.uvm.edu/~classics/faculty/bach/.


Artist Erwin Weber sent along the details about Luther and Bach and St. Thomas Church-- Very fascinating:

The research states that Luther preached in Leipzig four times:

The first time was in the old Pleissenburg on June 29, 1519 during the religious debate with Dr. John Eck, Catholic theologian from Ingolstadt in which Luther asserted that the Church may have erred when it convicted John Hus of heresy.

The second time was again at the old Pleissenburg (now the new City Hall}when the city became Protestant on May 24, 1539.

The third time Luther preached in St. Thomas Church on May 25, 1539. As you know, St. Thomas Church was part of the Augustinian Monastery in Leipzig since 1212 AD and had been renovated on numerous occasions.

The 4th and last time Luther preached at the Pauliner Church in Leipzig on August 12, 1545 six months before the great Reformer died on February 18. 1546.

Johann Sebastian Bach came to Leipzig in 1723 and was not only organist, choir director, and composer at St. Thomas Church, but also "poundet" the organ and directed the choir at St. Nikolai Church which was completed and dedicated on May 16, 1525. Bach carried out his duties at both churches in Leipzig until his death in 1750.

Erwin Weber

Editor: Balaam's Ass Speaks-- We appreciate Dr. Erwin Weber allowing us to post his drawing of the church and his observations.