Before NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that sending music to space would convey an essential truth about our species to any inhabitants of distant worlds. The biologist Lewis Thomas answered Sagan's request for ideas on possible music with this famous remark: "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." He paused before adding, "But that would be boasting."
Humanity opted to boast. While we did not include Bach's entire oeuvre, he is the most represented composer on the so-called “Golden Record” sent with Voyager, which reportedly left our solar system about one year ago.
That Bach's music was later deemed an emblematic achievement of our species would have shocked his contemporaries. He was in many ways a provincial composer situated in the specific religious and musical traditions of German Lutheranism in the early 18th century. This seemed to be Nietzsche's sentiment in 1878 when he wrote, “In Bach there is too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude scholasticism. At the threshold of modern European music... he is always looking back toward the Middle Ages.” The tension between the transcendent appeal of Bach's music and its more humble origins is a major theme in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a compelling new biography by conductor John Eliot Gardiner.
Though Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton had already offered satisfying secular explanations for a range of earthly and celestial phenomena, Bach's education in the late 17th and early 18th century was still thoroughly religious. He recited by rote key points of Lutheran doctrine, read selected classical authors from a theological vantage, and even learned basic numeracy in relation to Scripture. The celebrated mathematical structures and symmetries of his music, in other words, do not seem to flow directly from his formal education.
Contemporary lovers of Bach's music often tend to ignore the religious content and conviction that animates many of his greatest works. It's common to assume that Bach wrote extraordinary music despite the limitations and superstitions of his time; maybe his lifelong role as a church organist, cantor, and composer merely provided an impetus to compose and a salary. So was Bach a visionary struggling against the stifling provincialism of his circumstances, or did a life of limited travel and deep immersion in religious texts nourish and motivate his compositions? Gardiner suggests an answer that subtly combines these stark possibilities.
The idea that religious music must also be conservative and dull was challenged as early as the 16th century when Martin Luther asked why the Devil should have all the good tunes. Luther saw the utility of music largely in terms of its capacity to express the themes and stories of the Bible, but he also realized that the power of music could often eclipse the eloquence of words. "The notes make the words live," he wrote.
Bach could sometimes imbue words with alarming vitality. His cantatas offer musical depictions of nails being driven into the flesh of Christ, the trembling conscience of a sinner, and the sounds of howling and chattering teeth, to name a few examples. The cantatas also conjure pus, boils, and sin; one opens with the words "my heart swims in blood, for sin's brood turns me into a monster in God's eyes." Though his themes and imagery were religious and conservative, Bach was wildly innovative in his musical techniques. "God save us, my children," an old woman exclaimed in horror at the premiere of his St. John Passion, "it's just as if one were present at an opera comedy." Though opera was clearly a byword for daring and radical music, many of the operatic composers of Bach's day now seem hopelessly conventional. His religious music, by contrast, continues to startle and move listeners around the world.
Contrary to Nietzsche's complaint, Bach's music could shock with the disruptive force of its novelty and dramatic power. Gardiner makes a compelling case that this is true not despite but because of Bach's deep engagement with religious texts. The Gospels furnished him with some of the universal themes that have obsessed novelists and philosophers in every age: the nature of good and evil and the human wavering between faith and doubt, hope and despair. If his goal were merely to earn a living by composing church music, we might expect to find him doing the bare minimum to meet his official obligations while saving the majority of his innovations for secular genres. But throughout his life, he composed far more religious works than his church duties required, and many of these were dazzling in complexity and originality. Indeed, his stated goal as a composer was to create "a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God."
He was so committed to this aim that he was even willing to offend his employers if they interfered with its realization. When Bach returned from a four-month trip spent studying with a famous organist, his employers pointed out that he had only requested a month's leave and demanded to know why he had been absent so long. "In order to comprehend one thing and another about [my] art," was his unabashed reply. Since his goal was to write music that glorified God, even church officials could be ignored when they obstructed his progress.
Religion also seems to have provided him with personal consolations as well as musical inspiration. In Leipzig, he composed amid the din and disorder of a rowdy school where the boys did things like burn mice over candles and leave their remains on teachers' chairs. He also had to endure the frequent boredom and incomprehension of churchgoers, many of whom arrived late, talked loudly, read newspapers, or even brought dogs to services. Certain lines from the cantatas acquire new meaning in this context. The repeated command “be silent” seems to speak directly to noisy listeners and captures the feistier side of Bach, while the line "I am content with the office the dear God has allotted me" reflects acceptance of the many obstacles that made the fulfillment of his life's work difficult.
Gardiner presents a nuanced account of the constellation of personal, musical, religious, and cultural forces that shaped Bach's astonishing body of compositions. He writes with the care of a scholar, the knowledge of an expert musician, and the passion of a believer (in Bach if nothing else).
One consistent strain throughout Bach's life was the ubiquity of death. His parents both died when he was only nine, and 12 of his 20 children died in infancy. By dramatizing through music the basic human need to seek the meaning of death, Bach explored themes that are just as universal as the musical language he pioneered to express them. A few months after he lost a child in 1726, he wrote "BWV 27," a cantata that opens with these words: "Who knows how near is my end? Time goes by, death approaches."
Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.