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Johann Sebastian Bach: A Model for Christian Excellence

By Martin G. Selbrede
January 01, 2010


Vulnerability. To dismiss the possibility of it makes it all the more certain. To dismiss a specific vulnerability because it appears too insignificant to bother with has inspired ancient myths and legends as well as modern novels and movies. This universal theme is no less universally played out in real life despite centuries of warnings and cautionary tales handed down to us. Man foolishly weighs his vulnerabilities on the largest of scales, forgetting that a little leaven leavens the whole lump.

The concept of the Achilles heel has entered our language in cognizance of this recurring problem. King Ahab was mortally wounded when a Syrian arrow, shot apparently at random, hit its unlikely mark between the joints of the king’s harness (1 Kings. 22:34), making it through the proverbial chink in the armor.

This theme of a small, neglected, vulnerable point leading to the fall of the mighty can easily be seen in movies like Star Wars, Independence Day, and many others.

In Icelandic mythology, the Norse god Odin ordered all material objects—stones, metals, elements, animals, trees, animate or inanimate—to swear an oath not to harm his son Baldr, who had been threatened by the cleverly sinister Loki. During the oathtaking ceremony, Loki notices that the lowly mistletoe was passed by as being too insignificant to bother with. Once all the oaths have been collected, a throwing game ensues, with various gods hurling deadly objects at Baldr, all of which consistently bounce off him harmlessly or divert around him. Nothing can harm Baldr, and the mood during the game is festive.

Then Loki invites Baldr’s blind brother to participate in the throwing game with the rest of the gods, even helping him out by handing him a weapon made out of—you guessed it—mistletoe. Baldr’s death is shocking yet predictable.

Loki—the Satan figure in Norse mythology—understood how to look for the hole in a person’s armor, the weak link in the chain. Our own adversary, like his fictional Norse counterpart, is equally adept at finding the various modern forms of mistletoe that we’ve failed to deal with. It isn’t without cause that the epistle of James informs us that to break one commandment is to break the entire law of God (James 2:10). The book of Lamentations was occasioned by the death of Josiah, Israel’s most godly king, who decided to play international policeman and intercept an Egyptian incursion into Charchemish (2 Chron. 35:20–25), an action that seemed right to Josiah but one that exceeded his lawful authority (Deut. 17:16).

The generally lawless mindset of modern Christendom evokes a forest of self-inflicted mistletoe upon which we’ve stumbled. It is worth highlighting a different implication of the mistletoe problem, however. What if, in a given field or discipline, someone had developed his area so completely that there was no mistletoe to be found—no weaknesses, only absolute iron solidity? And what if we Christians were not only unaware of this achievement (by a fellow Christian), but out of ignorance were contributing to the loss of it (in other words, bringing a mistletoe-like vulnerability in through the backdoor)?

The individual who meets these criteria is the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), whose Biblical worldview is so clearly revealed in his handiwork and craftsmanship that the spiritual descendants of Loki have worked themselves to death trying to find a sprig of mistletoe to skewer Bach with. Finding none, they have shifted their strategies—and modern Christians are well on their way to becoming the mistletoe by which Bach’s achievement may end up being lost to us.

Bach the Master Artisan

Throughout mankind’s struggle for artistic excellence, a few individuals scattered through the centuries have made marks so indelibly definitive that none can fail to recognize that they have finally soared to the very height of their art. Their final works display no hint of the tentative, the provisional, the experimental, or the imperfect. Such works leave their hands as ultimate capstones complete in themselves, revealing an order more divine than human in both concept and execution. Such works become plumb lines against which others must inevitably be measured.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach falls into this category. Bach’s subconscious recognition of this fact was shown in his last works, on which German composer Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) anchors his intriguing argument that Bach had become so confidently facile at solving the most intellectually complex musical challenges with such ease that Bach came to realize that there were no more frontiers to explore or musical “kingdoms to conquer”: he had already achieved the ultimate in his art form.1 Hindemith infers this from the uncharacteristically melancholy temper of the final two years of Bach’s output, and mounts a strong case to buttress his perspective. The fact that no contrapuntist2 since Bach has even come close to matching Bach’s capability suggests that the Master may indeed have been one of a kind. When Bach flew into the musical heaven of his own making, he flew solo.

Not surprisingly, the word “masterpiece” is associated with much of Bach’s output. But some of his masterpieces seem to have been unlikely recipients of so high an appellation. Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue), a massive pedagogical study on how to write fugues, was intended to guide students of counterpoint through a host of available techniques for effective composition. It still stands at the pinnacle of Western art, arguably higher than pieces self-consciously designed to secure so immodest a reputation (e.g., Wagner’s Ring cycle, Scriabin’s Prefatory Action, etc.). Bach came to the point that virtually anything he did, however trivial, manifested a level of craftsmanship and genius so far above the reach of his peers that he became incapable of writing a mediocre page of music.

The factors contributing to Bach’s apparently unrepeatable achievement are probably beyond crass enumeration (as if they could actually be quantified), and it would surely be unhelpful to keep affixing the term “genius” on Bach and his work, since so ineffable a concept as applied to Bach would quickly lose meaning from overuse. But singling out a few components of Bach’s art for the sake of focus will at least bring the discussion within a scope sufficiently narrow to permit unambiguous analysis.

The religious basis for Bach’s artistry at the theological foundation supplies useful clues in understanding the nature of the forces shaping Bach’s work. He was an Orthodox Lutheran steeped in Calvinistic theology. Regarded by many as the “fifth Evangelist,” his devotion to the Christian faith was well-attested, but there have been revisionist efforts to secularize him, most notably at the 1962 Festival of the International Bach Society.3 More careful research has swung the pendulum back most of the way by acknowledging “that Bach was a pious but not fanatical Lutheran who considered the performance of every duty to be in the service of God …”4

Bach saw himself as an artisan, and said so. “I have had to work hard; anyone who works just as hard will get just as far.”5 He saw in musical themes raw material ready for elaboration in accord with a very rigorous system of thought. Bach’s son, Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, “reported … that when Father Bach had heard the beginning of a fugue he would at once state ‘what contrapuntal devices it would be possible to apply, and which of them the composer by rights ought to apply.’”6

Being an artisan, he put a premium on teaching, and his standards were quite high. “In teaching composition, he saw to it that his pupils did not compose at the instrument. They were to learn a spiritual craft and a mental discipline, not just a manual technique.” Bach practiced what he preached, churning out masterpieces like a one-man musical factory. “Bach … wrote down his compositions without hesitation. He seems to have made no sketches, and he rarely changed what he had written. His holographs radiate the calm assurance of a man who was never in doubt about what he wanted and how to achieve it.”7 “He sought perfection increasingly in the utmost consistency of logic and construction. This last phase of his inner development led to the composition of The Art of the Fugue—one of the loftiest accomplishments of the human mind.”8 “Every bit of evidence that comes down to us from his own time makes it clear that he looked upon himself primarily as a capable workman, conscientiously attending to his duties.”9

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Bach’s music can be reduced to a single word: purpose. Commentators for more than a century have declared his music to be the most purposive written, each work constituting a study in inexorable forward motion. This was not merely a manifestation of baroque “energy,” which suffused the work of Bach’s contemporaries as well, for Bach’s music used the prevailing kineticism of the era as a mere point of departure. His work was the embodiment of the principle of linear time, of progress “from a clear-cut beginning to a fore-ordained end.”10  Bach’s work is, in fact, the ultimate musical expression of the linear view of history.

Bach’s Biblical Worldview Applied to Music

Consider the preceding four aspects of Bach’s work: Christian faith, artisanship, purposiveness, and total commitment to working out the implications of linear progression in time. All of these are key elements of a Biblical worldview, which demands that everything, however mundane, must be done as to the Lord, that composers are not artists but artisans, that their work should infallibly reflect the overarching purpose God has imprinted on every atom of His universe, extending to the purpose of the entire ensemble itself as time and the universe move toward their final consummation.

Modern musical analysis, being erected on a secular foundation, has taken several different approaches to these components of Bach’s worldview. The more charitable analysts, in an effort to maintain some contextual objectivity, report the evidence as it stands, allowing the reader to draw his/her own conclusion about the validity or relevance of Bach’s philosophical orientation as a “child of his time.” Others have simply narrowed their analyses to the point that these aspects of Bach’s aesthetic model are never touched upon—which is tantamount to working around the problem. Finally, the most consistent theorists, working from a solid humanistic base, have called for the overthrow of Bach precisely because his music, from a secular point of view, is simply beyond redemption. In other words, there can be no peace between conflicting worldviews, and the only options from the consistent humanist standpoint are destruction or surrender. Had Bach’s worldview been less rigorously Biblical, had his achievement been mediocre, the humanists wouldn’t have been pushed to these extreme choices, but they recognize the nature of the life-and-death struggle between their worldview and ours. Unlike far too many Christians, they are willing to act consistently with their worldview.

Destroying Bach

British musical theorist Christopher Small has issued an appeal to destroy Bach, an appeal made on philosophical grounds. He does not limit his call for iconoclasm to Bach alone, believing that all masterpieces need smashing. But his open condemnation of Western notions of linear time, progress, and purpose make it clear that the worst offender among the Western composers is none other than Bach himself. Small seeks a very clear alternative for the status quo:  “What is needed is a new concept of value that transcends western hierarchical thinking.”11  Agreeing with composer Harry Partch, Small sees “the development of polyphony, of tonal harmony, and of the large, abstract forms based on them … as a distortion of the essential reality of music,”12 so that by abandoning Bach’s music and its concomitants, “western music could learn to take a large step towards rejoining the musical community of the human race.”13 The underlying key is “liberation from the Protestant Ethic,”14 for which Small provides a blueprint in the works of Claude Debussy.

“What Debussy did, in fact, was to liberate European music from sequential logic.”15 Small sees in the “precisely calculated … Bach fugue” a very clear “urge to domination” that needed to be rejected and fought against. This redemption involves “liberati[on] …  from the cramped worldview imposed by the beliefs of the Christian Church, which insisted that its sacred events be placed in a strictly historical context instead of the limitless time of myth,”16 which in turn overthrows “the ethic of mastery”17 evidenced in works such as Bach’s, which subserve “the Old Testament idea of Jahweh as divine lawgiver to the whole of the universe.”18 Debussy’s work, on the other hand, “remains firmly in the present, to be experienced moment by moment … Debussy repulsed all hierarchy except the musical event itself … [He] expressed a refusal to acknowledge existing harmonic hierarchies as the unique data of the world of sound.”19

Small’s call for iconoclasm is hardly wimpy: 

The Greeks who sacked Troy, the soldiers of the Commonwealth who smashed the cathedral windows and those of Henry VIII who razed the monasteries may have had a truer concept of the function and the power of art than the most assiduous preservationists.20
Even the music of Bach and of Beethoven will one day have served its time and die, and that day may be closer than we think. In our love for the processes of art and of life we should be prepared to let them go. New life can be created only if enough space is left by the old, as the world’s present desperate state of overpopulation, largely brought about by the western refusal to face the fact of death, demonstrates so tragically; new art, likewise, can flower only when people can see and hear it with eyes and ears uncommitted to earlier masterpieces.”21

This is quite far removed from Andre Malraux’s dictum concerning art’s eternal victory over the human condition!

Small ties in a culture’s worldview to its musical technique, finding fault with both in the instance of Bach and Western music:

The logical transparency of this music parallels the vision of nature held by practitioners of second science, as does the emphasis laid on the subduing of the sound materials (the latter a metaphor for the subduing of nature herself) by the composer, and his view of those materials as so much recalcitrant matter to be worked on, shaped and put in order by the power of human will and intellect. A composer’s attitude to his sound materials in any culture is a fair indicator of that culture’s attitude to nature …  and so scientist and artist alike come to view themselves as if they were soldiers in the service of order against chaos … A desire, even a need, for mastery runs through our culture.22

In short, the Biblical worldview underlying Bach’s work is an unfit foundation upon which to erect anything of value, because it contaminates anything constructed upon its intrinsic conception of man and nature.

Small’s agenda as a musicologist is clear, and is itself derived from a distinct worldview: pantheism. He marshals evidence from existential philosophers to drive nails into the “western” doctrine of “linear time,” directs specific insults at the dominion covenant of Genesis 1:26–28, attacks hierarchical thinking from a radical socialist perspective, and calls for a revolution in the arts to restore “magic” and “myth” to the art form. He even explicitly defends the practice of idolatry at length.23

The great value in Small’s analysis is that, being a consistent theoretician, he points out implications that his comrades overlook or ignore. He makes no bones about the fact that Bach’s achievements are the result of the adoption of a Biblical worldview, a linear view of time, an ethic of mastery, a commitment to Biblical dominion over raw materials, and the Protestant work ethic,24 any one of which would be sufficient grounds to condemn Bach’s work to oblivion. His vision of a new society (which is almost verbatim the name of the fifth chapter of his book) is sufficiently broad as to include music in its prescriptions. His “out with the old, in with the new” line of thinking targets many composers, but Bach’s offenses are truly legion.

The undisputed fact remains that Bach casts an extraordinarily long shadow. “Without knowing it, he divided music history into two basic periods: pre-Bach and post-Bach. And in the post-Bach era he is a perpetual presence.”25 Christopher Small and like-minded theorists bristle at this presence in the name of their own philosophy of music and its place in culture. While most of these individuals have advocated that our generation simply turn its back on Bach and move forward in terms of its own presuppositions, Small recognizes the danger in permitting this giant to linger in the background. One need only recall that Bach’s work had undergone an historic resuscitation once before at the hands of Felix Mendelssohn. Bach could prove to be like Godzilla, returning from repeated destructions for a string of return engagements.

In promoting a rigorously humanistic agenda, Small takes care not to underestimate the power of his opponent. Thus, banishment is deemed inadequate: consignment to total perdition alone will do. For cosmetic reasons, Small invokes soothing metaphors about letting Bach die with dignity, as if some perverse cultural machinery had been keeping the Master’s music on artificial life support for several centuries.26

But if Bach Proves Indestructible …

If Bach is firmly entrenched and incapable of being dislodged from our Western musical culture, various humanistic worldviews have another tactic to employ: redefine Bach as a champion for their worldview. In other words, simply rewrite history and put Bach in their back pockets while Christians snooze their hard-won heritage away.

Dr. Susan McClary advocated such an approach to Bach in 1987. Humanists like McClary don’t even try to hide their strategy of seizing Bach for their own worldview, as evidenced in her article “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year”27:

[A]t the same time that [Bach’s] music shapes itself in terms of bourgeois ideology (its goal orientation, obsessive control of greater and greater spans of time, its willful striving, delayed gratification and defiance of norms), it often cloaks that ideology by putting it at the service of an explicit theology. The tonal procedures developed by the emerging bourgeoisie to articulate their sense of the world here become presented as what we, in fact, want to believe they are: eternal, universal truths. It is no accident that the dynasty of Great (bourgeois) Composers begins with Bach, for he gives the impression that our way of representing the world musically is God-given. Thereafter, tonality can retain its aura of absolute perfection (“the way music goes”) in its native secular habitat. This sleight of hand earned Bach the name “the fifth evangelist”… I would propose the age-old strategy of rewriting the tradition in such a way as to appropriate Bach to our own political ends.

Such manipulation of Bach and his contemporaries is explicitly advocated by Marxists, as revealed at length in my article “The Day the Music Died,” published in this periodical in March 2001. One example from that earlier essay should be sufficient to prove that worldviews are predatory mountains on the move, seeking whom they may devour (Bach included):

An organization called Ultra-red, founded in 1994, explicitly “radicalizes the conventions of electro-acoustic and ambient music to explore acoustic space as enunciative of social relations.” As their mission statement declares, “Ultra-red has developed projects around a variety of urban ambiences including needle exchange (Soundtrax, 1996), public sex (Second Nature, 1999), public housing (Structural Adjustments, 2000), issues around globalization (Value System, work in progress) and labor.” Feminist McClary isn’t the only scholar issuing radical manifestos.
Ultra-red’s founders concede, “Our starting point, as it has been for many contemporary artists and thinkers of sound, was Jacques Attali’s seminal text, Noise: the Political Economy of Music. And yet our interest in Attali, unlike new musicologists like Susan McClary, John Mowitt, Stephen Leppert, Rosa Subotnik and Jeffery Walser, did not lead us toward a reformulation of Theodor Adorno’s sociology of music as an end in itself. Consonant with Marx’s call to change the world, Adorno felt the true task for music, its radical potential was its capacity to transform history.” In thick, academic prose more daunting than Van Til to read, the Ultra-red scholar-musicians laud Marx and Lenin, explain how music can crush capital, develop a post-Cagean “materialism of music,” and codify an impressively elaborate activist programme for realizing “revolution on the edge of music.” No current Christian alternative to this is in evidence.28

Marxist and humanist worldviews that recognize Bach to be indestructible simply assimilate Bach and spit him back out as one of them. This moving of ancient landmarks must be halted, and it falls to men and women committed to a Biblical worldview to prevent the illicit seizure of precious Christian capital.

Of course, Christians have been remiss in developing that capital any further than Bach did—and this vacuum is the reason for the saber-rattling we hear from pantheists like Small, humanists like McClary, and Marxists like the Ultra-red contingent. Our own slothfulness in the field of music, our unwillingness to truly apply a Biblical worldview as Bach did to music, is the source of the very mistletoe we are putting into our enemies’ hands.

Receiving ten talents and giving the Lord five back in return is not a strategy for dominion, it is a strategy for a slaughter—and a suicidal one at that.

Follow the Seven Eyes

In Zechariah 4:10 we read that the seven eyes of God are all focused on a piece of tin (a plummet, or plumb-line stone) in the hand of Zerubbabel. It is highly significant that God chooses (anthropomorphically speaking) to focus His attention on that tin stone. Why should that particular tool be so important to God? It’s the least of the tools in terms of expense or difficulty of constructing it: tie string to a piece of tin, and you’re ready to use the plummet. Yet God fixes His gaze, His attention, on that particular tool, rather than on the hammers, chisels, or other tools used to erect the rebuilt temple.

The purpose of the plummet is to determine whether the stones are being assembled properly: it verifies that the temple is being built straight and true. By implication, whatever (and whoever) functions today to insure that God’s Kingdom is being built straight and true, is being assembled properly according to the pattern revealed, is likely to be where God rests His penetrating gaze and reposes His intense interest. A stone of tin pleases Him when it is used to build things straight—no matter how modest such a piece of tin may be in itself.

Bach’s enemies on the worldview front recognize that his work forms a plumb line that must either be destroyed entirely or absorbed into their rebellious, autonomous systems of thought. They regard the piece of tin that Bach represents with keen interest, recognizing both its value and danger. They are willing to rally their troops to deal with that tin stone, oblivious of the fact that God’s seven eyes are focused upon it.

But until Christians take Bach as seriously as non-Christians do, there will be no more building of His Kingdom from a musical point of view, because there is no longer anyone holding the string to use the tin stone properly for building music straight and true. That tin stone has been lying on the ground for a couple of centuries, its string coiled loosely around it, and only God’s enemies show any serious interest in it (either to melt it down or steal it).

In the meantime, Christians have spent decades growing mistletoe gardens and wonder why the culture has been lost, particularly on the musical front. It is time to reverse this trend. It is time to reassert the Biblical worldview intrinsic to Bach’s achievement (a worldview acknowledged by God’s enemies every time they analyze this composer). It is time to begin building again with this particular plummet, the work of our brother in Christ, Johann Sebastian Bach.

“They that shall be of Thee shall build …” (Isa. 58:12).

1. Hindemith, Paul, Johann Sebastian Bach (Mainz: Schott & Sons, 1955), 58.

2. A contrapuntist is an expert in musical counterpoint, the weaving of two or more independent melodic lines together into a coherent whole.

3. David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel, The Bach Reader (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972), 422.

4. Ibid, 423.

5. Ibid, 37.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid, 40.

9. Ibid, 43.

10. Small, Christopher J., Music • Society • Education (London: John Caldwell Publishers Ltd.,  1980), 36.

11. Ibid, 150.

12. Ibid, 155.

13. Ibid, 157.

14. Ibid, 170.

15. Ibid, 106.

16. Ibid, 68.

17. Ibid, 70.

18. Ibid, 73.

19. Ibid, 106–107.

20. Ibid, 92–93.

21. Ibid, 93.

22. Ibid, 83.

23. Ibid, 63–63.

24. Ibid, 48.

25. Smith, Jane Stuart, A Gift of Music (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1978), 43.

26. Ironically, it is contemporary serious music, particularly that which long ago turned its back on the tonal principles championed by Bach, that is presently on artificial life support. Subsidized by government grants, orchestral commissions, academic scholarships, and prestigious composition awards, composers of modern music produce their abstruse works in a cultural vacuum, “preaching to the choir” by winning accolades solely from their immediate peers, who alone seem to appreciate their handiwork. Should any bolt from the ranks by writing something that appealed to a mass audience, the resulting denunciations would be deafening. To the true modernist, writing music in anything other than the harshest idiom constitutes a sellout.

27. Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (Cambridge University Press: 1987), edited by Susan McClary and Richard Leppert. McClary gained notoriety for her phallocentric interpretation of Beethoven’s work (see reference in note 28 below for further documentation of McClary’s views). The radical nature of her pronouncements didn’t seem to harm her ability to win prestigious grants in support of her feminist approach to music.

28. Selbrede, Martin, “The Day the Music Died,” Chalcedon Report (now called Faith for All of Life), March 2001.


Topics: Biblical Law, Media / Arts

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

More by Martin G. Selbrede