Encouragement from Bach

by Peter Hilliard

"So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up." – Galatians 6:9 (NRSV)

For many musicians, especially church musicians, a chasm opens between the training and the practice of their art. Professional training involves deep study of great music literature, the refinement of musical taste, and the attainment of a high playing standard. “This is what playing to the glory of God is really all about,” we think as we enter the real world. But in that real world, church musicians encounter harsh realities. The ideal sound we were hoping for is nearly unattainable. The hard work we put into our playing passes unnoticed. Our diligence assembling meaningful worship falls on undiscerning ears. And, at times, there are those who stand opposed to our goals.

Faced with these obstacles, we despair. Our musical heroes seem to be from a better time, a time when the church’s musical values allowed people like Bach to flourish! Recently, I have taken comfort in looking at Bach’s reality, which was more like today than I ever imagined.

  • Bach’s colleagues in ministry changed his hymn choices without his consent.

“The subdeacon of St. Nicholas’s…has taken it upon himself to attempt an innovation and has sought, in place of the hymns chosen in accordance with the established use, to introduce others, and when I hesitated, because of possible consequences to be feared, to comply with this, he lodged a complaint against me with the Most Worshipful Consistory, and worked out an order addressed to me by the terms of which I should have to cause to be sung whatever hymns the preacher should choose…” –Bach’s letter to the council, September 20, 1728

  • He had to wait to get paid.

We have letters from Bach begging superiors to intervene so that he could be paid for special services he had played months earlier.

  • People arrived late, left early, and talked during important parts of the service.

In John Eliot Gardiner’s recent book on Bach, we learn that Leipzig churches were “quite empty” at the start of services, ushers were needed to keep people from leaving “like cattle” after the sermon, and fashionable people arrived late in order to be seen (just in time to disrupt proceedings exactly at the moment Bach’s cantata would have been performed). The central corpus of Bach’s work had to contend with parishioners talking, sleeping, and reading newspapers during the service. Gardiner suggests this may explain some of the dramatic openings of Bach’s cantatas—musical attempts to awaken dozing parishioners.

  • The musicians Bach had to work with were not up to his standard.

There is an important document in Bach scholarship from 1720: Short, But Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music, With Certain Modest Reflections on the Decline of the Same. Scholars use this to determine the ideal number of singers and instrumentalists Bach intended for his music. But a more direct way to read it is as a depressing note to Bach’s superiors enumerating how few competent musicians were available to him:

“The number of persons appointed to play the church music is eight…Modesty forbids me to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that they are partly emeriti, and partly not at all in such practice as they should be.”
“Moreover, it cannot remain unmentioned that the fact that so many poorly equipped boys, and boys not at all talented for music, have been accepted to date has necessarily caused the music to decline and deteriorate.…”

He later tallies 17 usable boys, 20 not yet usable, and 17 unfit. A year earlier, he had programmed the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday!

I don’t mean to imply that Bach handled all these situations well; we can safely assume he did not. But it should encourage us to consider Bach’s point of view. With all these obstacles and a complicated home life, Bach must have felt discouraged and underappreciated. And yet, his impact on church music is astounding. Bach’s faithfulness to his calling echoes into every conservatory in the world, preaching the gospel musically as “The Fifth Evangelist.”

Like Bach, you and I will not know the extent of our impact in this world. We have only to be faithful in using our gifts for God’s glory. May God grant us grace, especially during this busy time of year, to leave the results of our labors in God’s gracious hands.

Posted on Dec 3, 2018 5:11:38 PM
Filed Under: Choral Techniques and Repertoire,

Peter Hilliard

Written by Peter Hilliard

Peter Hilliard holds degrees from the San Francisco Conservatory and NYU, and he is Music Director of Villanova University’s Graduate Theatre Program. He is also Minister of Music at Berachah Church in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania and music director of Philadelphia’s Savoy Company, the oldest company in the world dedicated to performing Gilbert and Sullivan.