The Fifth Evangelist


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. . . . . --- Conversion of Scott Hahn --- Chesterton - - - C.S. Lewis - - - Quo Vadis Film (1951)

FIRST and foremost, Bach was a brilliant musician, a virtuoso such as the world had never seen before. Everybody is moved by these melodies: and that's quite something for a Baroque composer.

A rare combination of vitality and piety, and a feeling for structure: -- something Bach always has.

Bach always gives room, to feel that you are now in a dialogue with something that is linked to existential matters.

Vita Christi --- Bach, The Fifth Evangelist

HERE, at St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach was the cantor, almost three centuries ago, and it was for this church that he composed some of his greatest music. Each year, Leipzig celebrates her most famous son with the Bach Festival.

The opening concert is relayed to the market square. Public concerts were held here even in Bach's time. Now it is the central venue of the annual Bach Festival, where, for ten days, Bach's music is played from morning to night. More than 100 concerts draw music lovers from all over the world to Leipzig, and the local residents celebrate their Bach.

The theme of this year's festival was the "Vita Christi," the life of Christ, retold in oratorios, masses and cantatas. This program began with the cantata Wachet Auf, performed by the St. Thomas' Boys Choir.

"Bach is my favorite classical composer by far. I enjoy playing and listening to him."

"It's where I come from and why I became a musician."

"I come from Leipzig; I grew up here, and Bach belongs to Leipzig. St. Thomas' Church -- where else was he so active?"

Johann Sebastian Bach was 38 when he arrived in Leipzig in 1723. He was already a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist, and had been music director at the courts of Weimar and Kurten, but he had not yet won fame as a composer. In Leipzig he was responsible for composing and performing music at the city's four main churches. No one guessed at that time that he would become the most important musician of his generation, and the most influential composer in history.

"He is the foundation for most musicians today, whether jazz specialists or rock musicians. In their childhood they all wanted to know Bach, and many of them draw on him, including modern composers, whether they come from China or Japan, America or Australia, they know Bach's music, and that is tremendous. You don't find that anywhere else.

"I hope that I can show my affection for Bach without playing him. This is a jazz spot, so it is improvisation and my themes, but still they are so much related also to Bach, since I try to give the audience some examples of what are the written themes of Bach, and how they can influence on the composer of today -- the way of taking.

This is also part of the Bach Festival -- a late-night jazz club. Bach's music continues to influence all genres, from orchestral music to jazz and pop. The Norwegian pianist and composer Ketil Bjornstad, is inspired by the clearest expression of Bach's musicality, his invention of brilliant melodies that can be developed in countless variations. More than any other composer, Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have created a universal language that speaks to everyone. There is something mysteriously comforting about a Bach fugue. His Christian faith was the source of his music, and when people hear Bach, many sense something transcendental.

"Bach is on the limit of expression actually of what a human person can do, but what a sacred thing is, that is of course a mystery, and that could be also a very personal answer on that, because we have different answers, and I think that in the musical docket, the questions are also the answers, even if you don't understand what the answers are. "

When Bach arrived here in 1723, Leipzig was a flourishing center of commerce and learning. The city's spiritual heart was Saint Thomas's Church. Its cantors represented Leipzig's devotion to music, and they enjoyed great prestige. Bach conducted the church choir for 27 years, until his death in 1750.

The cantor's duties included teaching at St. Thomas's school, next door to the church. "Bach lived at the school, and his first task of the day was to wake the boys at six in the morning. School began at seven. He had choir practice every day at eleven. Before that, he gave the boys music lessons individually, and again in the afternoon. In addition, as time allowed, he taught private pupils, composed, and prepared the music for the next Sunday, so he had quite a workload."

Last year the St. Thomas' Boys Choir celebrated its 800th anniversary. With Bach's music, it has become world-famous. The choir comprises some one hundred choristers, between the ages of 9 and 18. The conductor is Georg Christoph Biller. He is the sixteenth cantor since Bach.

"For us, the Bach Festival is never ending. Bach permeates our program. We perform a Bach cantata once a week, and more frequently during the festivals. It's a lot of work, but it's great music, and we enjoy it."

The choristers are about to rehearse the Cum Sancto Spiritu, an amazing chorus from the B-Minor Mass. Bach intended this to sound like a choir of angels, singing praise to the Holy Spirit. "Every great composer wrote one mass, to express his consummate skill as a musician and as a thinker, and Bach was no exception."

Bach worked on this composition for more than twenty years. Today it is regarded as the epitome of his art. "Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the B-Minor Mass in 1733, and performed them the same year. This movement was the climax. The dramatic closing, the changing of chords at the end, and the repetitions, are characteristic of how he emphasizes a conclusion."

"We always perform the B flat Mass at the end of the Bach Festival. It's very appropriate, because it provides a short summary of the life of Christ, and of salvation history in the Credo, from the birth of Jesus to his ascension and reigning in glory."

Over the centuries theologians have proclaimed God to humanity, trying to offer explanations and proof. Bach enters into dialogue with humanity; he leads us into unimagined spiritual realms, into realities for which words are often too cumbersome; you don't have to be religious to be moved by Bach's music; but many people would ascribe a mysterious spiritual beauty to it.

"It's hard to describe; the intellect cannot grasp it. you can explain lots of things with your mind; you can describe a fugue or explain the technical aspects, but the point is that someone who doesn't have any musical education can still be moved by Bach; he unites us all."

Luther's reformation had taken place 200 years earlier. The German states were still deeply divided along confessional lines. Bach was firmly rooted in Protestantism. "Religion played a significant role in Bach's life, as in every Lutheran's life. It was a very uniform society. There were virtually no atheists, no dissidents; there were virtually no Catholics in central Germany; and everyone went to church on Sunday, often twice. There were also weekday services, and church music played a significant role in people's lives. In Bach's, it had pride of place."

Bach was a man for whom the experience of God was an existential reality. His music bears witness to that at various levels. "The purpose of music in the 18th century was: docere, movere, delectare, to teach, move and delight. With those elements of Baroque music, one proclaimed the word of God to the congregation. That's all there was to church music. That view was uncontested in the 18th century, and Bach was completely a man of his time."

As cantor of St. Thomas's Church, Bach was also responsible for the music at Leipzig's second most important parish, Saint Nicholas's Church. Week after week, he performed cantatas that he had composed for the Sunday service. With his Stuttgart chamber choir and the Stuttgart court orchestra, conductor Frieder Barius presented the Cantata Christ Lag In Todes Bunden, at this year's festival. It was originally performed by Bach himself on Easter Sunday, 1707.

"I come from a family where I encountered Bach as a young lad, a pastor's family. I chose not to become a pastor myself, but a musician. Nevertheless, the subject is the same. I'm convinced that Bach is the greatest musician. However, I think that if you can appreciate this masterpiece, and text as well, that Christ is risen, there is nothing greater. I believe it is possible to make this music convincing for somebody who doesn't believe, as well as for somebody who does."

The libretto of this cantata is based on one of Luther's hymns. It's about the resurrection, the subject of Easter.

Long after Bach's death, his work was acclaimed as the Fifth Gospel, and he himself was called the Fifth Evangelist. This description would have pleased him. As Jesus Christ is the subject of the gospels, He is also at the heart of Bach's music.

"Bach's music is always evangelical, proclaiming the word. He worked very hard on the text, putting them together, he combined them very consciously, and then set them to music in a way that interprets and emphasizes the meaning of the word, and the meaning behind it with powerful rhetorical effects."

Right: St. Thomas's Church, Leipzig

Another movement from the cantata Christus Lag in Todes Bunden, proclaiming Christ's triumph over death.

Parallel to the musical presentation of the life of Christ, that was the main focus of this year's Bach Festival, Josquin des Prez chamber choir sang a program of works by composers who influenced Bach, among them his immediate predecessor as cantor at St. Thomas's church in Leipzig, Johann Kunau. The motet Tristis est Anima Mea, "My Soul Grieves," has been ascribed to Kunau.

"Bach admired this work immensely, and he performed it with a new text and a new instrumental accompaniment, so it's certainly a piece that belongs to Bach's world of church music."

The Bach Festival in Leipzig is one of the most important; it sets standards for the interpretation of his music in the city most closely associated with the composer.

"The Bach Festival has virtually become my musical home; I have lived in Leipzig for a long time. I was a chorister at St. Thomas's, and have always taken part in the Bach Festival, as a singer or conductor. -- Bach is the greatest composer. I think the genius of a composer is something you can't express in words. It is something deep inside which can't be described, -- the way he wrote fugues without any artificiality, beautifully constructed yet very emotional. Perhaps it's that. But ultimately it is the fact that you can enjoy hearing the music again and again."

Not much is known about Bach's private life. Contemporaries described him as a receptive man who knew how to enjoy himself, but his attitude to composing was that of a medieval craftsman. He believed that everyone has his place in the world, where he should humbly work to God's greater glory.

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Conversion of Scott Hahn

"That they all may be one." -- John 17:21

NEVER in the history of Western civilization, have Christians of all backgrounds faced such persecution for trying to help people see the humanity of the unborn, honouring the sanctity of marriage, and attempting to protect youth from the media's normalization of sex, drugs, and violence. We fear the worst is to come. Christians have got to cooperate like never before, and it will be easier if we understand each other.
Here we lay Catholicism at the feet of our Evangelical friends. We are not trying to gloss over differences, but our hope is that all Christians will love one another, as He has loved us (Jn 13:34). We are not apologists. We are simply a Catholic couple responding to Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I am in you." (Jn 17:21) "Let us not give up meeting together... let us encourage one another." (Heb 10:25), "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Mat 18:20).
"I have a dream: when we let freedom ring, all of God's children, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands." (Martin Luther King, "I have a dream," Washington D.C., Aug. 28, 1963)

The Catholic Faith is the Faith of the Scriptures
by David J. Webster, former Baptist Pastor

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