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Beethoven-Only? Nie!

I read, with a chuckle, that some of the writers here have been called Beethoven-only, a tongue-in-cheek, but ironically inaccurate nick.  Actually, some of us believe Western music began to go wrong with Beethoven, but let me not divert matters. I understand the idea behind the title. Scott has dealt elsewhere with the straw-man argument that we represent some fond allegiance to the great composers, believing Bach or Beethoven are the only examples of excellence in music, and in an ideal world, the great composers of bygone eras would be all we’d listen to.

My response? While Bach and those in his train do represent timeless examples of truth and beauty, my view is that we will never experience them as their generations did. Culture is a transmission of judgment, which has been irrevocably broken in the West. While we will always admire, love, and use the great works, we do not think that they are the closed canon of great music, nor do we think that worship should take place in a museum.  (Not even Bach is the “standard” of worship; God Himself is the standard of our worship.) We should learn from, and if possible, build upon, the greats, not attempt to pickle them.

But I think we should emphasize that in order to build upon them,  we ought to recognize them as great, and spend time learning what makes them great, not merely parrot those who say they are. Gerald Cragg, in The Church and the Age of Reason, gives us some idea of what made Bach great.

Bach’s greatness is compounded of many elements. He could combine the sacred and the secular without jeopardizing the mystical wonder of the one or the dramatic intensity of the other. He could fuse in one the popular elements supplied by the chorales and the aristocratic elements represented by consummate technical skill. He could carry realism to its utmost limits, yet he never overstepped the bounds of liturgical propriety. He was at once a daring innovator and a ‘perfect formalist’ – the master of both his subject matter and his form. He showed that Palestrina’s beauty (always mystical but often vague) and Handel’s vigour (forceful but somewhat material) could be fused in an art which surpassed the farthest reach of either. He accomplished it with an authority which imparted a touch of finality to almost everything he wrote. The firm assurance is more than a product of supreme skill. Bach offers an interpretation of life which transcends the limitations to which the work of lesser men is subject. The central thread which unifies the amazing skill, subtlety, and penetrating insight of his works is the motif of faith. He was fundamentally a religious man. To compose music was an act of faith; to perform it was an act of worship.

Bach was the greatest of church musicians. In a sense he was also the last…In religious music Bach represents the summit of achievement; after him the descent was rapid.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

2 Responses to Beethoven-Only? Nie!

  1. Thanks, David. I am not nearly as technically savvy as Craig, but I wonder if you could give a word or two of explanation about how Bach's incorporation of "popular elements" differs from the contemporary practice of the same. It struck me while reading Craig's estimation of Bach's music that something fairly similar might easily be claimed by today's writers, in the way of fusion of popular and time-honored.

  2. I don't want to play the part of expert either, but the truth behind what you're asking is simple enough for even a generalist pastor like me. Bach, like many other composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Dvorák, and others) regularly used folk music in their compositions. But as soon as one of these greats got hold of a simple, popular musical idea, the way they developed it took it to a new level. Whereas the folk tune on its own was fun, and light, by the time Bach was finished with it, it began to convey a meaning transcending its original 'everydayness'.

    As to the difference between Bach's practice and say, a CCM advocate (which is what I assume you're referring to), part of the answer is the difference between German folk culture and secularized pop culture. The popular music of a genuine folk culture is one thing; the stereotyped, packaged, and marketed popular music of secularism is another. Much of popular music is narcissistic, formulaic, stereotyped, and sentimental. This is hardly the case with a good folk tune. Bach borrowed what was fun, lively, and simple, not what was banal and trivial.

    Furthermore, what happens today is usually the borrowing of popular forms, with very little development. Bach didn't merely borrow, he developed what he borrowed into something scarcely resembling its original.

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