Faith, Atheism, and J. S. Bach

by Michael Potemra

I have been reading John Eliot Gardiner’s massive new biography, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Gardiner is a prominent conductor, whose performances (on Deutsche Grammophon recordings) of Bach’s three greatest choral works — the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, and the Mass in B Minor – are on my list of peak musical experiences. There are parts of the book that I admit are completely beyond me, as I have no musical training — but it is nonetheless highly rewarding. Gardiner places his central emphasis on Bach’s sacred choral works, including the massive cycles of church cantatas, which have been (relatively) neglected during the Bach revival of recent years.

Gardiner quotes this recent comment from the Hungarian composer György Kurtág:

Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it — as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering in of the nails. . . . That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.

Kurtág is on to something very important, about how the uncanny works of Bach can reach some people who have become immune to the bullying importunities of intellectual apologists for various forms of religion and irreligion in the public square. It used to be fashionable to complain about a “naked public square”; I think the problem now is a “noisy public square.” Every religious point of view is for sale, quite loudly, and, as a First Amendment absolutist, I would of course have it no other way; but I cannot deny that it comes at a cost, in a “wall of noise” that is rather less pleasant than Phil Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound.” With Bach, there is a very high ratio of signal to noise: To listen to him is to hear order coming out of silence, which is a very suggestive notion.

I make the modest suggestion that those who are curious about whether God exists spend some quiet time listening to, for starters, Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Goldberg Variations (which are all secular instrumental works). The conclusion you draw about God may not be the same as mine; indeed, the conclusion I draw about God is sometimes not the same as mine. But your time in any case will have been well spent.

WFB liked to quote a comment on Bach by Lewis Thomas. Gardiner, in the final pages of his book, follows suit:

When in 1977 the Voyager spacecraft was launched, opinions were canvassed as to what artefacts would be most appropriate to leave in outer space as a signal of man’s cultural achievements on earth. The American astronomer Carl Sagan proposed that “if we are to convey something of what humans are about then music has to be a part of it.” To Sagan’s request for suggestions, the eminent biologist and author Lewis Thomas answered, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” After a pause, he added, “But that would be boasting.”