Happy Birthday Bach

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany. (Pixabay)
Remembering one of history’s great geniuses, 300 years later

Editor’s Note: Ten years ago this week, National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., passed away. To commemorate the anniversary of Buckley’s passing, NRO will be reprinting a number of his pieces over the next few days. For more information about the National Review Institute’s efforts to preserve Buckley’s work, please visit the Buckley Legacy Project.

The following originally appeared in newspapers on March 23, 1985, as a column distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate.

Three hundred years ago on March 21 Johann Sebastian Bach was born. The event is as though God had decided to clear His throat to remind the world of His existence. That existence had been greatly dishonored by the terrible Thirty Years’ War that had ended only a generation before Bach’s birth, a war whose reverberations we still experience, even as the ayatollah continues to dishonor the Muslim creed he misunderstands himself to incarnate.

Bach has the impact of a testimonial to God’s providence not because he wrote the most searingly beautiful church music ever heard (about “The Passion According to St. Matthew” one can say only that it does credit to the Gospel according to St. Matthew), but because he wrote the most beautiful music ever written. If one were to throw away the 300 cantatas, the 100-odd chorale preludes, the three oratorios, the passions, and the Mass (which would be the equivalent of destroying half of Shakespeare), still the other half would sustain Bach as a creature whose afflatus is inexplicable in the absence of a belief in God.

If it is true, as the poet says, that one can’t look out upon a sunset without sensing divinity, then it is also true that one can’t close the door on that sunset and, entering the darkened chapel, listen to the organist play one of Bach’s toccatas and fugues, without sensing divinity.

It is not necessary to believe in God in order to revel in Bach. It is not necessary, for that matter, to love one’s country in order to fight for it, nor even to love one’s family in order to protect it. And there is no need to make heavy weather over the point, though there is a need for such human modesty, as Einstein expressed when he said that the universe was not explicable except by the acknowledgment of an unknown mover. The music of Bach disturbs human complacency because one can’t readily understand finiteness in its presence.

Carl Sagan, who sometimes sounds like the village atheist, reports that the biologist Lewis Thomas of the Sloan–Kettering Institute answered, when asked what message he thought we should send to other civilizations in space in that rocket we fired up there a few years ago with earthly jewels packed in its cone, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Then he paused, and said, “But that would be boasting.” There are those who believe it is not merely to boast, but to be vainglorious to suggest that the movements of Bach’s pen could have been animated by less than divine impulses.

When he died, one of his biographers notes, there were something on the order of 90 obituaries written, only three of which mentioned him as a composer.

There are sobering lessons to contemplate on Bach’s birthday. One of them is that when he lived he was almost entirely unnoticed. True, he was renowned as a virtuoso at the harpsichord and the organ. When he died, one of his biographers notes, there were something on the order of 90 obituaries written, only three of which mentioned him as a composer. This is on the order of remembering Shakespeare as a great actor.

The thought reminds us what it is that we almost let slip through our fingers — and reminds us, even more darkly, of what it is that we have irreversibly let slip through our fingers. We are reluctant to believe that anyone else ever existed of such artistic eminence as JSB; but we can never know, can we? Nor can we ever understand how it was that so musically minded a culture as that of what we now know as East Germany could have greeted so indifferently a genius so overpowering.

And it reminds us, too, that there are among us men and women who will not drink from this most precious vessel of our cultural patrimony. To some, he does not speak. If we understand that, then we understand, surely, what the problems are in Geneva, where grown men are actually talking to each other as if it were a challenge to formulate arrangements by which the world should desist from the temptation to destroy itself. If a human being exists who is unmoved by the B minor Mass, it should not surprise that human beings exist who are unmoved by democracy, or freedom, or peace. They have eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear. Well, Bach tended to end his manuscripts with the initials, “S. D. G.” — Soli Deo Gloria, To God alone the glory. But God shares that glory, and did so 300 years ago when Johann Sebastian was born.

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