The music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his organ music, redresses the balance from a bleak view of human affairs to a saner and more hopeful perspective.
By Reverend Donald Reeves MBE
During ten years of peace-building in the Balkans, I have been nourished by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly his organ music, which I perform. Playing his music is helping to change the ways in which I see the world. It redresses the balance from a bleak view of human affairs to a saner and more hopeful perspective.
Discovering the connections between my work and the music I play is enriching because the music is immeasurably life-enhancing, saturated with images of hope. Peace-building is like a journey towards an ever-receding horizon. In this journey, we are called to imagine ourselves in a relationship with our enemies.
The fundamental inspiration for peace-building is found among those who take the risk of sitting together with their enemies.
Such lofty ideas informed my work in Bosnia, as a group of us encouraged the rebuilding of a Sinan mosque in Banja Luka. This work was to be a sign of Muslim-Christian collaboration. Now in Kosovo, we are being invited to bring together Orthodox Serbs in the monasteries of Deèani and Pecææ with the Kosovo Albanians who live around them. While involved in these tricky endeavours, I have persisted with Bach.
Listening to music is one thing; learning and playing is another; and performing yet another. After years of impatience with technical details, I am slowly realising that to overcome them is like opening a door to a house containing many treasures. As complex passages begin to feel more or less safe under fingers and feet, so more doors open, each one reaching deeper into the heart of the music, tracking the stream of Bach’s genius to its source.
In Albert Schweitzer’s study of Bach, published in 1911, he writes to those who are performing Bach’s cantatas: “Only he who sinks himself in the emotional world of Bach, who lives and thinks with him, who is simple and modest as he is, is in a position to perform him properly.” This is true for organists, too.
I am immersed in the 18 Leipzig Chorale Preludes. In Lutheran worship, the congregation sit while singing, and first listen to an improvisation, which leads into the hymn. Bach inherited and extended this tradition.
The average length of each chorale prelude is five minutes. But they are miniatures in length only. The music is condensed and complex, but emotionally direct, speaking from the heart to the heart.
The music, like a mirror, reflects back with some clarity that hope which is essential in the long and difficult processes of bringing former enemies together. Hope easily evaporates; it steals away in the face of cynicism, apathy, and sometimes sheer wickedness.
Bach’s life was punctuated by the devastation of death. Orphaned at the age of ten, thereafter one member of his family died after the other. So much of his music expresses a longing for death, as if his death were a way of escaping his grief and of being reunited with those he has loved. I can relate this to the longing and hope for peace, for union with God.
Bach had a particular affection for the Gloria. Schweitzer wrote: “Bach never forgets the melody is supposed to be angel’s song.” Angels herald a new order. They are here, and then they are gone.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Never underestimate a handshake.” When that happens it is a glimpse of such a new order. Two of the chorale preludes, inspired by the Gloria, are ravishing in their lightness and sparkle.
Others are exuberant, even defiant. A fantasia, celebrating the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, is like a whirlwind, a breathless agitation of a 16-note figure. It ends with two flourishes of hallelujah, as if to say: “That’s that!” whatever the cynics might say.
Yet the music also reflects the despair and the tragedy of the human predicament. One of the chorale preludes is a music drama: with searing chromaticism, it descends to the depths; then it opens up joyfully to a triumphant and spacious conclusion, all within three pages.
Bach’s music is a testimony to the gift of hope. There is expectation and unfolding, as the music moves forward to a resolution. One setting of the Advent hymn “Come now, the heathens’ Saviour” is a heart-stopping meditation on the longing for the coming of Christ. The pedals depict a steady tread, leading the listener into the mystery of the incarnation, to that moment when heaven and earth are united, and peace, for a few seconds, becomes a reality.
At a presentation about the experience of mediation to Soul of Europe, the organisation I founded with a group of friends to help those in post-war situations, I described how the survivors of a killing camp at Omarska in north-west Bosnia — all Muslims — together with the Serbs who had run the camp, had agreed, after months of delicate, highly charged conversations, on a memorial for those murdered at the camp.
At the end of this process, these former enemies came together to celebrate, and I then performed the chorale prelude: “Now thank we all our God”, an energetic, joyful piece.
A woman in the audience said afterwards: “As you played, I could just see all those people walking with flags and banners to the place where the memorial would be.”
Peace-building is not glamorous work. It demands boundless patience and persistence. Setbacks are frequent. The fundamental inspiration for peace-building is found among those who take the risk of sitting together with their enemies.
Bach’s music is also an inspiration. His elaborate counterpoint reflects the complexity of our endeavours, as his music weaves its way to a logical, simple, and graceful conclusion. That is why I enjoy learning, playing, and performing his music – while working for peace.
Reverend Donald Reeves MBE is the founder of the Soul of Europe. The Soul of Europe works as catalysts and mediators to ensure a peaceful resolution to conflicts, particularly in the Balkans.