NOTEworthy July 5

Lobet den Herrn – Johann Sebastian Bach

Praise the Lord, all nations,
and praise Him, all peoples!
For His grace and truth
rules over us for eternity.
Psalm 117

This week’s music is an exquisite and very very very difficult piece credited to Johann Sebastian Bach. And yes, I did say “credited” to Bach intentionally. In the wild west of musical academia, there is a fair bit of debate amongst scholars as to whether or not Johann Sebastian was, in fact, the composer of this piece.

If you remember back to a NOTEworthy on the topic of Mendelssohn’s “Verlieh uns Frieden,” you may recall that after Bach’s death in 1750, his compositions fell into general obscurity for a time. It wasn’t until a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion led by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 that Bach’s works made their way into the musical canon that we appreciate today.

One of the reasons there is debate about the true authorship of this piece is that “Lobet den Herrn” was published in 1821, 8 years before Bach’s works were given new life by the Mendelssohn revival. Why would this be Bach’s only piece to survive the years of obscurity? And what would prompt a publisher to publish a work by a rarely performed composer 70 years after his death?

Another reason for the authorship debate is the music itself. Try to sing along with a part. It is not easy. The vocal parts seem to be written idiomatically for instrumental playing, not singing. Of course, Bach is not known for writing simple music, but his works somehow still seem singable. What it comes down to in this piece is the prevalence of leaps vs. stepwise motion.

If you don’t read music, here’s a simple summation of the difference.

Leaps – See how WIDE the vertical gaps are between notes? The wider the gap, the bigger the leap.

Steps – The vertical space between the notes are as small as they could possibly be, meaning these notes move “stepwise.”

Of course, both of these exist in this piece and in Bach’s catalogue, but rarely (if ever) do you see a primary theme (the first line the sopranos sing) with so many leaps in Bach’s output for voice.

Now, the spiritual twist after the music education soapbox – how does the explicit authorship of this piece affect your experience of it?

More specifically, if the signature at the bottom of the original manuscript was not, in fact, “Johann Sebastian Bach / Soli Deo Gloria,” would it be less meaningful or profound?

I think we can sometimes fall into this authorship trap when it comes to faith. There is an old Jesuit ideal called Ignatian spirituality which calls Christians to “find God in all things.” As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote – “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle – and my heart and my thoughts.” With faith and scripture as a lens, there is so much Christ to be found in the world around us, regardless of whether it is signed with a Book, chapter, and verse number.

I hope you will take the time to contemplate God in the not-explicitly-spiritual this week, and experience the Truth that His signature is at the bottom of every page, piece, and flower.

For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:16-17

Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and that is in it.
Deuteronomy 10:14