Bach and Beauty

John 18:33-37
Revelation 1 4b

Click here to hear sermon only

Robert Allan Hill: As you were saying…

Scott Jarrett: Yes, as I was saying, two months ago, when last our broadcast and local worship service featured a Bach cantata, there is a rare beauty in Bach.

RAH: This year we determined in dialogue, you and I, on Bach Sundays, to affirm the good of Christ by entering more deeply the beauty of Bach.

SJ: Yes, word and music together, music and word, the gospel sung.

RAH: I guess we are a sort of religious ‘Click and Clack’.

SJ: Maybe more like ‘Clink and Clunk’?

RAH: Maybe so. Not every nineteen year old, nor even every ninety one year old hears clearly, at the first hearing, the beauty in Bach. Like all things lasting and good, there is some learning, effort, extension, growth, change, challenge involved.

SJ: True, enough. Pilate asks ‘What is truth?’ Well, the poet answered, ‘truth is beauty, and beauty is truth’. True enough. Though not all of the Scriptures are immediately transparent to us, or at least to me, they are nonetheless very beautiful.

RAH: Today’s Christ the King readings are just so, opaque and lovely. ‘Behold he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him’ (Rev. 1:7). Even uprooted out of its ancient apocalyptic ground, uprooted from the primitive hope of the earliest church, there is a soaring beauty to such a triumphant hope. Beauty brings hope.

SJ: Ah, at last, dear friend, you have brought us to Bach.

RAH: Did I? I was merely interpreting a verse from the Revelation?

SJ: Some of our best accomplishments come quite by accident…even in preaching…

RAH: This is ruefully so… Dr. Jarrett, can you guide us for a moment into the beauty of this Bach Cantata? For what shall listen in the thirty minutes to follow?

SJ: Let me mention three things. First, today’s cantata was originally written for Advent, and then later transposed for Christ the King. So, there is a fair amount of ‘eschatological beauty’ here. That is, the ultimate things, the last things, the lasting things, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’, are pronounced here. Second, there are a couple of words for which we should particularly listen…Third, the most beautiful moment in the cantata, for me, comes at a certain point. Let me name it for you…

RAH: When you teach your students about music, is there a moral sense that arises, within the beauty?

SJ: Well, that depends on what you mean. The music, the choral beauty, just is. It has and needs no defense. Like truth. Truth needs no defense, falsehood has none.

RAH: In the long run.

SJ: In the very long run, but you were the one who brought up eschatology.

RAH: True. And beautiful!

SJ: When you see our students, especially our undergraduates, what do you wish for them, come Sunday?

RAH: Many things. But today, come this Sunday, I covet for them beauty. Beauty reminds us of grace. Beauty recalls our high humanity. Beauty lifts us up from the curb and places us in the clouds. Beauty dresses us up in the finery for which we were meant, for which our grandparents prayed and our parents paid. Beauty takes the world and makes it clean again, holy not innocent to be sure, but clean again. Beauty—today Bach, tomorrow Monet, next week Chekov—beauty saves us from our own worst selves and returns us to the road of our own best selves.

SJ: You know, when I come into Marsh Chapel, I feel that. I see beauty in the architecture. I hear beauty in the silence. I admire beauty in the windows. I revere beauty in the words chiseled in stone. Boston University, here, reaches for beauty.

RAH: The history of our school includes many who sought beauty in truth, and truth in beauty.

SJ: Do any particular people come to mind?

RAH: Why thank you for asking! Erazim Kohak, a philosopher from the last generation said, ‘Humans can become wholly absorbed in the preoccupations of time…There can humans who become blind to goodness, to truth, to beauty, who drink wine without pausing to cherish it, who pluck flowers without pausing to give thanks, who accept joy and grief as all in a day’s work, to be enjoyed or managed, without ever seeing the presence of eternity in them. But that is not the point. What is crucial is that humans, whether they do so or not, are capable of encountering a moment…as the miracle of eternity ingressing into time. That, rather than the ability to fashion tools, stands out as the distinctive human calling’. (Embers, 85). Bach and beauty, Bach and beauty…

SJ: Who do not sing a Bach cantata every Sunday, but you know there is a kind of cantata sung with every hymn. Every time our congregation stands to sing, in four part harmony, we approach beauty. Further, that harmony, that experienced harmony out of difference, unity out of diversity, one hymn out of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, that harmony is itself a saving reminder, a remembered salvation. Difference blends, often blends well. When we forget, when our voices and bones forget the experience of beauty in four part, in choral harmony, we miss something crucial, saving, essential, for our common life.

RAH: In other words, the future depends on good, four voice, hymn singing?

SJ: Maybe it isn’t quite that simple. But there is a beauty, there is a beauty, and a truth within it.

RAH: Friends give our own true selves back to us, as you have done today. Here is what I mean. You have helped me understand something, something deep and good. Last summer I went around preaching in various places, as you know. One day I went to speak at a big conference. There were about 1,000 people, gathered in a large hotel room, for worship and communion. There was music, of a sort. Some instruments, a praise group, a music leader with words thrown up on a screen behind. All sang, pretty well, together, following the screen and one melody line. Something though was radically missing. The sermon came and went. We began the ritual for eucharist. The one line singing continued, just words on the screen, no notes. Then, maybe by accident, the music leader played the melody for a familiar hymn, ‘Let us break bread together’. All of sudden, the room lit up. The color blind saw red and blue. The deaf heard. I mean, the conference members knew, by memory, the four part harmony of the hymn. They knew the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines, by heart. And they sang them, together. It was an apocalyptic moment. A joyful moment. An inbreaking of eternity into time moment.

SJ: That may happen again today. You never know. Bach and beauty, truth and beauty, harmony and beauty. ‘Behold He is coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see him’.

RAH: Let us rise and harmonically sing together.

~Dean Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel,
and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music at Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply