Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

The Preacher Gave the Sermon. Bach Made it Sing.

Music is not always the compliant hand servant, the maid servant of text.  It can operate according to its own rules and it can function quite differently. 

The Preacher Gave the Sermon. Bach Made it Sing.

The amazing thing about Johann Sebastian Bach more than any other composer I can think of is that he tolerates such a diversity of different interpretations.  You can play him on an organ.  You can play him on a Moog synthesizer.  You can play him sung by a mass choir, a huge symphony orchestra or a minimalist ensemble of just one voice or one instrument per part.  And he still comes through.  You can transcribe his cello music for mandolin, for any single instrument and it still packs its punch and comes over with extraordinary pathos and attractiveness, too. 


Because contrary to the popular image I think that many people have of Bach as being a bit kind of mathematical and remote and severe, the music itself tells you something quite different.  The music is complex.  The music is mathematical.  But it has amazing dance impregnated rhythm and secularity. Even when he’s writing to the glory of God there is a sense of kind of secular joy, secular ebullience and effusion in his writing which makes it so attractive.  And it leaps over all the boundaries of nationality, of date, of period.  And really it reinforces the idea that this is music that is for our time. 

I feel this particularly strongly as regards the church cantatas that he wrote and we’ve got about 200 of them.  There may have been many more but have got lost in the sands of time that either were burned or used to light fires or just perished.  They’re extraordinary pieces because in a way you could think nothing more irrelevant to our times because they were written for a very specific moment in a church service within the liturgy of a parochial liturgy in a provincial town in Germany.  And yet there is something about the way that Bach formulates his music that leaps over all those obstacles and those division and speaks to us very directly now. 

And I think it’s representative of his urgent need to communicate and to impart his own feelings.  Not just to be a compliant servant of the clergy of the church but to have his own views as to how the Christian doctrine appeals to him and also how he thinks it applies to his fellow man.  Because there’s no doubt about it, he puts his own spin on the texts.  And that, I suppose, begs the whole question of the relationship between music and text. 

Music is not always the compliant hand servant, the maid servant of text.  It can operate according to its own rules and it can function quite differently.  And in counterpoint to the text it’s supposed to be elucidating.  And never is this more true in the case of Bach where the sermon would be delivered by the preacher and it would be laying down the law of the particular theme of the week which is based on the gospels or the epistle.  But the moment that Bach gets his hands on it he can then alter the speed of delivery.  He can alter the repetitions, the emphases, the way it comes over rather like a reiteration, like somebody who is giving a speech.

But a speech encoded, encrusted with the extra richness that music brings as a result of the interplay of all the factors of music – the harmony, the counterpoint, the polyphony, the orchestration, the individual timbre of instruments, the tessitura.  All these things which make it incredibly rich and a highly developed form of human utterance. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

Gear
  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore cellular function in 32 dead pig brains

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
Keep reading Show less

You want to stop child abuse? Here's how you can actually help.

Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.

Photo: Atjanan Charoensiri / Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
  • Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
  • Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Keep reading Show less

Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth

A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'

Just imagine: a Mars that's as wet as Earth.

Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • Sci-fi visions of Mars have changed over time, in step with humanity's own obsessions.
  • Once the source of alien invaders, the Red Planet is now deemed ripe for terraforming.
  • Here's an extreme example: Mars with exactly as much surface water as Earth.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

The entrepreneur's guide to success: Follow these tips

Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast