Often it is hard to know how to live our Christian values. It starts with an experience of the Divine. Here is how one musician as a young boy found the sacred in music, a fount from which he still drinks today.
As a young boy in Portland, Oregon, I checked out a recording of the St. John Passion of J.S. Bach from the city library, knowing nothing about what I was about to hear. This ignorance is not uncommon since the St. John as a work has been overshadowed by the composer’s St. Matthew Passion. When I first played the St. John, I heard something that sounded so contemporary, I was astounded. I was moved by the great beauty and the expression of the Passion of Christ that was, to me, beyond mere text or music. Both came together to illuminate the story on many different levels that neither text nor music alone could achieve. This was an experience as profound as it was memorable.
Through such experiences, which I have had throughout my life, I have come to realize that music is a language with which we praise God and a language through which we experience the Divine. All forms of the human artistic expression of music can work toward the same end, particularly, but not necessarily always, when paired with text. We have to think that when the disciples sang a hymn before going out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30), or when Paul and Silas sang praises in prison (Acts 16:25), it was because the act of singing expressed what words alone could not.
It is sometimes thought that music is abstract. While that may at times be true, sacred music most often is not. An example that theater director Peter Sellars gives is of a person who, on Saturday night having decided not to kill himself, goes to church on Sunday morning and experiences Bach’s Cantata No. 199. The cantata begins with the words:
My heart swims in blood,
since the offspring of my sins
in the holy eyes of God
make me a monster.
And now my conscience feels pain:
for me my sins can be nothing
but the hangmen of hell.
O hated night of depravity!
But it concludes in salvation:
How joyful is my heart,
for God is appeased
—and for my regret and sorrow
—no longer from bliss
—nor from His heart excludes me.
This is not abstract.
J.S. Bach is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Evangelist for good reason. His theological insights come through on many levels through his music, insights that cannot be conveyed as well in words alone. For example, in the St. Matthew Passion when Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him, each asks, “Is it I?” “Is it I?” is repeated 11 times, not 12, by the disciples. An entire chorus sings the twelfth “Is it I,” as though Bach is saying, “It is all of us.” When Peter denied Christ three times and “wept bitterly,” the music conveys such a profound sense of utter loss and sadness that one cannot read those words again without touching on that emotional chord expressed in the music.
For me, a wonderful aspect of spiritual music is that each time I participate in a performance, be it by playing or by listening, there is newness. To paraphrase the late theologian Marcus Borg’s words, it is “hearing the music again for the first time.” We can experience passages in the Bible in a similar way. “In devotional music, God is always present with His Grace,” writes Bach in his Bible.
Bach made over 300 notations in his personal, three-volume Bible commentary. Half of those notations pertain to personal relations, as though Bach was fully aware of the triangle—the relation between God, the individual, and the rest of humankind. It is a three-way relationship, and music is a language that works within these relationships.
While I have only referenced the music of J.S. Bach above, there is a marvelous wealth of sacred music by hundreds of composers through the ages, all expressing their own spiritual insights through the language of music. For example, for Igor Stravinsky, the composition of a sacred work is itself a spiritual creation. His Mass was one of the very few of his compositions that was not commissioned. We can only assume that the motivation for the creation of this work, as a number of writers have noted, was pure spiritual necessity.
I am blessed that my life’s work as a musician has revealed to me a transcendent insight into the human condition and, ultimately, a glimpse of the nature of the Divine.
for Harold Byers
Mass in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
The Passion According to St. Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali