Bach: Music and Transcendence
For many listeners, Johann Sebastian Bach is the authoritative standard by which all other composers are judged. His music is often considered both timeless and universal. But Bach’s very preeminence makes it hard to see him clearly—to discern the human face behind the “face of classical music.” A musical prodigy, uncooperative employee, conscientious craftsman, international celebrity, and deep religious believer, Bach made music both of and outside his time. How can we understand Bach, not as a hallowed figure, but as (in John Eliot Gardner’s words) a “thoroughly imperfect human being” who nevertheless strove, as artist and believer, for musical perfection? What explains Bach’s singular originality, his enduring appeal?
The purpose of this course is to explore the particular beliefs and passions that drove Bach, shaping and animating his music. Through a study of the “St. John” and “St. Matthew” Passions, church cantatas, and major instrumental works, coupled with readings by Christoph Wolff, Eric Chafe, and Jaroslav Pelikan, we will seek to understand the enigmatic individual behind the works: a man of convulsive emotions, profound terrors, and deep religious conviction. And we will consider the impact that the great philosophical and religious conflicts of Bach’s time had on his music—a music of stark contradictions and contrasts, in which the rationalism of the nascent Enlightenment dances side by side with a Lutheranism steeped in the consciousness of death and sin, while visions of transcendent order illuminate a landscape in which God and the Devil do battle for the human soul.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
May 06 — May 27, 2021