Every day for the past few weeks, I have given myself the space to listen to Bach’s Matthäus-Passion. Whether or not David Bentley Hart is right to identify Bach as ‘the greatest of Christian theologians’ I will not venture to debate here. What I will say is that listening to Bach is something ‘like’ listening to God.
The opening Chorus invites:
Come, ye daughters, share my mourning,
See ye—whom?— the bridegroom there,
See him—how?— just like a lamb!
Then the Chorale:
O Lamb of God, unspotted
Upon the cross’s branch slaughtered,
See ye,—what?—see him forbear,
Alway displayed in thy patience,
How greatly wast thou despisèd.
Look—where, then?—upon our guilt;
All sin hast thou born for us,
Else we had lost all courage.
See how he with love and grace
Wood as cross himself now beareth!
Have mercy on us, O Jesus!
The final Chorus, over an hour later, is an amazingly moving climax to the work:
We sit down in tears
and call to you in the grave:
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, you weary limbs!
Rest softly, rest well!
Your grave and tombstone shall be
to the troubled conscience
a comfortable pillow,
and for the soul a resting place.
In highest contentment,
there my eyes close in slumber.
‘Suddenly the chorus breaks into two antiphonal choruses. ‘See him!’ cries the first one. ‘Whom?’ asks the second. And the first answers: ‘The Bridegroom see. See Him!’ ‘How?’ ‘So like a Lamb.’ And then over and against all this questioning and answering and throbbing, the voices of a boy’s choir sing out the chorale tune, ‘O Lamb of God Most Holy,’ piercing through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption. The contrapuntal combination of the three different choruses is thrilling. There is nothing like it in all music.’
To my mind, Bach represents the best of Protestant music, combining not merely structure and thought, but faith, love and hope. Like Beethoven, Bach gives to art a noble seriousness, making it’s pursuit, in Forsyth’s words, ‘a moral discipline or continual sacrifice and toil’ (Christ on Parnassus, 209).
While showing preference to Mozart above all other artists, Barth noted that whereas in Beethoven we hear ‘a personal confession’, in Bach we hear ‘a message’ … and that message is the triumph of grace over all.