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Q: JS Bach in Secular Society ( Answered,   3 Comments )
Subject: JS Bach in Secular Society
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: gaj246-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 07 Nov 2005 15:37 PST
Expires: 07 Dec 2005 15:37 PST
Question ID: 590270
Can you give me a few (~5 or as many as is reasonable) written
analysis and opinions (preferably in the last 5 years) on Bach and his
relevance (and lack of relevance) in today's modern society? I
specifically want Bach's relevance to our *current* secular society
(as opposed to what people thought of him during his life in a
completely different era).

I.e. why people still perform his music today, what
feelings it raises, how musicians and the audience interpret Bach, or
why Bach is *not* important/relevant, etc.

Preferably this should be from reputable websites and opinions from
people in the field and not simply from a blog and should explain
their opinions using examples/facts/reasons explaining their feelings.
Subject: Re: JS Bach in Secular Society
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 22 Nov 2005 15:33 PST

This was an unusually difficult question to research, in part because
I can't say I really agree with a key premise of your question.  Ours
can hardly be called a secular age...certainly not with the huge role
that religion plays in both social/global conflicts as well as in the
large-scale humanitarian efforts that are so-needed around the globe.

For the most part, Bach's relevance to modern listeners is largely
presumed...the intended audience is largely those already familiar
with, and appreciateve of, the music.  But there certainly is an
effort to tie Bach's works in to themes that are especially relevant
in today's world.

With that in mind, I've presented below a number of articles and other
writings that look at Bach from a perspective of the role of his music
in the modern world.  I have included religious as well as
non-religious perspectives in the list.  It seems appropriate to do
so.  And besides, there simply weren't that many sources of
information on this particular topic to begin with to warrant culling
out those with a religious bent.

I trust the information below fully answers your question.  

However, please don't rate this answer until you have everything you
need.  If you would like any additional information, just post a
Request for Clarification to let me know how I can assist you further,
and I'm at your service.

All the best,


Death in Bach Cantatas 

...Bach's religious music was written to assist - to be - prayer, and
of course it still fulfils this function for many people. The question
is, how do religious people of today pray a prayer like this? And the
question arises in many places, not only in Bach. In the
Hebrew-Christian continuum of ancient prayers going back to the Psalms
of David and earlier, there is anger, hatred, vengeance, etc., etc.,
along with all the emotions of the human spirit, directed to God, who
is the ultimate recourse for every human instinct, in a praying


...So now that we understand that Bach had a concept of music that is
somewhat alien to our own, what do we do with this information? Do we
ignore this somewhat troubling awareness, and continue to play from
our 20th Century impulses? Or do we try to incorporate this knowledge
into our playing? Ralph Kirshbaum thinks that to ignore this would be
"inappropriate" and that it "is better to try to stay within the
musical vocabulary of the time when a piece was written, as best we
understand it."

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

Bach's legacy

...Though Bach's works were known to composers such as Haydn, Mozart
and Beethoven, it was not until Mendelssohn played the St. Matthew
Passion in 1829 that Bach's previously hidden talents as a composer
began to get a more widespread recognition.

...Since then Bach's music has frequently inspired musicians such as
Chopin, many composers arranging and adapting his works. In terms of
classical composers, Gounod used the first prelude from book 1 of the
48 as the basis for his "Ave Maria", Busoni created a supremely
elegant piano version of Bach's Chaconne from a violin work, and Liszt
and Rachmaninov both transcribed Bach works for piano. Even in today's
world of popular music, you can still hear singles based on say his
Toccata and Fugue in Dm for organ, or his "Air on a G string" taken
from a suite.

Present Day Misconceptions About Bach Performance Practice in the
Nineteenth Century

...Every one is steeped in his own time, and Zelter could not
transcend the bounds of his generation. For him, who was the great
representative of the Berlin liederschule, Bach had to be seen in this
perspective; that is, he had to be modernized. Zelter revised Bach's
church compositions for himself alone, in the belief of serving Bach's
cause thereby. In doing so, he did not dispute the seriousness and
profundity of Bach's perception. Only what was dated was to be removed

The Need for Bach: A discussion of his life

...In an era mired with more and more class distinctions and
socioeconomic inequity, a decade dominated by an increasingly
unsophisticated popular-culture and a time in which our political
leaders choose to wage war around the world without prejudice, the
human race needs every possible opportunity to have a passion for a
higher level of the human experience. In live performances, we
experience first-hand the sublime melodies of Ich habe genung, and the
sense of joyful urgency throughout Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen...

Bach and Today's Theologians

...AS we reflect on the celebration in 1985 of the three hundredth
anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, we may well be
impressed with signs of his continuing importance today. Although 1985
marks the anniversary of at least three other major composers (George
Friedrich Handel, 1685, Domenico Scarlatti, 1685, and Heinrich Schütz,
1585), it is the anniversary of Bach that has prompted the most
universal recognition and at the same time the most profound response
among the most diverse audiences.

POWER OF MUSIC -- Correspondent Paul Solman of WGBH, Boston reports on
the power of Johannes Sebastian Bach's music.

...The 200 surviving cantatas of Johannes Sebastian Bach, of the 300
or so he wrote, have anchored Emmanuel for 28 years now. And the music
may be why you're welcome here, wherever you are on your spiritual
journey -- Protestants of all stripes and Catholics...

...But I would say 30 percent of the people have done away with any
particular religious orientation, and some of those people are our
more spiritually alive and spiritually hungry people.

... both religion and music are spiritual journeys undertaken in
community with others...

...For me, hearing Bach for 20 years helps me a little bit understand
a kind of universe that he created where God is. God exists in his
music, and it's the sort of physical made spiritual.

The Cambridge Companion to Bach 

...The Cambridge Companion is divided into three main sections: the
first concentrates on the biographical and historical details of
Bach's life; the second aims at a general discussion of the music; and
the last evaluates Bach's continuing influence on modern music.
[You may want to look at this book in print form]

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid 

...Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB) debates the question of consciousness and
the possibility of artificial intelligence. It is a book that attempts
to discover what "self" really means. Introducing the reader to
cognitive science, Gödel, Escher, Bach draws heavily from art to
illustrate fine points in mathematics. The works of M.C. Escher and
J.S. Bach are discussed, in addition to other works of art and music.
The topics presented range from mathematics and meta-mathematics to
programming, recursion (in math as well as in computing), formal
systems, multilevel systems, self reference, self representation, and

[This is certainly has to be the most unusual take on Bach in the
context of the modern world...if you're not familiar with this work,
it is well worth a look]

A Listener's Guide to the Cantatas of J. S. Bach

...They are sacred works, mostly written with a specific function in a
Lutheran church service and I believe that they should be listened to
with that context in mind, whether you are a believer or not. Lutheran
theology is not so alien to our modern minds as to remove all hope of
understanding the affekt that Bach was trying to create with his
music. I have included, where appropriate, the bible readings for the
day on which the each cantata was performed and I do encourage the
listener to read them as well as the text of the cantata.


Again, let me know if there's anything else I can do for you on this.



search strategy -- Google searches on:

[ johann sebastian bach "modern world OR times OR day ]

[ johann sebastian bach modern interpretation ]

[ johann sebastian bach "today's" ]
Subject: Re: JS Bach in Secular Society
From: myoarin-ga on 23 Nov 2005 20:07 PST
Bach composed a lot of instrumental music that was/is entirely
secular, including  works for the organ.  These are still have
relevance to lovers and performers of music and have also been
inspirational to modern composers and innovative performers such as
the "Swingle Singers" who did oral versions of his instrumental works.

I add this since the question seems to suggest that an answer has to
justify Bach's relevance with respect to his religious compositions.
Subject: Re: JS Bach in Secular Society
From: music_student22-ga on 09 Dec 2005 11:15 PST
Really? Is any of Bach's music really as you said 'entirely secular'?
Music has no religion, or denomination. Music is only ever religious
by destination. So Bach's organ works, considering they were written
for use in the church, cannot be described as 'enitrely secular'. Many
were based on Chorale medlodies or cantatas so they definitley had
religous references in them. Just because works are not choral works
and do not contain blatant references to religion through liturgical
texts, does not mean that they are secular. Some of them may well be
'music for music's sake' or 'absolute music' as it is known, but
through analysis one will realise that religious symbolism is present
in much of Bach's other works too.
Subject: Re: JS Bach in Secular Society
From: myoarin-ga on 10 Dec 2005 04:47 PST
Music Student,
Ok, let's leave the organ works out of the discussion and just
consider all Bach's works for other instruments.  This site gives some
good information (scroll down past the other composers to Bach:

Sure, Bach cribbed from himself, re-using melodies from secular works
in sacred ones and vice versa, (hard for him not to, considering the
demands on him to compose new works) but his concerti and many
keyboard works have no sacred elements.
Regards, Myoarin

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