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My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipline in the Music of Bach

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In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was also a devout Lutheran with a broad knowledge of Scripture and theology. Given Bach's combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological depth, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was also a devout Lutheran with a broad knowledge of Scripture and theology. Given Bach's combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological depth, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian faith. With the passage of time, however, many of the essential keys to understanding Bach's music have been lost. My Only Comfort uniquely reconnects modern listeners with Bach's music, enabling them to listen to Bach with renewed understanding and appreciation. After an introduction to Bach, his theological knowledge, his musical language, and the various genres of sacred music in his output, Calvin Stapert leads readers through specific works by Bach that express, interpret, and vivify some of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. For each work discussed, Stapert provides relevant quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism (a novel and provocative approach to the study of Bach), a literal translation of the text set beside the German original, and textual and musical commentary meant to contribute to a more perceptive and devotional listening to the work.


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In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was also a devout Lutheran with a broad knowledge of Scripture and theology. Given Bach's combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological depth, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was also a devout Lutheran with a broad knowledge of Scripture and theology. Given Bach's combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological depth, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian faith. With the passage of time, however, many of the essential keys to understanding Bach's music have been lost. My Only Comfort uniquely reconnects modern listeners with Bach's music, enabling them to listen to Bach with renewed understanding and appreciation. After an introduction to Bach, his theological knowledge, his musical language, and the various genres of sacred music in his output, Calvin Stapert leads readers through specific works by Bach that express, interpret, and vivify some of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. For each work discussed, Stapert provides relevant quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism (a novel and provocative approach to the study of Bach), a literal translation of the text set beside the German original, and textual and musical commentary meant to contribute to a more perceptive and devotional listening to the work.

48 review for My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipline in the Music of Bach

  1. 4 out of 5

    Fergus

    HOW WEARY, STALE, FLAT AND UNPROFITABLE SEEM TO ME ALL THE USES OF THIS WORLD! - Hamlet Whatever are we going to DO - if our current global health crisis translates into a future global economic upset, and all our financial chickens come home and lay big, fat eggs? Well, we may follow Johann Sebastian Bach’s example - and turn within - to Our Only Comfort... This is an incredibly rich and insightful look at how much the power and authority of the immortal music of Johann Sebastian Bach may be traced HOW WEARY, STALE, FLAT AND UNPROFITABLE SEEM TO ME ALL THE USES OF THIS WORLD! - Hamlet Whatever are we going to DO - if our current global health crisis translates into a future global economic upset, and all our financial chickens come home and lay big, fat eggs? Well, we may follow Johann Sebastian Bach’s example - and turn within - to Our Only Comfort... This is an incredibly rich and insightful look at how much the power and authority of the immortal music of Johann Sebastian Bach may be traced back to its roots in Faith. I, for one - as a Catholic - was never aware of the towering majesty and the sheer rolling thunder of the Heidelberg Catechism, for the Reformed Church! And the author finds the beginnings of so much of Bach’s worldview in this radical battle cry of the simplified Protestant gospel, that it is quite astounding. I can only say that to share the basic rudiments of the author’s strong faith, in whatever Christian creed you adhere to, is enough to let you enjoy this book. And, of course, since reading this, I have purchased my own copy of the Calvinist catechism... Don’t get me wrong - I could never feel the all-encompassing breadth of the Gospel within the old Calvinist teachings, nor its compassion - but that is purely a matter of personal faith. I’ll take St. Augustine’s faith over John Calvin’s, as it was in the beginning, any day. For I really believe that the cyclone of the Reformation has split apart the disparate elements of our Christian roots into myriad shattered fragments. And hence my own personal life’s work has been to reconnect and meld these elements back into a connected whole within a holistic Christian POV. Just for my own peace and satisfaction... And for me, as for John Henry Newman, that has meant returning to its origins! Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of the Camelot of the old Christianity, as it has become shrouded in the dense mists of history. So our job now is to reconnect the dots. We may need all the comfort of this restored Big Picture that we can get really soon... The old Christianity was decidedly moralistic. It decried the kind of double meanings which are now so much a Lingua Franca among us. As did, of course, the gospels. Is it wrong to stand up for what’s right? When I was a teen I was confused about questions like that, so immersed myself in the music of Bach - which told me (not in so many words, but in his lyrics and music) NOT to be confused. So when I was 20, I took an unpopular stand. But behind the velvet glove of our morally easy lifestyle there is hidden an iron fist. “I’m alright, Jack - keep your hands off my stash!” Don’t rock the boat, kid! they all said. Other guys have been pegged as pariahs, too, and THEY bounced back from it. But at last in my seventies I can see Bach was right - and I, perhaps, as well - though trailing far behind him. Now that I have the leisure to spend my days in worthwhile reading I see the immense MORAL VALUE that comes from good books like this, for alert reading always leads us back to our Own core values. If our own core values are uprightly ETHICAL, the words of great books will Resonate Deeply with us. We then can forego the trough of public pandering to popular taste to discover New Worlds of Wonder contained in past ages - when INDIVIDUAL CREDOS WERE KEY TO A COMPLETE LIFE. Have you ever seen a glimmer of truth in the beliefs that our so-called Christian splinter groups hold dear? Have you ever glimpsed how your reading, and your values could someday lead you to a sort of rebirth into a Golden Age within your own soul? Maybe, then, it’s time for you, too, to go back to the time in history when the whole Christian edifice threatened to collapse under the influence of powerful new amoral ideas. Maybe it’s time for ALL of us to rediscover our ethical roots. For a worldview utterly devoid of ethical meaning now threatens to engulf us all... And take us down with us into an economic sinkhole. And maybe THEN we’ll do like old Bach - And seek what may well be then our only comfortable resort: The peace and comfort of God’s Love.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Carol Bakker

    When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book tickled two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo's death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. She loved Bach; listened nightly to a 'Bach's Variations' CD as she fell asleep. There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach's chorales, cantatas, and ar When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book tickled two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo's death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. She loved Bach; listened nightly to a 'Bach's Variations' CD as she fell asleep. There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach's chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and guided me through the piece. It was a task that required full concentration. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a *kingdom* of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music to me. My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew's Passion. You can hear it here: https://youtu.be/kqts5cfA5gU The translation for Enbarme dich — Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly. Have mercy, my God. Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profound and comforting experiences of my life. Bach's glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But it also refreshed my spirit. Hence, I have resolved two things: 1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.) 2. To systematically listen through Bach's canon. I'm not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don't care about BMW's; it's BMV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach's) for me! I could easily begin again at the beginning for a second harvest. I probably won't right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

  3. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This book was amazing. Stapert offers an in-depth analysis of the theological content of Bach’s music as understood through the lens of the Heidelberg Catechism. For clarity’s sake, I’ve separated my review into sections that address different elements of Stapert’s work. Scope The book’s scope is massive, and it covers a lot of ground. Stapert takes his time in setting up Bach’s music, and a lengthy introduction describes the different types of musical pieces that Bach wrote. A music glossary in t This book was amazing. Stapert offers an in-depth analysis of the theological content of Bach’s music as understood through the lens of the Heidelberg Catechism. For clarity’s sake, I’ve separated my review into sections that address different elements of Stapert’s work. Scope The book’s scope is massive, and it covers a lot of ground. Stapert takes his time in setting up Bach’s music, and a lengthy introduction describes the different types of musical pieces that Bach wrote. A music glossary in the back defines musical terms. I think the intention was to make a book that would be readable even by people who are unfamiliar with Bach and with classical music. For the most part, I think he succeeded, although there were several places where, if I had not had a musical background, I think I would have struggled to understand. That said, the broad themes that he traces will make sense even if a few of the details are lost, and the introduction to Bach’s works was phenomenal. Stapert really packed a whole lot of information into just a few pages. Theology As for the theology itself, I have to say I was surprised and impressed by the premise of analyzing a Lutheran musician by a Calvinist document. There have been so many divisions in the Church, so much discord and separation, that I am always glad to find a book that actively tries to make connections between different denominations. The only other book I know that tries something similar is C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Stapert even refers to that book specifically, mentioning the common ground for all Christian denominations. Stapert says, “What unites the various branches of the Christian faith is far more extensive and runs far more deeply than the history of our divisions, quarrels, and animosities would indicate.” This book, then, takes three different sections of the Calvinist catechism and illuminates them with selected passages from Bach’s music. The result is a beautiful, almost reverent, meditation on a specific theological concept. These sections read almost like mini devotionals, and although the focus is perhaps different from Bach’s own Lutheran tradition, the theological statements themselves are on point. Libretti The libretti are given in their original German, along with an English translation that strives, whenever possible, to maintain the original syntax. In this way, readers can see exactly how the ideas are stated in the music, and they can tell which parts of a sentence are emphasized in the score. Music I was glad to see the music itself given in-depth analysis. From the Easter music in a minor key to the angelic symbolism of the trumpet—even the strings’ musical “halo” given to Jesus’ lyrics in the Passions—so many different musical qualities are examined in great detail. He examines modulations into different keys; he contrasts various sections as they play the same phrase. He shows certain rhythmic patterns that convey certain emotions, tracing each individual motif across many different iterations. He even goes so far as to trace earlier uses of a single melody across Bach’s many works. If you’ve ever wondered what a Lenten tune was doing in the middle of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, look no further! How it could have been better This is a very minor point, but I would have liked more historical context for some of this. For example, at one point, he reminds his readers that Bach’s soprano would have been a boy. I’m not clear on which soprano he means—all of them? Or just one, for a particular piece of music? I’m also not clear as to why. Was that a common practice for Bach’s time? Was it a personal preference of his? Or did it come from the church? If so, would it have held for all the churches where he worked over the course of his career, or just the one who employed him at that specific time? Would things have been different for concert performances? As I said, it’s a minor point, but I was very curious. I was interested to know how the music would have been experienced in Bach’s own time. All in all, a wonderful book, meticulously researched. Informative and uplifting.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Libby

    I'm pretty sure this is brilliant. I'm pretty sure this is brilliant.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Antlitz

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jarrod

  7. 4 out of 5

    Per Sigve

  8. 4 out of 5

    Esther Waite

  9. 4 out of 5

    Monica Elim

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Louer

  12. 5 out of 5

    Larry Shackley

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  15. 5 out of 5

    TediyraBH

    9780802844729 ML410.B13 S73 2000

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jimmy

  17. 4 out of 5

    Quentin Parker

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  19. 4 out of 5

    wearyworld

  20. 5 out of 5

    N. Seth Nelson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Raymond Yee

  22. 4 out of 5

    Darryl Burling

  23. 5 out of 5

    Provichance

  24. 4 out of 5

    Clinton "Joe"

  25. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Jones

  26. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rick Davis

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bernard

  29. 5 out of 5

    Richard

  30. 4 out of 5

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  31. 5 out of 5

    Dory

  32. 4 out of 5

    Brian Collins

  33. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  34. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

  35. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

  36. 4 out of 5

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  37. 4 out of 5

    Steve Laube

  38. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  39. 5 out of 5

    bambi14

  40. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne

  41. 4 out of 5

    Nanda Andries

  42. 5 out of 5

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  43. 4 out of 5

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  44. 4 out of 5

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  45. 5 out of 5

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  46. 5 out of 5

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  47. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Park

  48. 4 out of 5

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