Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, June 25, 2011

“Johann Sebastian Bach” by Rick Marschall (Thomas Nelson “Christian Encounters” Series)

This slim volume comes from a series of short biographies entitled “Christian Encounters”, issued by Thomas Nelson, a major publisher of religious books. The series examines the Christian lives of famous people, some obvious (such as Saints Patrick, Francis, and Nicholas), some less so (Jane Austen, Galileo, for example). Johann Sebastian Bach probably falls somewhere in the middle, because while he was not a clergyman as such, a considerable percentage of his musical output - and his life as a whole - was devoted to the church.

As one might expect, this book is deliberately slanted toward a Christian readership rather than the academic musicology audience. Author Rick Marschall, who has a definite gift for reducing complex issues to easily understandable basics without downplaying their true complexity, intends to show that not only did Bach write much music for the specific purpose of worship, even Bach’s secular music was composed with the thought of praising God, and was written under the guidance of divine inspiration.

He makes his case, and he does it very well, if sometimes a bit repetitiously. But in the process, he has come up with an interesting book that may have a difficult time reaching out beyond its target market. While he effectively encapsulates the major events in the composer’s life (adding a few less crucial, but entertaining anecdotes to add color and humanity to his subject), there simply isn’t space in a book this size for the kind of detail and original research an academically-oriented reader would demand from a biography of a major intellectual figure. Moreover, while there is some light analysis and streamlined explanation of concepts from music theory and music history with which a general readership might not be familiar, he makes no attempt to really dig into the sort of intricate technical examination that a college music professor would like to see.

But this is not really a criticism, since the book was not written for scholars, but for the intelligent layman, particularly Christian readers who love Bach’s music and want to know more about the man and the impetus behind his music. Marschall carefully guides these readers through sacred and secular compositions, relating them to events in Bach’s life, exploding a few common myths along the way. For instance, he makes it clear that Bach was not a failure in his time, though his greatest renown outside his home territory was as an organist. He also makes it clear that the reason Bach fell out of fashion almost immediately after his death in 1750 is that the dominant styles in music changed drastically right around that time, not necessarily because he was considered a less-than-worthy composer. We also see how highly regarded Bach was by the major musical figures of the Romantic Era, so that his 20th-century “revival” was more an expansion to a mass-media level, rather than a re-discovery of a totally forgotten figure, as has often been portrayed. The scholars know all this already, but the casual fan may have been misled by less fastidious comments in the popular press. (I know I was deceived on these points during Bach’s burst of popularity in the late 1960’s.) It’s good to have a popularly-written book settle these matters for the general reader.

For the right audience - which need not be limited to the “solid-core” evangelical Christian book reader - this will be a most welcome examination of an often misinterpreted major figure, one who self-identified as a Christian and wrote his music - not as an artistic expression for his own glory - but for what he saw as the glory of God. This thought colored Bach’s work, therefore it colors this book, and author Rick Marschall is perfectly justified in steering this delightful little book in this direction.

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