Recently, I led a five-part study on the “Music and Spirituality of J.S. Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn” for Pilgrim Baptist Fellowship. Although I have a great appreciation for music, I am an amateur on the subject. So, in my preparation for this series, I listened to a number of compositions by these musical geniuses. I was struck by the fact that I rarely “listen” to music; I simply hear it. Most of us “listen” to music as background noise while we do something else. No piece made this point more clear than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I was profoundly and deeply astounded by the richness, beauty and power in the music. In fact, I was moved to tears at one point in the piece. Bach’s adept arrangement of music and lyrics was incredibly affecting.
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was written in German, but I borrowed from the library a copy of the work in English. I was mesmerized by the piece. Up to this point in my foray into classical music, I underestimated the power of music. I think the greatest testimony of the power of music—particularly Bach’s Passion—can be seen in the life of Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847).
When Bach died in 1750, he was all but forgotten as a composer. He was more famous in his day as an organist and musician. Although he remained known among contemporary scholars of music, most considered his compositions far too difficult to play.
A young Jewish composer, Felix Mendelssohn, rediscovered Bach’s St. Matthew Passion about 70 years after Bach’s death. He was moved by the musical and dramatic aspects of the work; eventually, when he conducted an orchestra and choir of 400 to put on the Passion in Berlin in 1829, Mendelssohn was also deeply moved by the presentation of the gospel in the piece.
Mendelssohn’s parents had made a superficial conversion from Judaism to Christianity for economic and political reasons. Mendelssohn yearned for answers to his spiritual questions, but he only began to find direction in the music of J.S. Bach. Ultimately his conversion to Christianity is a direct result of his contact with Christ through the music of J.S. Bach. In a time where Lutheran clergy had abandoned their first love and aligned themselves with the prevailing theological fads, Mendelssohn only had the Bible and Bach. Mendelssohn was anchored firmly in his faith; his subsequent spiritual growth was also aided by studying the life of Martin Luther and by his friendship to a young seminary student named Julius Schubring.
It is encouraging to think of the impact music can have on people’s lives. About the Bible, Mendelssohn wrote that “everything there is fresh and true, and the method of expression always as good and fresh as it could possibly be.” Therefore, Mendelssohn argued, the music inspired by the Word should also be as good and fresh as it could possibly be.
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in English: Bach Choir and Thames Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir David Willcocks, (Decca 1979, CD 2008)