Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/21/2010

J.S. Bach’s Birthday, Computers, and the Death of the Church: I revert to the personal

Today is the day of the year that I teach my students (who, until they meet me, are totally ignorant of it) is the most important day in the Western calendar: The birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The fickleness of the first day of spring proves that Bach’s birthday is the most important date on our calendar. We are so imprecise in understanding the real nature of life that we can’t even figure out how to arrange our calendar so the first day of spring falls on the same date every year. This year it was last night, not on the 21st. Bach’s Birthday, however, falls on March 21 every year. On that we can rely.

This year that reliability is one of the few truths I have left to hang onto.

Anyone who does not understand why the birth of Bach is the most important day to mark in the calendar should not be reading what I write. Even the day the Western world celebrates the birth of Jesus pales in significance—partly because we don’t have a clue when it happened. Bach’s birthday, on the other hand, is a matter of fact.

J.S. Bach lived a life of quiet obscurity. He didn’t blog. He didn’t worship at the feet of Sarah Palin. He didn’t have an iPhone. He couldn’t even get a good job because he didn’t have a degree from the Meadows School of the Arts (or any other college). When he wanted to move from Weimar to Cöthen for a better job, the Duke of Weimar threw him in prison for a month. He presented what is easily the greatest body of orchestral music of the Baroque (maybe ever) to the Margrave of Brandenburg as sort of a C.V. in hopes of getting a job in the big city (Berlin), but the Margrave apparently didn’t even read the cover letter. So Bach lived, one might say, “a life of quiet desperation.” He was perhaps desperate—misunderstood, belittled, under-appreciated, poor and, to all accounts, not happy—but he was NOT quiet.

When I was in graduate school, the faculty told me that, if I wanted to continue the organ performance degree program I was in, I would have to play an all-Bach recital because they didn’t like the way I played Bach’s music. I could see the handwriting on the wall. So I changed programs. And I have continued for thirty years playing Bach’s music the way I play Bach’s music. Somewhat the way Albert Schweitzer played it—too slowly to satisfy modern organists, without all the picky picky picky articulations and other niceties of the “authentic performance” school, too “romantically” in general. Hearing me play, you might think that Harald Vogel had never existed. Well, I have some not very gentlemanly words for all of that which I will not write here.

When we were kids in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, our dad’s church had a perennial problem with finding and keeping an organist who met Dad’s expectations. I’ve tried to figure out recently exactly what those expectations were and how he came by them. He certainly was never pastor of a church that had a fine music program. Nevertheless, he wanted an organist who could play (hymns especially) so the electronic instruments in those small-town churches sounded like pipe organs. Once we had an organist who had a degree (not in music, but she had studied organ) from a Baptist college in Kansas. She was pretty good, as I recall. I liked hearing her play.

She had played some at the Methodist Church, the largest in town (except for the Catholic Church, which didn’t count). She got tired of that because people said all she ever played was Bach (they mistook anything that didn’t sound country-western or like a jig in 6/8 time for “Bach”) and they didn’t like her stuffy playing. So she came back to our church, where she played lots of different kinds of music, once in awhile Bach. She talked to me once (maybe more than once) about the limited experience of music of the people in our town, and how that made it impossible to try to improve the style of music in the church.

I’ve been fighting against those limitations ever since.

The late 20th-century movement to make music in the church less artistic and more accessible to the “seekers” whom churches need to stay in business is absolutely, without question, the same as the music those people at the Methodist Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, wanted to hear. I am so sick of playing music in 6/8 time (the music for the liturgy at my church sounds exactly like the Gospel hymns I played in the ‘60s—only it’s not that much fun; sorry, Marty Haugen) I could scream or, better yet, finally trust the instincts I’ve had for thirty years and get out of church music altogether.

It takes a composer of Bach’s caliber to create music in 6/8 time that doesn’t sound like a jig. I’ll bet not one person who heard me play the B Minor Prelude (BWV 544) in the last month had a sense that she was listening to a Gigue. Maybe that’s the fault of my performance. But I think it’s because the music is complex enough that the mind has to be engaged, not just the feet, in order to comprehend it.

But I should not judge people who do not comprehend the intricacies of music. Music (in spite of all the millions [trillions] of songs recorded on peoples’ iPods) is not the intellectual/artistic language of the 21st century.  I don’t comprehend the modern intellectual world, so why should I expect people who have not studied it to an insane degree to understand the artistic/intellectual language of the 18th century?

Computer language is the language of the 21st century, and I’m illiterate. I can’t figure out how to get Outlook Express on this computer I’m using right now (it’s available, they say). I can’t figure out why my PC died or how to get my files off of it (or even how to get it to someone who can; if I unplug it will my Ethernet connection to this laptop die?). I don’t get it.

What’s my point? The church, as it has done since Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. (his religious fervor is matched in hypocrisy only by the religious fervor of recent American emperors), always plays catch-up with “secular” society. Period. And all those people who think they are saving or modernizing or whatever they’re doing with the church by singing jigs and having services in languages other than English, and all of that nonsense are simply prolonging the death of an institution that needs to die so Western society can get back to some kind of spiritual quest that makes sense. Let the computers take over and forget the jigs.

My spiritual quest. I’ll admit I’m slipping back into some sort of depression—whether or not it’s a manifestation of bipolar disorder remains to be seen. I think it’s grief. Grief at having stuck with the church instead of with old Sebastian Bach all these years. And now my particular outpost of the church is killing itself off. All this time I could have been playing music in 6/8 time that sounds as if it’s part of creation instead of music in 6/8 time that sounds as if it’s part of the mollification of the masses. The masses who want Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert instead of Bach.


  1. I learned a lot from your post. I hope the darkness lifts soon. If it doesn’t let me know.



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