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Bach and Wagner: Two Contrasting Musicians

Alan D. Strange

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) wrote extraordinary sacred music: passions based on each of the four evangelists, the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat, those incomparable organ works for church, and cantatas galore.

He also wrote many pieces not for church—to name a few, the Goldberg Variations and other keyboard masterpieces, the Brandenburg Concerti, tons of partitas, preludes, suites, fugues, inventions, and, one of the most purely joyful little pieces of music I can think of, the Badinerie of his Orchestral Suite No. 2, BWV 1067. Bach dedicated all, whether for the church or not, Soli Deo Gloria, “glory to God alone,” and is widely recognized not only as one of the greatest sacred composers but also as one of the greatest composers ever (not a few, in fact, have placed him at number one).

John Eliot Gardiner on J. S. Bach

This is why a book on him by one of his great modern interpreters, John Eliot Gardiner, is welcomed by all music lovers. In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner shows Bach to be not only a great composer but a great man, a man of faith although a man not without flaws, a man who gave his all to the service of Christ and the Lutheran church. Gardiner’s account of Bach and his music is not that of a fellow believer but of an admirer who gives a fair, and very human, account of this peerless titan. Gardiner has written a work accessible to the non-musician (it is not laden with musical illustrations and technical terminology) in which he weaves life and music together in an organic whole befitting such an integrated life as Bach’s.

Gardiner admits that the man Bach remains an enigma and that, ultimately, we know him chiefly through his music, of which Bach was also a skilled performer. Gardiner, too, is a skilled performer of Bach, and has strong conviction about Bach’s music that stems from his own performance decisions. He approaches Bach not just as a careful student, but with the sensibility of a performer.

Roger Scruton on Richard Wagner

Many, if forced in a musical word association game to name Bach’s antithesis, might well say Richard Wagner. Wagner (1813–1883) was as dishonorable as Bach was honorable. He was clearly an anti-Semite and many read that as the meaning of his music. Enter philosopher Roger Scruton, not to defend what is indefensible in Wagner, but to argue in his recent book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a “regrettable weakness rather than the heart of what he was as an artist and a man” (11).

If that appears to be some sort of special pleading, I would argue that we can appreciate contributions in a variety of fields even by those with serious flaws. Wagner’s genius is undisputed in the musical transformation he achieved, enabling music to express emotion in a hitherto undiscovered way.

Music, like the other arts (and all disciplines), develops in ways that might be said to be regressive and progressive. The regressive can be seen in the Enlightenment fall away from faith evinced in so much that followed Bach. One need only think of the Classical and Romantic eras. Certainly, impious Mozart and atheistic Beethoven are a far sight from godly Bach. Yet both Mozart and Beethoven evince progressive tendencies as well, developing musical forms beyond Bach and flourishing in the increasing size of musical forces (particularly the orchestra). One never gets to Wagner, in other words, without coming through, especially, Beethoven, whom Wagner adored (as did almost everyone else), seeing himself as his successor.

The listener will certainly never find in Wagner the kind of sheer exuberance that abounds in Bach. But one will discover there a kind of longing, from the four-minute double bass opening with increasingly elaborate figurations of the E flat major chord of Das Rheingold (at the creation of the world) to the unbearable longing of the closing chords of Götterdämmerung (at the destruction of the world).

Nietzsche charged Wagner with fraud, of writing melodrama not drama, of “injecting unjustified emotions into situations that, judged in themselves, are too thin and schematic to merit our concern” (296). Scruton objects to Nietzsche’s criticism in a measure, but it is certainly valid to observe that all of Wagner’s drama, and every other story outside of the gospel, never warrants what its writers and admirers want to find in it. What they want to find can only be found in the gospel. Wagner’s subject matter, frankly, can never bear the weight of his music, which points beyond his pallid mythologies to a supernaturalism that everyone with eternity in his heart finds lacking in the mere naturalism of modernism or the hyped-up evanescence of post-modernism.

All Great Art Tells the Truth

What one cannot find in Wagner’s drama, then, one does find in Wagner’s music, which is not a positive testament to the gospel but an aching ode to its absence. In spite of himself, Wagner tells the truth in his music, especially in his masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung. All that is transcendently there, and that the drama cannot bear, points to something else, something besides and beyond itself, testifying that all great art tells the truth, either explicitly as in Bach, or in spite of itself, as in Wagner. Wagner was not a religious believer, but he “took a profoundly religious view of the human condition” (7). He denies the God who is there, but has to create something in God’s place, something that points to him though falling short, but still a far sight better than the kind of aesthetic bankruptcy that an unimaginative scientism (á la Dawkins, Dennett, and company) yields.

In listening just now to a superb performance of the Immolation scene at the end of the Ring, I am struck afresh with how full of promise never realized, of something reached for yet never touched, this music is. The wistfulness of the theme in the high strings (joined by the woodwinds then brass) is heartbreaking. It cannot deliver what it promises, but then neither can anything in this world. Only our great God can deliver, here and, supremely, in the world to come.

Bach lived in the “already” of faith, enraptured with the not-yet of fulfillment, while Wagner lived where the unbeliever lives in the highest: straining for something more than this fallen world permits, yet always unable to reach it apart from the faith that he rejected. Perhaps he realized that shortfall and sought to make up for it otherwise—by recovering the old Germany of the Holy Roman Empire in the joyful music of Die Meistersinger or even in the pursuit of the redemption that is ours in Christ, albeit misguidedly, in the ethereal music of Parsifal.

Geniuses in Their Own Right

I can imagine many objecting to considering the saintly Bach and the iniquitous Wagner in the same article, but both men were geniuses in their own right, contributing enormously to music in their own times and afterward. They both received remarkable gifts from God, Bach acknowledging such and giving God praise for it, contrasted with Wagner, who acknowledged, in true Romantic fashion, only his own greatness, and denied God.

Wherever Wagner ended up, both Bach and he in their own different ways impacted not only German music but all music in a way that continues profoundly to affect us all today. John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Scruton are worthy guides of these musical giants and good places to begin if you want an introduction to Bach’s works and Wagner’s Ring. Enjoy!

The author, an OP minister, is a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner, is published by Alfred A. Knopf (2015). The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, by Roger Scruton, is published by Overlook Press (2017). The author quotes from the Penguin UK edition (2016). New Horizons, December 2017.

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