Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Naina Yeltsin after his performance in an opera
There is abundant evidence that Bach’s dominant motivation as a composer was religious. In his Bible he wrote, “With devotional music, God is always present in his grace.” In his religious music, he might write abbreviations for “Jesus, help” or “To God alone be the glory”; and even introducing a secular book of keyboard exercises he wrote, “In the name of Jesus”; and he defined the aim of the theory of harmony as “to produce a well-sounding harmony to the glory of God and the permissible delight of the spirit.”
For all his religious devotion, we see balance in Bach in several ways. Bach was trained in Lutheran theology, but in the text for his B Minor Mass he omitted points that fueled theologically controversy and emphasized themes that expressed life’s depths.
A relaxed, every-day, down-to-earth tone is evident in the religiosity of a poem that Bach may have written, which is printed in the Second Little Clavier Book for Anna Magdalena Bach (1725) and titled “Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker.” In five stanzas, the speaker in the poem reflects that he is similar to his pipe, made of earth. Here is the sixth, concluding stanza.
Thus o’er my pipe, in contemplation
Of such things, I can constantly
Indulge in fruitful meditation,
And so, puffing contentedly,
On land, on sea, at home, abroad,
I smoke my pipe and worship God.
Commenting on Bach’s method of composition, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel observed that “the approach taken by his father never reflected the tensed-up, arduous, and compulsive attitude of a fanatic but served, instead, to provide him with fun and, often, a playful intellectual pastime . . . .” Such balance is essential to artistic living.
Bach’s sense of humor is evident in the Coffee Cantata, composed for performance by Bach’s Collegium at a Leipzig coffeehouse. Coffee houses were the rage in Europe, and coffee was praised by Enlightenment enthusiasts for its powers of restoring reason after indulgence in wine. The text presents a playful dialogue between a scolding father and his daughter who passionately likes drinking coffee, which she says is “sweeter than a thousand kisses.” The father warns that the daughter will find no husband until she renounces coffee, and she secretly promises that she will marry no one without a contract that she can make coffee as often as she likes. In the end, the male chauvinism of the father is challenged by three generations, daughter, mother, and grandmother, each one loyal to coffee.
How does humor help balance religion in your life?