Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)
I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish. We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).
For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.
I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:
- He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
- He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!
On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example. Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)
Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)
You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band! Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”
What does this say for worship, if not also for life?
We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)
The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!
Similarly, the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir. For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.