This past Sunday at my church we said farewell to our choir director, a wonderful young man who in his three or four years with us has made great improvements in the musical offerings.
He has gone to be choir director at a large church near Baltimore, and we wish him and his wife -- a great soprano -- well, though we will miss them a lot.
Today is almost the perfect day to be mourning the loss of a church musician because it's the anniversary of the death in 1750 of Johann Sebastian Bach (depicted here), who wrote some of the most marvelous and lasting sacred music.
It will not surprise you to learn that this native of Germany was a Lutheran, but I had forgotten until reading more about him recently how much of his music -- especially the most memorable work -- was written for a liturgical church setting.
Experts think his two most important works were his Mass in B Minor and his St. Matthew Passion (those are YouTube links to performance excerpts), which reminds me of something media critic and teacher Ben Bagdikian once said, which is that trying to be a first-rate writer on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele.
Well, church music and the culture generally have moved on since Bach's day, and now we have a much broader selection of music from which to draw (including from such countries as South Korea, from which our now-departed choir director came). We aren't limited to dead European composers. And yet some of them -- certainly Bach and Mozart among them -- have given marvelous and ongoing gifts to the church, and the 259th anniversary of Bach's death today is not a bad time to remember that.
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A LOOK AT HUSTON SMITH'S NEW BOOK
I'll soon be doing another blog book column about newly published volumes with religious topics, but one that I haven't read and won't be including in that collection is religion scholar Huston Smith's new autobiography, Tales of Wonder. So I offer you this review from the Boston Globe. It honors Smith's considerable accomplishments but thinks the book lacks emotional depth. I've read Smith's work, met him and heard him speak, and he's been a great gift to interfaith work. Smith has just turned 90.