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On-line Book Review



Dimension: 23.4 x 15.8 x 1.8 cm
TITLE My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach by Calvin R. Stapert
PUBL. DETAILS Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, USA, March 2000. xviii+241p. Paperback; Price: $16.00 / £10.99
ISBN 0-8028-4472-3
TO ORDER Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Papids, MI 49503, USA / Alban Books, 79 Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5PF, UK
DESCRIPTION A unique monograph providing some background information of Bach’s musical language and discussing a selection of Bach's sacred works from a theological angle.
WORKS COVERED BWV 4, 12, 29, 34, 39, 56, 61, 77, 140, 147, 171, 199, 213, 232, 244-5, 248, 552, 599-644, 669-689, 802-805, 971, 988, 1046-51 (plus numerous brief references to other works)
READERSHIP Music students and amateur listeners
Unique theological approach (from a viewpoint of Calvinism) to Bach’s sacred vocal works

As the title suggests, this book appears to be no ordinary monograph. The author, whose name I have never encountered previously in the literature of Bach studies, is a Calvinist (an opposing faction of Lutherans in Bach’s time), and the title of the book was apparently drawn from the Heidelberg Catechism. We know that Bach in his life had some problems with Calvinism. It is not this aspect that the author discusses in this book, however. What the author actually intends to do is to introduce some of Bach’s vocal works to a wider audience who would listen to them with devotion, the experience the author himself gathered over the years from the very act.
Contents in brief
"Essential" and "Canonical" Bach; Bach the Theologian; Bach's Musical Language; Cantatas; Motets; Chorale Preludes; Passions and Oratorios; Mass in B minor
Prologue: My Only Comfort
Part I: Death
Part II: Deliverance
What Kind of Deliverer?; What Must a Christian Believe?; Birth of Jesus; Death of Jesus; Resurrection of Jesus
Part III: Discipleship
Coming-to-Life of the New Self; Anointed to Confess His Name; Anointed to Be a Living Sacrifice; Anointed to Reign with Him Eternally
Works Cited
Unique theological approach 
The opening section ‘introduction’ occupies about one fourth of the book; in it the author discusses concisely the aspects that are important for the understanding of Bach’s musical language. His writing style is clear and well structured, and with this he is successful in making his points. The fact that he quotes many passages from well-known Bach literatures (most notably Terry and Boyd) contributes significantly to his modest but reliable style of writing. 
This is followed by a brief discussion on each genre of Bach’s sacred works, which is mostly excellent (except his discussion of ‘Chorale Preludes’ which is rough and somewhat misrepresented; there is also an unfortunate mix-up of the characters of two main Passions on p. 38).

The main section of the book is devoted to the detailed discussion of Bach’s vocal works. For each work he discusses, he provides some quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism that he considers relevant (and hence he put the sub-title ‘catechism’ for this chapter). By focusing on the theological substance of each work (in particular its context, the text used in the work and its architecture or ‘chiastic construction’), the author’s personal appreciation of Bach’s music is powerfully presented. His commentaries are both logical and perceptive.

Having read this book, I am inclined to agree with the author who claims that ‘far from experiencing dissonance between Calvinist preaching based on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Lutheran preaching of Bach, I found them very much in accord. The preaching I heard in the Calvinist churches I attended and the music of Bach I listened to at home still seem to me to be very much in harmony.’ It makes me think that there are far more elements common between Calvin and Lutheran schools than we have previously thought.

Published on-line on 4 May 2001

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