J.S. Bach and the Pursuit of Excellence

The July/August 2010 issue of Modern Reformation (handed to me by a Presbyterian friend) has an interesting review of Eric Siblin’s new book on J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. The point of the review is that Siblin, a non-practicing Jew and former rock music critic, has been “converted” to the baroque music of the devout Lutheran composer.  Long jaded by the pop scene, “Siblin embarked on an almost decade-long obsession over what most serious musicologists consider the greatest solo instrumental set ever conceived: Bach’s six suites for Unaccompanied Cello.” The suites were rediscovered by the Spanish musician and conductor Pablo Cassals who practiced the pieces daily for twelve years before performing them in public in the 1930s. Apparently Siblin made a similar painstaking musical pilgrimage by trading in his electric guitar for a cello and learning to play the works himself.

The review applauds Siblin for his non-academic but thorough approach to Bach and the detective work that has gone into the suites (none of the original manuscripts survive). It also approves of the author’s respectful treatment of the composer’s faith. As important as it appears to the rest of us, Bach’s religion is a source of continuing embarrassment to uptight modern scholars. Siblin does not share that faith, but he learned to appreciate Bach’s lifelong striving for excellence as he practiced the suites, “trying to master something purely aesthetic, trying to break a code that connects us with something greater, more accomplished, more perfect than ourselves.” Unreformed Christians like myself hold Bach in equally high regard—and not only for works composed for Catholic patrons, like his magnificent Mass in B Minor.

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