Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday (March 21, 2020)

In the midst of our present uncertainties, it is helpful to remember that God’s Creation is still a thing of goodness and beauty. And God has given us — some more than others — the capacity to discover and amplify the goodness and beauty implicit in Creation to a glorious level. One notably gifted servant of Creation’s and the Creator’s glory was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we celebrate today.

Consider Bach’s achievement in a larger context discussed by philosopher Josef Pieper. In his book In Tune with the World, Pieper wrote:

Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself. Naturally, this approval need not be a product of conscious reflection; it need not be formulated at all. Nevertheless, it remains the sole foundation for festivity, no matter what happens to be celebrated in concreto. And as the radical nature of negation deepens, and consequently as anything but ultimate arguments become ineffectual, it becomes more necessary to refer to this ultimate foundation. By ultimate foundation I mean the conviction that the prime festive occasion, which alone can ultimately justify all celebration, really exists; that, to reduce it to the most concise phrase, at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist. For man cannot have the experience of receiving what is loved, unless the world and existence as a whole represent something good and therefore beloved to him.”

And later, he sums up his claim: “To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.”

In 1733, Bach composed a cantata for a specific festive occasion: the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony. The text in one of the arias sung by the soprano soloist proclaims: “This festival demands joy that feeds both spirit and mind.” And Bach did not disappoint. The opening chorus of Cantata #214, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (“Resound, ye drums! Ring out, ye trumpets!”), captures the spirit of festivity so successfully that Bach later re-purpiosed the music for the opening chorus of his Christmas Oratorio. As musicologist Julian Mincham writes, “The sweeping exhilaration of this movement is impossible to describe in words: urgently repeated notes, flashing scale passages and a grinding bass line all playing their part in generating the excitement of the occasion.”

So to celebrate Bach’s birthday — and to affirm the goodness of existence — here’s a performance of Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! It is sung by the Collegium Vocale conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, with Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Sebastian Noack, bass. The text to the cantata can be found here.