22 November 2012

St Cecilia, Johann Sebastian Bach, and the Swiss connection

St Cecilia and the Angel, Carlo Saraceni, c.1610 (Web Gallery of Art)

St Cecilia, whose feast day it is today,22 November, is the patron saint of musicians. She was martyred probably in Sicily between 176 and 180 and is included in the second list of martyrs in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I).

Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart. So said Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886 - 1968). 

A younger Swiss contemporary of Barth, Catholic theologian Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 - 1988) who died two days before Blessed Pope John Paul II was to have made him a cardinal, wrote: Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only 'finds' the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.

Very recently I came across a Swiss cellist with a very 'un-Swiss' name, Wen-Sinn Yang, whose parents came from Taiwan. He is a cellist and his instrument is a cousin of that which the angel in Saraceni's painting is holding. That seems to be a six-stringed double bass. Modern instruments in the violin family have only four.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 -1750) wrote an enormous amount of music, much of it for Sunday worship in the Lutheran churches in Leipzig. Among his works are six cello suites, which didn't really become known until the last century. Here Wen-Sinn Yang plays Bach's Cello suite No 1 in G major.

During the month of November we pray for the dead in a special way. I often think that we forget to pray for public and historical figures. We should pray for the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach and live in the hope that we will join him in praising God for all eternity. Praising God through music was at the very centre of his life on earth and his music continues to give us some experience of the beauty of God.

The grave of Johann Sebastian Bach in St Thomas' Church, Leipzig, Germany

A Happy Thanksgiving Day to American Readers!

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