From: Music As Prayer
I once attended an organ recital by my colleague Martin Jean that exclusively featured the music of Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707). I was eager to hear this concert because J. S. Bach – while a young organist at Arnstadt – had walked two hundred miles to hear Buxtehude perform his own music in the city of Lübeck. Although I often listen to Bach, I had never heard an all-Buxtehude concert. Since Martin Jean would be performing on an organ styled after those of the great North European organ builder Arp Schnitger, I thought his recital would be a wonderful way to enter a sonic universe that had held Bach so enthralled that he overstayed his paid furlough from the church in Arnstadt by two or possibly three months. His superiors were not happy with their young employee, particularly since they also had complaints about how the twenty-year-old Bach “has introduced many strange variations into the chorale, and mixed many strange tones, such that the congregation has been confused thereby.” (Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, Geck Martin)
Bach understood his stay in Lübeck to be for his own musical development. As he explained to his employers, he went there to understand various things in his art. So I hoped that listening to an all-Buxtehude recital would fill me with the sounds that must have been replaying themselves in Bach’s vivid musical mind as he returned to Arnstadt. Driving home after the recital, I did not turn on the car radio as I usually do. All I wanted was to listen to the memories of the music I had heard and to imagine the young Bach already beginning to consider how he might use and further develop what he had learned from Buxtehude.
Reflecting on the snatches of melody and harmony that returned to me from the Buxtehude recital, I began to realize as never before that we hear music before we make music. All musicians are indebted to the musicians who first put musical sounds in their ears. Bach owed a debt to Buxtehude and to a score of other musicians whose work also influenced his own. The more I thought about all the musicians who have preceded us, the more I came to see that we are carrying on a performance that started ages before we played or sang our first note.
An image then arose in my mind from my religious tradition that is repeated every week in the common prayer of the church I attend. Immediately before the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) the celebrant says, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of Heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name.” I found myself creating a variation on these words, “Therefore will all the company of musicians through the ages including…Buxtehude and Bach and…let us play and sing to proclaim the glory of your name.” I have written ellipses so you can add the names of musicians before and after Buxtehude and Bach. Who will you put there? Be sure to include your music teachers and those performers and composers who have especially captured your musical imagination and have inspired you to refine your art.
You never play or sing alone. Sitting on the organ bench or standing in the choir or the congregation, you are surrounded by a great cloud – the whole company of musicians – and practicing an art that goes all the way back to “when the morning stars sang together and all the Heavenly beings shouted for joy.” (Job 38:7)