A Prayer by Bach
One of the Minneapolis events I had been looking forward to attending during this interim time was the annual “Bach Birthday Bash,” a marathon of Bach’s organ works played at a number of different locations by different organists. That event was supposed to be held today, March 21, what would have been Bach’s 335th birthday (at least according to our present-day calendar).
But thanks to groups such as the Netherlands Bach Society and their ongoing “All of Bach” project, anyone can create and enjoy their own Bach marathon virtually anytime and anywhere. Unfortunately, though, not all of Bach’s music is yet available on their site. After all, Bach wrote quite a bit of music, and it takes lots of practice, preparation, and a fairly robust budget to complete such a project!
During these uncertain days, one piece of Bach’s that has returned again and again to my mind is his prelude on a sixteenth-century chorale by Paul Eber (1511-1569). The first two stanzas, in English, read:
whether we try early or late
for rescue from fear and want.
Bach’s setting is short – only nine measures long – and easily fits on a single page. It’s what organists call an “ornamented” chorale, in which the melody is made more complex through addition of many extra notes, flourishes, trills, turns, and other intricate maneuvers. But Bach didn’t ornament this tune just to be fancy. Rather, his ornaments capture the nature of prayer-of longing, of the rise and fall of the pray-er’s voice, the sometimes uneven cadence of speech, of breathlessness, of calm. And even though melody sometimes seems as if it does “not know which way to turn,” the supporting voices carry it along with a comforting, steady assurance. In anxious days-when our sighs are too deep for words-we trust confidently in God’s promise to receive our prayers.
Since this chorale prelude is not yet available on the All of Bach website, it’s offered here on our Mount Olive YouTube channel in a recording made this past Thursday with the help of Paul Nixdorf and David Molvik. As this piece has done for me over the years, may it offer you some measure of consolation, hope, and peace.