Have you ever wondered what the great composers dealth with while composing their masterpieces? Dr. Bettina Varwig, musicologist and lecturer in early modern music at the University of Cambridge has the answers. Varwig visited Baylor Monday afternoon as a part of the Lyceum Series. Her presentation was focused on examining some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s religious music and the debate surrounding it.
Varwig opened her presentation by explaining the historical context during which Bach composed much of his music. Bach lived in Germany relatively soon after Protestantism began spreading through Europe. As a member of the Lutheran church, a younger denomination that was working to establish its theological understandings, Bach was often subjugated to scrutiny from authorities in the denomination. The primary point of controversy was whether or not music used in literagy needed words or not to still constitute as worship.
“[Bach] was required to sign a contract which contained a number of courses to try and contatin any undue musical excesses,” Varwig said. “He was to arrange the music so that it would not last too long and be of such a nature as to not give an operatic impression.”
Some felt that too intricate of musical accompaniment would detract from the words which were the substance of worship. Others argued that the instrumental composition itself could be worship.
“Music seemed to stretch beyond the liturgical words’ usefulness and towards a sense of artistic self sufficiency,” Varwig said.
Using Bach’s cantata 180, Varwig highlighted how Bach worked to unify the music and the words by employing various techniques that mirrored the words, like heightened rhythm when the words addressed God knocking on the heart of a believer.
In response, some critics changed their tune, Varwig said. Some even suggested, using an archaic perspective on human anatomy, that the music itself could permeate the pores of men and women and enter their heart and mind.
Varwig allowed the audience to ask questions regarding her presentation, one of which hinted at her stance on the issue.
“There is something potentially mysterious that escapes capture through words and concepts,” Varwig said.
According to the website, Baylor School of Music’s Lyceum Series, funded by the Meadows Foundation of Dallas and initiated in 1976, is designed to offer the Baylor community the opportunity to hear and learn from some of the most important people in the world of music today. A percussion master class, a lecture concerning opera and others have already been featured in the series this semester.