Correspondence to Peter Libby, MD, division of Cardiovascular Medicine, department of Medicine, Brigham and also Women’s Hospital, Harvard medical School, 77 Ave louis Pasteur, Boston, MA 02115. Email E-mail Address:

From the department of Cardiovascular Medicine, room of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard medical School, Boston, MA.

You are watching: J. s. bach’s church cantatas are single-movement works.


Originally published25 Apr 2019https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.119.315025Circulation Research. 2019;124:1303–1308

Times were hard in the at an early stage 18th century in the says that we now recognize as Germany. The brutal Thirty Years’ war had ruined the lands and also the people.1 Epidemics of pestilence consisting of Y. Pestis infections had actually bedeviled the populace. Son mortality was tragically high. The medication of the moment offered few effective therapies. Illnesses that we have the right to prevent now with vaccination and control readily with modern remedies too often led to early on death, chronic wellness challenges, and disability. In one era prior to antibiotics, antidepressants, and also psychotherapy, plenty of sought solace in ~ Sunday services at church.

In the Saxon city Leipzig, a bustling commercial and also intellectual center, martin Luther’s ecclesiastic legacy loomed large. Leipzig boasted a prominent university, and also as a crossroads of commerce hosted critical trade same (Leipziger Messe) thrice yearly. The college was the cradle of Leibnitz, who incubated the concepts of the calculus, and also originated the notation us still use routinely in cardiology, together in dP/dt.

The cantor at the city’s major churches native 1723–1750, Johann Sebastian Bach, throughout a blazing, breathtaking, and prodigious period of productivity in the beforehand 1720s created over 2 yearly cycles that church cantatas because that performance during the weekly Sunday services. Close to 200 church cantatas of Bach survive, most composed during just his first 2 years together the Leipzig cantor. As much as 40% the this oeuvre is lost. The text and messages of this musical interludes coincided to the sermon predicated by the church calendar for the specific Sunday that performance.

These works make up of a series of musical numbers that together usually last some 20 come 30 minutes. Plenty of start through stating a problem, often a human dilemma of belief or very, an extremely frequently confronting suffering, hardship, psychological anguish, illness, or death as dictated by the holy bible reading for the day. The pieces normally wend their way, frequently on a tortured path, to finish in a sort of resolution, reconciliation, or resignation. The musical numbers incorporate arias (sung through one or a couple of soloists), linked by recitatives and also ariosos (commentaries much more akin to speaking). Bach’s church cantatas usually finish with a chorale, a an easy tune an extremely familiar to the congregation because childhood, however harmonized by Bach through unequaled skill and variety. The chorale thus noted a measure up of closure and also comfort and also served as punctuation come the emotional and also spiritual journey simply traversed.

This structure of a common Bach church cantata, akin to a Euclidian math proof, regularly leads to a cathartic conclusion, the prescription for progression of a play for the theater placed forth by Aristotle in his Poetics. Bach operated with a variety of librettists who wrote the liturgical poetry appropriate to the class of that specific Sunday’s sermon. The best texts permitted Bach to attain to a sublime union in between the words, music, and emotion.


Bach’s spiritual Vocal Works aided the Congregation deal with Illness, Suffering, and Death

Given the historical and also liturgical context, that is not surprising the suffering and death preoccupy this outpouring the Bach’s church cantatas. Many congregants, choose Bach himself, likely had close an individual experience with beforehand loss that parents, children, and a spouse. Death and also daily struggle with condition were commonplace. Bach was orphaned at period 10, shed his an initial wife, and although the sired 20 children, only half survived to adulthood.2,3 In our interactions through patients as physicians, us strive this particular day to incorporate our clinical art with reassurance and also encouragement. I argue that with the weekly battles with the human condition he gift to congregants, Bach offered his music together a balm and also solace, probably for himself, and certainly for his audience. Bach was a healer that his time.


Lessons to us Today across the century From a Masterful music Communicator

Bach together a understand communicator provided words and also music come convey his messages in his cantatas and the larger scale choral works (Passions, Masses, and Oratorios). His ability to connect his audience has endured over 300 years. Countless of united state in medication strive to connect effectively v each other and also with our patients. We have the right to only hope that our medical and also scientific message remain appropriate for a few years, much less for number of centuries. What lessons deserve to we have from Bach’s functions that have the right to teach united state to be much more effective communicators (Table 1)? the is hardly outlandish for us to seek lessons in rhetoric from Bach’s music, as much of the concept of Baroque music borrowed from the then supreme academic pursuit the rhetoric, based on Cicero and Quintilian.4 ns have currently alluded to one technique: offering a grounding in familiarity. The basic Lutheran chorale tunes regularly centuries old (some written by Luther self in the 1500s, eg, “A Mighty Fortress Is ours God”) not only usually finish a cantata, however often weave into the facility fabric the the arias and also choruses. Bach’s audience knew the canon the chorale melody the means an American institution child knows the classic Christmas carols, or as a continual churchgoer to know the familiar hymns.


Table 1. What could a contemporary Medical Communicator Learn about Audience Engagement from a Musical grasp of the Past?

Mix the familiar with the new.
Strive because that variety.
Offer something understandable and also appealing come audience members varying from beginner to connoisseurs.
Think in class of contents in preparing a presentation to attach with every levels that listeners.
No matter exactly how intricate the underlying message and also mechanisms, we need to strive to make our presentations seem effortless and also smooth. It is our task to work-related to do the audience’s part easier.
Do not be afraid to use rhythm and melody in clinical presentations: modulate her voice, differ the pitch and also tempo, and use pauses to keep the audience rapt and receptive to your message.

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Figure. This main portrait by E.G. Hoffman dated 1748 is an authentic depiction that Bach from life. whereas an aristocrat might pick a portrayal with a sword, Bach made decision to organize a page of music, his very own weapon of choice. The music ~ above the page that the Leipzig cantor display screens holds great interest. That is a riddle or puzzle Canon, a triplex canon because that 6 voices, an overwhelming viewers to realize the piece from the ideas depicted. Fermat left a proposition for posterity come solve, Bach concerns a an obstacle to settle the puzzle on the web page he holds in his portrait. Not incidentally, the portrait pointedly calls attention his mastery of counterpoint. For one systems to his musical puzzle and also some that the legends and history behind this portrait see http://www.projectawe.org/blog/2015/9/1/the-13th-canon-portrait-of-js-bach (last accessed on January 27, 2019). The futurist thinker and astronomer Carl Sagan as soon as queried the physician-biologist Lewis Thomas as to what he would incorporate in the spaceship Voyager come send an emblem that human achievement to the Universe. Cutting board is reputed to have replied “The complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach … yet that would certainly be boasting.”1

The music numbers, although hardly secular in Bach’s church cantatas, often use the rhythms the the famous dance develops of the day. Ns imagine numerous congregants in the Sunday audience would acknowledge the rhythmic frameworks they could have danced to in ~ a Saturday party the night before: for example, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet, bourée, siciliana, gavotte, and also jig. The dance frameworks may have actually helped Bach compose when, confronting a deadline and facing a empty sheaf of paper ruled v musical staves, the pondered the message he necessary to collection to music. Perhaps he found some incentive by imagining what dance would certainly fit through the atmosphere of the message and scan with the meter of the words. This liberal use of dance forms listed another facet of familiarity to package the blog post for the audience. Once we convey brand-new or an overwhelming information come each other or come our patients, we deserve to use simple analogy or references to the familiar to aid get our post across.

Bach, together did his contemporaries, used word painting broadly to underscore the an interpretation of the native musically. Downward musical lines can depict physical or ethical descent: because that example, Adam’s fall (BWV 637) or spreading the powerful from your thrones: “Deposuit potentes de sede (BWV 243 #7).” increasing lines depicted ascent (eg, come heaven, to the mountain of Olives ), or uplifting the downtrodden in “… et exaltavit humiles.” (BWV 243 #7). Us hear teardrops in the flutes accompanying the native “my teardrops” .” The sound of flow water in the instruments accompanies the words “Streams of salty tears …. .” reference to Judas’ betrayal in the good St. Matthew passion compares the traitorous apostle come a snake, whose reptilian motion the sinuous vocal line evokes (BWV 244 #8).

Bach supplied notes international to the residence musical key to emphasize specific words. Mention of Christ’s overcome invariably requires a sharp note (the German word because that which is Kreutz: cross.) The rate “trub” in words pertained to darkness or trouble is almost always ~ above an unforeseen accidental or a somber blue note, commanding the listener’s attention. In number of cantatas, the tools imitate the ringing that funeral bells. The instances go on and also on. When we existing to an audience, return we carry out not sing, we have the right to take a lesson indigenous the baroque composers, and modulate ours voices to loan our indigenous dramatic weight based upon their definition and to stop monotony. Heart imagery abounds in Bach’s vocal works. Countless cantatas (ca. 8) and many arias also have words heart (Herz) in the title, yet an thorough exploration of the aspect, beyond the scope of this article, will call for a separate essay.

Bach’s works, like much an excellent art, operate on plenty of levels. He had actually to appeal to a an extremely diverse audience, as execute we this particular day in our technological presentations. Bach’s audience consisted of the clergy, merchants, city folk, and professors in ~ the significant Leipzig University. The surface layer of the cantatas appealed to all—melody (what melodies!), acquainted rhythms, and the comfort of the chorales. But beneath the veneer, the cantatas save on computer complexities that assist explain why these pieces endure, even if the listener is not aware of or walk not recognize the mechanics at occupational beneath the superficial appeal. The pieces have installed within structures and also harmonic complexities the intrigue, catch us, and also draw us into the subject matter, also if unconsciously for those who absence formal acquaintance through musical theory. In Bach’s music, number of strata of musical lines usually operate simultaneously.

In this regard, one cannot talk about Bach’s music without pointing out counterpoint. Contrapuntal music involves an ext than one musical line or voice (polyphony) and uses imitation between the voices according to rules of various levels of strictness. Official contrapuntal constructs incorporate fugues (from the Latin for trip in the feeling of chase) and canons (also recognized in English together rounds—consider “Frère Jacques” or “Row, Row, row Your Boat” song in i beg your pardon voices go into at various times and juxtapose). Bach to be the undisputed and also eternal understand of counterpoint. He elevated the handmade of counterpoint to its summit. After ~ Bach, no one can outdo him. No severe composer after Bach might resist looking back at Bach and shot their hand in ~ counterpoint. None reached his level of mastery of this intricately constructed puzzles. The mannerist motion that occurred in Bach’s later years, partly in reaction to the wealth of the fugal formality the the high Baroque, reverted to monody—single voices elaborating themes serially (sonata form) fairly than in parallel—Bach’s trademark. Doric simplicity complied with Corinthian complexity. But Bach’s piece please the listener esthetically, despite the underlying complicated contrapuntal constructs (save probably for purposeful deviations such as in the pedagogical and arcane “Art the the Fugue”, BWV 1080). The overall beauty and also cohesion conceal the technological gears and levers. The listener require not know the mechanics the counterpoint come succumb to its spell. Yet, the basic layers most likely lend come the unending interest these piece engender, and assist explain why they have captivated listeners with the centuries.

The key-board work known as the Goldberg sports illustrates Bach’s mastery of musical camouflage (BWV 988). The starts and ends with a an easy dance in a slow-moving sarabande rate (1, 2, 3), the bookends an incredible voyage throughout 30 numbers, each based, frequently barely perceptibly, on the 8 very first bass note of the deceptively simple dance. The part show wide variety, ranging throughout a spectrum that styles and also human emotions. A first-time listener can sit earlier and reap the journey thoroughly, and also be engrossed and entertained, there is no having any kind of comprehension of the mathematical puzzle wrought in ~ the surface: Every 3rd number in this collection adheres to a formal imitative form: canon. Every of this canons function the 2nd voice beginning one note greater than in the last canonical number, one intellectual and also artistic feat that the highest possible order. Why every 3rd number? Perhaps since of the divine Trinity. Bach had actually a cabalistic intrigue v numerology. Or probably merely because of the number of gradations in the normal diatonic scale might accommodate the composer’s unimaginable feat.

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As teachers and lecturers, perhaps we have to imitate this art, and also aim come tell a seamless story that appears simple, entertaining, and also approachable ~ above the surface, yet delivers the meat that the matter with seeming ease. If we execute our project well, through difficult work in advance, we deserve to aspire come communicate and engage our audiences v a little measure of the enchantment the Bach achieved. In ready of papers and talks, we should work scrupulous so that the audience need not.