On Bach the theologian

David Bentley Hart explains what counterpoint has to do with the Christian vision of reality.



David Bentley Hart explains what counterpoint has to do with the Christian vision of reality.


One can make facile claims about what is “ideally Christian” – which aspect of Christian art is the one that best expresses something unique to the Christian vision of reality – and I suppose I shouldn’t do that, but I’ll say this. What I love in Bach is the mastery of the contrapuntal, the polyphonic tradition. That it’s so complete that, you see, there’s not … in the later tradition of monody, the dominant melody, with chromatic adornments and, say, basso continuo accompaniment, is prized. But in Bach, in the earlier tradition, what you see is everything, everything being given equal prominence, everything winding together in harmonies and dissonances, and yet in a structure in which everything is equally prominent, equally prized, equally integral and indispensable, and the whole, in its glorious totality, is the texture of the beauty. 

It’s sort of like the philosophy of the 15th-century thinker Nicholas of Cusa, in which God is thought of as the coincidence of opposites, the infinite in whom all the different lines of development, so to speak, all the things that seem almost impossible to reconcile with one another in the realm of the finite, coincide in perfect harmony and peace. 

And I find this in the whole contrapuntal tradition, but in Bach supremely, is this endless ability to reconcile innumerable lines of development that a lesser composer could not – it would all just dissolve into discord – into this ever more glorious, ever more fruitful, ever more perfect consonance. Because, of course, Baroque counterpoint takes in quite a deal of dissonance as well – but reconciliation, peace, without dissolution, without reduction, without anything being lost. It seems like it just sees the whole of creation as good, and all of it as a manifestation of God.