An ode to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Sebastian: from Greek “venerable”

I touch the pages of your music. Then
My thoughts transport to times and distant sounds
Where you once dwelt. I think of you and when
I do a flood comes up from me, abounds
An all-consuming longing, yearning, ache.
Somehow I seem to feel what you once felt
When I begin to play or listen. Joy
Combined with sorrow, something you did make
An art form, from the losses you were dealt,
And morphing into beauty. You employ

All techniques of the mind and ear and heart
And reach my own. And I respond in kind,
And want to create beauty, too. A part
Of me belongs to you, because I find
You draw me into truth, and there I stay.
In reciprocity I always aim
To offer back to you, and God, the best
That I can offer when I sing. Today
I offer up an ode of love, and frame
It by the words I write. For I am blessed,

So truly blessed, to know the forms
In which you wrote. To sing chorales, cantatas!
A motet, mass or aria transforms
The mundane to sublime! A suite, toccatas!
A prelude, fugue, the passion of the Passions!
Magnificent Magnificat! Baroque
Complexity excites me to the core!
Concertos, and the Goldberg Variations!
The pain and truthful beauty! Come, evoke
The substance thus within me, this and more!

Your mastery of harmony, combining
Such frank, sweet melodies which touch the soul
With perfect counterpoint: thus intertwining
Of several, making many parts a whole.
For you know joy; exhilaration forms
The “happy Bach” who dances. Trumpets call
And organ-powers attest. But one can hear
The pains of loss and longing, for the storms
Of death did take ten children. We hear all;
In plaintive strings your sufferings appear.

Not only what is written on the pages
But what is at the top—for there you write
Initials, signifying for the ages
Jesu, Juva, “Jesus, aid.” And right
Below, the ending written, “S.D.G.”,
For Soli Deo Gloria: alone
To God be glory. Prayer in music cast, when
Your heart is on display for all to see.
And so I feel a part of you my own;
A touch of soul-mate, friend, the great Sebastian.

 

 

Theresa Rodriguez is the author of five books, including Jesus and Eros: Sonnets, Poems and Songs and a chapbook of 37 sonnets, both of which are available on amazon.com. She is a retired classical singer and voice teacher who has been a contributing writer for Classical Singer Magazine. Her album “Lullabies: Traditional American and International Songs” is available on all streaming services.


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27 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    It seems strange reading this as last year I wrote a sonnet to Bach’s exact contemporary Handel, in which I quoted the same Latin tag, “Soli Deo Gloria” which Handel also appended to some of his scores. We would never hear such self-effacement today! This poem has been written with a tremendous infectious enthusiasm. It has certainly infected me.

    Reply
  2. Carole Mertz

    Such content, such good rhyming! Kudos to you, Ms. Rodriguez! (I’ve spent many hours with Bach’s keyboard works.) You placed that final rhyme “when” with the “great Sebastian” and it works well. Loved it.

    Reply
    • Theresa Rodriguez

      Thank you very much, Carole! The credit for that line, and the final line, goes to Evan Mantyk, who offered his insight and suggestions in getting the rhyming perfect there! Thank you Evan!

      Reply
  3. Amy Foreman

    Bach is my all-time favorite in every respect, and I so enjoyed this tribute to him, Theresa! And I expect if he read this glowing paean of praise from you, he would humbly respond with “S.D.G.”

    That’s what made Bach great–not just incredible talent, creativity, and genius, but “Jesu, Juva” and “S.D.G.”

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I agree; this is an excellent ode! I love it, and look forward to seeing Bach as heavenly organist and choirmaster!

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    There are many superlatives that can be bestowed upon JSB but I think one word covers them all: Incomparable. In no other artistic, creative discipline has one individual risen so far above the rest. Bach is to music what Shakespeare would be to literature if his output included fifty more masterful plays, a thousand more sonnets, ten spectacular novels and four volumes of the best short stories ever written!

    Theresa, your admiration and affection for JSB is palpable and I particularly enjoyed how you included reference to him as regards his humanity, acknowledging his sufferings, joys, humility and faith.

    I would be interesting in knowing what you consider to be his greatest work (ie. the one that stands out as most meaningful for you?). My vote would go to his B Minor Mass.

    In any case, your poem was beautifully written and what you had to say about JS Bach warmed my heart.

    Reply
    • Theresa Rodriguez

      Thank you very much, James. It is difficult to pick one work that stands out or is meaningful to me above the rest, but I suppose it is the Saint Matthew Passion. I have had the privilege of singing the poignant “Erbarme dich” aria with violin obbligato some years ago and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        In his Mass, Bach’s genius shines brightest in the choruses while in the SMP it is in the arias—of which “Erbarme Dich” is arguably both the finest and most recognized. I have no doubt that your audience was as moved by your performance as your were in the singing of it.

    • Paul

      My favorite are his unaccompanied cello suites. He gets full music with essentially one line of melody. But each individual piece is brilliant, interesting, complex, different, open to multiple interpretations, and most of all – beautiful.

      Reply
  5. Leo Zoutewelle

    You touched a string with me as well. I love J.S. Bach. Each day he is part of my day! Thank you for your wonderful poem; it made me feel dat you and I are kindred spirits!

    Reply
  6. Dee Dunlop

    I believe your heart felt response to Bach’s incomparable expressions of the human soul mirror exactly what he was trying to evoke. Kindred spirits of music still speaking to our souls and spirits down through the eons.

    Reply
  7. James Sale

    Beautiful poetry – heart-felt and warm, and also a tribute to a wonderful composer; indeed, THE composer. As the poet Dylan Thomas once expressed it: ‘Bach is best’, which really says it all. The great composers usually have a dozen works – maybe 20 – that can be described as really great, but with Bach most of it is really great. To listen to the St John Passion is to be immersed in pure sublimity. Thank you Theresa for reminding us of this source of inspiration.

    Reply
  8. Peter Hartley

    If I might butt in again, my favourite J S Bach work is also the B-Minor Mass but while I agree with James above over the choruses being where Bach shines brightest in this work (and there is nothing more stirring than those high-pitched baroque clarion parts, brought to their apogee in Handel’s oratorios!), the sedate “Laudamus te” aria, though short on refulgence, must surely also count among his best bits. The sadnesses in Bach’s life, so ably alluded to in this poem, fortunately didn’t put the kibosh on a gifted progeny. The practice of writing SDG at the end of a score finds a parallel in Jesuit schools where homework was (and perhaps still is) introduced by AMDG, “Ad majorem Dei gloriam”, and finished with LDS, “Laus Deus semper”. This is a poem well written and truly inspired, a brilliant cadenza, full of excitement, helped along, no doubt, by no less than eight exclamation marks in the third stanza!!!!!!!! But Bach still takes second place to Handel (says a rabid Handelian).

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Interestingly, Peter, Dylan Thomas’ comment that Bach is best was made specifically in comparison with Handel whom he felt the C19th has over-worshipped! Still, we can enjoy both.

      Reply
  9. David Watt

    Your passion for the incomparable music of Bach is reflected in every line. As a tribute, this is a beautiful piece of poetry, made more so by the inclusion of life events which must have heightened, or at least influenced Bach’s music.

    Reply
  10. C.B. Anderson

    Theresa, it’s difficult to maintain such an exacting rhyme scheme over so many long stanzas, but I’m sure it’s much harder to write a fugue. I have done the former, but I’m sure I’ll never do the latter. This poem is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest artistic masters of all time, for I’m sure it was humility and not temerity that prompted you to write it.

    Reply
  11. Paul

    This is very skillfully done – the rhymes, the meter, the enjambments, the content, the metrical flow and tone are so poetic and consistent throughout. It’s robust but tender. I find it masterfully done. Great job, Theresa.

    Reply

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