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A Concerto of PrayerA Concerto of Prayer

A Concerto of Prayer

Collin Pierlott hears the presence of God in music – even when words are absent.

Collin Pierlott
4 minute read

I often turn to music, as many do, as an avenue of prayer to God. However, I also listen to pieces of music without lyrics and have found these lyricless pieces to be quite effective for reflection and prayer. I sometimes find the artistic expressions of human emotion, especially those of a sonic nature, to be the most precise and eloquent ways of conveying the many complex feelings I might encounter on a day-to-day basis. It tends to be that some of the most thoughtfully composed music leaves me in awe, not only of the capability of the human mind to engineer such beautiful sounds, but also of the wonder of God’s presence in our lives. 

Music is one of the many ways in which I have a personal relationship with God. 

Though it is a product of the Enlightenment, during which it was popular among the learned gentry to have a deistic cosmological view of the universe, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach may also be described as a testimony of his faith in a personal God that actively works in creation. His music is rigorously interlaced with counterpoint, a musical concept in which two melodies that are played simultaneously seem at first to work independently and seemingly against one another, yet interdependently to create a greater harmony. 

The contrapuntal nature of his many compositions is manifest in a mathematical precision that expresses his belief in God as being a divine mathematician who sows time and creation. The woven nature of his pieces demonstrates that God weaves creation with independent threads that are interdependent on one another in the grand scheme of causality. John Eliot Gardiner affirms this in his magnificent book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, claiming, “God, Bach may have thought, worked with and through numbers, and he may have concluded, quite instinctively, that music followed the natural manifestations of mathematical law – a perfect example of His creative power.”

We as human beings certainly use numbers in the sciences in order to investigate and understand the complexity of God’s creation. For God, however, creating is seemingly instinctive, and He does it almost effortlessly: He is God after all. Music is therefore a beautiful medium through which one can explore God’s seemingly effortless act of creating, for Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once said, “Music is the hidden arithmetical exercise of a mind unconscious that it is calculating.”

Furthermore, on top of the intellectual brilliance of Bach’s musical testimony of faith, the tone of his pieces often captures the deep emotions that come with a personal relationship. Prayers do not necessarily always have to be said with words and it is through art that one can express our thoughts in a more abstract and eloquent way. 

In this sense, Bach’s music, as evidenced by many scholars, especially by Gardiner, can certainly be viewed through the lens of faith in a personal God. Even the compositions that were not explicitly written for the liturgy express his prayer life. 

In one particular piece, BWV 1052, a keyboard concerto, Bach starts with an opening movement in which I experience the omnipotence of God as the almighty Father who created the heavens and the earth. Listening to the solemn minor key with the notes of strength and powerful affirmation, it makes me think of the stories of creation, of God willing light to burst forth out of the abyss and actively shaping the cosmos. The allegro tempo of the first movement further adds the expression to God’s omnipotence, demonstrating His mighty and insurmountable will that endures forever. 

By the end of this initial movement, it is evident that He is a God I should fear.

The second movement, in the tempo of adagio, shows that this God of power and might is also an omnibenevolent and loving God with whom I can have a profound personal relationship. The minor key contributes to a solemn tone, which depicts the deep emotions that come with a personal relationship. It is not a relationship for the faint of heart, as it can test my patience, my courage. There are even those days where I feel hopeless, lying prostrate, crying in the darkness, asking where He is. But He is present, always. I feel as though I am the strings asking and pleading for His aid and He is the harpsichord, always present, asking me to be One with his will. 

It is not until the end of this movement that it seems our wills might be joined as one, as it is difficult to tread on the straight and narrow. 

With the last movement, allegro like the first, I experience the glory of God and His angelic hosts and the saints with Him in heaven. He leads the choirs of cherubim and seraphim as he leads them in this final act of the concerto. He displays his glory in full, and all I must do is listen to His wondrous tune as we follow in prayer and praise, adoring and glorifying He who made us in His image and likeness to be One with him. 

With the piece coming to a close, I long to see God face to face and, as stated in the Creed, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

It is not just with words, but also with both sonic and visual expression that we can pray to God and give Him due praise. Bach certainly did this in his many pieces of music, from his didactic Inventions to his magnificent Cantatas and profoundly beatific Concerti. It is through such seemingly effortless mathematical and systematic means that we can achieve greater contemplation and a more meaningful dialogue with our Lord. 

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