Bach & Sons: Or Amadeus-ing Bach…
This is the first play I couldn’t clap. I have no idea if Bach, his family, his relationships are as portrayed in the play.
The 18th century and before was a brutal, vulgar, crude, sweaty time. But it was also a time where faith and belief really mattered — it wasn’t just a nice thing for nice people — tho it was often pushed at and sold to women in this way. What you believed showed your character, your integrity, who you were in public (whether you showed up in church on Sunday, the kind of sermons and the kind of church, sadly even where you sat in church and the kind of pew you occupied) showed who you were in private. It wasn’t just a thing — it was you…and even to not have faith…was a kind of belief or faith.
The 18th century made things even more complex by saying you could have faith in God...or faith in nature, human nature to improve and thrive in the right environment and at an extreme, perhaps we didn’t need ‘God’ cos we could be god-like given the right conditions. Anyone heard this before? Adam and Eve, anyone?
I know Bach for his glorious, faith-filled music, for thrillingly setting the words of the Bible to memorable and seemingly simple, but very complex tune. And the Maths!
In this play, Bach is a curmudgeon who doesn’t value his wife or children or sister in law for who they are; who pits his children against each other and cannot praise their talent, because it is not his; who talks of God and faith but doesn’t live it; who is a compelling, vibrant bully who stands up for himself against his patrons and employers; is an orphan equally seeking and overturning rules, and who doesn’t get back from a work trip until it’s too late and his wife is dead and buried; who is butchered by a questionable eye surgeon who destroys his sight, but not his hearing.
I don’t know how true all of this is. It may be all true. The Bible equally is full of horrific characters, bar one. If you’ve been conned into thinking Christianity is a nice faith for nice people in a nice little Sunday social — well you and some of us Christians have been conned and should all read our Bibles. The socially nice people there — the status wielding Pharisees — Jesus throws all kinds of fantastic shade on. Jesus is rude to those who society respects!
In the play, Bach’s household is prayerless even as children and wives lie sick; no Bible scriptures are read as people lie ill or dying nor do people seek to wonder through the Scriptures and prayer why their children get sick and die too soon. There is no comfort or compassion to be sought from God here — He is remote, uncaring, distant and worst of all, silent. In Anna Magdalena’s pain at losing so many children so young, she never stops once to allow God some comeback — to weep with her, to forgive her guilt over her emotional adultery with someone else’s husband, to comfort her in her mourning and her trying to fix it herself. Instead, because we are alone in the universe, we blame ourselves and then God, as having chucked Him out of lives, we seek to spanner Him back in, so we can blame Him and chuck Him back out some more. There is no priest or minister turning up to give comfort and dignity to the suffering; church music is just a nice emotional time — without a someone behind it, a doing not a relationship.
This play is really offensive — not only because it reduces God the Father to a momentary feeling, but in a household of a man of alleged faith, repeatedly used by everyone as a name to swear and joke by and curse the world by. And the offense here is not the cussing, but the lack of truth.
We don’t see Bach’s spirituality, his faith struggles, his desire to set the Word of God to music that everyone could understand. Faith is reduced to a thing, not widened to a person and thus there is no relating, no trying to follow God or understand, or even two way chat.
And it’s offensive — it shows that God could choose to love, rescue and save his hypocritical curmudgeon and his chaotic family with all its infighting. This is truth — we should be shouting yes at this point — Christianity is not for nice people, but for people like this! See also Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Whilst God won’t let us stay there, we might choose to stay there or its a battle and a fight because this world is a hard and tough one and not as originally designed by God any more.
Instead, in a very unscientific way with lack of testing or evidence, doubt and lack of faith celebrated, nihilism and purposelessness positive virtues and faith about mouthing platitudes only.
Really, really missed opportunity. There is some fun in Bach’s grumpy one-liners, in Bach’s life is about dancing and everyone’s musicality. The German Emperor is well portrayed, but again how true is this?
Basically this play is about fathers messing up sons by not being good fathers - including you God - this play seems to scream.
And it’s offensive — because it fails to portray the active faith of the era accurately or historically. Bibles were pulled out, used and read — for good or ill — witness the butchered Bibles with all the important bits cut out (and the refusal to promote literacy) for enslaved people on plantations or the Methodists using popular dance tunes and ballads to help ordinary people sing joyfully to their God, as well as using the Bible to promote literacy amongst ordinary working people in ‘Sunday schools’. Whether you knew your Bible or not was a really serious thing — a public, social thing (even in the French Revolution — where you could get guillotined for it). People prayed all the time, to not go to church meant be fined and shamed in the community, and you couldn’t easily get away from that social stigma or wondering. It all really mattered. To make a stand and go somewhere different or not at all, also really mattered. What you thought in your heart and head, how you behaved privately, how much was status driven or lip service, and how you used what you were given, is a different question.
The Church was more than just establishment or a building… it was a local community and in Bach’s case, his workplace. There was knowing, accountability, help — whilst it might not always function in the best or fairest way — this is why we see the Reformation and various denominations emerging — to make the church (local) more real.
Bach & Sons reminds us all that Christianity is for bullies, curmudgeons and hypocrites — hooray! We should be whooping any hollering at this. Yes, look at what we’re like with Jesus — this is how much we literally need a Saviour. But if we really want to follow Jesus, we will seek to change…
But it fails to grapple in any way, shape or form with Bach’s devotion to God, his church work or his spiritual life, and instead heads towards post-modernism and real historical laziness a la Downton Abbey. The past really is a different country — let’s make sure we see this!
And that’s the horror of it — the spiritual (the real life, everyday impact of it) is ignored — as is the tension between praying or reading the Bible and sweaty, cussy, life’s a dance Bach — if this is so… What a play it could have been if they’d have taken Bach’s faith for real and probed to see how a guy who genuinely loves and actively seeks to serve His God can potentially clash with his employers, mess up this family and favour one wife over another. Isaac, Abraham and Joseph of that coat spring to mind. But in this lazy version, ofcourse, it was rubbish and his sons thought so too make it too easy and less historically reflective; there’s no tension or complexity there.
Bonus point for having the guys wearing shoes indoors, not boots! The acting company was very good as was the clockwork chicken! But severe minus points for not looking at Bach’s day to day spirituality in any kind of true way — what did it really look like for him. For example, how might his desire to serve God to his utmost make life really difficult for his church choir and children as it pushes him to perfectionism?
And maybe this play is signs of a bigger issue. In a lot of Western thinking now, faith (especially Christian faith) doesn’t matter — although we continue to makes faiths (popularly held beliefs) and creeds of other things and thoughts… And yet in other places, like Afghanistan or Syria, faith really matters (tho with a focus on one way of exercising it and mixed up with history, politics and military zeal) — as does the faith in not practicing faith and being scientific — whether in the UK, or China.