An Apology to Johann Sebastian Bach

Monday, February 26, 2018

My church choir has been practicing “Lord, Have Mercy,” by Johann Sebastian Bach as arranged by Hal Hopson. It’s a beautiful piece based on one of Bach’s most well-known compositions, commonly known as “Air on the G-String.” Many of you would recognize it if you heard it.

I love the music and enjoy singing it, but the choir really struggled with it. That was especially true for the sopranos, including me. We have the hardest and most moving part, and by moving I mean both emotionally and in movement of the notes. Even so, we had reached the point where we could perform it acceptably—as long as we had a separate accompanist so that our choir director could stand in front and direct.

The choir was all set to sing “Lord, Have Mercy” as yesterday’s introit. We had practiced and practiced and practiced, and the selection was identified in the bulletin. But 15 minutes before the service started, the accompanist still hadn’t arrived. Our director, Karen, was ready to scrap the music, but then one of the other choir members received a text that the accompanist had overslept but would be there in five minutes. So Karen—and the rest of us—breathed a sigh of relief.

When the service started, the accompanist still wasn’t there. And as the time for the introit drew near, I and others started watching the door to the choir loft. Karen was playing the organ looking the other way, so she may not have known the accompanist was missing until it was time to sing. At that point it was too late to clue the pastors in and substitute a different introit, so Karen played and the choir did its best without her direction. The untrained people in the congregation apparently didn’t notice that anything was amiss, but I heard every wrong note that the sopranos sang.

Should we have attempted “Lord, Have Mercy” or called it off? On the one hand, we always aim to present a beautiful piece of music beautifully. If that was the primary consideration, we would have scraped it. But the real purpose is to sing to the glory of God. From that point of view, mastery is second to intent, so I believe that Karen made the right choice.

And the Lord had mercy.


The portrait of Bach was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1746. It is in the public domain because of its age.

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