The work of Johann Sebastian Bach is a crucial part of any musician’s education. But at Valparaiso, where Lutheran character and academic excellence are intertwined, the work of Bach is all the more abiding.
“Any musician who studies music at a serious level is going to, at some point, find J.S. Bach to be a major part of their musical understanding,” said Christopher Cock, the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Lutheran Music and Director of the Bach Institute at Valparaiso University.
“If Lutherans could claim any one composer, it would be J.S. Bach,” said Christopher. “If there’s one place where people should be performing these major works of Bach on a regular basis, Valparaiso University is the place.”
For 10 years Christopher and his wife, Maura Janton Cock, have worked to make Valpo that place.
In 2002 Christopher helped found Valpo’s Bach Institute, which is designed to create opportunities to explore the life and music of Bach, from its proper historic, musical, and theological contexts. The Institute offers a number of ways for students and community members alike to connect with Bach’s work.
These opportunities are important, said Maura, because Bach’s work can be an especially impactful experience for people.
“I think that once people experience the music of Bach, it changes them and touches them in a way that nothing else, in my experience, really does,” she said.
For Maura, faith also plays a big role in understanding the importance of Bach’s music. “For me, because of my own faith, it is that much more meaningful to sing the music of Bach, because I understand the context in which he wrote most of the music,” she said. “It’s a privilege to be able to share that music and language and my own faith.”
The deep connection between Bach’s work and Lutheran liturgy makes the music especially meaningful, but Christopher shared, the work’s rootedness in the Lutheran tradition doesn’t make its impact exclusive to any one faith. “As Lutherans we connect with this music, and we understand it in a particular way, but we also want to open this music up to everyone. It shouldn’t be exclusively for Lutherans.”
One of the ways in which the Bach Institute engages with the historical context of Bach’s music is through a relationship with Bach’s home church in Leipzig, Germany.
In June 2012, Valparaiso University’s President, Mark A. Heckler, Ph.D., traveled with the Valparaiso University Chorale to sign a formal agreement solidifying a shared commitment between Valpo and the St. Thomas Church to continue cultural, musical, educational, and theological exchanges. This fall the Thomanerchor — St. Thomas’ boys choir — performed in Valpo’s Chapel of the Resurrection.
The Chorale has served four residencies at the church, and these performances are a unique opportunity for Valpo students.
“When they sing in that space, they’re singing in the same place where J.S. Bach did his work every day for 27 years,” said Christopher. “His grave also happens to be in the St. Thomas Church. I have listened to many concerts in that church sitting next to Bach’s gravesite. It’s an experience that you viscerally feel.”
In addition, Maura has coached many students through learning Bach’s most difficult pieces.
“Just for them to be able to take a piece of music and say, ‘I sang this from beginning to end. I accomplished this. I was a part of something bigger than me’ — that’s life changing,” she said. “That evolution and that process is why I got into teaching.”
Both Christopher and Maura agree that exposure to the music is an important experience — even if students don’t end up singing Bach’s work.
“Take, for example, the CORE program for freshmen students. Part of what they’re doing is reading great books and great literature. We see this as part of their formative experience,” Christopher said. “If we want to talk about the canon of western music, the works of J.S. Bach are among those things that represent the great historic canon of western musical literature.”
And it’s their dedication to teaching Bach’s music that ensures that generations of future Valpo students will also have the opportunity to learn about his work.
“A huge motivation in doing my work,” Christopher said, “is with the assumption that someone else will come after me and will continue to teach this music to Valpo students and continue to provide them opportunities to experience it in the place for which it was written. This work is a legacy for the University that is foundational to who we are.”
Read the full magazine online at valpo.edu/valpomag.