J.S. Bach vs. Alfred the Great

Today's battle between musician and king is one of the more intriguing pairings of Lent Madness 2014. While on seemingly disparate paths, both J.S. Bach and Alfred the Great were fighters. Well, Bach once tangled with a bassoonist and Alfred fought Vikings but you get the point. However this match-up turns out, we know Bach will remain victorious in one category: children sired. He famously fathered 20 children while Alfred had a mere quarter of this number.

In yesterday's neck-and-neck race between James Holly and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet eked out a victory 51% to 49%. She'll go on to face Alcuin of York in the Round of the Saintly Sixteen.

In the same way it's never too late in Lent to begin a Lenten discipline, it's never too late to join in Lent Madness! If you're just checking out this fun, informative way to learn about some amazing people and grow your faith, click here to watch our brief Voting 101 video. We also have some general information for those new to Lent Madness here.

If you haven't liked us on Facebook or followed us on Twitter, you're missing some supplemental conversation. Granted there's plenty of that among the hundreds of comments that follow each match-up but some people just can't get enough of the Madness!

Well, it's been a wonderful, wacky, heart-pounding first full week of Lent Madness 2014. Yesterday marked our second 1% margin of victory this week (see Antony of Egypt vs. Mary of Egypt). Yowza! The Supreme Executive Committee authorizes you to take a deep cleansing breath this weekend and then get ready for our next match-up on Monday morning as Lydia tangles with Moses the Black.


J.S. Bach

For someone who was orphaned at age nine and never traveled farther than 225 miles from his birthplace, Johann Sebastian Bach left a legacy to the world of music much grander than his circumstances might suggest. Born in 1685, the eighth child of a musical family in Eisenach, Germany, Bach studied organ and voice. He was known for his stellar soprano voice. After the loss of his parents who died just months apart, he lived with his older brother, Johann Christoph, an organist who likely continued Bach’s training and introduced him to contemporary music.

Bach’s first real job as an organist came at the age of eighteen when he was hired in Arnstadt, a city in central Germany. Over the next several years, as he moved to progressively larger and more prestigious positions, he began composing in earnest. At age 22 he married his first wife, Maria Barbara, and rather famously, engaged in a street fight with a bassoonist.

After stints in Weimar and Köthen as Kapellmeister (musicmaker), Bach landed in Leipzig in 1723 as Thomaskantor, or director of music, a post he held for twenty-seven years until his death. During this period, he composed more than 300 sacred cantatas that correspond to the weekly lectionary readings. In addition, he continued composing the large-scale orchestral works for which he is well known: the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion for Good Friday, the Mass in B Minor, the Brandenburg Concerti, and hundreds of other works. A catalog of his work created in 1950 lists some 1,127 surviving pieces; many more compositions were lost over the years.

In Bach’s day, the church was the only place an accomplished musician could make a living for himself and his family. And Bach required a substantial living: between his two wives (the second was the much-younger, highly gifted soprano Anna Magdalena) he fathered twenty children, ten of whom survived to adulthood. However, his deep devotion to the Christian faith was evident: he not only composed the sacred works but also taught Luther’s Small Catechism classes while at Leipzig. No one of his stature would have been forced to teach Sunday School.

J.S. Bach died at age 65 in Leipzig. He kept composing until the very end, despite contending with blindness for many years. His deep dedication to his craft resulted in some of the most beautifully complex music humankind has ever created. Certain of Bach’s pieces are the musical equivalent of a gothic cathedral. They make our hearts soar toward God.

Collect for J.S. Bach
Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, who teaches us in Holy Scripture to sing your praises and who gave your musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell grace to show forth your glory in their music: Be with all those who write or make music for your people, that we on earth may glimpse your beauty and know the inexhaustible riches of your new creation in Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 -- Heidi Shott

alfred-the-greatAlfred the Great

Alfred the Great united the kingdom of England and was its first great moral leader. Born around 849, he was sent to Rome at the age of four, where some sources say he was confirmed and anointed king by Pope Leo IV.

This was a trifle premature, since Alfred had three older brothers, one of whom deposed his father shortly after they returned home to England. Until Alfred came of age, the kingdom was divided between his brothers, Aethelbald, Aethelred, and Aethelbert.

During this period, Alfred fought alongside his brother, Aethelred; first, against the “Great Heathen Army,” led by Ivar the Boneless, then against the invading Danish—also known as the Viking—army. This second battle did not go well, at least for Aethelred. He died, and Alfred became the new king in 871.

This was less impressive than it sounds. The Vikings had conquered most of England, but by 880, Alfred had managed to push them back out, and for the first time in history, unite England under a single ruler.

Alfred then set about reforming legal practices throughout the land. He issued a new legal code to standardize the laws throughout all England. This was called the Doom Book, which took inspiration from the Ten Commandments and the gospel’s call for mercy and combined them into a comprehensive system that meted out fines and payments instead of violence.

Alfred also saw it as his job to increase education and religious piety. So he began a court school to improve his own children’s learning as well as issued a decree that all primary education occur in English. To aid this cause, he commissioned the translation of numerous books into English, including the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. Alfred also translated several books into English himself, including the first fifty Psalms and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.

Alfred believed it was his duty to care for both the physical and spiritual well-being of his people, and tried, throughout his reign, to do both equally. He died in October of 899. He is the only English monarch to be (officially) called “the Great.”

Collect for Alfred the Great
O Sovereign Lord, who brought your servant Alfred to a troubled throne that he might establish peace in a ravaged land and revive learning and the arts among the people: Awake in us also a keen desire to increase our understanding while we are in this world, and an eager longing to reach that endless life where all will be made clear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Megan Castellan


J.S. Bach vs. Alfred the Great

  • J.S. Bach (65%, 3,668 Votes)
  • Alfred the Great (35%, 1,992 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,655

Loading ... Loading ...


* indicates required

Recent Posts



246 comments on “J.S. Bach vs. Alfred the Great”

    1. Bach gets my love and my vote, but as a musicologist, I'm compelled to point out that it isn't quite accurate to say that "no one of his stature would have been forced to teach Sunday School." Bach's job in Leipzig was at the St. Thomas School for choirboys and other pupils (how many of each group isn't precisely known, but he complained to the town council that they were giving too many places away to pupils with connections but no musical ability), where in addition to music he taught Latin and, yes, theology and served as dormitory supervisor. He was responsible for the music at Leipzig's four churches, having to divide his (too few) boy choristers, from which he needed to make both choir and orchestra, among them for the concurrent services, three of the four being entrusted to older boys, with Bach and the second-tier group alternating between the two main churches.

      All of this is not to undermine the sincerity of his religious feeling, which was strong and deeply personal. He in fact had to pass a religious test to qualify for the job. However, it would be wrong to look at his teaching through our modern lens of Sunday School volunteers, as it was in fact a responsibility of his deeply frustrating and often thankless job.

      1. I guessed that the editorial Sunday School comment wasn't going to get past at least a few of the Lent Madness voters! Was the comment a reference to a certain priest who hasn't taught Sunday school? Seems I read something like that recently. Thanks, Philip, for your knowledge about Bach's work in Leipzig. I bet the original sources you have studied shed some light on the frustration and lack of appreciation that church musicians had in Bach's time. You know, some things never change! So come Sunday, thank your musician.

    2. Music wins for me. A gift that I can only receive vs give. Ah! After the first week of this Madness, I am seeing quite clearly how valuable all of our gifts are. Hide them under a bushel?? OH NO! This little light of mine, I am gonna let it shine:)!!

        1. I'm a lifelong Christian, but on reading the bios, I don't consider myself "worthy" alongside just about any entry in this year's match-up -- and hence not entitled to declare any of those listed as "unworthy".

        2. Both are incredibly remarkable persons who could so easily have gone in other directions. Alfred obviously strove mightily to be a good Christian (in the best and truest sense of the word) monarch, and history has endowed him with the appellation, "The Great."
          Sebastian was a remarkable musician and composer, and is especially noteworthy for single-handedly changing forever the face of Western Christian music. His profound faith shines through his cantatas and motets, and his music is such that people actually see Christian themes in many of his toccata and fugue compositions.
          Anyone with a reasonable awareness of the underpinnings of Christian music in the Western world has to be cognizant of the enormous debt owed to this profoundly faithful musician.
          I can only suppose that the good writer was confusing saints with martyrs. Not that it matters. Sebastian signed his manuscripts SDG, an abbreviation that loosely translates, "To God Alone be the Glory." So what anyone else thinks is unimportant to him, I am sure.

    1. Yes, except that, after Antony, this one was less jolting. I voted for Alfred because of his ordering of things in a better fashion for England, both governmental and religious. That, and his brother's names were weird, so I figure that the SEC enjoyed that one!

      1. I hear what you're saying Phil, and Johann Sebastian got my vote today, but if he had been pitted against G. F. Handel, then it would have been a different story. George, will always be #1 in my book. Can't beat "Messiah!"

        1. How about Misere mei Deus? I'd vote for Gregorio Allegri over both Handel and Bach if we are going to pick just one example for each. A priest, a singer, a composer. A reference in Wikipedia: "In addition to his virtue, he had singularly good nature. He gave generous alms to the poor, who were always on his doorstep, as well as to prisoners, whom he visited daily, as I was assured by one of his pupils, a man worthy of belief, who is still alive." Sounds like a worthy competitor for next year.

          1. I love Allegri's Miserere mei Deus! Interesting fact: for a very long time, it was actually forbidden to write down the music to that piece because the Vatican wanted to keep it just for services at the Sistine Chapel - it was felt to be so important/beautiful/what have you - and they threatened to excommunicate anyone who wrote it down.

  1. An easy decision for me today. Bach all the way! Alfred is great for sure, and greatly to be admired. But Bach's music spans centuries and unites hearts and minds across eras, cultures,reaching into human souls in a timeless, grace-filled beauty. Such a God given gift he shared for the ages!

  2. Bach is the greatest (I never leave my choir pew until the last note is sounded on a postlude penned by him) and Alfred is "the Great." But who has had a greater "impact" on our church, Christianity, or humanity in general? Ach! (ahem) Bach, I think.

  3. It's not necessarily the lyrics or religious name of Bach's music that make it spiritual. The music itself is transportive. The exquisite beauty of Bach's music always reminds me that this was/is truly a wonderful gift from God to Bach and to us.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. I voted for Alfred because as a music lover (after reading the bios) it felt to me that Bach's work was no hardship and uniting a people around peaceful means of redress feels like the type of "God's work" that is far less pleasant and joy filled, which in some way made it more "saintly" to me. You reminded me of the "saintliness" of God's Gifts as well as God's work.

  4. Two good candidates with lasting impact on our society. Hard to decide between them.

  5. Poor Alfred is going to get slaughtered. But it was really impressive to me that Bach was a "Sunday School Teacher." In so many ways, these lay people who take on early childhood religious education are the backbone of the faith, so yeah, Bach all the way.

  6. I also read that every year he held a Christmas Pageant at home with his many children, assigning and acting out the Christmas story with them. Way cool!!

  7. As a church organist, I love Bach and his music. And I believe music touches the hearts of man in many important ways. Having said this, what Alfred did was more important to the advancement of justice and morality for mankind. Therefore, he gets my vote.
    (P.S. - Being a woman, I don't automatically vote for a female either!)

    1. I'm with you in this one. Although Bach's legacy is huge, what Alfred did touched and improved the lives of ordinary people which is what God has told us all to do, each as we see it.

      1. For the sake of debate, wouldn't you say that Bach did the same: touched and improved the lives of ordinary people? That's how I see it!

  8. "Ahhh, Bach." His music touches the hearts of those in and outside the church. He shares joy and beauty through both his religious and secular works. He was a faithful Lutheran Christian, served others when his worldly status indicated he need not do so, gave glory to God for all his success. You'll see SDG (Soli deo gloria - means "To God alone be the glory.") under his name time and time again. Check out "Bachs Board" on Pinterest (can be accessed even if no account) at http://www.pinterest.com/loudluthrn/bachs-board-it-wont-bore-you-lent-madness-2014/ It has music and more for everyone to enjoy and learn from. Then, vote with me for Bach. #SDG

    1. You tell 'em, Lou!
      Alfred may have been Great but Bach knew GOD is great. SDG.

  9. Since my grandparents came from Sweden, there's likely some Viking ancestry back there somewhere. That alone would make me vote for Bach, his glorious music not withstanding.

  10. If Alfred had had a different opponent, I would have been likely to vote for him. But as it is....

  11. S.D.G. Bach signed his compositions "Soli Deo Gloria" (Glory to God alone). Every note expresses man's desire and his particular genius to offer up praise to the one who deserves it with the sounds of music. Amen!

  12. I'm following the Society of St. John the Evangelist's Lenten programming as well as Lent Madness, and today, the question is "what does God especially cherish about you?" (www.ssje.org). That is a question I had never thought about before; I realize that I had understood God's love as more universal than personal or specific. But then I thought: music! God cherishes that my own path to faith wandered through the church music I sang in an otherwise entirely secular childhood. He also cherishes my struggle with ego in singing (Am I good? Am I as good as I want to be? Can I let go of my vanity and just sing for the love of it and the exultation of the music and the god it glorifies?!?). Which is a long way of saying I'm leaning toward Bach.

    But what Lent Madness is teaching me is that I don't have to decide in a rush. I can linger with this decision. I don't have to stick with my first inclination--but it's okay, too, if after time for thought, and prayer, and the plain distractions of life, I do. And I think that's a valuable lesson -- a lesson in peace, in relaxing into faith -- for me to take through Lent and into Easter and beyond.

    1. I wish we knew whether Alfred was forcing "English-only" education because English *was* the common language of the people, or because he wanted to switch everyone from their native languages to English.

      1. The native language among Anglo-Saxons was, well, Anglo-Saxon. There were a variety of dialects of it, but Alfred was not forcing the speaker of Brythonic Celt languages to speak or read Anglo-Saxon; they had their own kingdoms. It was the Normans who tried to impose their language on everyone (and exclusively Latin bibles), just as they tried to dump all the (remarkably egalitarian) Anglo-Saxon laws and imposed Norman law. This is why modern English is such a mish-mash.

      2. I think it was not English versus other vernacular but teaching in the vernacular rather than in Latin that was at stake.

    2. I learned to ponder the comments before voting after the first vote. I have gained so much insight from reading everyone's opinions.

    3. Wow. That is indeed a powerful lesson and a gift. I deeply admire and respect your open spirit this season. Blessings!

    4. Yes!
      The SSJE LoveLife theme is the perfect counter-balance to Lent Madness, and then throw in the NE Regional Lenten Carbon Fast emails and the Daily Office email and I don't get any work done until noon.

  13. Without Alfred the Great we would be in a sorry state. I vote for him in honor of my Grandfather,a Great Methodist, Alfred Benjamin King.

  14. This is a harder match up than it appears from the outside. Bach, oh how he moves my soul to flight, as he does for millions. And yet Alfred, whose contemplation of a spider has been part of my mental equipment since childhood, and who lived what a good leader should be, promoting mercy and education, is a model totally worth celebrating. Courage is more on Alfred's side, sheer genius on Bach's. Tough decision.

    1. It was Bruce and the Spider but I was disappointed to see no mention of Alfred and the cakes. Remember that one? He burnt the woman's cakes and she scolded him soundly not knowing who he was.

  15. You Might Have Lent Madness:
    If you have ever done research on a saint, you might have Lent Madness.
    If you sit by your device waiting for the clock to strike 8 a.m., you might have Lent Madness.
    If you daily rend your heart, and sometimes your clothing, over which saint to choose, you might have Lent Madness.
    If people are concerned because they overhear you warmly speaking about "shank and gun," you probably have Lent Madness.
    If you hear about SEC and brackets, you think about saints instead of sports, you might have Lent Madness.
    If you have a personal "Lentorium" collection, you might have Lent Madness.
    If you admire the improvements in the Clairevoyatron over the years, you might have Lent Madness....

  16. Having learned a few Bach tunes on my guitar, I've come to appreciate the sheer genius of the man. Easy vote today.

      1. Lovely! Thanks! Am working on "Bleed and Break"from Matthew's Passion now and was just at a concert with pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach into the night... I do love Alfred, but think it has to be Bach for me.

    1. All that "doom" is referring to is one's obligations/responsibilities under the law. It's also related to "deem" as in "what you deem fitting/suitable." It's not "death/doom/destruction/horror" and all that, not in the Anglo-Saxon sense.

      I'm just sayin'...

  17. If you had to give up reading the comments section, because it was leading you into temptation...you might have Lent Madness

  18. Ack! It has to be Alfred the Great! It was through his leadership that English literature was started. You can argue that without Alfred the Great commissioning the Venerable Bede, there would be no Chaucer, no Milton, no Shakespeare. If you love the English Language, you need to vote for Alfred.

    1. I'm probably going for Alfred, (this is on of the toughest choices here; this and the Wesley brothers) but a bit of nit-picking is called for. Bede wrote and died before Alfred was born. Alfred just had him translated into Old English.

  19. KEW, your comments are my Lenten devotion today. As an aging soprano I struggle with these same "performance" issues. I think I will print your words and paste them in my music folder. And SDG is going to be my new motto!

  20. Not fair! I want to vote for each of these worthies. Could they not be paired with one of the Egyptians???? Since I have to choose, as a musician I have to go with Bach, but I want Alfred to know that he was a close second for me!

    1. Really. Should have paired these with the two that no one wanted to vote for last week!

  21. I voted for Alfred because he was the first to make primary education compulsory . The SEC really made this quite difficult. I wonder what will happen if in the future, there is a tie!!:)