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

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

  1. Sigh. Alfred was an amazing and profoundly spiritual person, and everyone's going to dismiss him through ignorance. Anglo-Saxon succession was not via primogeniture (an invention of the Normans), you had be to chosen as worthy. Alfred studied in a monastery and was considering becoming a monk... except Vikings kept invading and killing people and he fought against them. When the last of his brothers died, he was selected king not just for his military skill but for his other qualities, including his spirituality. He wanted everyone -- women as well as men -- to be able to read, and as a bonus write, because he wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible. He commissioned several copies of the Bible and numerous copies of the Gospels, which he considered the most important part of the Bible -- most of them in English, not Greek, because he felt people should get the story of Christianity in the language they knew and used every day. He supported religious houses and promoted care for the poor and the ill, as well as constructin a unified system of justice that eventually was the basis for the Magna Carta centuries later. He built the foundations of a culture of thought and spirituality that ultimately led to the people who created Anglicanism. He deserves the epithet "The Great" and I vote for him with joy and enthusiasm.

    1. Totally agree here. It's like if you pick Mick Jagger and Abraham Lincocn people are persuaded by the beauty of music over actions of a leader that transformed a nation and government for all. Alfred seems to be lost in time too many over the sensuality of music.

      1. !!! Huffhuffhuff
        Bach is NOT like Mick Jagger.
        Bach's music is evangelical in the original sense of the word (Word!) in that it carries the gospel to the people. Bach is more like Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, set to music.... Oh wait - he did that!

    2. It's so hard to choose, as so many of you have noted. I'm going with Alfred because I can't imagine the world without him, but I could just as easily go with JS because I can't imagine my soul with him!

    3. Wonderful commentary. Although Bach's contribution to worship, both in and out of churches, is undeniable and magnificent, Alfred speaks to me as a lover of English lit, as the mother of a teacher, and as someone whose parents met and fell in love in Repton, now a small village in Derbyshire, then a centre of Mercia. I've known of Alfred's connection to Repton since I was a small child, so I had to vote with my heart this morning.

    4. Thank you, Katherine, for letting us know more even more about Alfred. He was indeed a great man.

  2. The bios of Bach and Alfred tell us why they are famous. They don't tell us why they are saints. I wonder if they should even be on the Church's calendar (or in these brackets) at all?

      1. If the bios didn't explain it adequately for y'all, please read the testimonies of your companions on this mad journey.

    1. These comments makes me wonder. What is your standard of sainthood? Truly, I'm not being snarky. All of us are saints through our faith and baptism, and God did particularly magnificent works through the lives of these imperfect men. The church and world still benefits. Why not have the church lift them up in thanksgiving and as role models? How would you have the church recognize saints with a capital S. (Bach is on the ELCA calendar, but I don't find Alfred there. He probably should be added. We do have parallel choices from Northern European Christian leaders.) #SDG

      1. The Bishop of my diocese calls all of us saints when he address us by letters and when speaking.

        1. To clarify: I meant the "Hear! Hear!" for what Lou said. But, Linda, your bishop is
          entirely correct because we are, all of us, saints.

      2. definition of sainthood? hmmmm. faithful to their calling, courageous, creative, inspiring to others, did things that moved their situation closer to the Kingdom somehow, we know who they are.

        something like that.

        1. Yeah. Or the totality of the baptised members of the Body of Christ.
          Which is the definition I prefer, for lotsa reasons, not least of them being that it is biblical.
          (The Lutheran roots are showing today, bigtime!)

  3. As a longtime soprano in the church choir, I have to go with Bach, it's just a no-brainer. However, this lenten discipline has also taught me something else: do NOT click the box below that says "Notify me of follow-up comments by email." Thanks to the SEC for offering that option, but I've learned that I really don't have to time to read each and every 200+ comment in my inbox! Thanks anyway - I'm loving this learning activity!

  4. Any human being gifted by God with the talent, skill, knowledge and whatever else one has that enables him to compose the Mass in b Minor wins anything hands down! Sorry, Alfred.

    1. Too right, Aleathia! this was an easy one for me, in the absence of F.R. that is...

  5. I grew up going to rehearsals and concerts of the St. Louis Bach Society which my mother virtually ran for most of my childhood. I met my husband singing in that same choir. I was raised Lutheran so Bach was a minor god -- well, actually a relative of mine, a Lutheran pastor, was heard to say "I love Bach more than Jesus!" Once the cantata was over and he returned to his senses, I think he recanted. So now that I have voted, I'm going to go listen to Apollo's Fire play the Brandenburg Concertos....

  6. I also vote for Alfred. I've often thought that he may have been the basis of most of the Arthurian legends.

  7. As a musician, I admit my bias. I also know that JS. Bach scripted on every piece of his music "Soli Dei Gloria" (To God alone be the glory.) And I fully believe God has blessed it.

  8. As much as I love Bach's music, continuing to use his music, and other music of his day, in contemporary liturgies betrays his principle: Use current music themes in current liturgies. That is the same as betraying Achbp. Cranmer's principle: Use current language in current liturgies, by using his words - Rite I.

  9. Karen, you mean Bach was a relative minor in the Lutheran Church. You wouldn't believe that I married my Lutheran Karen in the U. Mass Chorale.

  10. Heidi Schott's metaphor of the gothic cathedral is so right. Anyone, anywhere, from any mindset can enter Bach's music and experience the glory. It can be huge and thrilling or gentle and intimate. Alfred truly was great, and there are plenty of saints he could have trounced like Ivar the Boneless, but today, Johann can assert with complete confidence, "I'll be Bach!"

  11. Albert Schweitzer referred to JS Bach as "the fifth evangelist" and so he is! My vote goes to him, and judging from the early results I may have picked a winner for the FIRST TIME THIS YEAR!!!!

  12. If this were a competition of musicians, Bach would win, hands down....however, this is a competition of "saints". First, a little personal background. I am a musician (instrumental and vocal), a school music teacher and choir director...and I just finished up a unit of study with my 8th grade general music classes on the life and music of Bach. I love Bach and recognize his genius as much as anybody.
    All that being said, I voted for Alfred the Great. Here's why......composing and music making was Bach's job; this is how he made the money to support his sizable family. Although he did dedicate his compositions to the glory of God, his main purpose was to put food on the table and a roof over his family's head; there was nothing particularly spiritual about it. It was his job. Most of his career was spent at St Thomas in Leipzig where he was employed as the church musician. His duties included churning out all of those cantatas, organ music and teaching at the church school. He hated it!!! He had to work with amateur and student musicians and was terribly frustrated., but needed the job to take care of his family. His music was NOT highly regarded during his lifetime and in fact lost his second job (at Cothen) because his music was considered too complicated. It wasn't until almost a hundred years later when his music was rediscovered (by Mendelssohn ) that musicians recognized the genius of Bach.
    The bottom line for me: Alfred the Great spread justice and education and stability at a chaotic period in English history. Bach did what he did because this was his job.

    1. I do what I do (teach electrical engineering) because it is my CALLING. I get paid for it, and it keeps food on the table. Does that make it any less of a calling from God? Alfred was born into the royal line, he did what he did because of his bloodline. Does that make it any less of a calling? My pastors would, I am sure, do what they do no matter whether they were paid or not, and sincerely hope and pray that holds for all followers of Christ. And ask any musician to stop making music; I will bet you, he or she could not, no matter what the paycheck or lack thereof.

      1. Just like to point out there was no particular reason for Alfred to be king -- these were Anglo-Saxons, not Normans. There were other people who could have been chosen by the witena gemott (kind of like Parliament) as king. They chose him slightly because he was in *one* of several 'royal' families, but predominantly for his qualities,.. and not his ability to fight, which wasn't well known at the time.

    2. It wasn't just a job to Bach........anyone that can make human spirits soar through the exuberance of the Brandenburgs to the great Passions and Masses that he wrote.....signing them SDG........it was his calling by God to hear and record the notes he was given by God. Definitely not just a job.

  13. I voted for Alfred, expecting to find myself on the losing side. Indeed, I surprised myself. From the first time I saw the bracket I was cheering for Bach. But Megan's overview of Alfred's achievement has swayed me. The Book of Doom - a terribly title indeed! but an amazing contribution to the rule of Law- and the use of the vernacular, rather than Latin, in schooling. The roots of both British parliamentary democracy (including its American expression) and Anglican polity glisten in Alfred's life. For all those who have voted for contemporary saints whose charism is social reform, I suggest you look twice at Alfred before voting for Bach.

  14. I voted for Alfred, if only to protest the slander (all right, "misrepresentation" is a better verb there...) of "The Book of Doom." It's the Domesday book, better translated as The Book of Judgement - which it was!

    "...for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to ... its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book 'the Book of Judgement' ... because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable." (from Wikipedia, that bastion of knowledge!)

    Come on, Megan Castellan - let's call it by it's more correct name and not drive away people based on a Doom-filled title.

  15. Besting Ivar is tipping my vote to today's underdog, Alfred the Great (but not today).

  16. You make excellent points. With sincere respect and admiration for Alfred, I still choose the musician over the king. Both men worked faithfully at the tasks set before them. If Bach hated his job, to me it's all the more impressive that he chose to invest his all in it, to hold onto to his own musical standards rather than "dumb down" his music to suit others, or to simply go through the motions and draw his pay with mediocre work. He offered it all up to God, and the result is music that rings down through the ages and around the world.

      1. I hear your position and respect it. Bach did continue composing in the only way he knew how and remained true to his personal standards. At the end of his life he considered himself a failure and his sons' music (several of his sons were themselves composers) was regarded much more highly then that of Johann Sebastian. It took many years and a whole new generation of musicians to recognize his genius. However, for me, it's motivation that counts. Bach's motivation was personal; centered on himself and his family-- he did what he did, in the only way he knew how, to support his family--highly commendable, but not "saintly".

        1. Bach was living out his vocation (calling) faithfully. His worldview reflected both the Theology of the Cross and the Lutheran "doctrine of vocation." Sometimes we are called to take up calls we hate or resist (think Jonah or Moses for just two biblical examples), and the world is basically unfair (as it was to Bach at times). Yet if you have the gifts and a discerned call - even as it might help you earn "our daily bread" - you must share all you are for the glory of God. Your job is always sacred when done out of love for God and neighbor. There can be no higher calling for you. Luther said that even a father changing diapers for a baby was sacred when done in love. I encourage you to think more about this. Consider reading "Luther on Vocation," or "Listen! God Is Calling!: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work" or even just this short article : http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var2=881 I think you will find that the sense of God hidden in our vocation is critical to Lutheran Christians such as Bach. It was more than just about putting food on the table. His writings, service, and all of his life reveal this.

  17. Oh why, oh why is there no modern day Alfred to rescue poor church folk from the rampaging oppression of that most Boneless of instruments, the Organ! What people hear in the cacophonous bleating I will never understand. And the hoards of followers who cannot live and let other instruments live--except twice a year when a few horns and drums escape their dungeons to express themselves on Christmas and Easter. The oppressive truth squeaked through the narrative when we read that Bach could not even suffer a poor bassoonist to share the street! That most noble and glorious of instruments, the bassoon! This is indeed turning out to be a sad day for those of us who yearn for the day of musical diversity in worship!

  18. People might think me a traitor for not voting for Bach since I'm a professional musician and have sung and played Bach forever! He's one of my favorites to sing because of the strictness of his music and how it tests one's technical abilities. However...being a good King and uniting a country is really more important. Without this type of stability, a musician (or anyone) can't thrive in any country. And yes, I do believe Bach to be a saint since he was a church music director, but this time I have to vote for the man who united the country, sought to provide his people with more religious education and education in general, and provided for the well-being of his people.

  19. Deborah, Ivar the Boneless, I just found, was a Norse "berserker" (fought with a trancelike rage that might have been drug- or drink-induced along with his bros Hubba and Bubba--okay, I'm kidding about Bubba) to kill St. Edmund and capture York. Called Boneless b/c he was snaky, impotent or had a bone disease which rendered his legs useless. Sounds like an interestingly scary person!

  20. Easy choice. Anyone who can write such amazing music, while contending with encroaching blindness, will get my vote any day of the week "and twice on Sunday"(that's a joke, SEC)! Fun Fact: our choir director has a mat in front of her office door that reads "Bach later.....Offenbach sooner". I always get a chuckle out of it.

  21. So mu;ch has already been said about Bach. I want to add just one more comment.
    Not only did each piece of musichBach wrote end with SDG but at the beginning of the manuscript were the initials JJ. Jesu Juva (Jesus Help Me} or INJ In Nomine Jesu In Jesus Name. He considered the purpose of music to edify individuals and to give glory to God. His personal library contained many theological works including all of the volumes of Luther's works. Any one who considers his life work a chance to give Glory to God is a saint
    as far as I can see. By the way the logo for the American Guild of Organists is Soli Deo Gloria.

  22. Well, courtesy of Mrs. Stowe, my Lent Madness bracket is busted; however, I had decided long before to vote for Alfred the Great. I wonder if the writer of his summary had too much to work with - Alfred was like the Charlemagne for Great Britain, even resettling and revitalizing London. As much as I love the music - and know that, particularly combining the wonders of the music with the might of the organ, I will lose this one as well - I do love the beatification "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."

    (PS: for factual accuracy, the "Doom Book" (Alfred's) is not the Domesday Book. The latter was commissioned by King William I (better known as William the Conqueror) after he had secured the Kingdom of England.)

  23. Bach's music is of course marvelous, but Alfred's wise statesmanship played an irreplaceable role in the development of the English State & English Common Law, thus ultimately the United Kingdom and her several daughter States, the US among them. His impact on the religious development of England and her daughters is just as important as his political and social contributions. It's Alfred the Great hands down.

  24. Let's see: (at church alone) junior choir, senior choir, and church organist for a good forty years (I always refer to myself as a "country bumpkin organist" since I am not very accomplished). At my last position as organist I always told my tiny volunteer choir (92 % of whom could not read music) that they should not worry so much about the congregation, but should just sing for the love of, and to the glory of, God. Dang! That little "mini tabernacle choir" was good! JSB all the way!!