Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall. Part 4 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instruments for their compelling performances on that evening.

Three great composers: who is the greatest of them all? Let's consult the experts.

Leonard Bernstein, the renowned conductor and music educator: "Beethoven is—let's face it—the greatest composer who ever lived."1

Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the New York Times"The winner, the all-time great is...Bach."2

Karl Barth, the most influential Calvinist theologian of the twentieth century:
If I should ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin....3
(Note that Barth would seek out Mozart not only before other composers, but even before his favorite theologians, including his beloved Calvin.)

From these three opinions I think we have to conclude that consulting experts is not the best approach. A better approach is to ask a better question: What are strengths and limitations of each composer? Then we can venture some comparisons.

  • The power of his stupendous craftsmanship
  • The universality of his appropriation of musical styles, from all over the musical world that was known to him
  • His religious dedication to his musical vocation
  • The sometimes overpowering density of his musical elaborations. Robert L. Marshall of Brandeis University has written: "Bach intimidates us as no other composer does."4
  • Lack of interest in opera or oratorio—though certainly Bach shows a flair for drama in his St. Matthew and St. John Passions.
  • Astounding universality of musical genres in which he composed, from opera to glass harmonica
  • An apparent effortlessness in his music, as if he were simply channeling the Muse of Music. Mozart insists in his letters that he worked hard at composing. Yet Constanze Mozart said that at times her husband composed music "as if he were writing a letter."5
  • Infallible stylistic elegance
  • Lack of compositions for solo organ, though himself an organist (What would Bach think!)
  • Little musical engagement with the depths of human turmoil and existential desperation
  • Courageous innovation in musical architecture, expression, and drama
  • Immediate and lasting influence on other composers
  • Accessibility to a wide audience of human ears and hearts while remaining elevated and elevating
  • Less than a master harmonist. Charles Rosen of Princeton University writes that Beethoven uses "the simplest elements of the tonal system as themes."6
  • Sometimes fraught with self-absorption

Back to Experts

John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor, makes a comparison that I find worthy of reflection:
Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead.... Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven.... us the voice of God—in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.7

Karl Barth writes a thank-you letter to Mozart—in heaven. Barth's tone is whimsical ("Didn't you yourself write more than one odd letter during your lifetime? Well, then, why not me?"):
How things stand with music there, where you now find yourself, I have only a faint premonition. The hunch I cherish in this regard I once formulated in this way: I am not absolutely sure whether the angels, when they are engaged in the praise of God, play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are among themselves they play Mozart, and that then, indeed, the dear God listens in with special pleasure. Well, you know about this better than I do. I mention it only to intimate figuratively what I mean. And so, truly yours, Karl Barth.8

A Personal Preference

I believe that all genius is cloud-capped. We who are not geniuses may scale the slopes. But how can we say who rises highest when we cannot reach or even glimpse the summits?

Yet we are, I think, fully entitled to our own first loves. And so thought the Danish Christian author Søren Kierkegaard. Writing in 1843, Kierkegaard expresses his views precisely, and they are my views also:
Mozart joins that little immortal band...whose names, whose works, time will not forget because eternity recollects them. ...It makes no difference, once one is in that little immortal band, whether one ranks highest or lowest...since all rank infinitely high, is...childish to argue about first and last place....
Yet I am still too much of a child.... I am infatuated...with Mozart, and I must have him rank in first place, whatever it costs.... I will beseech Mozart to forgive me that his music did not inspire me to great deeds, but instead has made me a fool who, because of him, lost what little sense I had....9
Why is Mozart my first love? Mozart's music does not urge messages of faith, as Bach's music does. Nor is it like Beethoven's music a confession of life.10 Mozart gladdens, uplifts, consoles, unburdens, restores, surprises, delights, refreshes. And I am in need of all these encouragements for keeping hope alive.


1. Leonard Bernstein, "The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived," YouTube,, viewed May 24, 2014.
2. Anthony Tommasini, "The Greatest," New York Times, January 21, 2011.
3. Karl Barth, "Bekenntnis zu Mozart," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (William B. Eerdmans, 1986), p.8; my translation.
4. Robert L. Marshall, "In Search of Bach," New York Review of Books, June 15, 2000.
5. Robert L. Marshall, Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World (Schirmer, 1991), p.30.
6. Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (W. W. Norton, 1997), p.389.
7. John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), p.558.
8. Karl Barth, "Dankbrief an Mozart," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2006), p.13; my translation.
9. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, alt. (Princeton University Press, 1987), pp.48–9.
10. See Hans Küng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence, tr. John Bowden (William B. Eerdmans, 1993), p.21.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 3 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Beethoven: Kyrie from Mass in C-major, Opus 86 (1807)

Beethoven composed his Kyrie in C-major twenty-six years after Mozart composed his Kyrie in D-minor. Here is a page from Beethoven's score:

We see instrumental notes aplenty, but they are not elaboration, as in Bach, and not embellishment as in Mozart. Rather, they provide straightforward accompaniment for the text, here sung by both a four-part chorus and four solo voices. That is, with their moving notes the instruments are essentially sounding out the harmonies being sung by the voices. This direct presentation results in a more fully accessible sound in Beethoven than in our other two composers.

One thing is quite new in Beethoven's Kyrie as compared to the previous two Kyries we have considered, namely, his expression markings. Notice the violin parts. They begin with a crescendo from p, soft (on the preceding page) to f, loud; then we encounter five successive markings of sf, meaning strongly accented; then diminuendo to pp, very soft; then two "hairpins" indicating crescendo and decrescendo; then crescendo poco a poco, louder little by little; leading finally, a few measures into the succeeding page, to ff, very loud.

Bach's manuscripts bear very few expression markings. Mozart's bear some. Beethoven here employs thirteen expression marks in a span of a dozen measures. Musical expression of this kind is characteristic of the "Romantic" style of composing that Beethoven pioneered.

Another basic characteristic of Beethoven's music is frequent cadences, that is, harmonic events in which music settles into a home key. His cadences are typically frequent enough to keep his home key within reach of our short-term memories. In between cadences Beethoven takes us on creative harmonic adventures. But in this Kyrie Beethoven's changing harmonies never carry us more than ten measures away from a decisive cadence.

In the sample page posted above, for example, Beethoven has two cadences into E major, the home key for this particular section of his piece. The page begins with a cadence (E in the Continuo, with G-sharps in the strings and solo voices), with another cadence in the next-to-last measure (E in the Continuo, with Es and G-sharps throughout other parts): two cadences within a span of ten measures. And so on this particular page we are never more than five measures away from a preceding or upcoming tonal homecoming.

I believe that this firm and frequent harmonic anchorage helps account for Beethoven's unrivaled popularity among lovers of classical music. As an illustration of this popularity, a single escutcheon is displayed above the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall, and it bears the name Beethoven.

The prevailing key of Beethoven's Kyrie is C major. Yet on the first page of the piece, just after the first solo voice enters, minor tonality casts its shadow. Even in the midst of the second section—the Christe section, in which composers tend toward major—we hear repeated touches of minor. I feel that the visitations of minor we hear throughout the Kyrie express Beethoven's personal sense of our human need for mercy.

As for Beethoven's many expression markings in this Kyrie, we might ask, expression of what? The answer, I think, is expression of Beethoven's own, deeply personal religious sensibility.

Beethoven was born into a Roman Catholic family, largely dysfunctional. We have no record of Beethoven's attendance at Mass or Confession. We have, however, testimony from his nephew and ward that he and Beethoven prayed together every morning and evening.1

Bach was steeped from birth in Lutheranism. Mozart was liturgical from the outset. Beethoven came to his religious sensibility late, after intense struggle and intentional reading in both western and eastern religious literature. For instance, he transcribed into his daybook a German translation of these lines from a lengthy poem written by an Oxford scholar of Sanskrit scripture:2

        Spirit of Spirits, who through every part
        Of space expanded and of endless time,
        Beyond the stretch of lab'ring thought sublime,
        Badst uproar into beauteous order start,
        Before Heav'n was, Thou art:
        Ere spheres beneath us roll'd or spheres above,
        Ere earth in firmamental ether hung,
        Thou satst alone; till, through thy mystic Love,
        Things unexisting to existence sprung,
        And grateful descant sung.
        What first impell'd thee to exert thy might?
        Goodness unlimited. What glorious light
        Thy pow'r directed? Wisdom without bound.
        What prov'd it first? Oh! guide my fancy right;
        Oh! raise from cumbrous ground
        My soul in rapture drown'd,
        That fearless it may soar on wings of fire;
        For Thou, who only knowest, Thou only canst inspire.

When Beethoven's religious convictions at last took root they were personal, profound, and powerful, even as they were eclectic, unorthodox, and idiosyncratic. In the end he found himself able to express his personal religion through the liturgy of the Catholic Mass.

We are greatly fortunate to have Beethoven's own words concerning the Kyrie in C-major from a letter to his publisher:
The general character of the Kyrie is inward submission, whence inward religious feelings arise—"God have mercy upon us"—yet without sadness. Gentleness lies at the basis of the whole...; indeed, serenity prevails overall. The Catholic goes to church on Sundays bedecked with festive serenity, and the Kyrie is the introduction to the entire Mass.3
I hear Beethoven's Kyrie as an offering of his heart to God. And more than heart. I think of the marvelous German word Gemüt. Translators often trivialize the word by rendering it simply as heart or mind. But in Cassell's German Dictionary the definition of Gemüt reads as follows: "mind, soul, heart, disposition, spirit, feeling, temperament."

I feel that in this Kyrie Beethoven is offering up his whole self to God.


One might especially listen (a) for the opening phrase—to my ears welcoming, aspiring, glowing with devotion—and for the return of that same phrase at the beginning of the third section; (b) for Beethoven's expressive touches of minor throughout, like transient clouds amidst the prevailing major; and (c) for the many occurrences of musical expression—accents and crescendos and diminuendos, contrasts of loud and soft.

Recordings of the Beethoven Kyrie are available free at for any who sign on. I particularly enjoy the performance conducted by Helmut Rilling. Click on Browse, then type in the Search box "beethoven, mass in c major"; click on Show All Results; then click on the image of a red-and-orange album cover picturing an angel playing a lute. The Kyrie is the first movement of the Mass in C-major.

(Concluded in Part 4 of this 4-part posting)

1. Barry Cooper, ed., The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven's Life and Music (Thames and Hudson, 1991), p.147.
2. Sir William Jones, "A Hymn to Narayena" (1785). See Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays (Harvard University Press, 1988), "Beethoven's Tagebuch," pp.266–67.
3. Joseph Schmidt-Görg, Ludwig van Beethoven (Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, 1970), pp.190–91; my translation.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 2 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Mozart: Kyrie in D-minor, K341 (1781)

Mozart composed his Kyrie in D-minor forty-two years after Bach composed his in G-minor. Like Bach's Kyrie, Mozart's is in three sections. Unlike Bach, Mozart marks the transitions from one section to the next with clear cadences, that is, definitive harmonic events in which music settles into a home key. This is typical of the "Classical" style of composition, in which Mozart excelled.

Here is one page from Mozart's score:

At a glance we see lots of notes, but also significant portions of clear space. We can literally see in the score something of the transparency of Mozart's music. Mozart is never turbid, never dense.

As the chorus sings "Kyrie eleison" in broad phrases, the instruments do not imitate or elaborate in the style of Bach. Rather the instruments embellish and adorn.

In the first three measures of this page, for example, the violins embellish with a running pattern, and in the final four measures with a skippy pattern in wide intervals. The clarinets sing a smooth, sustained duet. The oboes and bassoons play a perky rhythmic motif—oboes in an upward direction, bassoons in a downward. Meanwhile, flutes and horns sustain a single note in octaves.

We might expect such instrumental illuminations to compete with or distract from the choral presentation of the text. In fact they vitalize Mozart's presentation, without diluting the music's devotional tone.

I hear Mozart's Kyrie as a devout offering to God. This is not always the atmosphere associated with Mozart's settings of the Mass (he composed almost twenty of them). Some of the earlier settings sound more decorative than devout. But in this Kyrie I hear solemn devotion. Throughout the opening twenty measures, and again in the twelve concluding measures, I hear a repeating pattern of reverencing bows, in both the strings and the chorus, expressive of veneration, obeisance, worship.

Mozart frequently attended Mass, and sometimes Confession. A friend reported Mozart's description of Catholic liturgy as a "mystical sanctuary" for an "uplifted heart."1 Letters to his father disclose what seem to me genuine religious convictions. He writes of being calmed, consoled, and uplifted by prayer.2 For the blessings of life, he writes, "I thank my Creator every day."3

On the occasion of his mother's death he writes:
God is ever before my eyes. I realize His omnipotence and I fear His anger; but I also recognize His love, His compassion and His tenderness towards His creatures. He will never forsake His own. If it is according to His will, so let it be according to mine.4

Mozart composes his Kyrie in the somber hues of minor. Yet about a minute into the first section, Kyrie eleison, he introduces the brighter hues of major. Then in the midst of the second section, Christe eleison, he returns to minor.

I think that Mozart positions his major and minor for a theological reason. In Christian theology, Christ's appearing is a source of hope. In the opening of the Mass, Kyrie, Lord, is distant, unapproachable, intimidating, and minor tonality seems appropriate. In the second section, Christe, Christ, is human, accessible, compassionate, and major tonality seems right.

But while this minor/major pattern is frequent in musical settings of the Kyrie during the Baroque and Classical periods, it is too simple for Mozart. In Catholic faith, Christ is both human and divine. Perhaps this is why Mozart uses both minor and major in the Kyrie section, and both major and minor in the Christe section.

Could this also be why in section two and on into section three Mozart freely interchanges the two texts, Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison? In Catholic faith, Christos is Kyrios, Christ is Lord.

I find myself comparing Mozart's Kyrie, with its transparency and harmonic colorations, to a cathedral window. The chorus presents the window's subject: humankind's plea for mercy. Harmonic modulations are the window's hues.

The embellishing instrumental lines are the window's tracery, that is, the ornamental stonework that frames a window. A window's tracery can at first escape our notice. But as we look carefully, tracery reveals its own beauty—not competing with its window, but presenting it with modesty and grace.

So, I feel, Mozart offers his Kyrie to God.


One might especially listen for (a) the reverencing gestures of violins and chorus in the opening twenty measures, and again in the closing twelve measures; (b) Mozart's ever-elegant shifts from minor to major and major to minor; and (c) adorning "tracery" in the orchestra's inner voices.

Recordings of the Mozart Kyrie are available free at for any who sign up. I particularly enjoy The Monteverdi Choir's performance. Click on Browse, and type in the Search box  "Mozart, Kyrie in D minor, K.341, Monteverdi Choir"; then click on Show All Results. (Don't confuse the K341 Kyrie with the K626 Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem Mass.) 
(Continued in Part 3 of this 4-part posting)

1. See Hans Küng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (William B. Eerdmans, 1993), pp.24–5.
2. Robert Spaethling, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life (W. W. Norton, 2000), p.159; see also p.175.
3. Ibid., p.389.
4. Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (W. W. Norton, 1985), p.341.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Three Kyries: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Part 1 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instrumentalists for their compelling performances on that evening.

Bach: Kyrie from Mass in G-minor, BWV235 (1738–39)

Each of the Kyries we shall consider in this multiple-entry posting is composed in three sections. This is determined in part by musical convention, but also by the threefold text: Kyrie eleison / Christe eleison / Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy / Christ have mercy / Lord have mercy.

This Kyrie is from Bach's Mass in G-minor, one of his four "short masses" composed in 1738–39. In it Bach reuses music he had originally composed in 1726 for the opening movement of his Cantata 102.

Here is one page from the Kyrie's score—actually, two pages published one above the other on a single sheet:

At a glance we see lots and lots of notes and almost no clear spaces. Bach often wrote music in this densely concentrated style. This is a characteristic principle of much music from the "Baroque" period, of which Bach was the supreme master. Scholars call it the principle of "elaboration," that is, the practice of filling every nook and cranny with melodic invention, variation, interaction, and imitation.

Bach opens both the second and third sections of his Kyrie with a fugue, that is, a melody strictly imitated by successive voices or instruments. In the first measure of the above pages of the score we see the beginning of one of those fugue melodies—a dotted rhythm followed by an upward leap of an octave—in 1st oboe, 1st violin, and the sopranos of the chorus. The melody recommences in the first measure of the lower page (1st oboes and 1st violins), and again in the next-to-last measure on the sheet (sopranos).

All the other musical lines on these pages are independent yet thoroughly interrelated melodies, and each and every one of these melodies is its own thing of beauty. One of the names given to this wondrous melodic interweaving is counterpoint.

I find myself thinking of this Kyrie, with its dense counterpoint and rich harmonic hues, as a profuse musical tapestry. Bach's fundamental harmonies are like warp threads. They provide a strong basic structure. And as a tapestry's warp threads are usually deeply embedded, not on prominent display, so too with Bach's harmonies.

For example, in the fourth measure of the excerpt above Bach comes home to his Kyrie's basic tonality of G-minor (see the lowest note of the Continuo part). But this return is not a harmonic event, not a musical cadence. Rather, it is an inconspicuous harmonic moment: Bach simply touches base with his home key and keeps on running.

Some listeners are skilled enough to keep track of Bach's harmonic modulations in a piece like this. I am not. After a few measures Bach leaves me behind in a state of wonderment. But never for a moment do I doubt that Herr Bach knows exactly where he is harmonically, and exactly where he is going.

Upon his sturdy harmonic warp Bach weaves his elaborate weft of melodies, displaying intricate patternings and subtle harmonic colorations.

Bach was a man of profound Lutheran faith. He considered music his divine calling, with counterpoint as a basic language of worship. Not merely counterpoint as elaboration; not merely as maximum elaboration. Bach strove for complete and perfect elaboration.

Upon first hearing Bach's counterpoint, Johann von Goethe wrote:
It is as if the eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have done, in the bosom of God, just before the Creation of the world.1
Remarkably, Martin Luther himself—exactly two centuries earlier—endorsed musical counterpoint as a worthy offering in praise of God:
When learning...develops and refines...natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet not to comprehend) God's absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music. Here it is most remarkable that one single voice continues to sing the tenor [the melody], while at the same time many other voices play around it, exulting and adorning it in exuberant strains and, as it were, leading it forth in a divine roundelay....2
That is Luther speaking of the comparatively simple counterpoint of 1538. What, we have to wonder, might Luther have thought of Bach's divine roundelays!

In this Kyrie, I feel, Bach offers God his most costly gift: a musical tapestry of complete and perfect counterpoint. It is an offering of gratitude: Bach's gratitude for God's mercy bestowed through Christ, and Bach's gratitude for his own God-given genius. Thus he wrote at the end of manuscripts: Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory."


One might especially listen for (a) the marvelous opening twenty measures of counterpoint where the instruments play alone, then for how the chorus joins in and the counterpoint grows more and more elaborate; (b) Bach's two different fugue melodies that open section two and section three; and (c) how in the Kyrie's final twenty measures the oboes repeat exactly their opening twenty measures, which Bach meshes effortlessly with the myriad melodic motifs he has introduced in between.

Recordings of the Bach Kyrie are available free at for anyone who signs up. I particularly enjoy the Purcell Quartet's performance: click on Browse and type in the Search box "bach, kyrie, mass in g-minor, purcell quartet;" then click on Show All Results.
(Continued in Part 2 of this 4-part posting) 

1. Arthur Duke Coleridge, ed., Goethe's Letters to Zelter (BiblioLife, 2009), p.293.
2. Luther's Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Fortress Press, 1965), Vol 53, Liturgy and Hymns, "Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae iucunde, 1538," tr. Ulrich S. Leupold, p.324.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jesus's Prayers and Christian Praying

Christ Blessing the Children, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)

Why do so many of my fellow Christian citizens insist on praying in public settings? No simple answer can suffice, of course. But one reason, I believe, is that many Christians give far greater attention to the Gospel of John than to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus prays frequently but almost always privately, and he distinctly instructs his followers to pray in private, not in public. Jesus also warns against lengthy prayers. Among Jesus's own prayers quoted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the most extensive is 36 words in length (Lk 10:21, New Revised Standard Version).

In contrast, the Gospel of John makes no mention at all of Jesus's teachings about prayer, has Jesus praying publicly, and gives an account of Jesus declaiming one prayer that is 629 words in length (Jn 17:1-26, NRSV).

I believe that this contrast bears directly on the issue of public prayer in the United States.

The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the "Synoptic Gospels," because they "see together" or share a common orientation, whereas the orientation of John, the "Fourth Gospel," is fundamentally different.

With slightly varying details, the Synoptic Gospels report six prayers in which they quote Jesus's words:

The Synoptic Gospels describe many other instances of Jesus at prayer, but they do so without quoting any of his language. This implies what the Synoptics often state explicitly: that Jesus typically prayed alone.

Jesus is described as praying at crucial times in his ministry: at his baptism;2 before choosing his apostles;3 in the midst of healing;4 before his transfiguration;5 before his death;6 and on the cross.7

In Jesus's day-to-day life the Synoptic Gospels often mention his offering blessings before eating,8 and they tell of Jesus praying over children as he blesses them.9

Jesus also frequently gives guidance about praying. Prayers should be humble, not self-righteous;
10 should be forgiving, particularly of enemies;11 should be trusting, not doubting;12 should be persistent, without loss of heart.13

Jesus particularly commends the prayer "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"14 and he urges his disciples to pray for deliverance from trial and temptation.15 Jesus teaches the Lord's Prayer to his disciples—at the disciples' request, according to Luke's account.16

Most to our point here, Jesus cautions that prayer should be private, not public:
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.... Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:1, 5–6)
And Jesus teaches that prayers should be brief, not elaborate:
"When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Mt 6:7–8)
We may note that in the Synoptic chart displayed above, the final four of Jesus's six prayers consist of but a single sentence each.

The Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel contains none of the prayers of Jesus quoted or mentioned in the Synoptics. Nor does John contain a single teaching of Jesus concerning prayer. In fact the words "pray" and "prayer" never appear in John's Gospel.

Instead, John presents three prayers of Jesus, utterly different in tone and content from the Synoptic prayers. First:
"Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." (The story of the raising of Lazarus, John 11:41–42)
This is a public prayer, spoken for the purpose of influencing a crowd.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine." (As Jesus is facing arrest, John 12:27–30)
Here again John reports a public prayer, spoken for the sake of a crowd.

The third prayer presented by John is the lengthy declamation mentioned in the introductory paragraphs above, known as the "high-priestly prayer" or Jesus's "farewell to his disciples" (John 17:1–26). This prayer is elaborately theological, and it is seventeen times longer than the most extensive of Jesus's prayers in the Synoptics.

Twice John mentions Jesus giving thanks before a meal.
17 But one need not look in John for Jesus's prayerful blessing of children, or for Jesus's prayer for God to forgive his tormentors. In John the principal theme of Jesus's prayers is Jesus himself: 
"Father...glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you...." (John 17:1)
This is typical of what has been called the extravagant doting of John's Gospel.


In its article "Prayers of Jesus," The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia offers the opinion that the high-priestly prayer from John's Gospel "may be regarded as the sole example furnished by the evangelists of our Lord's method of prayer." This is simply incorrect.

We have seen that John presents only three prayers of Jesus and includes not a single teaching of Jesus concerning prayer. The Synoptic Gospels, in contrast, quote the words of six of Jesus's own prayers, make numerous references to Jesus's solitary "method of prayer," and include a dozen teachings of Jesus concerning prayer.

Most biblical scholars agree that the entirety of John's Gospel, including Jesus's prayers, is written in the author's own unique language. Even biblical translators sometimes find it impossible to tell where Jesus's language is supposed to end and John's language to resume.18

The scholarly consensus is that the Fourth Gospel expresses John's theological beliefs about Jesus far more abundantly than it yields possible insight concerning the Jesus of history.


One commentator has written that for Christians "it has to be a choice between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels." Yet this choice is not possible for many of my Christian friends, across all denominations, including the greater part of earnest Christian students I have known in recent years. The Gospel of John has so thoroughly dominated every aspect of their religious formation that they are virtually unaware of Jesus's method of praying as presented in the Synoptics.

From the Synoptic Gospels they characteristically know the Christmas stories, along with a few of Jesus's parables and the Lord's Prayer. But they do not know that one of Jesus's most trenchant parables warns against the dangers of pride and self-righteousness in prayer,19 or that the Lord's Prayer is immediately prefaced by Jesus's explicit warnings against lengthy and public praying.20

To take John's Gospel alone as a model of Jesus's "method of prayer" is to think of prayer as public and elaborate. Many Christians I know are pressing for this method of praying as a cultural—indeed, legal—norm for our nation.

To take the Synoptic Gospels as offering a more likely representation of Jesus's method of praying, as I believe it is right to do, is to think of prayer as brief, not elaborate, and private, not public.

Prayer is in fact the only thing that Jesus ever advised his followers to keep in the closet:
"When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father...." (Mt 6:6, King James Version)


1. Mt 14:23; Mk 1:35; Mk 6:46; Lk 5:16; Lk 6:12; Lk 9:18; Lk 11:1.
2. Lk 3:21–22.
3. Lk 6:12–13.
4. Mk 7:32-35.
5. Lk 9:28–29.
6. Mt 26:36–46; Mk 14:32–41; Lk 22:39–46.
7. Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34; Lk 23:34, 46.
8. Mt 14:19; Mt 15:36; Mt 26:26–27; Mk 6:41; Mk 8:6–7; Mk 14:22–23; Lk 9:16; Lk 22:17-19;
       Lk 24:30.
9. Mt 19:13–15 (see also Mk 10:13–16; Lk 18:15–17).
10. Lk 18:9–14.
11. Mt 5:43–48; Mk 11:25–26; Lk 6:27–28.
12. Mt 18:19; Mt 21:21–22; Mk 11:22–24.
13. Lk 11:5–13; 18:1–8.
14. Lk 18:13–14.
15. Mk 14:37–38; Lk 21:36; 22:40, 45–46.
16. Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:1–4.
17. Jn 6:11, 23.
18. See the NRSV textual footnotes at John 3:15, 21, and 30.
19. Lk 18:9-14.
20. Mt 6:5–8.