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Was J. S. Bach an Atheist?
By Wolfgang Eubel (December 2008)

The question whether or not J.S. Bach was an atheist is quickly and easily answered. All we need to do is remind ourselves that this bloke composed some 300 church cantatas for Sunday services and numerous other extended works in the field of sacred music. This abominable propaganda machine of the Christian ideology, celebrated as the 5th Evangelist, an atheist? Surely not.

But, as the only sure thing is doubt, it is always advisable to give everything a second thought and a closer look. So let’s have a closer look at the historical circumstances under which Bach lived.

J.S. Bach was born in 1685 - under the same stars as Handel, which proves yet another time that astrology can't be right as no two composers could be further apart in terms of personal integrity and aesthetic value than these two - and he died in 1750, This epoch is nowadays called the late baroque. And indeed we need to remind ourselves about two facts that were of fundamental importance for Bach but which we keep forgetting as they are just too bizarre for our modern brains.

Fact #1: The stakes were still burning during Bach's lifetime. And I am not talking about BBQs going terribly wrong, I am talking about human beings being burnt alive for - not Atheism, god forbid - but just for diverting a few millimetres from the Gospel - Happy Message, indeed - proclaimed by sweet Jesus and enforced on earth by his benign brothers and sisters. So all Bach had to do to remind himself what would be the fate of a dissident was to go to the marketplace and see and smell the flesh burning and hear the cries of agony. That would teach him a lesson!

The other fact is, that one of the two ruling classes - namely the aristocracy - of Continental Europe - things were a bit different in the UK - was a very insecure business partner: unreliable payment - or none at all - and dismissals without notice especially of artists were common. Quite a few members of the aristocracy were in fact bankrupt. But having the absolute power in state, military, police all those dukes, kings and earls could order their palaces, oil paintings and music according to an absolutistic version of Harvey Norman's slogan: "Order now, pay never!".

The other class that shared the absolute power and additionally had - literally - all the money in the world was the clergy, the church. So what could a man like Bach who wanted to make a living out of his art do but sell his manpower to those who had the might and the glory and the money in eternity amen? Nothing. Did he have any alternative? No. Remember that the first musician who managed to be a freelance artist was born three years before J. S. Bach's death: two generations after Bach.

So the large amount of sacred music Bach was forced to compose doesn't prove anything. On the contrary: to time and again cite this number as an evidence for Bach’s great piousness proves nothing but the widely known cynicism of those people.

As a matter of fact: looking at Bach's biography the number-argument turns against itself.

Year

Place

Secular Music

Sacred Music

1685

Thuringia Birth

1703

Arnstadt Organist

Brandenburg Concertos

1717

Köthen Court Music Director

Fr./Engl. Suites
Well Tempered Piano I

> 20 cantatas

1723

Leipzig Cantor

~ 250 cantatas Passions
Masses
Oratories

1729 +

Dresden + Court Music Director

All concertos for harpsichord
Goldberg Variations
Well tempered Piano II
Art of Fugue

> 20 cantatas
B- Mass

1744

Publishing and editing

0 cantatas

1750

Death

As a young organist he time and again incurred the wrath of his clerical superiors and was fined for disobedience: he went on a holiday for four months, having been granted only one month. The eager propaganda machine obviously couldn’t wait to come back to play the hallelujah organ for the pious congregation. The naughty boy was also caught in the organ loft with a female. She singing. In an empty church. Now imagine Mr Goebbels foaming away in the Sportpalast - the empty Sportpalast. His Führer would not have been amused. This uncouth female was, by the way, Barbara Bach, cousin of JS's, whom he shortly after married and who became mother of the great Friedemann and CPhE. Bach could marry her because - just in time - an uncle had died and left him a sufficient sum of money - Bach, the pious nephew composed a funeral cantata for his beloved uncle: "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit": " God's time is the bloody best time...". Cheeky bugger.

Finally Bach was reprimanded for "having hitherto introduced sundry curious embellishments in the chorals and mingled many strange notes in them, with the result that the congregation has been confused." Imagine this grotesque picture: Bach, the pious propaganda machine sitting at the church’s organ, the holy congregation assembled to sing the lord’s praise and Mr Bach is preluding away, The congregation thinks now's the time to come in - but no, Johnny takes off - yet another harmonic tangent. But now, deep breath and - no, here's another modulation. Finally they are given the cue to sing - but 'which bloody key are we in by now, anyway'....

After being told off for this sabotage, truculent Johnnyboy spat the dummy and shortly after was reprimanded for keeping his preludes "too short and abrupt..."

So before being kicked out he fled to a secular employer to become Court Director of Music. Why did he return six years later to a church position as a Cantor?

Firstly: His surviving sons had some to an age where they needed good schools and a university - something the village of Köthen had truly not on offer. But Leipzig did.

Secondly: Bach knew very well what happened only a few years before in Dresden: the art loving duke did what dukes once in a while do: he died. His successor, only interested in soldateska, dismissed all artists and couldn't care less whether some of them were lucky to get a position as organists in some parochial parish or froze or starved to death. No trade union, no superannuation, no redundancy package. So Bach, responsible for a growing family, bit the bullet to secure a safe income. And right he was: What happened in Dresden later happened in Köthen as well.

What Bach could of course not foresee was that the dismissal of the musicians in Köthen was to happen a few years after his death, but had he lived as long as his second wife Anna, namely until 1760 he, an old, frail and by 1749 blind man would have been mercilessly exposed to starvation,

In fact that is what happened to Anna: as the flat in Leipzig was allotted to the Cantor, Anna and her little children were mercilessly evicted from there and would literally have starved to death had not benign friends of her late husband supplied her with at least enough food to survive but they couldn't avert that she had to live in utter poverty. This Leipzig flat allotted to the cantor by the way is said to be one reason why about two thirds of their children didn't survive babyhood: the church, terribly anxious to the present day about unborn life couldn't and can't care less once those miserable earthlings were born: may they die like flies if they please.

Back to Bach the cantor:

As a militant Christian, Bach was probably very pleased to leave the disdainful secular title of RMD behind and gain the right honourable religious title of "Cantor"? Well, not quite: in a letter to an acquaintance Bach actually complained in many strong words about his deplorable misfortune having been degraded from RMD to Cantor and that he wodo everything to regain his beloved title of RMD again. He succeeded in 1736.

His contract obliged him to teach Latin at the school, Now as a passionate Christian he was probably eager to teach the boys Jesus’ own holy language. Well, not really: he paid a third -class substitute to do this job for him.

Another obligation was to teach singing and leading the chorus. Now as a Christian zealot he probably worked hard to ensure that all of his boys became highly qualified singers to spread the word of our lord and so forth and so forth. Well, not quite: again complaints and fines on end for Mr Bach for neglecting his duty as singing teacher and chorus master, again playing the truant etc etc. Telling, isn't it?

Back to the numbers:

Bach composed about 90% of his sacred music with the five years of 1723 to 1728. In his first and last 20 years as a professional musician Bach composed less that 20 cantatas - less than one per year and all on order - and zero in his last six years. So what in the devil's name did happen in those five years? Did he suffer from a religious bout or what? Well, no. Reality is much more prosaic. Another standard requirement in Leipzig was that the cantor had to deliver a five year cycle of a cantata for each Sunday (so 52 Sundays time 5 years = 250), a passion per year and diverse other musical settings of liturgies.

A man who didn't pick up the pious pencil unless he had to and let it drop the very moment he had got rid of this despised obligation a vicious propagandist? Who ever made up this nonsensical myth?

It is only fair to call those five years his years of slavery. And only hardcore cynics would allege e.g., that Africans were so desperately in love with cotton that they had to migrate by the millions to the American cotton fields.

Bach was, however, quite lucky. Some of his pitiable colleagues like Fasch, Telemann, Stölzel, Römhild were enslaved by one five-year contract after the other, so that each of them composed 1500 cantatas. Would anyone allege that any of them was - 1500 divided by 300 - five times more pious than JS Bach?

In his last years Bach also took great care to make sure that his work was available for generations to come: he supervised the printing of the works he thought most important and archived other works neatly to make sure they were readily available for posterity. For example, the wonderful Brandenburg Concertos. He wrote them for the Duke of Brandenburg who - of course - never paid for them, didn’t even have them performed. And the manuscript might well haven been destroyed by rats and mildew in some dark corner of his library. But Bach was clever enough to keep a copy of the Brandenburg concertos for which reason alone they are available today for us to enjoy.

Hardly any of the 300 cantatas were printed in Bach's lifetime, and about a third of his "sacred music" is lost. A man who obviously couldn't give a damn about his holy work a vicious propagandist? Who ever came up with this myth?

One of the few surviving masses, however, the one in B-, that in Christian circles is praised above all heavens, was composed after 1729. The senile Bach returning to mother church? Well, not quite: this work consists of 24 numbers, out of which six, indeed, were composed after 29 - and the rest - 18, three quarters! - just compiled from other previous works. A chorus from this cantata, an aria from that: The Christian flag-ship is a jerry work, assembly line hodge-podge. One of the Christians' favourite numbers is - for good reasons - the Hosanna which translates into German as "Heil!". I'm afraid you know this word - just don't mention the war! So "Heil Jesus!" it is. Only that Mr Bach pinched a Coronation Anthem he composed earlier on occasion of his boss being enthroned. So for Bach it's “Heil Boss!", "Heil Jesus!", "Heil whatever!"

Don't get me wrong, I personally love this music on end: whenever I feel a bit blue all I've got to do is put the B-mass and in particular the Hosanna on the CD player and minutes later I’m so fortified I could take off and conquer the world again: so be alarmed, I'm German after all.

This quantitative assessment has not yet touched the question of quality and this is neither the time nor place to pursue it, but nobody, not even a stern fundamentalist would deny that it'd be rather silly to even consider comparing the aesthetic impact of, let's say the whole Johannes Passion with a single number of, let's say, the 48.

All this play by the numbers alone shows one thing clearly, namely that Bach surely was not the bigot Jesus-man some interested circles would like to make of him but surely a stern Anti-church-man.

If he was, however, a real A-theist, remains to be investigated.

To find out what Bach's private beliefs were shouldn't be too hard as every artists in his time indulged in writing articles, pamphlets, essays, manuals and textbooks of all sorts. But not so Bach. He was the only one not to participate in this frenzy. Which is the more astonishing as publishing was also the source of some additional income. But Bach didn't write a single line. Bach kept mum. He kept suspiciously mum. What did he have to hide?

He did, however, participate profusely in another baroque fashion: the translation of non-musical things into music. Baroque musicians were obsessed with translating non-musical things like animals (they composed whole zoos), weather, emotions etc in music. This was, however, not a creative but a standardised procedure. There were even kinds of dictionaries in which the meanings of musical figures were laid down. No need to point out that Bach despised this kind of assembly line mass production that was mainly used in opera, the most fashionable genre of the time. In private letters to his sons, outstanding composers in their own right, Bach warned them to stay away from the opera as far as possible. Yes, they had to do some potboilers, after all, bills had to be paid, but stay aware that this is a stupid, soul eating, yes, evil genre to be approached with caution and disgust. Why this verdict? Well, the opera is a genre where everything is said at least four times: First the text. An actor for example mounts the stage singing the most intelligent and intelligible words: "I am the shepherd. ". So far so good. But then he continues to repeat this simple statement several hundred times: "I am the shepherd. I am the shepherd, I am really the shepherd, I am the shepherd, really I am the shepherd” etc. All this is repeated a third time by the stage setting: his attire, his crook, the stage design showing little bah-bah-sheep and panting kelpies. And a fourth time by the music: according to the dictionary “shepherd” is to be represented by a musical genre called “Siciliano” and by the oboe. Now the baroque oboe sounded quite different from our modern instrument. Back then the oboe had a rather raucous tone which symbolised the rough, stinking sheep man and his animalistic eroticism: the shepherdess was always close by.

You can imagine that Bach the genius of minimalism, who like god created universes out of nothing, couldn't stand this rape of holy art.

Let me give you a few examples: the curtain raises and first we see a shepherd on the rocks, and hear - of course - a Siciliano featuring oboes...

CO # 10 (**)

...with his shepherdess singing about how she is bound to him. And of course we hear the "bondage" figura so pathetically repeated that we wonder how either shepherd or shepherdess can still move being constrained by a few hundred fetters. But never mind rationality, that's opera and Bach, the epitome of rationality hates it. To boot TWO oboes that wind sensuously around each other leave no doubt: here’s the beast with two backs

JP # 11

After this highly charged BDSM scene a la baroque a nymph must make an appearance. So Echo comes to repeat Shepherdess Molly's loving "yes": three voices employed for zero aesthetical output: a sheer atfor the music-rationalist Bach. And if you listen carefully: the nymph Echo is so carried away by her elaborate text that she echoes the last "yes" without there being an original "yes", but who cares about physics in opera?:

CO # 39

After this, dark clouds appear on the stage design. Gloom looms and the music - of course - confirms with standardised stomping rhythm and "ha ha heartfelt" dissonances.

JP # 1

And really: here cometh the postman with a letter from the shepherdess: " ... don't love you anymore. ... Ciao baby...", furiously our shepherd tears the letter. Of course our 2nd rate scribbler has to cut and paste the tearing figure:

JP # 16

In another musical setting of the same scene our hopelessly baroque composer doesn't care how many time you can actually tear a letter but for histrionics' sake makes the shepherd atomise the letter:

MP # 73

Heaven and earth are moved so that composer can throw in the obligatory earthquake figure: tremolo in double basses - who would have thought so!

MP # 73 and JP # 61

Alarmed by this baroque ado the shepherd's mates come arunning and ask him what's going on: and of course the raw, undisciplined masses of the lower people creating nothing but bedlam are to be symbolised by a helter skelter fugato:

JP # 23

Our shepherd tells them what has happened. Being asked why he loved this toothless hag in the first place he explains that she could sing so beautifully which he, the shepherd, music critic he is, heard with his own ears. Now when he sings the word "Ohren" - "ears" - our composer composes a very long note.

Streit

obviously our shepherd has very long ears. And to make it clear even for the musical illiterates, the violins play a strange figure; a very high note followed quickly by a rather low note: i-a. Yes, you've got it, our shepherd is an ass - just like Shakespeare’s Bottom. Very funny indeed. To say this a third time he makes our donkey cry in an interval (e - a#) called tritonus or in baroque lingo “diabolo in musica", the devil in music, always depicting something terribly wrong: obviously our silly shepherd's affection toward the devilishly unworthy ex-girlfriend of his is donkily wrong.

In another musical setting of the same scene we have something similar: Again the silly ass cries out loud:

CO # 41

but instead of the diabolo figure - this time it's a very nice rococo octave - the composer underlines the wrongness of this blather by a wrong rhythm "Ich will....." (I want to....) is our shepherd's text, with clearly the stress on the second syllable "will" (want), but the music incorrectly stresses the "Ich" (I): the shepherd must be as wrong as his incorrect rhythm. Quite a stress for the singer.

All our shepherds break out in laughter and the curtain falls,

Before the curtain raises for the second act we hear the orchestra featuring trumpets and timpani and everybody knows: those instruments symbolise the aristocracy and yes the curtain raises and here he is Mr Aristocrat the Duke on the shepherd’s rock:

M Hosanna and MAG # 1 and many others

Bleary-eyed and very angry. “What is all this noise about? Who dares to wake me. Only the court cock is allowed to do so.” STOP! No baroque composer could let an animal wag its tail without quoting its figure, so let us hear the cock crow:

Be it reckless negligence or a glimpse of humour: the cock's crow is echoed in the bass - but even the most base duke doesn’t possess a bass cock:

JP # 18

And our duke continues crying: “I shall deport you to Van Diemen's Land.” But here comes the duchess, even more bleary-eyed and with bloodthirsty eyes draws a cat o’ seven tails out of her nightie: "No, my liege, not VDL but let me flog him right here and now" and sings about her lust

MP # 60

As this flogging goes on and on it seems that Her Highness not only wants to give our shepherd a good whipping but actually wants to flog him until he is dead . And as baroque arias are repeated it sounds as if she even desires to flog a dead shepherd. Best baroque hardcore BDSM. We are not amused and Bach is completely annoyed.

All this has intimidated our shepherd so much that he doesn't just fall on his knees as a good Christian does but seems to have converted to Islam doing a few hundred obeisances that would even make a advanced dervish faint:

MP # 28

And ceaselessly he repeats the chromatic figure denoting “weeping“:

JP # 18

Even a baroque critic criticised this aria for being too repetitious. Another critic, however, justified this: the senseless repetition itself is a figure unmasking the shepherd as a complete hypocrite.

Even the duke is tired of all this histrionic stuff and tells the shepherd to beat it. And off he goes, and down he runs, our shepherd, the slope - if it wasn't for the famous little gentleman in black velvet having just there built his little hill over which our luckless shepherd stumbles. Head over heels he rolls down the brae with the accompaniment of the falling-down-figure. Never mind the laws of physics: the falling down figura has to be repeated. How, one wonders, could any shepherd repeatedly fall down the same hill within seconds? It's like in one of those countless slapstick Hollywood movies in which a shallow gag has to be repeated, sense or no sense, because that's apparently terribly funny:

MAG # 8

Everybody laughs but we are bored and Bach by now boils with rage. So let the curtain fall and I shall spare you the 3rd, 4th and 5th acta which, in the next three hours, wouldn’t bring anything worth mentioning anyway.

Bach picked up this technique of translation but carried it further: He didn’t just translate the text but commented on it. Imagine this ingenious deed: Bach sets a text to music and encodes his opinion of this text in his music, lets the violins, oboes, trumpets etc say what he thinks. Only a genius of his calibre could have done that, so Bach was in fact the only one who did it.

All we have to do now is to re-translate his cryptograms into plain English.

Let’s do that with a cantata composed in 1727 when Bach was ordered by a duke (he actually was a king, but for obvious reasons I prefer to make him a duke) to provide the music for his wife’s birthday party. Of course Bach knew that he had to obey: to disobey the duke would be paramount to disobeying Jesus and the duke’s brother who happened to be the local bishop - what a coincidence! - had a hot answer for blasphemers.

So provide he had to. But Bach, for the sake of his soul and in view of later generations who would be young and free to actually listen to his music, made sure to let the music speak his mind.

Bach's statement translated into plain English was:

“Duchess, you are mighty, noisy, verbose but intellectually reduced, a clanging belle." - to be sure: JS knew his St. Paul, Corinthians 13:1.

This is actually the bowdlerised version. Bach as a political incorrect choleric just mumbled under his breath: "Silly cow!"

And here's how he encodes this statement:

Bach said to himself: ‘The duchess is the wife of the duke, the duke is a member of the aristocracy, the aristocracy has to be symbolised by featuring the timpani and/or trumpet (we had an example of that before.) But why have the whole orchestra? I shall reduce the 30 piece orchestra to the absolute minimum - reduced brain, reduced ensemble - of 2 players: timpani and /or trumpet. 2 out of 30 that's plenty for the reduced duchess. - But wait a minute. Every 2nd rate Telemann can do that: I am the genius Bach who's able to reduce even the minimum: my name is HeissenBach: I can split the indivisible atom: I'll have just one of the two. So trumpet or timpani? Well, the trumpet can produce all 12 tones that are available in European music, but the timpani - well, the timpani can only play one. So timpani it be: 1 out of 12 is a fine reduction! And that the duke had only two timpani in his orchestra: not my fault. And it’s also not my fault that traditionally - and tradition is Jesus, so not to be fiddled around with! - the two timpani are tuned in the two most basic tones of the scale: 1 and 5. You knthis primitive interval from all those childish nursery songs like 'Frere Jacques': ".... ding dang dong": 1 - 5 - 1.’

Let’s also remind ourselves, that the timpani in 1700 was NOT the fine high-tech instrument we enjoy listening to when the wonderful MSO (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) is playing but a rather raw cauldron with a raw hide, hardly tuneable so always awkwardly out of pitch. The timpani was in fact not a musical but a noise instrument. A noisy instrument for a noisy belle. And so our grandiose birthday party music commences with the timpani’s hollow rumble.

CO #1

d d d d a
1 1 1 1 5

But Bach had to present something new. And so he did: the trumpets come in. New? Not really: only yet another instrument to symbolise aristocracy. Many words - hardly any meaning - you remember. And all they play is a rather clumsy variation of the preloved timpani motif.

But no disco without Abba and Abba 1700 were the boys of the local school. Here's what they have to sing:

CO # 1

d d d d a
jauch - zet, froh - lock - et

Methinks we have heard this elaborate tune before. 1115

But Bach could have brought himself into trouble: a vicious member of the orchestra could have run to the local Stasi - wrong century: holy inquisition it was called then - to point out that the boys could sing more than just 2 notes and that Bach is ruthlessly pulling HM’s leg, should be burnt and he, the informer, made MD, thank you - what all this was about in the first place. So Bach made haste to introduce a new tone. Which one? Well, Bach thought if I really have to do something new then I make sure that I employ the most basic thing available and so the kids sing:

CO # 1

d d d d a a a d a f# d a a
1 1 1 1 5 5 5 1 5 3 1 5 5

After 1 and 5 the 3rd note of the scale is the next simple one: 1-3-5 here you've got the plain major chord. And this “new” tone is only touched once to not overstress the brain capacity of our beloved duchess.

Let's contrast this with an example of something Bach wrote to represent himself to later generations: the first tune of the B Minor Fugue of the Well Tempered Piano, Book I

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
f# d b g f# b a# e d# c b f# e# d c# b# c# a f# g#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

This tune consists of only 20 notes (not umpteen bars) to be played within a few seconds (not many minutes) and comprises all 12 tones that are available in European music. All 12 possible tones within a 20-tone tune. That's Schönberg 130 years before Arnold was even born. What a contrast to the tedious "jauchzet frohlocket" up and down the chord.

Of course they sing in German and the poetry was probably written by maestro Bach himself. I have the feeling that whenever “Author unknown” is stated in the BWV, it was Bach himself who took to writing the poetry for the music when things became really silly and pathetic. And he was a master of parody. In poetry Bach’s time is called Rococo: one of the most decadent epochs of German poetry: over-sweet but through and through standardised motifs of shepherds and shepherdesses, birds and bees and murmuring brooks. Appalling, But Bach could pick up this style brilliantly. In Leipzig. Bach cooperated with Henrici the taxman assuming the prestigious nom-de-plum of Picander - piquant forsooth - who isn't - for good reasons - represented in any anthology of serious poetry, but whose bawdy comedies were banned. Bach and Picander it seems were two scoundrels off the same block and had a ball of a time bowling down corny couplets and hilariously delightful rhymes such as "... Feinde schnauben / ... unser Glauben" ("...enemies snort / ... our faith" - it's just not funny when translated. “Snorting” and “faith” cheekily linked by rhyme and highlighted by the same long melisma (Christmas oratorio # 54).

As you hear, Bach's poem begins with two words: “jauchzet” and “frohlocket” as poems do. Even the great Shakespeare couldn't help but begin any of his ingenious sonnets with, well, the first two words. But when you need to translate those words you realise that they only pretend to be two words but are really one, are synonyms, both translating into English as “rejoice”. Even in the microcosm of poetry Bach does not leave out the opportunity to poke fun at the verbose belle. So our boys are singing away rejoice and rejoice and rejoice and rejoice hail the birthday of the duchess.

Now all this is yet another example of Bach's larrikinism and his well known loathing of the aristocracy. Many other anecdotes are known about his sly ways to kick those kings and dukes in their royal arses. Just remind yourself of the delicious scene in Potsdam where Bach visited his ingenious son CPhE, subject to HM the King of Prussia, Frederick II. This appalling murderer and psychopathic scoundrel the Christians call "The Great" for obvious reasons. This king sought to magnify his own glory by embarrassing the great composer and had contrived a rather bland and deliberately cumbersome tune over which he ordered Bach to improvise off the cuff. It was of course expected that the miserable underling bowed very low and said something like: "Your Greatness has composed such a sophisticated exemplum of musica that I (the greatest of all composers) can only surrender and admit: it is too much even for me... blablabla". Not so Bach, A look, a sneer and he sat down at the harpsichord improvising away over the royal “tune” until Mr. King, annoyed and frustrated, bade him stop that undue noise. Not enough of that: a second kick in the royal arse was due: Bach went home (literally) and didn't hesitate to write down his improvisations (probably only a rather poor knock-off of what he had produced in Berlin: oh that we could have been there to listen!) and sent the product to HM with kind regards. HM was not amused - Bach was. And to do the delicious arse kicking a third time: half way through the composition Bach wrote a dedication on the margin of the manuscript: "May the King's fame ascend with the modulation of the royal subject" In plain English: "Your musical subject, oh mighty King, is crap but a genius like me can make something worthwhile of it." One had to be diplomatic: Fritz parleyed with Voltaire but that doesn't mean we can't burn heretics. Don't you forget.

Funny linguistic aside: Bach called this, his offering, "Musikalisches Opfer" but there are a few translations around that mistake the word "Opfer" using it's other meaning in German, namely "Victim": "Musical Victim" - "another 5 drivers killed when playing Bach while driving - bloody idiots!" Or poor old Bach as a road victim of aristocratic snobbery: unintentional but quite true.

But I do admit: larrikinism is not atheism. We have to look at his sacred music, which is quickly and easily done as Bach, a few years after the royal birthday party, was forced by contract to provide the party music for yet another birthday party: this time for Mr Jesus Christ. And so on 24th of December the boys of the chorus took a deep breath and after timpani and trumpets had their say started to cry out: "jauchzet frohlocket..." rejoice and rejoice and rejoice and rejoice - hail the birthday of - Jesus!" All Bach had done was to cross out the word "duchess" and replace it with "Jesus". Now don't get me wrong: That Bach pinched his own music doesn't matter at all: this kind of economy was absolutely legal and legitimate in those days. We are, after all, some 120 years away from copyright legislature and the commandment that every work of art has to be unique. So, that Bach recycled his old work doesn't matter at all, what matters is that he repeated his derisive statement: timpani by timpani, trumpet by strumpet, silly 1-3-5 tune by silly 1-3-5 tune, jauchzet by frohlocket. Relentlessly, Bach kicks the sweet Jesus boy in his heavenly arse declaring: “Jesus, you are mighty, noisy, verbose but intellectually reduced, a clanging beau!” - to be sure: JS knew his St. Paul, Cori13:1. ,

Bach, the caustic satirist, a vicious propaganda machine? I don‘t think so.

(Just for accuracy’s sake: The birthday-cantata for the duchess actually began with the words - three different words! - “Klinget ihr Pauken” (“Sound ye timpani”) which is a bit less repetitious than “jauchzet frohlocket” but still pleonastic: what else could timpani do but ‘sound’. Besides: what is an order good for when the deed has already been done? The timpani did sound often long before the instruction came in. JS an early Saint-Exupery - a wise king only orders what already has happened?

But I do admit: one great shower doesn't break the drought and one X-mas satyre doesn't prove the atheist. So we really need to look closer and deeper into Bach's other sacred music, Which is quickly and easily done because - as all of you have realised at once - all those operatic examples I presented before were without exception composed by JS Bach. Who, as we know, never wrote a single opera. Or did he? For sure he didn't write "Opera" on his manuscript but called those concoctions "passion", "oratorio“, "mass" etc. Just like a hundred years later Verdi, who called his most sexy, rousing opera "Requiem" and - a revolution had taken place in Europe in the meanwhile - could, unmolested, state his Atheism.

There is a telling anecdote showing that in fact some contemporaries of Bach did smell a rat: after hearing the Matthew Passion in a - I nearly said "performance" but of course it was in a - Good Friday service, two elderly ladies cried out: "But this music is so disgustingly operatic!" Little did they dare even to think that that was exactly the smirking composer's intention.

The single example doesn't really matter but what matters is Bach’s ceaseless machine gun fire of ridicule and caustic satire against the despised text he was forced to set to music.

Our pathetically weeping shepherd for example is St Peter (Johannes Passion # 18.) A Christian propaganda machine calling the founding member of this terrorist organisation a complete hypocrite? I do not think so.

Funny also that the music for the lines concerning "depraved lust" in Bach's secular Hercules-cantata becomes the music for "loving affection" ("Prepare ye Zion", Christmas oratorio).

But for my personal taste Bach's rage once in a while made him overstep the line of good taste and legitimate satire: The shepherd as a donkey with long ears a la Shakespeare's Bottom is quite funny but in the other setting (Christmas oratorio #41) the text of the derided ass goes on after "I want" with "live only for the glory of god.". Now I do agree that someone who wants to “live only for the glory of god” has a serious mental problem and needs help. Furthermore everything legally possible needs to be done to prevent that those weirdos have any influence in society, let alone on the souls of our children. So far so good. But all the rage in the world should not mislead. At least we need to agree that even our dearest enemies are still human beings. To call them animals - even cute donkeys - is neither cute nor funny nor acceptable. But maybe as a German I am a bit too squeamish, knowing that calling people animals is only the first step to treating them like animals.

A few other examples: In Christmas Oratorio # 42 the text "curb my desire" of all texts in set in a 5 bar phrase that awkwardly expands the traditional 4-bar phrase, and later our musical sense for stability is again frustrated by another 5-bar phrase begging: "don't let me waver".

Much has been said about Bach's predilection for endless melismas (singing one syllable on many notes like "co-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-h-o-me and see...."). In many cases we can see and hear that the living human being is made a dead musical instrument. This is of course not a cynical misanthropical statement (though singers loathe for good reasons those torments), but Bach's comment on the text: the Christian dogma degrades a human being to a "clanging bell" - to be sure: JS knew his St. Paul, Corinthians 13:1.

Just two examples of more sophisticated puns Bach employed that can only be seen in the score but can’t be heard: In Johannes Passion # 20 the "scattered sheep" mentioned in the text are depicted as notes stampeding all over the score. In # 54 when the word "Kreuz" ("crucifix") is sung, lots of sharps (German: "Kreuz") appear in the notes,

So much for Bach’s “sacred music”.

I shall not venture deeply into the realm of Bach's chamber music but only briefly hint at some possible clues.

There is a Suite for Piano in A minor, BWV 818a, which is hardly ever performed and hardly available in print or recording. For good reason, because it is - yes even the great Bach did that once in a while - rather boring, The prelude to this Suite, however, is a gem: very witty with some remarkable inventions. A pity it has been poured out with the rest of the suite, This prelude begins rather bland and shallow with the stock flourish of an ascending scale - fit only to let off a firework - followed by a rather primitive, fanfare-like motif - fit only to be played on the waters to greet the beloved homecoming king. So your standard baroque blather that makes us fall asleep after a few bars - and that's exactly what Bach wanted: In totalitarian regimes like the one Bach had to live in every artist had to hand in his work to the local censor. What our censor saw in 818a was what has been described above: baroque jerry work as he had seen a million times before - yawn - nothing new - yawn - and just before falling asleep he listlessly - yawn - pressed his rubber stamp on the manuscript: "Genehmigt!" ("approved"). What he didn't stay awake for was to realise what happens after bar 14. At first glance we don't but see another nondescript motif in semiquavers repeated on and on over two bars, accompanied by a similarly uninventive bass going repeatedly up and down chords in quavers. Assembly line work that enabled Vivaldi to boast: “I can compose a concerto quicker than anybody could copy it!” And that’s exactly what we hear and that’s exactly why his music - and ABBA - is so popular: Switch off your brain and enjoy. But a closer look and we discover on count "1", the most exposed and strongest beat, a - god forbid and Mary help! - Tritonus: the devil in person! Never mind one tritonus, you mind find this (if you search long enough) even in Telemann or Handel, but looking closer at the 16 intervals of those two bars we discover seven of them are diaboli! That's 44%! Ask any leader of a party whether he'd like to gain 44% of all votes in an election where 12 parties are up for choice. It is as if Bach waved at us with a big flag, crying out loud: "future generations who are young and free and not anymore under the oppression of a stake-wielding organisation: please don't let me be misunderstood, I'm only playing the baroque conformist for my life's sake but I am really one of yours! I am a little devil, not yet another abominable Hallelujah-boy!" And if I'm not mistaken, the flag he is brandishing at us is rather reddish.

The prelude 818a moves on to further rather exciting inventions. Have a look.

Those two bars are only a little - but a telling - specimen for Bach's chamber music and its underlining message.

Or take the ubiquitous first Prelude of the first Book of the Well Tempered Piano, all of us had to jingle if we ever made it to the second piano lesson. But it's not a rococo jingle. The Prelude is a progression of chords and two thirds through it Bach states that ab - f - b - c - d is a chord. Are you kidding? Tristan, I dare say is a bit bland, comparatively. The framing notes ab - d and the inner sanctuary f - b being diaboli.

This prelude as such is a philosophical statement: A key is firmly established: C major. Full stop. Thesis. Thesis confirmed by standard turn-around. But from bar 5 on we have a composed dialogue, a discussion between two parties: Bar 5: statement, orthodox, strong, firm, self-righteous with boring but intimidating octave-doubling. Bar 6: "Yes, but..." doubt, heretic, insecure, dissonant. This dualistic dialogue continues in bars 7 and 8, 9 and 10 and so forth. The Dominant is reached: a plain major chord: we need the least agreement to have a supporting base on which to lead an equal discussion, but with the dominant’s natural tension: it’s a base, not yet an agreement. Then we reach the same plain C-major chord we started off with in bar 1 but an octave lower: you can only get deeper into a matter by free exchange of diverse standpoints. The discussion becomes heated, both parties are equal. This is a celebration of the number Two: the devilish number of separation, sedition, dia-logue, equality of "Yes" and "No", Good and Evil, God and Devil! Bach was, after all, contemporary of Newton and Leibnitz, the two independent inventers of the famous 0-1, “Yes-No" principle. Pity they lacked silicon and electricity - otherwise they would have built the first PC.

So our question whether or not JS Bach was an atheist, which we have initially answered a bit too hastily to the negative, we can now, after deeper investigation only answer to the positive: of course J. S. Bach was an Atheist.

That Bach encrypted his caustic derision of the Christian ideology is more than understandable but it is quite astonishing that he even did so concerning a perfectly harmless matter: Tuning was one of the widely discussed questions in Bach’s time. This was one of the few issues the otherwise totalitarian clergy didn't care about, so Bach could have published his opinion on this matter freely and in plain German. Being a rationalist and a Tech freak he devolved his own tuning. Demonstrating what could be done with it he composed the two cycles of the Well Tempered Piano. He could have explained in a few lines the principle of this tuning without having to fear any repercussions whatsoever. But he didn’t. That's why for a long time it was falsely believed he thought of the "equal tuning" in which the octave is strictly divided into 12 equal intervals. This misconception is perpetuated to the present day. But John O‘Donnell, Melbourne, discovered Bach's formula: looking at the frontage of the first edition of the Well Tempered Piano (***), supervised by Bach himself, one will notice a kind of clumsy doodling above the title that looks as if one of Bach’s baby boys had scrawled it. One wonders why Bach allowed this. But John O’Donnell identified those irregular nooks and curls as symbols for Bach's tuning formula which is not the equal tuning at all. Why in all the world did he encrypt this harmless statement? Was he a complete maniac? Or an excessive larrikin who couldn’t leave out a chance to make us wonder and ponder? Or - a quite recommendable feature in view of the stake - just paranoid? Remember: “just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they are not after you.”

There is a quite astonishing parallel in music history: the same fate and the same methods of balancing survival and integrity are found with Dimitri Shostakovich: Living in the first half of the 20th century in Stalinist Russia, he too was under constant threat of being executed by the terrorist regime. And time and again he managed to avoid this cruel fate by playing the conformist Stalinist. For example, he made sure that the manuscripts of his symphonies bore propagandistic slogans suggesting they were dedicated to the heroic Stalin army etc etc. After a rehearsal of a symphony composed in 1953, however, his son said to him : "Dad, the manuscript says "glorious soviet army" but your music really is a vehement protest against this monster having just crushed the Hungarian revolt and oppressing those people..." To which father Shostakovich said: “ Son, shut the f**** up: if any of them finds out, we'll all get shot on the spot!" They - of course - never found out and luckily nobody was shot. The same probably happened in Bach's family: "Daddy", I hear one of his toddlers say, eagerly looking over his composing father’s shoulders, "look, you write this 12-tonemusic, why do we have to do this silly 1111115-baby music again?" - "Son, shut the f**** up: if any of them finds out, we will all get burnt on the spot!" They - of course - never found out and luckily nobody was burnt.

Parallels also in their afterlives: Somewhere - probably in East Berlin, the Huns are always a century behind - some arch-communists meet on their Shabbat (no idea what the communist Shabbat is, let's say Wednesday) and the secretary proclaims: “Before we start our Wednesday service let's fist hear a movement of our beloved comrade Dimitri!” And fists brandishing, they enthusiastically scan "Shos-ta-ko-vich, Shos-ta-ko-vich!". Let them! They are happy, we are happy, no reason to reduce happiness in the world.

In the far west of us, however, we see this stern member of the School board taking great care that "never shall our innocent children be molested by this damned Bolshevist. No Shostakovich in my school, Amen!" Let him. He's happy, we are happy, no reason to reduce happiness in the world, though the poor Utah schoolchildren will miss out on Shostakovich’s splendid music.

At the same time some other people might meet on their Shabbat (a Sunday - they fiddle around with first and last things but can’t even read the clock, so for the last 2000 years have constantly been 24 hours late) and joyfully proclaim: "To start our Sunday service, let's sing a number from our great propaganda machine!" Let them! They are happy, we are happy, no reason to reduce happiness in the world. On the other side, we have the stern atheist parroting Nietzsche: "Bach on the brink of modernism looks back in nostalgia to the middle ages. No monkish Bach for me, amen!" Let him. He's happy, we are happy, no reason to reduce happiness in the world.

I am, however, not yet happy: to establish the fact that Bach was an atheist is important but just an unsatisfactory first step: it is, after all, only a negative statement" "A-" meaning "not". Bach was not a theist. But what really matters is a positive definition of who he really was. So what was his private philosophy?

Bach gave us a hint in his "Musical Offering":

"Quarrendo invenietis": In searching lies discovery.

But other than the cautious hint I gave before looking at 181a and the 1st Prelude of the 48 I can’t say. But then again: I am only a weak little light at the end of a very long and very black tunnel. And I am sure that there will come someone much mightier than I who will look deeper into Bach's music and tell us what Bach positively thought. Until this mighty person arrives - and I am hopeful to live to witness his or her coming - all I can do is ask you to join me in jauchzet frohlocket, rejoice and rejoice that we are blessed with the man and the musician JS Bach.

As for the chip off the old block, Johann Christian Bach e.g. converted to Catholicism, not for metaphysical reasons but because that's what he had to do to obtain a musical post in Milano, Italia. Remember the "catholic" bits in the B Minor Mass? A bit later JCh turned Anglican being the successor of the 'fat pig' and a catholic Royal Music Director in London has not been seen until the present day. So - like father like son - he juggled with religion as necessary.

All this is probably not too important, but worth while to rescue Bach out of those claws that have illegitimately appropriated him for the last 300 years.

Not that I personally believe in any of those fantasies, but to venture playfully into some metaphysical scenario:

Be there an immortal soul that after the body's death flaps around and let's assume for a second there are different realms it has to go to: first to a kind of limbo, as purgatory for some final stage. Let's furthermore surmise that a still living person can actually assist in rescuing an undead soul. Like Senta and her Flying Dutchman. In this case, yes, it is absolutely important to rescue Bach's immortal soul that has suffered some 260 years in a horrible purgatory of eternal (gruesome state for a creative soul that wants chand progress!) peace (hideous boredom for a choleric, belligerent temperament) where brainless (ghastly company for a genius) angels (Lord have mercy upon me!) day and night croon "Hallelujah" under Archhandel's direction. But now the magic word has been spoken: Welcome Johnny to the congregation of atheist, your soul's now free and can happily swoop down to this pleasant place, agreeably warm, where you and Shakespeare and Dante, and all those other interesting blokes engage in tempestuous arguments and little devils tickle the brains to make sure the pleasure of thinking and discovering, studying and teaching, teaching and recanting will be augmented on and on. And please, oh St John, make sure that I'll be one of your number. Just a little nook somewhere in a corner and I promise I won't disturb your learned discussions, won't say a thing, just sit there and indulge in listening to your debates.

Why was Bach's atheism discovered only now, 260 years after his death?

I have to recant everything I’ve said and make amends: Bach's atheism was well known from the beginning, The myth that Bach was a Christian propaganda machine is itself a myth. I have, for cheap histrionic reasons, derided all those dukes and bishops and kings and arch-vicars etc and presented them as brainless fools, But this is of course not at all the case: Notwithstanding that some of them were indeed morons, the much greater part of the social aristocracy was also the intellectual aristocracy and mainly highly educated and rational men. So it would be rather peculiar to assume that those people actually believed in the crap they represented for the hoi poloi, From Neolithic shamans to contemporary priests: in no social group was atheism so over-represented than in the clergy, the people in the know.

Three reasons why outside the clergy, in the not-so-enlightened population, this myth could come and stay:

#1 "Stockholm Syndrome".

This term stands for a psychotic reaction towards oppression: Aggression first triggers fear, hate, counter-aggression. But when the terror is long and brutal enough the human mind prevents the body from giving up - i.e. die - by fleeing into an irrational perception: the identification with the aggressor: The terrorists are perceived as "nice men" etc. To live irrationally in a dream world is still better than dying in view of unbearable reality.

The cruellest and saddest example for a global case of Stockholm Syndrome is the Afro-American church: "Jesus is our saviour - well, he has killed millions of us but never mind - glory glory for the gospel - well they made us pick their cotton, but never mind - glory glory hallelujah!" As a lover of Blues and Jazz I always feel desperate pain when confronted with this Stockholm Syndrome.

The mechanics of the Stockholm Syndrome were also taken into account recently by those who brought down the twin-towers: one such atrocity, killing three thousand people, triggers aggression, disgust and solidarity with the victims, Should they have continued to do so and brought down a twin tower per week over a period of a few years, then we would have the opposite effect and the US of A would be a fundamentalist, theocratic Muslim state by now, and every Allah-save-America-patriot would pray three time a day: “Allah hoo agbar - well, he brought down hundreds of twin towers but never mind - Allah hoo agbar - and killed some million Americans but never mind - Allah, The Greatest American, hoo agbar!”. They knew exactly when to stop to avoid the Stockholm Syndrome effect.

As for the church, we here have to deal with a terrorist organisation that for nearly 2000 years has had access to all the weapons of mass destruction and made it perfectly clear that they won't hesitate to use any of them at any time when ever possible. From the catacombs in Rome to Auschwitz: we have learnt the lesson. And it is quite reasonable that we still smell gas whenever we raise our voices against this organisation. Auschwitz, after all, is but 63 years ago. Lest you forget. So speak after me: "we praise Bach, the holy cantor!"

#2 Tradition

This is the strongest argument in the history of our species’ culture, though it's not an argument at all,

The way our species is constructed we need to accept the fact that tradition is the indispensable fundament of our existence. If every single person investigated every single thing from scratch, we would be on the mental level of a four year old and our species couldn't exist. Real knowledge might be some 4%. According to the law of probability half of the remaining 96% should be correct. So with about 52% hits we are still on the safe side.

Some influential people started to propagate Mr Bach as the "5th evangelist", others parroted, books were written by compiling other books, spreading lots of true results of rational analysis but at the same time also a good deal of traditional nonsense.

I'll tell you a story. The birthday party for our beloved duchess had come to an end, the duke was, due to the malmsey his cousin - duke of some dominion in Spain - had sent, somewhat out of social control and when Bach took his humble leave, our duke forgot himself for a second and clapped Bach - imagine Jesus his deputy touching a dirty music-animal (the horror, the horror) - on the shoulder and babbled: "well done Bach: 'ram tatata ta ta tam ta' really strong. It shows how strong the duche... how strong I am - and now", Mr Duke suddenly realises whom he is talking to (the embarrassment!) "piss off!". Which Bach did (of course without payment), ran home, straight into the dunny, had a good vomit and a broad smile on his face for the rest of the week. He would make sure that THIS cantata survived for posterity! The Duke's minions did what minions do, namely bootlick around their master to catch every word being spewed out of the horse’s mouth. One of them was as usual the scribbler of the local tabloid . "The Duke's Age" it was called then, now it would be "The Age's Duke": names change, structure hardly ever. Off the columnist ran and directly out of the best selling horse's mouth an article was born: ” ... Splendid party for the gracious duchess ... Bach's 'ram tatata ta ta tam ta' really strong, ... Hail! .... “ Two of the Duke's subjects read the tabloid especially carefully: The music teacher and the maths teacher knowing that their headmaster was very ill and his position would be available soon. Having studied the paper our music teacher made sure to pronounce the next day to his students: "we live in the presence of greatness, hail our Duke and his royal composer Bach: 'ram tatata ta ta tam ta' really strong, it shows how strong and bla and bla and bla....." Our clever music teacher knew only too well that the father of one of his pupils was not only a member of the Stasi but also member of the school board. So when daddy came home for dinner that evening he asked his son - just as in fatherly conversation: "Now, sonny tell me what have you learned in school today?". "Hmm, well, yes, Prof. of Theology Dr. Piousman said.. ." - "Never mind, never mind, what else?" - "Oh, yes the Maths teacher..." - Father very alert now: "Yes, the Maths teacher?" - "...said: 2 + 5 = 7 and also 9 - 6 = 3" - "That's all?" - "Yes" - Father (very ominous): "Hum hum. And the music teacher, what did you learn from him?" - "Oh, yes well, let's see: Hail Duchess and Bach 'ram tatata ta ta tam ta' really strong. Like Duke !" - "Good boy! And now to bed!" (writes a notice in his little Stasi book). A fortnight later Mr Music teacher was proudly made headmaster, while Mr Maths teacher had learned a lessen and made sure to pronounce ever after: “2 + 5 = in the name of Jesus 7 and that 9 - 6 = by grace of Mother Mary and the duchess 3" .

Our music teacher did not know, however, that another boy of his class was a genius who, some 30 years later became the first dean of the music department of Berlin University. In his speech of inauguration he pointed out that already Bach with his Teutonic 'ram tatata ta ta tam ta' was the prophet of Germanic Christendom, so strong etc etc ..." And so it goes on and on and tis no end to parroting.

#3 Millstones

As I have pointed out: the intellectually better off, those in the know, do of course not really share the general parrot's version and a Prof. Dr. Church-music could explain those things to you much more competently than I.

But there are two millstones: the first is called salary: imagine our professor stands up and declares: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Bach was an Atheist." So far so good. Next morning, however, he’ll be summoned by his dean: " My dear old friend: You know, I know, but proclaiming it in public is just not it. Sorry, no more salary for you. Good bye." Really, would any of you scarify a prof’s salary just for the effing truth? I hope nobody would be so irrational!

But as I don't have any salary in the first place, there is nobody who could rob me of it.

The other millstone might be called vanity. Imagine a scribbler who has already published a plethora of books, for example on "The importance of forests", knows that hundreds of hectares of forest have been logged to produce his works. And than he sends his publisher a book "Bach the Atheist": Answer from the Publisher: “You know, I know, but tackling a living myth, that's just not it. No publishing. And by the way we won't publish anything of yours any more anyway. Kind regards." What would this poor man do with his vanity: no more trees killed that demonstrated how important he is. Oh hell, no!

But I lack a publisher: I am heading towards 55 and haven't yet published a single line and I am not going to change that tradition now.

(“And what is this, you complete shepherdian, paulian hypocrite?” - I stand corrected and amend my statement: At 55 years of age I have but published 19 pages and I am not going to change this traditional ratio now. So you’ll need to wait 55 years for the next 19 pages - good luck.)

(**)

List of abbreviations

CO Christmas Oratorio
JP Johannes Passion
MP Matthaeus Passion
M Messe in h-moll (mass in b-minor)
MAG Magnificat
Streit Streit zwischen Phoebus and Pan BWV

 

Script of a lecture by Wolfgane Eubel on Bach the Atheist on December 12, 2008 in Melbourne., Australia.

Contributed by Wolfgang Eubel (December 10, 2008)

Bach & Religion: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Bach the Evangelist:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
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Was J.S. Bach an Atheist?

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Last update: ýDecember 31, 2008 ý10:30:50