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Author: William Hoffman (April 2014)

Bach’s calling for the composition of a well-ordered church music to the glory of God was fulfilled in his tenure as Leipzig Cantor from 1723 to his death in 1750. Bach mastered, exploited and transformed every facet of church music, guided by the Lutheran Leipzig Church Book Agenda governing regulation of the services. He had an unparalleled opportunity in Saxony’s leading city of commerce, education, and the Evangelical Lutheran religions. The so-called “Duke Henirich’s Agenda,” provided the framework for the establishment and growth of this religion and the vehicle for the flourishing of Luther’s call for music to convey the sacred word in the German vernacular to the people. This development of religious practice and the integral music of Bach is documented in German theologian and Bach scholar Martin Petzoldt’s article, “Liturgy and Music in Leipzig’s Main Churches,” in Volume 3, of Christoph Wolff’s The World of the Bach Cantata: JSB’s Leipzig Church Cantatas, Part 1, The Composer and his World (Metzler/Bärenreiter, Stuttgart/Weimar, Kassel, 1999) pp. 68-93. [Reference Thomas Braatz BCW Article: Liturgy and Music in Leipzig’s Main Churches by Martin Petzoldt]

In essence, the Agenda defined the ingredients, scope, and the emphasis of the public services in the Leipzig churches, beginning in 1539 with the community’s acceptance of the Reformation. The Agenda established the Mass Proper readings of the lectionary New Testament Gospel and Epistle of the church year Sundays and Feast Days as the basis of the teachings of the Main Services of the Word and Sermon. The harmony of the Gospel accounts of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were prescribed for Holy Week and Easter. Three theological documents establishing the foundation of the church as its essential service practices were embodied first in the 1530 Augsburg Confessional of fundamental beliefs. Second was Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529 as a prescription of the liturgy of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession and the Service of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Third was the general Prayers provided by local authority. In addition, local churches began printing their own interpretive hymn books.

The actual church service order of liturgy and readings in Leipzig consistently followed the tradition of the Ordinarium missae (Mass Ordinary: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) during Bach’s tenure, interspersed with those parts of the main service that expressed the basic tenants of the Reformation through the upgrading of the specific Propers readings for each service, particularly through congregational singing. These services were a fusion of two formularies: the Mass Ordinary and Luther’s Catechism, particularly as expressed in Bach’s Clavierübung German Organ Chorale Mass (Wikipedia,Übung_III . The principal vehicle was the German-language hymn called chorale, instituted by Luther and collected in ever-larger hymnbooks. These contained sacred songs under the headings of the Sundays and Feast Days of the de tempore first half of the church year concerning the major events in the life of Jesus Christ and the omnes tempore second half, called Trinity Time, emphasizing the teachings and themes of Christian Church. The hymns also were interspersed into the Main Service at appropriate places in both the prescribed Ordinary and the specific Proper passages for the Hymn of the Day as well as the Sermon and Communion Hymns.

Besides the main service music for Sundays, the liturgical year provided for feast days with even greater emphasis on musical expression: the three-day high feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and the single feast days of Epiphany and Ascension; the Three Marian Feast Days of Purification Annunciation, and Visitation; the Saints Feast Days of John the Baptist and Michael and All Angels; and Trinity Sunday and the Reformationfest.

The extent of the music and specific service ingredients of each service of the church year were divided into three categories: The Feast Days (just listed) and special Feast Times; the “Fasting Periods,” or closed periods of the Second to Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Six Sundays of Lent as well as Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in Holy Week; and the “Feastless Days or Periods,” that is the of omnes tempore First to the Sixth Sundays after Epiphany followed by Septuagesima, Sexagesimae, and Estomihi Sundays transitioning to Lent, the de tempore Sundays after Easter, and the entire omnes tempore First to 27th Sundays after Trininty Sunday (now all called the Sundays After Pentecost). The special Feast Times in the Christmas Season, that Bach particularly celebrated in the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, were the Sunday after Christmas or the Sunday after New Year, and the Feast of the Circumcision, as well as New Year’s Day and the First Sunday in Advent.

Besides the opportunities to compose music for most services, excepting the Closed Times in Leipzig, Bach also had opportunities to compose music for the Vesper Services and Weddings as part of the Leipzig weekly services scheduled in the two main churches at St. Nikolaus and St. Thomas.

In the past two decades some of the most significant studies of Bach’s church music have come from Martin Petzoldt. A noted theologian and Bach scholar, Petzoldt, 67, has for the past 30 years pursued the theological and liturgical sources and influences in Bach’s sacred music. From a group of mostly-German Bach theologian-scholars who have a substantial grounding in Lutheran practice and systematic theology, he has emerged as a leading authority on the spiritual and theological sources of Bach’s vocal music. Today, some 300 years after Bach’s vocal music was composed, the scripturally and hymnic madrigalian poetry in the arias, choruses, and recitatives, as well as the strophic chorales, written in the pre-enlightened world, seem variously esoteric, obscure, crude or embarrassing.

Starting in 1996 with three articles in Christoph Wolff’s three-volume study of The World of the Bach Cantatas, Petzoldt began systematically to explore the biblical and chorale influences and their theological underpinnings in Bach’s increasingly poetic texts. In the first volume, Petzoldt shows the service liturgy and Lutheran practice tradition instituted by Martin Luther that Bach developed musically in the early years at Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. In The Early Sacred Cantatas, are articles established the “Liturgical and Theological Aspects,” and the importance of “Bible, Hymnbook, and Worship Service” in his earliest works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995).

In the second section of Volume I (the only one translated and published in English), “The works and their World,” Petzoldt in “Liturgical and Theological Aspects” (pp. 109-124), begins with the initial development of Bach’s youthful, traditional cantatas, with almost no poetry, only biblical quotations – primarily Psalms -- and select Lutheran chorales. He summarizes the musical characteristics and textual materials suggesting that Bach created these early works with a conceptual “metatext” theme, introducing interpretive chorales quotations as a dialogue to scriptural passages in worwith movements in symmetrical, sometimes palindrome form.

Then Petzoldt sounds his theme that “a theological look at Bach’s early librettos and the way they were set to music already establishes the essential traits of his relation to this important foundation of his art and his connection with it” (p.115). At Weimar, Bach’s librettos become theologian Erdmann Neumeister’s musical sermons with closing, summarizing, four-part chorale stanzas. Petzoldt provides detailed analysis of the Neumeister’s type exegetic texts with traditional commentary. Bach’s succeeding collaboration with Weimar Court poet Salomo Franck shows the establishment of a regular form of alternating recitatives and arias, and a closing chorale. Petzoldt shows that Franck develops a structured, accessible “metatext,” with more homiletic than dogmatic emphasis. Bach’s creative response “shows a thorough understanding of Franck’s intentions.” (p.122).

In the succeeding article, “Bible, Hymnbook, and Worship Service” (125-142), Petzoldt begins with “The Liturgical-Historical Context of Bach’s Early Cantatas.” Bach evolved from the earliest cantatas (actually concertos and motets), almost-entirely for “incidental services,” to cantatas written for the Mass Propers Gospel-driven main service, as a musical sermon. At the same time, in the next section, “Liturgical Orders of Service According to the Service Books and Hymnbooks,” Petzoldt lays the groundwork to show the established, limited traditional Lutheran practices in the towns of Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. Petzold lists the liturgical elements, the various Proper readings for the appropriate Sunday and Feast days, the Latin Mass ordinary sections of the Kyrie-Gloria and the usage of Luther’s venacular German alternatives, especially in the Credo, the sermon portion or Luther’s service-section of the word (sermon), and the service-section of Sacrament (Communion), with the prescribed, interspersed German hymns.

The service in Weimar, with an infusion of comprehensive hymn books adhering to the church year, allowed Bach to create the beginning of his first church-year cantata cycle with their Propers readings, as well as the incomplete Orgel-Büchlein chorale preludes mostly for the de tempore first half of the church year on the major events in the life of Jesus Christ. In the closing section, “Order of the Gospels and De Tempore,” Petzoldt observes: “It must be emphasized that there is hardly another musician among Bach’s contemporaries who made such unrestricted reference to the Gospels in his cantatas or showed such commitment to them” (p. 129f). This observation is founded on the hermeneutic (interpretive teaching) faith and accuracy with which Bach also interprets and handles his texts everywhere,” as well as his skillful adaptation of early Weimar cantatas in Leipzig to different but specific related services.

Thus Bach’s well-ordering involves both developing systematic and expansive use of available musical resources in the service order and church year as well as the pursuit and development of traditional musical forms such as Latin Church Music, the motet, and eventually in Leipzig the extended oratorios for major feast days and the Good Friday Passion. Interestingly, when Bach became Weimar Konzertmeister is March 1714, he undertook his first cycle of cantatas and began to explore Mass Ordinary music by copying Marco Giuseppe Peranda’s “Kyrie in C” and “Kyrie in A” from complete Masses, “since his new responsibilities must have included the systematic building up of a repertory of church music,” says Peter Wollny (English translation John Coombs) in his forward to the “Kyrie in C” (Stuttgart: Carus-Verlag CV 35306, 2000).

The impetus for Petzold’s undertaking began during the great debate, ignited in the early 1960s by the leading Protestant music writer, Friedrich Blume, over the depth and even sincerity of Bach’s spirituality that had grown to the point that early in the Twentieth Century Bach was called the “Fifth Evangelist.” With the new dating of Bach’s three-plus annual church service cycles in the late1950s, showing that Bach had composed most of his cantatas in the first four years as Cantor at Leipzig, beginning in 1723, not throughout his tenure that ended with his death in 1750, dominating his interests at the rate of a new cantata each month.

Blüme argued that this new creative picture shows that Bach was not consumed by sacred music and his calling of a “well order sacred music to the glory of God,” but that he had other, temporal, worldly interests in his musical art, particularly a broad spectrum of instrumental music. In effect, Blüme, living in Easter German in Bach country ruled by Communism, perhaps went beyond political dogma (doctrine, and perhaps dialect!) intentionally to challenge Bach scholars, especially those who were content to accept the spiritual and traditional Lutheran image wrought by the venerable Albert Schweitzer, Friedrich Smend, and Arnold Schering, in order to think beyond the canonized image of Sebastian Bach.

Theologian and Bach scholar Güther Stiller produced the milestone response in 1970 in German, finally published in English in 1984, JSB and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis MO: Concordia Publishing).

This lead to many published essays and studies under the auspices of the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für theologische Bach Forschung, beginning in 1976 “largely through the efforts of Walter Blankenburg and Christoph Trautmann,” says Mel Unger in his American Bach Society’s “Notes” Fall 2000 review of the organization’s first 20 years by editor Renata Steiger (see , Book Review). “The organization seeks to revive an interdisciplinary hermeneutic in Bach studies, in which an historically informed study of Bach’s texts illuminates his music, and conversely, analysis of the music illuminates the texts.”

These theological, source-critical Bach studies examined Bach’s theological library of major Lutheran writers and their influence on his texts (in a library that any Lutheran pastor would have treasured), as well as the primary source of Bach’s liner notes in his Calov interpretive bible. Other scholars began compiling detailed lists of biblical illusions and quotations in his vocal music (Ulrich Meyer).

Petzoldt, beginning with his dissertation in 1985, “Studies of theology in the life story of Johann Sebastian Bach,” began publishing various books and articles. “Petzoldt believes that preachers developed their sermons with the specifically designated cantata texts in mind, but this view was called into question by Hans-Joachim Schulze,” notes Unger (Ibid.).

Petzoldt is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Leipzig.
Chairman of the Bach Gesellschaft since 1996; co-editor, Musik und Kirche. A list of his major publications through 2010 is be found at: “Select Language.” The Bach Bibliography of Petzoldt’s 230 articles is found at:, type in Author, “Petzoldt, Martin,” Submit.

After the first two articles in The World of the Bach Cantatas, Vol. 1, Petzoldt published in German the extensive article, “Liturgy and Music in Leipzig’s Main Churches” in Die Welt der Bach Kantaten, ed. Christoph Wolff, vol. 3: Johann Sebastian Bachs Leipziger Kirchenkantaten (Metzler/Bärenreiter, Stuttgart/Weimar, Kassel, 1999) pp. 68-93. He also published in this volume “Theological Aspects of Bach’s Leipzig Cantatas,” that lead to his current major work in 3 volumes in German: Martin Petzoldt, Bach-Kommentar. Theologisch-musikwissenschaftliche Kommentierung der geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastian Bachs. 3 Bde, Stuttgart/Kassel 2004/2007/2014.

Bach-Kommentar, Band I (Trinity Time Cantatas)
Martin Petzoldt: Bach-Kommentar, Theologisch-musikalische Kommentierung der geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastian Bachs, Band I: Die geistlichen Kantaten des 1. bis 27. Trinitatis-Sonntages. /// 2004, 726 Seiten, ISBN 3-7618-1741-X. The scope and purpose is described by the leading Bach theology writer in English, Robin Leaver, in his review on line: .
“The basic premise behind this project is that the religious/ecclesiastical worldview of the eighteenth century is far removed from our own. What was obvious and straightforward to Bach as composer, as well as to the members of the congregations who first heard his music, is often obscure or totally unrecognized in the twenty-first century. Thus if we are to understand Bach's music, and especially his particular compositional choices, we need access to contemporary explanations of this theological/philosophical world. The author, Martin Petzoldt—professor of systematic theology, Leipzig University, and president of the Neue-Bach-Gesellschaft— presents a variety of biblical, exegetical, historical, and theological presuppositions that lie behind the concepts and vocabulary of the cantata librettos.
“Under the heading for each Sunday of the Trinity season, Petzoldt first gives basic background information, such as the biblical readings assigned to the day, the cantatas Bach composed for the Sunday, their vocal and instrumental resources, together with references to recent literature on the respective cantatas. Much of this information is not new and can be found in other sources, but closer inspection reveals that there is more information recorded here than is usually the case, such as the specific entrance psalm for each Sunday, the church in which the cantata was first heard —usually either the St. Nicholas or St. Thomas churches in Leipzig—and the name of the preacher who gave the sermon on this occasion.
“Petzoldt then gives extended quotations —usually on the gospel but sometimes also on the epistle of the day—from the biblical commentary by Johann Olearius that is known to have been in Bach's personal library: Biblische Erklärung darinnen nechst dem allgemeinen Haupt-Schlüssel der gantzen heiligen Schrifft, 5 vols. (Leipzig: Tarnoven, 1678–81). These extended citations of "commentary" form the backbone of the project and clearly conditioned the choice of its title: Bach-Kommentar.

Bach-Kommentar, Band II (Cantatas from Advent to Trinityfest, Feast Day Oratorios)
Martin Petzoldt: Bach-Kommentar, Theologisch-musikalische Kommentierung der geistlichen Vokalwerke Johann Sebastian Bachs, Band II: Die geistlichen Kantaten vom 1. Advent bis zum Trinitatisfest. Zur Bachwoche 2007 erschien endlich der zweite Band des Bach-Kommentars von Martin Petzoldt. Er behandelt die geistlichen Kantaten vom 1. Advent bis zum Trinitatisfest und folgt damit der Anordnung des Kirchenjahres. Eingeschlossen sind auch die Oratorien, die in der Funktion von Evangelienmusiken von Bach komponiert und aufgeführt wurden. Insbesondere das Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 wird ausführlich dargestellt und kommentiert, wobei Martin Petzoldt – Professor für Systematische Theologie an der Theologischen Fakultät der Universität Leipzig – den Versuch unternommen hat, die Textgestalt nach der autographen Partitur Bachs vorzulegen.
/// 2007, 1100 Seiten, ISBN 3-7618-1742-8

Petzoldt, Martin: Bach-Kommentar Band 3 - Die Passionen, Motetten, Messen und Magnificat, geistliche Kantaten für Kasualien und ohne Bestimmung (Kassel u.a.: Bärenreiter), publication 2014 (


Written by William Hoffman (April 2014)
Contributed by William Hoffman (April 25, 2014)


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