Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Bach the Evangelist
Part 1

Bach the Evangelist

Tom Dent wrote (June 2, 2005):
The interview with Koopman has some fascinating musical points in it, which no doubt are all too applicable to recent discussions.

The sentence I found most striking (I don't say pleasant!) was the following:

'And I think one of the good things about Bach's cantatas is that they can turn atheists into believers, so strong is the affect that Bach's music gave to the words.'

In fact its implications are rather chilling.

The same goes for the website by Tim Smith (with pianist David Korevaar) which at first appears to be a musical analysis of the fugues of the WTC, but is using Bach as a tool to advance the author's prejudices about religion, politics, etc. See for example his comments on the E flat in Book 2, or his claim that scientists and mathematicians are particularly prey to insanity: (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~tas3/wtc/metaphor.html). Claification

It is one thing for Bach, living in a one hundred percent Lutheran city, to use music to glorify the only faith he knew - quite another to use it today as a means of proselytizing. The difference is that the audience is now, inevitably, of all faiths and of none; is the performer going to think of them differently on account of this?

Timothy A. Smith clarified (May 3, 2008)
Tom Dent's assertion that I have made a claim that scientists and mathematicians are particularly prone to insanity. The source of Tom's statement is the following, in which I attributed the claim to the English literatus, G. K. Chesterton: "I believe that I am again about to be influenced by Chesterton, for it was he who observed (Orthodoxy) that proportionately more scientists and mathematicians have gone mad than have poets." Dent's attribution of the claim to me is incorrect; I have merely referenced Chesterton's words.

Gabriel Jackson wrote (June 2, 2005):
Tom Dent writes:
"The sentence I found most striking (I don't say pleasant!) was the following:
'And I think one of the good things about Bach's cantatas is that they can turn atheists into believers, so strong is the affect that Bach's music gave to the words.'
In fact its implications are rather chilling."
I agree. And it's nonsense.

Uri Golomb wrote (June 2, 2005):
[To Gabriel Jackson] I wonder, actually, if Koopman literally believes this himself. This statement notwithstanding, he never struck me -- during that interview or in any of his other pronouncements -- as an evangelical of any sort. I'm not sure what his religious convictions are, exactly, but elsewhere in the same interview Koopman actually expresses grave skepticism against the concept of Bach the evangelist.

For myself, I'm an atheist who has been exposed to Bach's sacred music throughout my life. (literally -- it's been playing at home since my infancy).

As I was saying, a lifetime's exposure to (and profound love for) Bach's sacred music did not stop me from becoming an atheist... I would say, however, that Bach's music gives me some of the clearest experiences of what belief feels like.

Leonardo Been wrote (June 2, 2005):
Undefined terms hamper discussion 'Re: [BachCantatas] Bach the evangelist'

[To Tom Dent] I would consider this list NOT to be about the definitions (or the lack of, or the lacking in definitions) of such words as 'faith,' 'atheist,' 'believers,' 'glorify' and the like.

However, should - quod non - any discussion occur or be inevitable, that involves these terms, then at the very least it would be pleasing the reader, to have at that time those definition(s) provided which the contributor of the post, has in his mind, being considerate enough to see, that others may or do have and use (work and think and act with) quite different or even wholly opposing definitions - especially in this field - of what are exactly the same words when written or spoken.

Not defining, what the contributors mean with their words, makes a fruitful discussion impossible. Intending not to define how one uses a term, intends then a fruitful discussion, and understanding, to be prevented.

John Pike wrote (June 2, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] Interesting. As a believer, I don't identify with the "what faith feels like" as expressed in much of Bach's music. Nor, I suspect, do many contemporary Christians. Times have moved on a lot since Bach's day. Christians these days, I suspect, do not usually look forward fervently to death, a feeling so often expressed in Bach, although they do look forward to being with Jesus in eternity at some time in the future, hopefully a long way off. Instead the focus now is on joy in this life, with Christ as master. A feeling of security in Christ, and of service to him through service to others and in evangelising.

In Bach's day, when people often died tragically young and things were often very much harder than they are now, even for the poorest believers in today's world, I suspect the emphasis was rather different. The words of the cantatas are often much sterner and hard-hitting than Christians today care for. That very stern-ness has put an awful lot of people off. True, some of the messages of Christianity are hard to face, especially giving up those things that we might otherwise enjoy, but the general tone has mellowed considerably in many denominations since Bach's day.

John Pike wrote (June 2, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] I agree. I think it very doubtful whether Koopman really believes this, and I haven't seen any evidence that it is true. My strong suspicion is that it is not.

Joel Figen wrote (June 2, 2005):
[To John Pike] I would prefer it greatly if there were not a discussion of personal religious belief in this mailing list. Make no assumptions about my affiliation of lack thereof from this request: I simply don't want to spend my Bach attention hearing about anyone's metaphysical belief system, unless, perchance, it happens to be highly unusual, beautiful, and unique, a work of art in itself. Even then, I'd rather be hearing about Bach. Adherence to a major religion is by and large a me-too and ho-hum thing, all to easily politically exploitable, imho, and we hear far, far too much about faith and its qualia in the media generally as it is. (And that's part of a specific political
agenda, sad to say.)

I'm not saying that one should or shouldn't believe, only that it's a thoroughly mainstream thing for most people, and about as interesting to hear about as it is to hear what they had for dinner or what soccer team they root for, and most especially so when there's (all too often) an ulterior proselytizing motive.

Having said this, I do nevertheless think Koopman's statement is well worth discussing. Outrageous as it sounds on the surface, and as tempting as it is to dismiss it as utter nonsense, I think there's something to it, at least for some people.

In my own case, for instance, listening to the SMP and SJP in my young manhood, I believe it was the Richter Archive sets, did bring me to states of spiritual bliss, or at least aesthetic bliss, repeatedly and regularly. Aside from the purely musical and dramatic aspects, there is beauty in the mythology. Myths are basically extended metaphors/allegories/fictions that allow truth of a sort (an important sort) to advance behind the veil of the myth. In my then-youth, I wasn't able to sort out the feelings very well, though I did know the difference intellectually. Evetually I did look into Christianity as a religion, and even went to a church for a while. I doubt I would have been even slightly open to that without Bach. That's as much as I'm going to say about my own beliefs, but it does demonstrate that there is at least a smidgen of truth in Koopman's statement.

To this day, I have, etched into my brain, quotions from Luther's Bible that will never go away, from having listened to the Passions so many times. ("Da Jesus war zu Bethanien, im Hause Simonis des Aussetzigen, trat zu ihm ein Weib, das hatte ein Glas..., " For instance. The first time I heard a more recent performain which "das" had been replaced by a more modern "die," the change hit me like a brick. So strong was the original wording in my mind.) So my use of the German language is forever altered. This might not be so if I used it more often, but once I tried to give directions to a German tourist in San Francisco, and what came out of my mouth was Biblical German, pretty much. And the words "Wahrlich, wahrlich dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen" will never be far from my consciousness. Unfortunately. This is all compounded by the fact that I don't just listen to the stuff, but I sing it too. Lately I've taken to substituting secular words in certain places when I practice. For instance, in BWV 7.2, I substitute "Gutes Bier und Guter Wein" for "Gottes Wort und Gottes Geist," just to shield my synapses from yet more laundering.

I recently read somewhere, maybe in this list, that some religious groups are trying to use Bach as a proselytizing tool. I find that rather disgusting, actually, and "devoutly" hope they find it ineffective. I'd rather see them use rock or rap, frankly. Even though a portion of Bach's own motivation was religious, his art transcends organized religion, imho, and it certainly transcends the humdrum mentality of most religious organizations. I'd rather see Bach's music not used in that way, just as I'd rather not see it used in TV commercials to sell cars, mortgages, toothpaste. I'll never be able to hear the duet, "Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten" from BWV 78 without thinking of the radio show on KPFA in Berkeley that used to use it as sign-on music. I don't remember the show itself, actually, but the experience of that particular aria has been ruined for me. Please don't cheapen my Bach :)

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 2, 2005):
< Koopman's statement is well worth discussing. Outrageous as it sounds on the surface, and as tempting as it is to dismiss it as utter nonsense, I think there's something to it, at least for some people.
In my own case, for instance, listening to the SMP and SJP in my young manhood, I believe it was the Richter Archive sets, did bring me to states of spiritual bliss, or at least aesthetic bliss, repeatedly and regularly. Aside from the purely musical and dramatic aspects, there is beauty in the mythology. Myths are basically extended metaphors/allegories/fictions that allow truth of a sort (an important sort) to advance behind the veil of the myth. In my then-youth, I wasn't able to sort out the feelings very well, though I did know the difference intellectually. Evetually I did look into Christianity as a religion, and even went to a church for a while. I doubt I would have been even slightly open to that without Bach. That's as much as I'm going to say about my own beliefs, but it does demonstrate that there is at least a smidgen of truth in Koopman's statement. >
The Mogens Woldike recording of the SMP: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Vocal/BWV244-Rec2.htm
did a lot for me when I was in high school, and sorting through feelings about all sorts of stuff. I even printed out the libretto of some of those movements of SMP and posted them on my walls, to inspire/comfort myself. I'd heard only an LP of excerpts, first, from the public library. And then I went up to Chicago to buy the whole set for myself, as some of the first Bach records I ever owned.

And I still like that recording, among others, more than half a life later: because the music is so beautiful/dramatic and perfectly balanced as composition, and because that performance does a good job bringing out some of the meaning of the words in it. As for style in that performance, and things that have been learned since it was recorded in 1959, I believe that style takes something of a back seat to musical/spiritual communication that is done this clearly.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (June 2, 2005):
Tom Dent wrote:
< 'And I think one of the good things about Bach's cantatas is that they can turn atheists into believers, so strong is the affect that Bach's music gave to the words.'
In fact its implications are rather chilling. >
I had already become or been turned into a follower of the grail after watching the new Baden-Baden DVD of Parsifal. After finding the truth of the grail and realizing my own innate and genetic relationship to Kundry, I followed Wagner and now Bach is no longer given the possibility of turning me into anything. Anton Koopman is very silly and one of course all the more deeply appreciates Peter Bloemendaal's wonderful essay on Bernstein's treatment of the MP (Ton is short for "Anton", nicht wahr?). The Baden-Baden DVD does have superb vocal casting but the opera remains as loony as ever.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
I've enjoyed reading this particular thread. I find the various reactions fascinating to Ton Koopman's statement of the obvious. It is simply a fact that many people who began listening to Bach's music purely for the joy of beautiful music have been carried along by that very music to consider the words Bach chose to use with his music. And those words are undeniably Christian. And Bach was decidedly and devoutly a Lutheran Christian, and an orthodox Lutheran at that. That may make some uncomfortable. They may not care to deal with this aspect of Bach, but it is reality. Bach did not compose or perform his music as an end in itself. He very purposefully composed his music to the glory of God and for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dismiss it if you must, ridicule it if you will, but Bach is what Bach is. And I find it personally intriguing that this man of such profound Lutheran Christian conviction produced what many, I would think, would argue is the most beautiful music ever composed. That fact has led many to consider precisely what it was that so drove and motivated Bach? And upon study they have a whole world of thought, reflection and deep religious conviction open to them.

Here is a very interesting article reporting on Bach's spiritual impact:

The Gospel According to J. S. Bach

(Two hundred fifty years ago, he was known as a civil servant, a coffee drinker, and a second-rate composer. Today, his music is Christianity incarnate.)

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Bach has been a part of my life since I was four years old, when my mother first took me to Thomaskirche, Bach's primary workplace in Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig is where I was born and where Bach died, in 1750, after two botched eye operations. He had lived there for 27 years, during which he wrote the Art of Fugue, the Passions of St. Matthew (BWV 244) and St. John (BWV 245) , and most of his 300 cantatas (only 190 of which have survived).

Every week we attended the motet service on Friday or the cantata service on Saturday, both sung by the Thomanerchor, which Bach once directed. The composer's portrait dominated the music room in my parents' apartment, where an amateur ensemble of local notables fiddled fugues once a month and where my mother sang "Willst du dein Herz mir schenken," a love song Bach wrote for Anna Magdalena, his second wife.

Now, 250 years after his death, at the birth of a new century, an enormous Bach resurgence is underway--particularly in Japan. There, in one of the most unreligious countries in the world, thousands of people are converting to Christianity after listening to Bach's cantatas. On a recent visit to Tokyo, I was astounded at the enthusiasm there for music that seems to me to have such a specific, and alien, genesis.

My Japanese interpreter came to me one morning and said, "Let's hear some Bach to start the day." She pulled out a CD of the cantata Vergnuegte Ruh, beliebte Seeleenlust (BWV 170), whose lyrics say that God's real name is Love. "This has taught me what these two words mean to Christians," she said. "And I like it very much."

Around the turn of the century, the Lutheran archbishop of Uppsala, in Sweden, cBach's cantatas the "fifth gospel"; today, such religious terms are just as likely to be applied to Bach by the founder of the Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, who has said, "Bach is teaching us the Christian concept of hope," and Yoshikazu Tokuzen, of Japan's National Christian Council, who has called Bach "a vehicle of the Holy Spirit."

An air raid destroyed our house in 1943, and when we moved into my grandmother's flat to hide from further assaults, Bach's presiding likeness moved with us. As blockbuster bombs detonated outside, Grandmother Netto sang Bach's chorales in my ear. They have remained in my head ever since, and they have kept me in touch with my distant hometown during decades of exile. (I fled Leipzig as a child soon after its occupation by the Red Army.)

Now Bach's city is free again, thanks to a peaceful revolution that began here at the Nikolaikirche. In 1989, the peace marches around Leipzig's medieval town center triggered the collapse of communism in East Germany. Now I return every year to marvel at the city's rebirth.

For an expatriate on a pilgrimage to the city of Bach, arriving at Leipzig's Hauptbahnhof--the largest railroad station in Europe, and one of the most elegant--is an emotional experience. Two rival kingdoms, Prussia and Saxony, built the station together at the beginning of this century, each installing its own staff, complete with mutually hostile cleaning men who pushed rubbish back and forth between their respective territories. There was never much love between Saxons and Prussians. We Saxons deemed the Prussians stiff and uncultured; they considered us shifty and militarily inadequate-rather like the French.

There is some truth to every cliche. We do regard the French as our soul mates. "I praise my Leipzig," wrote Goethe, who studied there for three years. "It is a little Paris and educates its people." In my childhood, the Hauptbahnhof catered to our Francophilia, even while we were at war with France; it housed the best French restaurant in central Germany until the station was all but flattened. Now it is home to one of Germany's flashiest shopping centers.

A tour of Bach's city begins with caffeine. Leipzig has been a coffee town ever since the first shipment arrived in 1693. Saxon soldiers are known to have refused to fight when the army ran out of their preferred beverage. "No coffee, no combat," they growled, which is why the Prussians call us Kaffeesachsen. It was at Zimmermann's Kaffeehaus that Bach and his Collegium Musicum performed his harpsichord concerti and, presumably, the "Coffee Cantata," (BWV 211) the amusing choral work whose title, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, admonishes listeners not to spoil the enjoyment of their favorite drink with chatter. Bach knew well his fellow Saxons, who coined the verb maeren to describe their propensity to spend hours spinning endless shaggy-dog stories, jaws frozen in grins.

Bach's duties also often took him to the Markt, a lively square in the virtual center of Europe. For more than a millennium, the continent's two key roads crossed here: the via Imperii, which connects Rome, Vienna, and Prague with northern cities; and the via Regia, which links Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt, Warsaw, and Kiev. The intersection
made Leipzig a natural site for what is now the world's oldest trade fair, established eight centuries ago.

On the Markt's eastern flank stands the Altes Rathaus, the former town hall, where Bach's bosses reigned; he was a municipal civil servant hired to oversee the music in four downtown Lutheran churches. At one point, he was responsible for writing a cantata every week, directing the Thomanerchor, and serenading visiting royalty. The visitors stayed in the Koenigshaus next door, and Bach and his musicians performed on the cobblestoned square below. In Bach's day, the town hall's Renaissance splendor was not matched by its occupants' wisdom: Bach had not been their first choice, and after hiring him they grumbled about having to make do with "the mediocre" because "the best," Georg Philipp Telemann, had turned them down.

Being governed by fools was no rarity for Leipzig. The most noteworthy exception was, ironically, a Prussian, Lord Mayor Carl Goerdeler. Elected before Hitler came to power, Goerdeler resigned in 1937 after the Nazis blew up a monument to Felix Mendelssohn. The Leipzigers loved Mendelssohn, a Protestant of Jewish descent; it was thanks to his 1841 performance of the almost-forgotten St. Matthew Passion that the musical world was awakened to Bach's genius, and it was Mendelssohn who in 1843 founded Germany's first music conservatory, which now bears his own name. He started the tradition of the rich string sound that distinguishes Leipzig's Gewandhaus, Europe's oldest municipal philharmonic orchestra; many of its musicians are graduates of the conservatory--as were, in some cases, their fathers and grandfathers.

After his resignation, Goerdeler became the civilian head of Germany's conservative resistance against the Nazis; he was hanged shortly before the end of the war, and is now revered as a local hero. Not so another Leipziger, Walter Ulbricht, the East German party leader and creator of the Berlin Wall. Ulbricht loathed his hometown's bourgeois, academic, and Christian way of life so much that he ordered the destruction of virtually every symbol of these traditions. Thousands of Leipzigers filled the Augustusplatz (then Karl Marx Platz) on May 30, 1968, weeping when a blast of dynamite lifted the late-Gothic Universitaetskirche off the ground. For a moment, the structure hung suspended in midair, before collapsing into a heap of rubble and dust. The church's organ, built by Johann Scheibe and beloved by Bach--he claimed that it alone in all of Leipzig met his standards--perished along with the sanctuary.

For the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Leipzig has treated itself to a new $1.2 million organ that resembles, at least in appearance, Scheibe's murdered instrument. It has four manuals, 60 registers, and 4,800 pipes, and now dominates the northern balcony of the Thomaskirche, opposite stained-glass windows dedicated to Luther, Bach, and Mendelssohn. "It was our aim to create the perfect instrument for the performance of Bach's work," says Ullrich Boehme, the church's senior organist.

As I sat in this stark but beautifully restored church, my mind wandered back to the early 1950s, when Ulbricht launched a singularly vicious attack against East Germany's Christians. I was on a Christmas break from my boarding school in West Germany and had gone to the New Year's Eve motet service. The Thomanerchor had finished singing, and everybody had already gotten up to leave.

Suddenly Günther Ramin, then the Thomaskantor, went to the massive late-Romantic Sauer organ, which is still there today. Quite unexpectedly, he started to improvise on the wonderful hymn "Abide, O Dearest Jesus." When he came to the point where the hymnal says, "Satan may not harm us; nor we to sin give place," he dispensed with all frills and let the instrument roar. This musical message sent shivers down our spines--for if there was one thing Leipzigers knew in those days, it was the Lutheran chorales.

No longer, claims Johannes Richter, recent superintendent, or dean, at the Thomaskirche. "Secularizing this part of Germany has been Communism's only success. For many, the motet and cantata services are the only contact with our Christian traditions." Moreover, the few who have kept their faith have lost the lust to cheerfully belt out the chorales. They sit silent and embarrassed, moving their lips. Richter sees this refusal to sing as "a symptom of a soul in disarray."

This is why Georg Christoph Biller, the 16th successor to Bach as Thomaskantor, states, matter-of-factly, "I am a missionary." In this belief he is joined by other musical luminaries in Leipzig, notably Herbert Blomstedt, the Swede who is Kurt Masur's successor as musical director of the Gewandhaus orchestra. "I am fully behind Biller," he says, "and I have discovered that Bach often provides a road to faith."

The road from Bach to faith--and from Tokyo to Leipzig--is well trafficked these days. The Japanese convert then converge: They go to Thomaskirche, in front of whose altar Bach is now buried. They follow the opulent liturgy performed by the Thomanerchor and Gewandhaus. They fill the classes of the Felix Mendelssohn academy.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a theologian; his compositions have been called "theology set to music." Twenty years ago, several members of the Thomanerchor told me that the composer worked as a missionary among them; today, Bach preaches to many more than just the choir. Musicologist Keisuke Maruyama once undertook the eccentric study of Lutheran lectionary cycles and how they influenced Bach's cantatas; it soon became more than merely an academic exercise. When Maruyama finished, he went to Johannes Richter and said, "It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me."

Dave Harman wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Paul T. McCain] Every time I read a paragraph like this one, I think I see a kind of Christain smuggness - "Bach is OUR Devout, Christain Composer - too bad if you can't get right with that"

Perhaps Thomas Braatz, who seems to have a very large library and puts a lot of effort in research, could present a few examples - from Bach's own hand - in Bach's own words - how 'devout' a Lutheran he really was.

Now, I don't pretend to be as schooled in Bach as some on this list, but I think I know a little about what kind of 'Christain' Bach might have been.

First, to be a 'christain' in Bach's day was not the same as to be a 'christain' today. I doubt Bach considered himself 'born again', and I don't think he would have been comfortable at a Billy Graham rally. I think Bach's 'christainity' was expressed through music - in fact, I think Bach's 'christainity' was really his music and, although, he was educated in Biblical studies and the tenants of the Lutheran faith - as all his peers were - to Bach, religious belief turned immediately to the composition and performance of music.

Which is why I believe one can love Bach's 'sacred' music - as I do - and not be too concerned with the words of the biblical verses being sung. To Bach, I believe, everything he knew and believed automatically became music in a process so filled with genius it's just not comprehensible to me. The point of Bach's faith - I think - was not dogma or rules - but a way to write music.

Music is just not a concrete vehicle to present an idea which is going to 'convince' someone there is a God - any more than music can make someone a better person for listening to it.

Music is such that Bach MIGHT have put religious beliefs into his music or written music out of religious beliefs - but I don't have to care a bit about religion to experience the spiritualness and beauty of his music. It's dangerous when people think they 'see' religious principals in Bach's music just from hearing the words sung to beautiful music. At the least , it doesn;'t matter a bit what the words are that Bach composed his music to. Once the music leaves his pen, it becomes a potential listening experience quite different from the composing experience.

At the most it can mean that the person who 'gets' the message from listening to the words and music and feels 'upllifted' by the religious texts is having a personal experience that frames their Bach experience. Someone else, like me, can have an 'experience' while not knowing or caring what the words are expressing.

The greatness of Bach's music is christain and non-christain alike can claim him as the source of their deeply felt listening experience.

Uri Golomb wrote (June 4, 2005):
A few additions to Dave Harman's comments, with which I concur. (and while I'm willing to concede that our own religious convictions are off-topic in this list, BACH's religious convicitions are surely relevant to a discussion of his cantatas!)

I think Koopman got it mostly right in the interview -- not about the conversion bit, but in the rest of what he said (to briefly re-cap -- he said that Bach was not a theologian or a priest, but a "normal believer" by the standards of his time, and that the same spirit informs Bach's sacred and secular music). There is little evidence that Bach was more devout than other Luthernas of his time. Yes, he signed his scores with "Soli deo Gloria", but so did many other composers. (and, I suspect, not only composers). He was part of a religious community; he took his job as church composer very seriously and believed in the messages that he set to music. But was he a more devout Lutheran than the rest of his community? His music radiates a more powerful belief than that of, say, Christoph Graupner. But the evidence suggests that Graupner was no less devout, not less of a believer, than Bach (he served as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt for 42 years, producing 1418 church cantatas; and his biography states that he regarded churhc music as a special vocation, requiring a different style from secular music). Bach was simply a better composer, and so expressed with greater intensity beliefs that were common to him, Graupner, and many, many others.

Besides, Bach took all the texts he set seriously. He put one of his most moving arias in the mouth of the Greek god Phoebus (Apollo); most of the arias of the Coffee Cantata could just as easily and appropriately have been used (with different texts, of course) in his sacred cantatas. There are numerous examples of wonderful sacred arias of his that were actually inspired by secular texts -- odes to kings and princes, using allegories drawn from Greek mythology. The religious text was added later. Bach saw no incongruity in taking music that he wrote for Vollust (the personification of earthly delights, who attempts to lure Hercules away from the path of virtue) and turning it into a lullaby for Jesus. In this, you could argue, he was illustrating Luther's rhetorical question "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" -- he wrote that music for a kind of devil (a character who uses beauty to try and lure a righteous man into the path of sin) and then took the same music and put it in the service of God and the church. But it was Vollust's text, not the Christian text, that inspired Bach to write that beautiful aria in the first place. (The aria in question is "Schlafe mein Liebster" -- an incipit shared in both versions; it appears in the secular cantata Herkules auf dem Scheidewege, BWV 213, and later in the second cantata of fhe Christmas Oratorio).

I have no problem with the fact that Bach was a devout Christian, and that his devotion inspired much of his music. Many composers in the history of Western music were also devoutly religious -- there are some statements from Joseph Haydn, for instance, that suggest that his devotion to God was no smaller than Bach's. Nor was Bach the only composer who wrote superb and profound music in praise of God and in the service of the church; and most of these composers (again, like Bach) also wrote superb and profound music to texts that had little or nothing to do with religious devotion. There nothing unique about Bach's religiosity.

So I do object to those who try to make Bach the single most devout composer in the history of western music, or who try to turn his religiosity into the single key that unlocks his entire music. If you need religion to understand Bach's Bradenburg Concerti, why not also say that you need religion to understand Haydn's symphon? He too had religious inscriptions on his scores ("In nomine domini" at the start, "Laus Deo" at the end), and he too felt that his music was written for the glory of God.

In any case, religious belief (Christian or otherwise) is neither necessary nor sufficient for writing profoundly moving music. Brahms was not a devoutly religious man -- in fact he objected to being described a conventional believe; but he wrote profoundly moving music; so did Gustav Mahler and Benjamin Britten, and these are just a few examples. It'll be easier to find such examples in the 19th and 20th centuries, simply because, before 1800, hardly anyone was consciously or openly secular -- the whole of society was, at least nominally, religious...

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Dave Harman] Dave, I'm sorry to hear that you believe I was being smug. I believe you do my comments a disservice when you assume that. As for Bach not being a "born again" Christian. Of course not. He wasn't. He was an orthdox Lutheran. I also happen to be "one of those" [smug?] -- and I've never identified myself as being in the "born again" camp.

I know it is hard for you to reconcile Bach's faith with his music, but my point was that ... there is no point in trying to say Bach wasn't what he clearly was: a committed orthdox Lutheran believer. He was writing his music precisely in order to give expression to his heartfelt beliefs, convictions and so forth: and those just happen, in his case, to be orthdox Lutheran Christianity. My point was, and is, simply to suggest that there is no point in trying to ignore, hide or otherwise overlook that fact. Bach is what Bach was.

Can you "enjoy" his music without being a Christian? Of course you can!! In fact that very fact is something Bach and all other orthodox Lutheran believers would affirm. You write:
< The greatness of Bach's music is christain and non-christain alike can claim him as the source of their deeply felt listening experience. >
And I do not disagree.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] In fact the evidence shows Bach was a very well informed lay theologian, not typical of his times. He was very much aware of the tensions going on in his time between orthdox Lutheranism and the movement known as Pietism, which would have, and eventually did, rob much of orthodox Lutheranism of its joy in the kind of music, art and church ornamentation that Bach loved, and saw as the appropriate expression of his faith. Many scholars have worked in this area and have provided excellent evidence of this fact. Robin Leaver, for instance, or Wolff, and particularly Gunther Stiller's unsurpassed study, "Liturgical Life in Leipzig at the time of Bach." Bach went out of his way to acquire the books owned by the man who was called, "The Watchdog of Lutheranism" -- Abraham Calov, the works of Luther that Calov owned, including that magnificent Calov annotated Bible which has become so famous thanks to the careful work of Robin Leaver.

I again must say that it is fascinating to me to observe people who do not share Bach's faith commitments strive so hard to try to discount or dismiss or minimize it. I see no point and no value in that.

As I've only again recently affirmed. Yes, of course Bach's music can be enjoyed by people who do not share his faith. But that's not the point, though I do wish people could leave it at this. When non-belivers try to discount Bach's faith, that's when simply honesty and integrity demand that we say, "No, my friend, that simply is not true. That is not J.S. Bach." Bach was and is who he was and is. Enjoy his music, but do the gentleman the courtesy and respect of letting him be who he was, and is: a committed Lutheran Christian believer. As for whether or not he was "more devout" -- that you and I can not judge. That is not the point.

It is difficult for the secularized 21st century man to understand that there was in fact a time when religious conviction animated and drove people, such as Bach. But lack of understanding of that point is the problem and the solution is not trying to make Bach into what we've become in our day and age.

And, as for your comments that Bach took joy in earthly delights: of course he did, as would have any genuine Lutheran! This is one of the things that distinguish Lutheranism from other branches of Christianity: an exceedingly great joy in what we believe are gifts of God: the physicality of our very persons and the world in which God has placed us. There is no incongruity in this. It is in perfect harmony with orthdox Lutheran conviction. The Pietist movement, against which Bach struggled, they were the ones to suggest that fine beautiful music in church, with all instruments possible, was somehow not "spiritual" enough. But not Bach!

< So I do object to those who try to make Bach the single most devout composer in the history of western music >
That is not what I said. What I said was that it continues to fascinate me that this profoundly Lutheran Christian man was and remains one of the, if not the, most brilliant musical composer in the history of the world. I contend that it was precisely his Christian faith that aided his achievements.

I did NOT say what you wrote, so I would appreciate it if a bit more care might be given carefully to reading what others have written. That makes for careful, intelligent discussion and exchange of opinion. And I thank this group for providing that kind of forum.

Charles Francis wrote (June 4, 2005):
< And I find it personally intriguing that this man of such profound Lutheran Christian conviction produced what many, I would think, would argue is the most beautiful music ever composed. >
I'm sure people of good taste will concur with your remark concerning beauty. However, not all Lutheran composers wrote music at this level, and indeed much of their work is outclassed by Roman Catholics. Many pieces extolling the virtues of Mary, including those of Bach, have deep spiritual profundity. Bach, himself, seems to have been inspired to write one of his most deeply spiritual works by the election of a new town council. Moreover, in later life he seems to have preferred the coffee house to the church.

Perhaps, as Andrew Parrott once suggested, the profundity of Bach's music emerges from genetic factors: a family tradition going back generations, coupled with an incestuous disposition to marry cousins. Sociological factors may also have played a role: being born into a family where music was the default career path.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Charles Francis] Charles, yes, indeed, you are correct. Just because you happen to be an orthodox Lutheran does not mean you will have Bach's ability. I wish it were not so, but of course it is. You are absolutely correct that for Bach music was in his blood. A local German prince upon losing his court musician commanded, "Get me a Bach!" so popular were the Bachs, of course J.S. exceeded his kinsmen.

My point is simply that there is an intrinsic link in J.S. Bach's life between his faith and his musical talent and his ability. I am not suggesting any sort of generality between one's faith and one's musical ability. I'm talking about Bach, the man. His talents and abilities were formed, shaped and given expression precisely as a result of his faith.

By the way, orthodox Lutherans also extoll the virtues of The Blessed Virgin Mary. That is nothing surprising then to find in J.S. Bach. There is also a very long, honored and cherished love for coffee among Lutherans, so Bach there too was not surprising, particularly among Saxon Lutherans, of which Bach was one, and so is your's truly! Your claim that he preferred coffee to church in his later years, is, well, a bit of a stretch, to say the least!

Bach could have simply "gone along to get along" and compromised his faith and musical convictions, born of his faith, but he refused. He also refused to compromise with the Lutheran Pietists of his time. He in fact went out of his way to identify himself with Lutheran Orthodoxy, which, by Bach's time, was on the wane in many areas inGermany. He spent hard-earned money on collecting books that he proudly found from the library of one of the most notable and hard-line orthodox Lutheran theologians of the time: Abraham Calov. There were many other alternatives, but Bach took a stand and made a clear choice. These decisions were not merely cultural or sociological. All of which is to say, Bach was a man of deep religious conviction, not merely embrassing a faith to fit in. Often, in fact, he did not fit in with the current beliefs and trends.

What I'm trying to drive at here is that I see no reason for people to continually dismiss Bach's faith as inconsequential to his music. Clearly, it is not.

You do not have to agree with Bach's religious convictions to enjoy his music. But, you surely do not, in fact can not, dismiss it as of no consequence fpr Bach the musician.

If Bach had not been who he was, in mind and spirit, we would not have his music. And I find that all very interesting.

I wonder if folks read Uwe Siemon-Netto's moving article on Bach?

Gabriel Jackson wrote (June 2, 2005):
Paul T. McCain writes:
"My point is simply that there is an intrinsic link in J.S. Bach's life between his faith and his musical talent and his ability. I am not suggesting any sort of generality between one's faith and one's musical ability. I'm talking about Bach, the man. His talents and abilities were formed, shaped and given expression precisely as a result of his faith."
Why only Bach? Are you suggesting that, uniquely, in Bach's case, one was a product of the other?

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 4, 2005):
< a few examples - from Bach's own hand - in Bach's own words - how 'devout' a Lutheran he really was. >
This has already been done by the scholar Robin Leaver, in J S Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary (1986). It includes a complete facsimile of Bach's markings in his own copy, with Leaver's extensive annotations and explanations of Bach's theology. Which see: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0570013291
And that's by Concordia Publishing House, a Lutheran organization: http://www.cph.org

Stephen Benson wrote (June 4, 2005):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< And that's by Concordia Publishing House, a Lutheran organization: http://www.cph.org >
And, unless my memory is betraying me once again, Mr. McCain holds a management position with that organization. (I hope, and I'm sure, he'll correct me if I'm mistaken.)

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 4, 2005):
I should add: another important study of this is entry #7 at: http://homepages.bw.edu/bachbib/script/bach1.pl?0=Cox%2C%20Howard

I have a library copy of it here at the moment. Big book, 460 pages of 8.5"x11", UMI Research Press, 1985. It too includes a facsimile of all the pages that Bach wrote on. The other sections of this volume are:

- "The Authentication of the Hand-Penned Material in Bach's Calov Bible"

- "A Literary Analysis of the Intelligible Entries from the Total Sample"

- "Proton Milliprobe Analysis of the Hand-Penned Annotations in Bach's Calov Bible" (Kusko) [describing the x-ray equipment and techniques of authentication used in this analysis]

- "The Translations" (Finger) [translating into English all the Calov/Luther material that Bach marked, interleaved with RSV translations of the scriptural parts]

Charles Francis wrote (June 4, 2005):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< By the way, orthodox Lutherans also extoll the virtues of The Blessed Virgin Mary. That is nothing surprising then to find in J.S. Bach. >
I'd be interested to know more on this. Luther in his writings refered to Mary as the Mother of God and to her role in "Intercession". Did Bach pray to her? And what about the Saints?

John Pike wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Uri Golomb] A very nice summary of your views, Uri, which agree with 100% (as a believer myself) and which are obviously well supported by the many facts, many of which you mention.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Gabriel Jackson] Gabriel...I'm talking about Bach and how his faith impacted his music. I'm not trying to make generalities, one way or the other.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Bradlely Lehman] Mr. Lehman, yes, you are correct.

Paul T. McCain wrote (June 4, 2005):
[To Charles Francis] Dear Charles, orthodox Lutheranism rejected only praying to Mary, not proper thanks for her postion as Mother of God. Bach did not pray to Mary. Within orthodox Lutheranism the Marian feast days were retained, but used to extol Mary's virtue and point the worshipper to Christ and His Gospel. That is a theme one will notice in Bach's Marian cantatas, etc.

 

Continue on Part 2

Bach & Religion: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8
Bach the Evangelist:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: ýMarch 11, 2012 ý17:23:37