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Bach and Religion
Part 2

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BWV 178

Eitan Loew wrote (August 17, 2001):
Sorry for reacting a little late, but I received the Cantata BWV 178 that I had ordered on-line only this week. I have read the mails in reference only after listening to it.

Marie Jensen wrote:
< I am not competent, but I am just wondering how Bach musically describes things he never had seen. fex: camels, perhaps oceans, the river Jordan, and a lamb in tiger claws... what an imagination! >
A great artist does not have necessarily to describe scenes that he had visualized personally, thus not resemble reality, yet it may be of great value. Living where most of the scenes of the bible happened, I can assure you that the landscapes depicted in the great paintings created over the centuries have nothing to do, whatsoever, with the landscapes of this country. However, it does not undermine these works a bit! I guess that the same goes for music.

< * I just wonder. Richter’s choir is from München in the catholic part of Germany. To me nothing sounds more confirmed Lutheran. Even "The Choir of the Red Army" cannot beat it in enthusiasm. Are Richter’s and BTW Rilling’s choirs from Southern Germany (Stuttgart) catholic or Protestant institutions? >
Does it matter? Does one have to be of the same faith in order to perform a piece in the best way?

Marie Jensen wrote (August 17, 2001):
[To Eitan Loew] I simply asked the questions because I don't know and was curious. But nobody answered.

If it matters: Bach is not for Protestants only... of course not.

Whether it is necessary to have the same faith? I don't know exactly what Bach believed in. He was a Lutheran. He wrote music to texts going from Pietism to Catholicism.

Your questions are not so simple to answer. A musician is like an actor, playing a role. So a great deal of it is a matter of professionalism, but having the same opinion as the writer/composer always helps. Music is however one thing and the text another though they support each other.

Many choirs do not have their base in a certain church. So let me add this question: What about Bach Collegium Japan?

Riccardo Nughes wrote (August 17, 2001):
[To Marie Jensen] BCJ register their CD's in the Kobe Shoin women's University (Christian) Chapel. I think that M. Suzuki is a Christian, but I'm not sure. In the booklet of vol.1 of his cantatas he says that the God Bach wrote for is the same he believes in. However BCJ is the demonstration of the universality of J.S. Bach music. The first time I saw one of their CD's in a shop I was very sceptic, but when I listened them...;-)

Marita Giampiero wrote (August 17, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Could it be so. Often the winners of prizes for young singers
are Korean or Japanese and they do deserve it but the poetry of a German cathedral (I think Erfurt e.g.) and a typical Lutheran environment surely helps and it's not only a matter of correct pronunciation but especially something as an imprinting.

Rev. Robert A. Lawson (Pastor, Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church
Princeton, Minnesota) wrote (August 17, 2001):
There has been a great deal of speculation in the last forty years or so about whether Bach was a confessional Lutheran or not, mostly by those who don't have a clue about what it is like to believe passionately in something and be forced to work for those who could care less. Bach was a Lutheran. When he accepted the position of Cantor in Leipzig he swore by an oath that he accepted as true the Lutheran Book of Concord of the year 1580. If one wants to know what Bach believed, that's the place to find out.

There is no evidence that he changed his mind, though there is plenty to make one suspicious of those running the St. Thomas School--for whom Bach worked.

For those who might have an interest in this topic, I would suggest that they check out the book by Robin Leaver, "Glosses in the Calov Bible," which I believe is still in print. Another great book on the subject is "Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig" by Günther Stiller. Again I believe the English version is still in print, I don't know about the original German.

I might suggest that the reason Bach's music touches the soul so profoundly, is because it came from the soul. It is about life and death. Who could trivialise such a subject by play-acting for a whole life time. [snip]

Riccardo Nughes wrote (August 17, 2001):
One thing that has always impressed me is the fact that Bach copied and performed in the Leipzig churches music from the Catholic liturgy: the "Missa sine nomine" by Palestrina (he added instruments to the voices); the six masses by Bassani published in Augusta-1709- for one of them he wrote a Credo as intonation; Lotti, that he personally knew in Dresda-1717; Pergolesi, see his re-elaboration of the famous "Stabat mater". How it was possible for Bach to direct Catholic Masses in Leipzig? Which was the reaction of Leipzig Council?

For these "catholic" performances of Bach (all after the 1742) you can see: Dürr, Chronologie, pag.116, 119.

Charles Francis wrote (August 18, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] This is indeed impressive and the converse is also of notable interest - namely those Lutheran works that Bach adapted for Catholic liturgical purposes. The "Missa" which Bach presented to the Catholic court at Dresden on the 27th July 1733, for example. Most likely the D-major Magnificat, now known to have been extensively revised and purged of its Christmas texts in 1733 - as Paul McCreesh puts it in the notes to his recent OVPP recording "Bach's manuscript is written out in a particularly neat hand, suggesting that he may have intended it as a calling card for potential employment in Dresden".

Then, there's the B-minor, where, for example, the eminent musicologist George B. Stauffer recently wrote:

"Take the B minor Mass: scholars now believe that it was written in the last years of Bach's life and acknowledge that it is a Roman Catholic, not Lutheran, work. (Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel called it the Great Catholic Mass.) But what was its purpose? To fulfil a commission? To be used at a special service in Dresden? To provide private diversion? To serve as classic example for posterity? We
simply do not know."

If you don't mind the irritating, but free, registration process, the complete article can be found at: www.nytimes.com/library/music/040200bach-music.html

Comments in a similar direction come from the eminent musicologist Georg von Dadelsen in his notes to the recently released 10 CD set "Sacred Masterpieces" on Archiv:

"The sum total of its sections represents indeed a complete Roman Catholic Mass ... We believe that he [Bach] quite deliberately intended to offer here a contribution to that musical genre which was hailed as the most ambitious type of composition from the days of Dufay, Josquin and Palestrina. Lutheran in spirit and utilising church music originally intended for use in the Protestant church a work was created that can yet be properly appreciated only in connection with the great tradition of the Roman Catholic mass."

One naturally assumes all of this fell outside the scope of Bach's professional duties, so as with Bach's profound secular output from the post-Cantata-Cycle years at Leipzig, it would appear to be a labour of love.

Peter Petzling wrote (August 18, 2001):
Marie Jensen wrote:
< I just wonder. Richter’s choir is from München in the catholic part of Germany. To me nothing sounds more confirmed Lutheran. Are Richter’s and BTW Rilling’s choirs from Southern Germany (Stuttgart) catholic or Protestant institutions? >
Just a quick observation re: Karl Richter and the München Bach Choir. Richter was its founder in 1954 and remained at the helm of the choir until 1981. And, of course, he was NOT a native Roman Catholic Bavarian. He was an import from Saxony - I think in fact Leip.

1953 was not an easy year in Soviet controlled East Germany, so Karl Richter moved to Munich and brought with him a great cultural treasure:

Namely, the liturgical and confessional Lutheran choir legacy that culminated in J.S. Bach.

And Munich was very taken by that new, "non-professional", inspired Bach Choir that Karl Richter built.

Not that Munich did not have its own choir tradition - in the form of madrigal choirs.
And there had been the great Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901), who did memorable things in matters of choir music at the Königliche Musikschule in the late 19th century.

But speaking to your observation [see above];

The Munich Bach Choir was never a "Protestant Institution", however, it became a VOICE for the Lutheran Reformation that culminates musically in Johann Sebastian Bach, who kept writing these few simple words under his scores: 'SOLI DEO GLORIA".

Charles Francis wrote (August 18, 2001):
Rev. Robert A. Lawson wrote:
< There has been a great deal of speculation in the last forty years or so about whether Bach was a confessional Lutheran or not, mostly by those who don't have a clue about what it is like to believe passionately in something and be forced to work for those who could care less. Bach was a Lutheran. When he accepted the position of Cantor in Leipzig he swore by an oath that he accepted as true the Lutheran Book of Concord of the year 1580. If one wants to know what Bach believed, that's the place to find out. >
Surely one should allow the option for anyone, including Bach, to grow spiritually. One cannot be held captive to a religious tradition into which one is born. As you know, the modern Lutheran church in Germany explicitly denounced certain doctrines of its founder. Equally offensive works in other areas have been quietly dropped; one never finds these writings on the Web sites of Lutheran ministeries. Bach, however, owned such teachings, so are we really surprised if he outgrew them?

< There is no evidence that he changed his mind, though there is plenty to make one suspicious of those running the St. Thomas School--for whom Bach worked. >
Even in science, the evidence is seldom objective; its interpretation depends on where one is coming from. But that Bach's Lutheran output dwindled during the period 1728-1733, to virtually nothing is seldom contested. That, he subsequently channelled his musical energy into non-professional non-Lutheran activities is generally accepted.

< For those who might have an interest in this topic, I would suggest that they check out the book by Robin Leaver, "Glosses in the Calov Bible," which I believe is still in print. >

I own this very book, containing glosses from Bach's Bible dated 1733 with his own hand annotations. But, it has little bearing on his belief system, for as the Bach musicologist Denis Arnold puts it:

"They have been used to show Bach's continuing faith in and deep knowledge of the Bible; but coming from the hand of such a seasoned campaigner, they look all too clearly like the texts to be used in a coming battle against the unmusical members of the Town Council".

< Another great book on the subject is "Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig" by Günther Stiller. Again I believe the English version is still in print, I don't know about the original German. >
I can't comment on this one, I'm afraid.

< I might suggest that the reason Bach's music touches the soul so profoundly, is because it came from the soul. It is about life and death. Who could trivialise such a subject by play-acting for a whole life time. >

Yes, but life and death are common property for all humanity and not the special property of Martin Luther's disciples.

< Shame on you for suggesting such a thing! >
Seeking the truth is no shame!

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 18, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] I am afraid, that -as is clearly evident from your post- you are not seeking the truth, but you are doing the same what you accuse others of: picking the evidence that suits you and ignoring any other evidence. Why do you keep linking Bach's decline in church music activities with 'loss of faith’? Why is, for you, 'church music' identical to 'Lutheran' There is no, I repeat, absolutely no evidence for that. What makes you to belief not composing cantatas (but still composing organ works, like Clavierübung III) signifies a loss of faith? Isn't it probable as Eggebrecht suggests in 'Bach, wer ist das' Bach had the intention to compose a certain 'stock' of cantatas for his whole tenure in Leipzig?

We simply don't know!

We do know however Bach fell out with his superiors, and things became worse after Ernesti the younger, who was a champion of Enlightenment ideas and wanted to remove music from the curriculum of the school, became rector. From the Stiller book it appears it is known for most of his lifetime in Leipzig, how often Bach went to Holy Communion and how often he confessed, as the records have been kept. Those records do not show any decline!

You simply don't want to accept Bach was a Christian during all his lifetime, and you will seek anything, however absurd, to support that belief, because belief it is, not fact.

Johan van Veen wrote (August 18, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes, regarding Suzuki & BCJ] Yes, Suzuki is a Christian. In fact, he belongs to the Reformed Church of Japan, which is Calvinist in its doctrines. I also think that the fact that Suzuki studied both in the Netherlands and Germany - and speaks German - helps in understanding Bach's music and the thinking behind it. That doesn't necessarily imply that his performances are better than others, of course. Knowing something and putting it into practice are two different things.

Peter Petzling wrote (August 19, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] THAT SUCH TRIPE - quoted here again! helas! - is seriously [?] offered in a list that discusses Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas is indeed more than irritating.

Just a bit familiarity with the painstaking work of Don Franklin of Pittsburgh or Martin Petzoldt of Leipzig in the matter of Bach's life, work and confession would quickly snuff out such "non-reasoning".

More than ever this list depends on intellectual integrity.

Marie Jensen wrote (August 19, 2001):
Robert A. Lawson wrote:
< I might suggest that the reason Bach's music touches the soul so profoundly, is because it came from the soul. It is about life and death. Who could trivialise such a subject by play-acting for a whole life time. Shame on you for suggesting such a thing! >
I have never accused Bach of play-acting. I wrote: "A musician is like an actor, playing a role. So a great deal of it is a matter of professionalism, but having the same opinion as the writer/composer always helps. Music is however one thing and the text another though they support each other.” Please read performer instead of musician. It might make my statement more clear.

PS: Thank you to all contributors (including you) to this thread for their information especially to Riccardo, Johan van Veen and Peter for their explanations about Richter and Suzuki.

Bob Sherman wrote (August 19, 2001):
[To Marie Jensen] It is my understanding that Richter and his Munich Bach Choir were not affiliated with or motivated by any religious institution or denomination. The choir was amateur -- amazing considering its quality -- and motivated solely by love of the music.

Charles Francis wrote (August 19, 2001):
[To Sybrand Bakker] Is it not unlikely that Bach, the perfectionist with an apparent obsession for numbers and symbolism, would have planned anything other than 6 cycles of cantatas as ‘stock’? N.B. the 6 days of creation and Bach's various creations planned in lots of 6. If he did have a plan to write 'stock', he appears to have abandoned it.

With regard to the Clavierübung III, do keep in mind it was a private venture published at Bach's own expense. Familiar tunes, structures and utility for Lutheran organists would be necessitated by market considerations. For purported deeper meanings, see for example, D. Humphreys "The Esoteric Structure of Bach's Clavierübung III" or H.A. Kellner "How Bach quantified his well-tempered tuning within the Four Duets".

I was certainly amazed to learn that records were kept of Bach's attendance at Confession and Holy Communion. Were relations with his employers really so bad?

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 19, 2001):
[To Charles Francis] Yet another example of wilful misinterpretation on your side. I was referring to church records, just like records are being kept with respect to baptism, marriage and burial, so records pertaining to all members of Leipzig churches. So nothing unusual, and *no* records separately for Bach.

Robert Sherman wrote (August 19, 2001):
Sybrand seems to alternate between taking personal offence at those who express, in non-offensive rational terms, views that disagree with him, and then attacking other list members in personal terms that really are insulting.

Not being religious myself, I care only about Bach's music and have no interest in the details of his religious motivation. But I hope we can discuss this and other issues here in a civilised and rational way.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (August 19, 2001):
Sybrand Bakker wrote:
< Why do you keep linking Bach's decline in *church music* activities with 'loss of faith’? Why is, for you, 'church music' identical to 'Lutheran' There is no, I repeat, absolutely no evidence for that. What makes you to belief not composing cantatas (but still composing organ works, like Clavierübung III) signifies a loss of faith? >
Absolutely!!! It is as arbitrary as if you say that in times PRIOR to the composition of Cantatas, Bach wasn't a man of faith yet!!! On the contrary, I usually tend to think that his "voluntary" compositions are better proof of faith than the works made to comply with his job.

Charles Francis wrote (August 19, 2001):
[To Sybrand Bakker] Given his professional role and a difficult relationship with his employers, wouldn't Bach have been well advised to attend Confession? The more so, if written records of attendance were kept as you indicate. One rather assumes Bach would feel some responsibility for the well-being of his large family.

Roy Reed wrote (August 20, 2001):
I rather enjoy, perversely, the ranting of unbelieving fundamentalists. Tsk, tsk, y'all !! No doubt the depth and intensity of Bach's religious faith are finally undemonstrable. But it does seem that the burden of proof would be on those who would see his church music output as the labours of music for hire mercenary. Of course, the fact that the art is so convincing is not real proof of the sincerity of the artist; on that basis, Verdi and Berlioz would be ardent Catholics. Nevertheless, the art is a strong witness. No one ever wrote music that is so word and message conscious.... and with such clever....genius really....schemes to put across the idea. Absolute proof? No, but very hard, I would say audacious, to dismiss.

The fact that Bach's church music output, as a composer, shrank greatly in later years probably had nothing at all to do with the quality of his faith. He had fallen out big time with his employers. The city fathers were obstructionist, unresponsive to his basic musical needs and to his genius. The rector was radically out of sync with the cantor. Ernesti was a philologist, and spirit of the rising Enlightenment and as far as Bach was concerned, an unhelpful and unsympathetic philistine. JSB stands in a long tradition of musicians who have fallen out with the preacher and the church (town/church in this case) council. This sort of opposition and animosity dulls the creative will. You settle down to do what you have to with what integrity your self-worth allows, or you move on, or quit if you can afford to. In point of fact, in this day and age with church music going in the tank to be replaced with hack stuff that requires no talent, no rehearsal, no self-respect, lots of church musicians are in a bad fix...worse, really, that Bach's. The fact that Bach's creative enthusiasm for church music waned in his later years is no surprise.

One can point to many bits in Bach's life that would indicate that religious ideals meant a great deal to him.... the pietist/orthodox thing at Mühlhausen, his Lutheran practice and identity at Cöthen, etc. To me, the strongest witness is Bach's library. He had all of these theology books.... many on scriptural exegesis. He certainly was in no position to have a "status" book collection. If he had them, he wanted them and used them. His work shows his theological and biblical sophistication. All of this goes through him just so the job can get done? Pretty big stretch to conclude that.

Good stuff to argue though. The world needs more of this kind of thing to fuss about. Would that Sharon and Arafat were debating this.

Scott Hyslop (St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, Frankenmuth, MI) wrote (August 20, 2001):
[To Robert A. Lawson] Leaver's book on the Calov Bible IS available from Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis, Missouri. The official information Is:

"J.S. Bach and Scripture Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary"
- Robin Leaver CPH stock number 99-1255 ($19.95 U.S.)

Concordia Publishing House
3558 South Jefferson Ave.
St. Louis, MO
USA
63118-3968

Tele: 800.325.3040
email: cphorder@cph.org
fax: 800.490.9889

Interestingly Bach's original copy of the Calov is located at The Concordia Historical Institute also in St. Louis, Missouri. If anyone is interested in their contact information I would be happy to send that as well.

Rev. Robert a. Lawson wrote (August 21, 2001):
[To Roy Reed] Thank you so much for you post. Since, as a confessional Lutheran (One who subscribes unconditionally to the Lutheran Book of Concord), I passionately believe what Bach also confessed to believing, it is very difficult for me to dispassionate about what appears to be a trivialising of our faith. Disagreeing is one thing. People can disagree, and certainly do. That is to be expected, in fact. One can surely also enjoy Bach's music without understanding or even caring about the theology behind it. Is there any doubt, in fact, that that is the case with most lovers of Bach's music? Thank God that this is so, because the church to her great shame has neither the inclination nor the resources (either musically or financially) to pass on the legacy of J.S. Bach. It is safe to say that we all agree here that the world and all of our lives would be poorer without it. But to use today's Post-Modern standards to dismiss Bach's public confession of faith when there is no clear evidence to support that claim is in my opinion insulting, both to him and to those of us who remain Lutherans in more than name only. To Marie and other of you who are not, as Ron said,
"Ranting unbelieving fundamentalist," but simply seeking information, I apologise for stating my case so strongly. I didn't mean to attack anyone's person.

Anyway, in response to the statement, "I don't know what Bach thought," perhaps some of you will be interested in this gloss from J.S. Bach, the Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolf:

Although the pertinent source materials have not been completely preserved, the following picture emerges: Bach asked "a friend"--whose identity, beyond the fact that he must have been an organist, remains open--to play for him, on his pedal harpsichord, the chorale "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein," BWV 668, now hearing it as a setting of "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit." Listening to the piece, he realized that it could benefit from some improvements in a number of contrapuntal, melodic, and rhythmic details. He then asked the friend to change the heading of the chorale to "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit" and dictated the changes deemed necessary in order for him to be ready to appear before his Creator's throne. In this form, with the composer's final edits, the chorale (BWV 668a) was entered as a fair copy by an unnamed copyist (Possibly the same person who took Bach's dictation) at the very end of the partial autograph manuscript that already contained, among other organ works, seventeen of the Great Eighteen chorales in revised form and the "Vom Himmel h" Variations. Not knowing this revised version, but aware that Bach on his deathbed had tinkered with the piece, the editors of The Art of Fugue incorporated the earlier version (BWV 668), headed differently. The extant sources for this extraordinary organ chorale, in its three versions, indisputably verify the composer's involvement, both spiritual and artistic, with the larger setting close to his end. They offer a true glimpse at Bach's deep-rooted devoutness. [emphasis added] At the same time, the emendations that elevate the final version, "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit," from the earlier "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" represent a final instance of a lifelong striving for musical perfection.

Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit Before Your throne I now appear,
O Gott, und dich demutig bitt O God, and bid you humbly,
vend dein genadig Angesich turn not your gracious face
von mir, dem armen Sunder nicht. From me, a poor sinner.

Ein selig Ende mir bescher, Confer on me a blessed end,
am jungsten Tag erwechke mich, on the last day awaken me,
Herr, dass ich dich schau ewiglich: Lord, that I may see you eternally;
Amen, amen, erhore mich. Amen, amen, hear me.
(Wolff, pp. 450-451)

So, it appears that Bach died in the faith, which he confessed his entire life. SDG

 

Religion in Bach

Thomas Boyce wrote (February 7, 2002):
Apropos of nothing, sometimes I get the feeling that Bach wasn't such a "religious" person, despite the fact that most of his music is sacred. The church paid the bills, that's for sure.

Listening to Perotin now. Good stuff.

Richard Grant wrote (February 7, 2002):
[To Thomas Boyce] You make a very good point. I based my comment on both the music and what I had read in his letters that survive. But upon reflection there is as much about business and finances in his letters as there is about religious faith. Still, and here I have nothing to back me up dispositively, I believe that a deep and abiding religious faith is reflected in the works themselves.

Rev. Robert A. Lawson wrote (February 8, 2002):
[To Richard Grant] I agree, and since Bach was a Lutheran he would have believed as Luther did that a Christian is at the same time both a saint and sinner (simmel ustes et pecator). He would have cried with St. Paul, "Oh wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death." The answer was wonderfully proclaimed in his music as "The Cross of Christ shone forth in mystic glow."

Dick Wursten wrote (February 8, 2002):
The Rev. Robert A. Lawson translated the famous Luther saying, that a christian is always both saint and sinner at the same time into a beuatiful new language, which has familiarities with Latin, Jiddisch and Spanish when he wrote: >> simmel
ustes et pecator <<

In religious matters one may be saint and sinner at the same time, in translation matters IMO this is not generally allowed. Luthers quote should be in Latin: >> simul iustus et peccator <<

 

Continue on Part 3

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

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Last update: ýMarch 11, 2012 ý17:24:22