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Bach and Religion
Part 4

Continue from Part 3

Bach, the 5th evangelist

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 2, 2003):
Several members have given their ideas on the often heard characterization “Bach, the fifth evangelist”. An epithet, almost sounding like an epitaph: “ Here lies Bach, shrouded in mist, yet through his music, the fifth evangelist.” Inadequate words, but do not all arguments fall short of the mark, when we try to establish the truth of this qualification by judging Bach on account of his degree of piety, righteousness or faith.

First of all, from a Christian point of view, who are we, trying to measure anyone’s faith? It is none of our business to judge others. There are dozens of texts in the New Testament telling us that the only judgement we are allowed to have is self-criticism. Read for example St. Matthew Ch. 7:1-5. Therefore it is improper, useless and nonsensical to try and establish Bach’s faithfulness by comparing him to other composers of his day and his sacred works to other compositions. We may look at the quantity and the quality of the works composed in order to compare the various composers of the Bach era, but it will and can not help us to draw conclusions about their faiths. For we can not look into their minds and must not judge on what we see. There is only One who knows the hearts and sees our intentions.

Secondly, I am sure Bach himself was not so presumptuous as to qualify himself as an evangelist. I am quite sure Bach never even thought of himself as a holy person, to be named in one breath with the famous four, St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John and St. John Sebastian, although he was a deeply religious man. I agree with those who take Bach seriously on his own motto “Soli Deo Gloria”, implying he wrote his music not in honour of himself but only to praise the Lord. It is apparent that in his time this motto was quite universal among musicians of sacred music, but it was not common practice with composers to underwrite all their works with the acronym SDG. So, it would be injuring his integrity to say that Bach’s use of this subscription has to be taken for granted as the normal thing to do. We have to believe Bach on his words. This does not show, however, he considered himself a prophet or a gospel preacher. Or thought himself more righteous than his fellow-composers and the other members of the congregation he belonged to. Like every human being, he must have been susceptible to pride, vanity, and other transgressions. Therefore the motto Soli Deo Gloria also implied a warning for himself not to indulge in praises by his contemporaries. He knew it is human to seek your own glory, and his cantatas and oratorios demonstrate he was well aware of that.

The cantatas were meant to illuminate the readings for that particular Sunday, like the motets before them. Their function was not to replace them or the sermon, so it would be too much to call them “sermons in music”. Neither the librettist nor the composer knew the content of the sermon, so I do not believe that Bach considered his cantatas to be additional to the sermon delivered by the priests. The cantata text and subsequently the music was usually inspired by the readings and the occasion for the particular Sunday. Were the cantatas attempts to convert some of the listeners? No, Bach was neither a priest nor a missionary. Were they just entertainment, moments of relief? No, they had a definite function in the service. The cantatas were part of the liturgy and it was Bach’s job to make sure there was a new one every Sunday. He had to make the music befit the libretto. And of course text and music expressed what was generally believed by the German Lutherans of his day. And this Bach did to the best of his abilities. What’s more, he did it better than any of his contemporaries. And in such a way, that the music of his cantatas and oratorios transcend the meaning once attached to them, to such an extent that people of all kinds of religions and probably agnostics as well are touched by them even today.

Who first labelled him as the fifth evangelist and why, I do not know. Was it Mattheson? Could it be one of his mildly mocking eulogies? Was it an unreserved commendation? I believe none of Bach’s contemporaries would have gone so far. It was probably after Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the following surge of admiration that led to laudatory descriptions like “the fifth evangelist”.

Of one thing I am sure, the phrase is more telling of the listener than of the composer. It expresses rather the effect Bach’s music has on some of his admirers than that it reveals Bach’s intentions other than wanting to be a skilful composer, cantor and Kapellmeister and a virtuoso on the organ. In several of his writings we read that he felt his work did not get the appreciation it deserved. Yet he would always remind himself that whatever he did, must not be aimed to glorify the name of Bach but only to honour God.

Peter Bright wrote (July 3, 2003):
< Who first labelled him as the fifth evangelist and why, I do not know. Was it Mattheson? Could it be one of his mildly mocking eulogies? Was it an unreserved commendation? I believe none of Bach’s contemporaries would have >
I believe it was Albert Schweitzer who first used this label (presumably in his Bach biography published in 1905).

Dick Wursten wrote (July 3, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] Schweitzer as author sounds probable... But I stay curious. It is so often said, that it becomes interesting to know whehter the 'origin' can be traced. I guess it must be somewhere in the second half of the 19th century.

BTW: Nietzsche in a letter to Erwin Rhode (1870) also comes close: "this week I heard the SMP three times and each time I had the same feeling of immeasurable admiration. If one has complete un-learned christianity, here one can hear it really as an 'evangelium'."

Roy Reed wrote (July 3, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] I also have no idea who first applied the cognomen "The Fifth Evangelist" to JSB, but I certainly think it is appropriate. Considered in some literal sense it is, of course, absurd, but as a tribute to his genius to be able to tell the story in the most eloquent and artful sermons in song ever created, it is entirely suitable......as Nietzsche's improbable witness testifies.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 3, 2003):
< Who first labelled him as the fifth evangelist and why, I do not know. >
Whoever it was evidently didn't know much (if anything?) about the many other extant gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas.
http://www.ntgateway.com/noncanon.htm
http://aggreen.net/bible/noncanon.html

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 4, 2003):
I found the following explanations on the internet:
This seems to imply that Schweitzer and Spitta might have used this epithet, but no specific reference is given.
“ In order to undertake an evaluation of each of these interpretative viewpoints, we must first inquire into Bach's concept of himself. Did he wish to be the "fifth evangelist," as Albert Schweitzer and Phillip Spitta saw him, or did he strive for something completely different, and needed church music as a means of survival, as suggested in the newer picture of Bach suggested by Friedrich Blume?”
http://bachfest.uoregon.edu/bachground/bachbits/sig7.shtml

Christoph Wolff traces this term back to Söderblom:

Christoph Wolff: "With the authoritative writings of Spitta and Rust, the concept of the 'Fifth Evangelist' was preordained." The notion of “Bach the fifth Evangelist” goes back to Nathan Söderblom, [1866-1931] the Swedish theologian, cf. Hans Besch, ‘J. S. Bach. Frömmigkeit und Glaube’ 2d ed. (Kassel, 1950), p. 3.

Another message that was cited earlier on the BCML:

>>Like Georg Christoph Biller, Leipzig’s current Thomaskantor and Bach’s sixteenth successor in that position, Suzuki sees himself as a missionary. "I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a biblical one," he said, echoing the Swetheologian and Lutheran archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who called Bach’s music "the fifth Gospel." A member of the Reformed Church, Suzuki makes sure his musicians, mostly non–Christians, get that point. During rehearsals he teaches them Scripture. "It is impossible to say how many of my performers and listeners will ultimately become Christians," Suzuki said. He believes, however, that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith.<<
http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0006/opinion/siemon-netto.html

Then there is the book by Hesselbacher. Did he get the epithet from Söderblom?

A book by Karl Hesselbacher, ‚Der fünfte Evangelist. Das Leben v. J. S. B.,’ 1934
http://www.bautz.de/bbkl/b/bach_j_s.shtml

Hesselbacher, Karl. Le Cinqui­ème évangéliste Jean-Sébastien Bach, Sa vie et son oeuvre racontées au peuple par Charles Hessel­bacher. Traduit de l’allemand par Madame J. Paris. Neuchatel, Paris, Delachaux & Niestlé [c 1937]

Closer to our time, this epithet has become common coin :

Ein Freund von mir pflegt zu sagen: "Wenn Bach nicht Gottvater ist, dann muss er der fünfte Evangelist sein". Ich weiß nicht, ob dieser Ausspruch von ihm selber stammt; aber auf jeden Fall entspricht er völlig der Wahrheit. Wie sonst sollte man den Meister bezeichnen? [A friend of mine used to say, „If Bach is not God the Father Himself, then he must be the 5th Evangelist.” etc.]
http://www.slweiss.com/ge_histoire.html

A video on Bach with this title:

>>Der "Fünfte Evangelist"?
Bachs Glaube in seiner Musik
.<<
Ein Film von Günther Specovius.
45 Minuten
http://www.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/allg/benutzung/bereiche/video/bach.html

The name of an entire program of all concerts and church services for the Bach Year 2000 in Erfurt {from a Catholic source!}:

Wer sich näher für das Programm interessiert, sollte sich das Programmheft besorgen. Unter dem Titel "Bach - der fünfte Evangelist" ist es mit einer Auflage von 30 000 Stück erschienen. Auf mehr als dreißig Seiten sind alle Konzerte und Gottesdienste der "Kirchenmusik Erfurt im Bachjahr 2000" aufgeführt.
http://kathweb.de/tdh/2000/234.htm

An announcement for a lecture in the series "The Year of the Bible" later this year:

Jahr der Bibel
Suchen und Finden. 2003. Das Jahr der Bibel.
27. November - Johann Sebastian Bach - der fünfte Evangelist
19.30 Uhr Pfarrheim Handorf-Langenberg
http://www.st-peter-und-paul-holdorf.de/jahrderbibel.htm

As Brad indicated, the term „the 5th Gospel“ may refer to other things as well:
1.) The Cloth of Turin
Das Turiner Grabtuch - Das fünfte Evangelium?
Rund eine Million Menschen haben in diesen drei Monaten das Grabtuch besichtigt und konnten sich von der erstaunlichen Uebereinstimmung mit den biblischen Berichten überzeugen. Nicht zuletzt deshalb wurde es auch schon als das "fünfte Evangelium" bezeichnet. Prominentester Pilger war Papst Johannes Paul II., welcher am 24. Mai der Reliquie seine Verehrung bezeugte
. [It has been called ‚the 5th Gospel, because a million people have looked at it in a period of 3 months – the Pope as well.]
http://www.oessh.ch/turin.htm

2.) Isaiah, the Prophet is the 5th Evangelist– this according to the most official source in the Catholic religion:

>>aus dem Buch Jesaja. Der Prophet, der mit Recht »der fünfte Evangelist« genannt wird,<<
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/hlthwork/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_ge.html

Some further theological explanations from Catholic sources, to explain why Isaiah is ‘the 5th Evangelist”: [I will not translate these.]
Die Bezeichnung unserer Ikone "Gottesmutter des Zeichens" geht nicht so sehr auf das Wunderzeichen zurück, das die Gottesmutter gemäß der Legende durch ihr Bild bewirkt hat - Bezeichnung und Bild sind ja viel älter -, als vielmehr auf die Voraussage des Propheten Jesaia, der wegen der Deutlichkeit seiner Weissagungen auch der "fünfte Evangelist" genannt wurde:
http://catholica-unio.de/meditation.html

Das Buch Jesaja ist das längste der ganzen Bibel und enthält, wie die Forschung heute annimmt, die Worte mehrerer Propheten. Der Grundton des Buches ist die Verheißung eines Retters, des Messias, der das Volk aus der Bedrückung befreit. Wegen dieser frohen Botschaft, die sich in Christus erfüllte, wird Jesaja manchmal der "fünfte Evangelist" genannt
http://www.kathsurf.at/schatz_bibel/schatz_bibel.html

3.) New Age speculations about other missing Gospels, including the original one from which the others were derived, or the one that is read psychically from the Akasha:
Das fünfte Evangelium oder das Urevangelium der Essäer (der Essäer-Brief): Bei dem Essäer Brief soll es sich um einen Brief von einer alten Pergamentrolle handeln, der in einer Bibliothek in Alexandrien gefunden worden und früher Eigentum des Essäer-Ordens gewesen sein soll. Der Schreiber dieses Briefs will die Passion Jesu als Augenzeuge miterlebt haben und beschreibt detailliert die Vorgänge während und nach der Kreuzigung Christi. Jesus soll dabei während der Kreuzigung in ein Koma gefallen sein und durch die medizinische Künste von zwei Essenern wieder ins Leben gebracht worden sein. Theoretisch könnten sich die Ereignisse genauso abgespielt haben. [This is about the „Ur“ Gospel of the Essenes]
http://www.bunkahle.com/Aktuelles/EVL.html

Aus der Akasha-Forschung. Das Fünfte Evangelium.
von Rudolf Steiner [This is a psychic reading of the Akasha.]: Amazon.com


4.) A collective term referring to all other existing texts from the New Testament period (the ‘Apocrypha.’) The following description of a novel, “The Fifth Gospel” by Philipp Vandenberg explains that this term was already used as early as 1983 in this sense:

'Das fünfte Evangelium' (BRD 1993; Autor: PHILIPP VANDENBERG
1993 veröffentlichte der Erfolgsautor PHILIPP VANDENBERG einen Roman, welcher theologisch Interessierte schon vom Titel her aufhorchen lässt: 'Das fünfte Evangelium'
Diese Formulierung ist innerhalb der Theologie nicht unbekannt, da der katholische Exeget ALFRED LÄPPLE schon im Jahr 1983 den Begriff 'Fünftes Evangelium' als Sammelbegriff für alle nicht-neutestamentlichen ('apokryphen'[1][6]) Texte über JESUS VON NAZARETH vorgeschlagen hatte[2][7]. Damit ist auch schon die Thematik von VANDENBERGs Roman angedeutet: Gibt es ein 'fünftes Evangelium' über JESUS VON NAZARETH, das neue Wahrheiten oder vielleicht sogar die eigentliche Wahrheit über das enthüllt, was sich vor zweitausend Jahren in Galiläa abgespielt hat?
http://www.theophil-online.de/philosop/mfsoph2.htm

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 4, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< I found the following explanations on the internet: This seems to imply that Schweitzer and Spitta might have used this epithet, but no specific reference is given....... >
Thanks for the interesting results of your search. Apparently, the epithet was attached to persons or even an object, spreading a message or radiating an inspiration, that resulted in the conversion of thousands of people to believing in Christ and strengthening the faiths of numerous others. It is obvious, that neither the Torino cloth nor the Old Testament prophet Isaiah considered themselvevangelists. Did Bach? The question remains unanswered, but in my opinion the answer still is : "No", as I pointed out in an earlier mailing. Would he have been pleased to know that many people had come to believe in Jesus Christ through his music? No doubt he would. Would he have been pleased with the honorary title "The fifth Evangelist"? From a religious point of view he might have thought it presumptuous, but then, Johann Sebastian Bach was human after all.

Tom Brannigan wrote (July 4, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote :
"........The question remains unanswered, but in my opinion the answer still is : "No", as I pointed out in an earlier mailing. Would he have been pleased to know that many people had come to believe in Jesus Christ through his music? No doubt he would. Would he have been pleased with the honorary title "The fifth Evangelist"? From a religious point of view he might have thought it presumptuous, but then, Johann Sebastian Bach was human after all........."
I concur with your conclusion, but the articles offerred in this discussion have been thought provoking none the less. It sure is refreshing discussing aspects of literate music, genius, and Christian theology without falling prey to superficial nonesense. As a practicing Christian who actually enjoys high art & intellectual discourse, it sure is pleasant to have this list to turn to without feeling like a decadent elitist.

Dick Wursten wrote (July 4, 2003):
Brad Lehman wrote:
< Who first labelled him as the fifth evangelist and why, I do not know. Whoever it was evidently didn't know much (if anything?) about the many other extant gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas.
http://www.ntgateway.com/noncanon.htm
http://aggreen.net/bible/noncanon.html >
Just to refresh our knowledge:
'canon' in reference to the bible is a techn. term for the 'list' of books which were officially received as Holy Scripture. The kernel of the New Testament canon (4 gospels, 13 Pauline letters) became generally accepted as such from AD 130 and were placed on the same footing with the Old Testament around AD 200. Around 380 the complete list of canonical books of OT and NT, as we use nowadays was established by a Council and later on published. BTW: the canon (list) of the OT was of course drawn up by Jewish rabbis first.

Let's suppose that the person who honoured Bach with the title of the 5th evangelist, lived around 1880, then he had a tradition of 1500 years to back him up and to make people understand what he meant by this title. What he meant to say, would have been un-understandable if he would have been historical correct and would have spoken about Bach, the 13th (or 14th, or 7th) evangelist.

What does this proof:
Historical information - even if it is correct - not necessarily has any bearing on the meaning of a phrase, it even can obscure a very obvious meaning.

All resemblances with actual or past discussions on this list is purely coincidental etc..

Dave Harman wrote (July 4, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] Writing as an atheist who also enjoys the music of Bach, I have to ask if - as Mr Bloemendaal writes - Bach's music could lead one to 'accept Jesus Christ', why couldn't his music also lead one to not accept Jesus Christ, but rather to accept his principals without the dogma and personalities - or to reject him altogether ? Whether Bach is the 5th Evangelist, or another number, seems to be designations by persons devoted equally to Bach and the Bible. Which leads me to another question:

Given that Bach lived in a time when religion informed every aspect of everyday life, and everyone was assumed to be a devout Christain, as we really sure that Bach was really as devout as he has been stated as being, or did he simply allow others to believe what they wanted to believe about Bach, while he went about doing what he really cared about - making music ?

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (July 4, 2003):
Dave Harman wrote:
< are we really sure that Bach was really as devout as he has been stated as being, or did he simply allow others to believe what they wanted to believe about Bach, while he went about doing what he really cared about - making music ? >
This question has been brought up many times on this list and in other forums of Bach discussion (not condescending you, just informing/reminding you!). The answer is that there's no real way to know-we have his bible all marked up with things not having to do specifically with music, but we also have the fact that he stopped composing Cantatas after only a few years in Leipzig. Since the former evidence proves things a bit more than the latter (which I don't think proves much if anything at all), the only answer to you question we can really give is "likely". As Peter so aptly stated, we have no clue what went on exactly inside Bach's mind and heart, just like I have no way of knowing what's going on inside your mind and heart, unless you sincerely told me-but Bach never really told us-he just left his bible, his instruments and unarguably one of the greatest marks on music history ever.

Henri N. Levinspuhl wrote (July 4, 2003):
Dear Mr. Harman, Mr. Neigerbauer and others,
My salutations!

While an atheist musician is concerned with music alone, a Christian is firstly devoted to God and can be an artist, a seller, a butcher, but nothing but God has prominence; for treasuring something above God, at the same time being a Christian, is a misconception, just an idolatry. Bach's belief does not change the fact that a Christian artist has God over his art, concerned with the fulfillment of the Gospel's first commandment. But can an artist love God over his art? Of course; otherwise art would be always the artist's object of worship, and a Christian could not be an artist; for he must not seek his glory, but God's. And he really seeks God's glory through his art, understands it soli Dei gloria, that means, neither to his glory, nor to the glory of his art, even if his intention cannot be fulfilled in everybody's life, even if only he and his God understand it this way.

Jane Newble wrote (July 5, 2003):
Dave Harman wrote:
< Given that Bach lived in a time when religion informed every aspect of everyday life, and everyone was assumed to be a devout Christain, as we really sure that Bach was really as devout as he has been stated as being, or did he simply allow others to believe what they wanted to believe about Bach, while he went about doing what he really cared about - making music ? >
Please don't forget that even in Bach's time the 'Enlightenment' was well on its way, and in the cantatas you can find certain references to those who do not believe. In 1720 Bach expressed the purpose of at least some of his music by writing on the title-page of Das Orgelbüchlein: "dem hochsten Gott allein zu Ehren, dem Nächsten draus sich zu belehren." "For the praise of God, and the education of fellow-humans."

Spitta cites Bach as having said: "Der Generalbaß ist das vollkommenste Fundament der Musik, welcher mit beyden Händen gespielet wird dergestalt, das die linke Hand die vorgeschriebenen Noten spielet, die rechte aber Con und Dissonantien dazu greift, damit dieses eine wohlklingende Harmonie gebe zur Ehre Gottes und zulässiger Ergötzung des Gemüthes, und soll wie aller Musik, also auch des General Basses Finis und End Uhrsache anders nicht, als nur zu Gottes Ehre und Recreation des Gemüths seyn. Wo dies nicht in Acht genommen wird, da ists keine eigentliche Musik, sondern ein teufliches Geplerr und Geleyer."

Strong words, which mean basically that the thoroughbass is the foundation of music, and that it provides a harmony to the praise of God, and the delight of the mind. When this is disregarded, it is not essentially music, but a diabolical bawling and monotonous singsong.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 5, 2003):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< 3.) New Age speculations about other missing Gospels, including the original one from which the others were derived, or the one that is read psychically from the Akasha... >
How is the derivatioof Q by biblical scholars "New Age speculation"?

And how would you label chapters 24-26 of Barbara Thiering's book Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Bradley Lehman

"Half of the people are stoned
And the other half are waiting for the next election.
Half the people are drowned
And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction."

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 5, 2003):
< Spitta cites Bach as having said: "Der Generalbaß ist das vollkommenste Fundament der Musik, welcher mit beyden Händen gespielet wird dergestalt, das die linke Hand die vorgeschriebenen Noten spielet, die rechte aber Con und Dissonantien dazu greift, damit dieses eine wohlklingende Harmonie gebe zur Ehre Gottes und zulässiger Ergötzung des Gemüthes, und soll wie aller Musik, also auch des General Basses Finis und End Uhrsache anders nicht, als nur zu Gottes Ehre und Recreation des Gemüths seyn. Wo dies nicht in Acht genommen wird, da ists keine eigentliche Musik, sondern ein teufliches Geplerr und Geleyer."

Strong words, which mean basically that the thoroughbass is the foundation of music, and that it provides a harmony to the praise of God, and the delight of the mind. When this is disregarded, it is not essentially music, but a diabolical bawling and monotonous singsong. >
Bach was right. Fluent understanding of thoroughbass (both in thinking and in improvisational practice, hands-on) is the single most important skill in understanding his music. It informs the function and the proper expression of every note, every phrase, in every part. The music's content and style are inextricably bound with this method of composition. It's a pity that more people (both performers and critics) haven't put in the required year to pick up this essential skill, becoming conversant within Bach's own musical language.

Dave Harman wrote (July 7, 2003):
[To Jane Newble] OK, but I don't read German so I can't read the 'strong words'. The last paragraph about 'throughbass' being the foundation of music is interesting, although I didn't get the connection to our topic of conversation.

 

Bach and religion

Anne Smith wrote (January 10, 2004):
I found this on another list.

The Herald [Glasgow] - 8 January 2004

"Bach comes across as somebody who sees his job as a musician to be absolutely central to society and to the nature of religion," says John Butt. "But Bach lived at the end of a tradition in the belief system to which he belonged. You might call that system Pythagorean, where music equals the universe, and music therefore equals God. So, good music equals a good world, and bad music does not.

"However, there is almost a heretical nature to Bach. He saw music as being just as important as religion; that without music you can't have the religion. So Bach, one might say with a degree of plausibility, is the first composer, unwittingly, to make the break between 'culture' and 'the universe', and to make the music into a world of its own, with its own character and its own connections.

"This idea of making the music into an artwork is a modern idea, which, in some ways, makes Bach the first modern composer.

"He's not trying to be individualistic; he's not trying to be 'Bach'; just to write good music.

"My theory of Bach is that, by that point of his life, he was fighting against the grain. He was seen as old-fashioned in his own time, and was outnumbered. He didn't want to change anything - you could call him an enlightened conservative - but it meant that he went the extra mile to perfect and finish his music, to make it into a world of its own, with its own individual character."

The influence of Bach, who died in 1750, on musical history has been acknowledged by generations of great composers, from Mozart through Beethoven, to Brahms, to the arch-Romantics of the nineteenth century, including Wagner, and on into the next century by Debussy and, one of the engineers of early-20th-century modernism, Arnold Schoenberg. What was it in Bach's music that touched a core in the composers who followed him?

"One factor is socio-political," says John Butt. "German composers in particular were afraid of not having a long, secure culture, in the way that France and many other countries had - Germany only became a country around 1870. There's a sense that they were always trying to ground themselves, as it were, in an Old Testament. So Bach made a wonderful Old Testament figure, before the 'New Testament' of Beethoven.

"There's also a sense in which the 19th century became particularly interested in music as structure, even though we think of it as the age of Romanticism. Bach fits this bill almost perfectly - his music goes beyond all thought. With the ingenuity of his music, the more you look at it, the more you find; and you can see how this is played out later, in Brahms's music, with its incredibly dense, obsessive, motivic structures."

According to 19th-century musical history, says John Butt, there is "a huge chasm" between Bach and Mozart. "Whereas all the other art forms had ancient literature to look back to, no ancient music survives whatever. So western music history has been constantly trying to find ancient figures. Palestrina is one, Josquin Desprez is another. Bach is even more so. Bach seems to have the other-worldy discipline of Palestrina, yet with an earthly embodiment in a world still recognisable."

Playing with audiences' expectations

Don't talk to John Butt about piety or reverence towards the music of Bach. For Butt, Bach is one of the earthiest and wittiest of all composers, which he hopes to demonstrate in the Odyssey.

"What makes Bach so different is that he's playing with our expectations. He constantly sets you up, then sends you down a branch line."

Repeatedly, throughout the cello suite extracts that will feature in the Odyssey, Bach will prepare the listener, apparently, for one of the many cadences or natural breathing points that punctuate all music. Then, just as it is expected, he will throw a curved ball, sending the music spinning off into a different orbit altogether. The effect, like a perfectly-timed punch line, can be cathartic. "He plays constantly with the sense of closure you expect in music," says Butt. "He disrupts it, subverts it and re-routes it."

In this field, Bach never bettered himself than in his fifth Brandenburg Concerto, when, at the end of a major paragraph in the music, instead of the expected punctuation point, he launches a spectacular stunt by unleashing the harpsichord in a huge, concerto-like display of manic keyboard acrobatics that constitute almost an entire self-contained piece in itself, that appears to have nothing to do with what is around it. He plays with your sense of expectancy. Nothing can be expected."

Jack Botelho wrote (January 10, 2004):
[To Anne Smith] Very interesting article and thanks so much for posting this here!

I appreciated reading the point of view of John Butt but will respectfully disagree.

(Only) in my opinion, it is clear that J.S. Bach was a deeply religious person, in an age, or at least a climate, where religious faith could not be separated from all aspects of human endeavour.

I'm not a formally religious person myself, but it seems to me that unwavering religious conviction is what makes Bach's sacred music, and the cantatas (aside from the openly secular experimental ones) stand out. This is not to say one needs to be a religious person to appreciate the cantatas/passions/motets/masses, but it has occurred to me that in our hedonistic age, in characteristic selfish fashion, many have satiated themselves on the pleasures of listening to these works which are, in my opinion, the product of deep religious faith. Faith moves mountains, and this element (in my opinion) in the cantatas (for example) make these works great. Take away such faith from Bach, and he would be yet another forgotten composer (in my opinion).

It's so nice to read your posts on this list Anne, anI look forward to much more interesting discussions with you!

Anne Smith wrote (January 10, 2004):
Jach Botelho wrote:
"I appreciated reading the point of view of John Butt but will respectfully disagree.

(Only) in my opinion, it is clear that J.S. Bach was a deeply religious person, in an age, or at least a climate, where religious faith could not be separated from all aspects of human endeavour."
I agree. Also much of the organ music. There is nothing like listening to Bach's chorales on a pipe organ in church. Can't get the same feeling in my living room listening to a CD.

Jack Botelho wrote (January 11, 2004):
[To Anne Smith] I've been reading a brief entry on Johann Mattheson, and around 1740 he compiled a book or compendium on a very large number of German composers who supplied him with anecdotes about their work and lives. Bach declined to supply Mattheson with any material about his life. I think this speaks volumes about Bach the person, in my opinion, and may indicate a very conservative personality who was opposed to the increasing secularization of German society of the time. I'll post this brief entry on Mattheson in a few days.

 

Religious influence

Jeremy Thomas wrote (January 12, 2004):
John Pike wrote:
< I absolutely agree with this. Bach believed that the purpose of all music was to give glory to God and pleasure to the soul. Anything else was a "devilish hubub". He was a deeply religious man with great faith. He prayed for God's help with his compositions (see the inscriptions before and after many of his works) and I think achieved something remarkable in so many of his compositions. >
John, I'm pleased to see you write this. There was an exchange on this subject on another list some months ago, and when such a suggestion was made there, the contributor was most unreasonably (in my opinion) shot down.

Whatever our beliefs (if any), I can't see how anyone can remove the religious element from the compositions of Bach (and other composers too).

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Jeremy Thomas] Me too, John and Jeremy. But there are some people who lose sight of the forest (the praise of God through Bach's music) for the trees (their own strange expectation of picking out every individual note while following along with the score, to determine "quality" of a performance).

Something I wrote a few minutes ago, in exactly such a discussion on another list:

<< As I see it, it's idolatry of the score, plain and simple. You want to hear (very clearly) every blessed note that you paid your money to see on the page: every hallowed note written by the master composer, nothing more, nothing less...and disallow the composer to write effects and colors and shapes, as opposed to mere individual notes. >>
< Doesn't it rather depend on the type of music? Imitating noise (e.g. wind, earthquakes, graves opening etc.) is one thing, but contrapuntal writing is another. Surely, it is the simultaneous perception of the linear that is the very raison d'etre of Bach's music? >
Is BWV 225 (which was the subject) about "Sing to the Lord eight separately perceptible strands of counterpoint"? No, it's about singing a song: a unified piece, an expression of joy, and praise of God for continued providence and care. The counterpoint in the composition is just a method of Bach's craft, not the end in itself.
The point is the meaning of the words, overall.

Shouldn't that, then, be the criterion by which a performance is judged: whether it gets that message of joy/praise across? A group of people, eight or more, together singing a piece with that message. How well did the spirit and meaning of those words come across? In a performance of truly high caliber, they did so and God was praised very well, to the finest of human ability; in a less excellent performance, not.

Donald Satz wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Jeremy Thomas] I don't agree with the premise that the basic inspiration for Bach's sacred choral music came from his deep religious faith. Bach possessed a tremendous musical inspiration that was simply part of his make-up. There can be almost an infinite number of 'trigger mechanisms' that activate the inspiration and result in a musical composition, and religious faith would be one trigger. Other triggers would include death of child or other loved one, birth of a child, a holocaust, man landing on the Moon, winning millions of dollars in the lottery, etc., etc.,.

John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Spot on, Brad.

John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Donald Sarz] You may be right about triggers, Don, but the PURPOSE of ALL music, in Bach's OWN view and words, "is for the greater glory of God and to give pleasure to the soul. Anything else is a devilish hubhub".

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 13, 2004):
John Pike wrote:
< You may be right about triggers, Don, but the PURPOSE of ALL music, in Bach's OWN view and words, "is for the greater glory of God and to give pleasure to the soul. Anything else is a devilish hubhub". >
That's from a set of continuo-playing (thoroughbass) instructions written down by some of Bach's students, and purportedly received from him in lessons. (The pupils writing down what he told them, commenting on a book by Niedt that Bach was using as source material in his teaching.) Bach here says that the highest goal of good thoroughbass playing, and music in general since thoroughbass is the soul of it, is for the glory of God etc etc.

There's one Braatz going around trying to claim (against a well-established consensus of scholars) that that particular source of Bach's comments isn't by Bach at all. But he's in a desperate minority on this, and he has a vested interest in disproving any Bach/Niedt connections if at all possible, because he doesn't fancy what Niedt wrote about something else. Anyway, that's his problem.

For people who do trust the work of scholars: that quote in question may be found on page 16-17 in The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents (1998) edited by Hans David and Arthur Mendel, and revised and expanded by Christoph Wolff. Terrific book, in my opinion, a delightful place to read about Bach's attitudes, personality, professional documents, his recommendations of other people, and the day-to-day stuff of his life...it even has the obituaries and the catalog of his estate.

The veracity of that "glory of God" source is also written-up in the (also excellent) reference book, Oxford Composer Companions: J S Bach edited by Malcolm Boyd, 1999, in its articles "Continuo" and "Niedt" and "Precepts and principles".

Donald Satz wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To John Pike] I'll pay more attention to the pleasure for the soul.

Jack Botelho wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] The New Bach Reader edited by David, Mendel and Wolff sounds like a gem. I have not accessed this source yet but look forward to input and corrections from it if you choose to contribute information from it in the future. It may be interesting to review topics that may be well familiar to the informed but of interest to beginners (myself included) on this list.

PS I really don't quite understand you obssession with your arch-rival who is not present on this list. In my opinion it helps to accept the existence of individuals who hold differing and sometimes erroneous points of view.

Stephen Benson wrote (January 13, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< There's one Braatz going around trying to claim (against a well-established consensus of scholars) that that particular source of Bach's comments isn't by Bach at all. But he's in a desperate minority on this, and he has a vested interest in disproving any Bach/Niedt connections if at all possible, because he doesn't fancy what Niedt wrote about something else. Anyway, that's his problem. >
For people who do trust the work of scholars:

This is what some of us came here to get away from. There's no call for this.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Jack Botelho] Jack, mypoint was simply that these are two very good books, and worth reading both by beginners and the more advanced, despite the way that "arch-rival" regularly shreds their material so disrespectfully.

Dave Harman wrote (January 13, 2004):
There was a discussion close to this on another Bach list on which I wrote an opinion very similar to Don Satz'.

I'm aware that for very religious people, there exists the image of Bach receiving divine inspiration from on high as he put pen to paper. My point was, and still is, that Bach was first and foremost a musician. I have no doubt Bach believed in God and shared the generally prevailing christain beliefs, but my opinion is that Bach looked first to himself, his talent and his craft to produce the music he was paid to produce.

I;m quite sure Bach wouldn't object if he was portrayed as being inspired by God - after all, what difference would this make ? But within himself, I think Bach held a sureness about his talent and abilities such that he knew that his music, his talent, his profession were his to command, use, and develop.

I think the same could be said about Haydn. The society these men lived in expected outward expressions of piety and faith. Both men knew there was no harm writing inscriptions on their manuscripts giving thanks to God for their 'inspiration'. These served to show that even with their enormous talents, they were still like their fellow men.

Jack Botelho wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Stephen Benson] Thanks for this input Steve. As moderator I will draw the line here and make it clear than any further carry-over to this list of the old B. vs L. rivalry will result in automatic member deletion. Under yahoo regulations I believe a moderator may excercise this right freely.

Jack Botelho wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Dave Harman] Nice to read your post Dave. This point of view also brings to mind the relationship between Bach's faith and his secular music. How does one relate the universal quality of the suites for violoncello, for example, with religious conviction?

John Pike wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes, the "New Bach Reader" is excellent. It includes just about every known document by Bach or about hime, as well as facsimiles of title pages, various prints and Forkel's biography of Bach, which is an interesting read, not least because it was written so soon after the composer's death, with help from CPE Bach, I think.

Charles Francis wrote (January 19, 2004):
[To Stephen Benson] Yes, the rationale for an ad hominem attack on someone who is not even subscribed to this list escapes me. But on the broader issue of Bach's alleged religiosity, can Spitta's view really be maintained? Forkel, after all, is silent on the matter, even though he addresses Bach's character in his biography. Communion attendance records suggest Bach was no more pious than his contemporaries. So what are we to make of the purported 5th Evangelist?

Jack Botelho wrote (January 19, 2004):
[To Charles Francis] I'm sorry Charles, but I have deleted you from this list. If you re-apply, I will let you in again. I have also taken the liberty of deleting Zev Bechler from this list. Please don't bother re-applying Zev.

 

Continue on Part 5

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