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Secular Cantatas
General Discussions - Part 1

Secular and church cantatas

Continue of discussion from: Flawed Voice

Gerard Luttikhuisen wrote (June 23, 2003):
Peter Bloemendaal wrote:
< As to Bach's sacred cantatas, neither Bach nor the clericals wanted operatic performances inside the House of God. Bach did not wish the transfer of emotions to rely on the theatrical eloquence of the singers but on the music itself. He was famous for his word-painting through extended melismas, the use of chromatic colouring and instrumental techniques like the application of pizzicatos. Bach wanted his music to have so much power of expression in itself that it was not foremost dependent on the degree of expressiveness of the singer's rendition. Unfortunately, we will never know how the cantata performances actually sounded, but since there was hardly any or no time for rehearsing, Bach was utterly dependent on the quality of his singers and instrumentalists. He gave his instructions to them orally. There was no need for writing them down. He knew them and they knew his idiom and how he wanted them to perform his works. I know from experience that when you are familiar with Bach and are pressed for time there is no place for long discussions. It is a matter of feeling and making this great music together. The difference between singing sacred and secular cantatas may have been a matter of gradation, but it must have been very obvious for Bach and his contemporaries. >
I like the comments made by Peter Bloemendaal on Matheson. In spite of his musicological expertise, Matheson belongs to the vast majority of people who listen(ed) to Bach's music without understanding it. Matheson may not have heard or seen much of Bach's compositions but at least he must have heard BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, which according to all kinds of standards is a brilliant piece of music, even in a poor performance. From Christoph Wolff's biography I learned that Matheson was particularly disgruntled by the repeated 'Ich' ('I') in the opening of the first chorus.

A question about the relationship between secular and church cantatas. It is often stated (also Peter Bloemendaal makes this comment) that the difference is gradual. To an extent this is true. Bach wrote all his music ad maiorem Dei gloriam. My question relates to Bach's so-called recycling of his own compositions. Did Bach ever re-use a piece of music from an earlier church (!) cantata for another church cantata? Indeed he used themes from his 'secular' cantatas for his church cantatas as well as themes from his church cantatas for other religious works (e.g. Hohe Messe and other masses). But can anybody point to a case of recycling WITHIN the group of cantatas which we now label church cantatas? (I propose that we exclude reworkings of one and the same cantata)

Uri Golomb wrote (June 23, 2003):
[To Gerard Luttikhuizen] Two examples of the same music re-worked in two different cantatas are the opening movements of cantatas BWV 59 and BWV 74 ("Wer mich liebet"), and of cantatas BWV 99 and BWV 100 ("Was Gott tut"). The text remains the same in both cases, but in each case Bach changed the orchestration and texture considerably, and the rest of the cantata is different -- so we're not dealing with "the same cantata". If I'll remember any other examples, I'll write again...

Gerard Luttikhuisen wrote (June 24, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Thank you for referring to the cantatas BWV 59/BWV 74 and BWV 99/BWV 100. I did not know these two instances of Bach's re-using his own music. So far I had the impression that Bach does not re-use music from a 'sacred' cantata for another sacred cantata (as he regularly re-used music from secular cantatas for his church cantatas). If you are aware of more instances where music from one sacred cantata returns in another cantata, I remain interested. It may be of some help to the question of whether or not Bach treated his church cantatas differently from his so-called secular cantatas. Many years ago I was convinced, as Jill probably is, that there is some metaphysical truth in Bach's music. But I do not believe this any more. Bach's music appeals to me because it is so deeply and supremely human.

Alex Riedlmayer wrote (June 24, 2003):
Another sacred-sacred borrowing in the cantatas: the final chorales of 190 and 171. The "1725" version of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) borrows a setting of "Christe du Lamm Gottes" from cantata BWV 23.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (June 24, 2003):
< Bach's music appeals to me because it is so deeply and supremely human. >
I seem to be finding this more and more about the universe: a combination, a balance. I think Bach's appeal (at least to me, but very likely many others), is because, yes, his music is so "deeply and supremely human", but also because it is also so supremely and infinitely divine: exactly like Jesus.

What am I saying here? Bach lived to worship God, whether indirectly by thanking Him for the talents He bestowed on him through his secular cantatas and instrumental works, or directly through his sacred cantats, motets, masses, organ chorales, etc. He achieved all of this by in effect proclaiming the glory of Jesus' name.

Dave Harman wrote (June 25, 2003):
< What am I saying here? Bach lived to worship God, whether indirectly by thanking Him for the talents He bestowed on him through his secular cantatas and instrumental works, or directly through his sacred cantats, motets, masses, organ chorales, etc. He achieved all of this by in effect proclaiming the glory of Jesus' name. >
Without being dis-respectful to yourself and your beliefs, what you write seems more a projection of your own beliefs onto Bach than a statement of who Bach was.

Bach was a musician. He was hired - and at a good salary - to provide music for church services. I don't think Bach 'lived to worship God'. I think Bach lived to be the consummate musician he was and to provide to his employers the best he had to give. As a professional as well as a consummate musician, Bach maintained deep personal and professional pride in what he did and made sure that everything he produced met his high professional standards.

Naturally, he had a religious upbringing and had personal religious views. But I think he concentrated on producing the best music he was capable and didn't think of whose 'glory' his music might be proclaiming.

Again, with respect to you, you describe an evangelist - not a musician.

Paul Farseth wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dave Harman] It seems to me, though, that regardless of whether Bach was sufficiently pious or religious to satisfy the demands of today's fundamentalists, he understood the religious texts he set to music well enough to make them compelling and effective statements of what his religious community called "Good News". The stories are themselves compelling and nuanced (far beyond the slogans some of us learned in Sunday School or required indoctrination classes), and Bach's music makes the nuances and the compelling, startling character of the stories clear. So Bach must have read the stories and the texts with considerable sympathetic understanding, regardless of whether his beliefs were "orthodox" or subversive. He was himself hearing the compelling interest in the texts, not cranking out sound tracks for sitcoms.

The music is great in the secular cantatas, also, but is it as consistently compelling? I will have to listen more to find out.

Valter Lellis Siqueira [São Paulo, Brazil] wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dave Harman] I totally agree with you. Religious people (should I say people who are too religious) tend to see Bach as a kind of a supernatural man. These people usually disregard his profane cantatas (possibly the "operas" he was never commissioned to ), in which he wrote excellent earthly music, full of life and good humour (I do believe he was a man with a sense of humour).

Dave Harman wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Paul Farseth] I fully agree that Bach's traditional religious training made him quite aware of The religious significance of the texts he was setting to music. Indeed, there may even have been some stories which were favorites - just as there were undoubtedly hymns which were also favorites. We know that Bach worked with his librettists to produce an inspiring, uplifting text that would be set to music. But I think of this as another expression of his high professional standards.

Whether working the texts or composing the music for those texts, Bach was always striving to meet his highest standards. I personally don't think he was overwhelmed with religious fervor as he went through the creative process of writing a cantata or any other musical form.

Mattew Neugabauer wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dave Harman] Alright, perhaps I should rephrase and slightly retract-but I don't think he's been dubbed "the fifth evangelist" for nothing. What I guess I mean is that he lived to use his talents for God, and while my life has this goal in it, who's to say it wasn't in Bach's? Here's why I say it probably was: it can be indicated in his SDG and JJ inscriptions, his varied uses of the hymn melodies, and that his most glorious and inventive music was written for church use (standouts are BWV 232, BWV 244, BWV 245, BWV 248, BWV 21 and the BWV 198 other sacred cantatas, BWV 225-230).

Again, I'm not denying that Bach's music is human, in fact I can say with certainty that it is human to the core, but I'm also saying that it is how a human sees God.

Matthew Neugebauer wrote (June 25, 2003):
< (standouts are BWVs 232, 244, 245, 248, 21 and the 198 other sacred cantatas, 225-230). >
Sort-of correction: BWV 248 is of course, the "mother" of all Bach parodies, so it should either be taken from the list, or kept on (read the post script)

ps: I do not at all dismiss the secular cantatas as of lower quality or whatever people say, but I think imbued in them is still Bach's talent, which still transcended the natural in many respects. Perhaps this is transcendence is marked most clearly in the Christmas Oratorio-the birth of Jesus is from human to divine!

Dick Wursten wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Valter Lellis Siqueira] About opera: As a distraction Bach sometimes went to the opera of Dresden (with CPhE). To the music which was played there (italian) he referred as "Dresdner Liedergens", which in my ears sounds a little bit disrespectful. Often people wonder what a Bach opera would have sounded like and they deeply regret Bach never got the oportunity to compose one. Then arguing from this daydream of theirs (which is argumentum e nihilo) they come to exclamations, how superb it would have been.

Well of course.

But ever wondered WHY Bach never wrote an opera or something like it. And don't answer by saying he sadly had no opportunity. Everybody who knows something of his biography can easily conclude that if Bach wanted to write
something he created the opportunity and wrote it. Nobody asked him for SMP, nobody invited him for the KdFuge, nobody ordered the Latin MASS...

My hypothesis (it 's nothing more) is that Bach was not really interested in the genre... The reason why... well that's pure speculation.

Uri Golomb wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dick Wursten] I'm not sure it's accurate to say that "nobody asked him for the SMP". That piece was written as part of his duties as Thomaskantor. Perhaps nobody asked him to write it on that scale; but he was expected to contribute a Passion of his own (rather than use an older composition) at least for some years, wasn't he?

My own hypothesis -- which is, of course, as impossible to prove as any other speculation on this issue -- is that Bach was indeed not interested in opera; at least, he wasn't so interested as to seek out a libretto of his own accord and try to contact an opera house and to initiate a comission. On the other hand, if he had been comissioned to write one, I find it difficult to believe that he would have rejected it outright. The man who set the Coffee Cantata, or Phoebus and Pan, would surely have had nothing specific against opera as a genre. At most, I can imagine Bach rejecting specific libretti or subject-matters. But he would have insisted on doing it his way, without making concessions to the taste of audiences and the demands of singers; which might mean that, even if he had been comissioned, the project would have been dropped before completion... Or else, the results might have been superior to all operas of the period to our ears, but his contemporaries would not have seen it that way.

On the other hand, we can't even be 100% sure that it would have been that fantastic. If Beethoven had written no operas, I'm sure we would all have asked why, and lamented a lost masterpiece. But the one opera Beethoven did write -- Fidelio -- is neither his best work nor the best opera. It contains a lot of great music, to be sure; but on the whole, it is less dramatically compelling (and certainly less theatrical) than Mozart's finest operas (to take an example that Beethoven would have known) -- or Beethoven's own symphonies.(Incidentally, not many people ask why Brahms never wrote operas... And he too, like Bach, contributed to all other main genres of his period).

Some episodes in Bach's Passions, cantatas (especially dialogical works -- the Soul and Jesus, Fear and Hope, etc.) and _Dramma per musica_ (the actual title of many of his secular cantatas) suggest that Bach had a better sense of theatre, and timing and dramatic characterisation than Beethoven. You could say that he did write at least two good one-act comic operas (the two mentioned above, which, though not intended for staging, nonetheless can be staged very succesfully). On that evidence, it's not unreasonable to specualte that he would have written a very succesful full-length opera without radically changing his style. But it's still speculation.

Once in a while, I daydream about putting together a Bach opera, based on the most dramatic music from his cantatas (sacred and secular alike), and with texts that resemble the originals as much as the texts of the parodies in the Christmas Oratorio resemble those of the models in cantatas 213-215. I don't think I'll ever actually do it, of course, and I suspect that if anyone does try the results will not be convincing; but the music still has enough drama to evoke such thoughts in me; and once in a while, when I listen to a cantata, I think to myself: "Now that aria/duet/chorus would be a wonderful candidate for the opera".

Dave Harman wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] I respect your view on this subject, and I don't doubt that Bach was a religious man - in the sense that his religious views would not make any member of his congregation uncomfortable were he to share them.

My feeling is that for Bach music was his 'sense' of God - his closeness or feeling for the 'divine' in life , his contact with realities beyond our day to day existance that, for instance, yoga seeks to achieve.

I doubt Bach would have expressed it this way and probably would have been impatient with any metaphysical discussion of what God or music meant to him. He was, first, a musician responsible for providing music for church services. His conscious goal was to meet his own high standards in the music he produced. To say he lived to use his talents for God, is to over-express his life. Bach was a musician and probably saw almost everything he did in terms of music and music-making.

I think Bach would shake his head and make a sweeping gesture with his hand were someone to call him to his face "the fifth evangelist". He would protest that he made no effort to preach or convert, that the listener was free to make of his music what they wanted, and would again affirm he was a simply musician doing what he was paid to do.

Jane Newble wrote (June 25, 2003):
Dave Harman wrote:
< Bach was a musician. He was hired - and at a good salary - to provide music for church services. I don't think Bach 'lived to worship God'. I think Bach lived to be the consummate musician he was and to provide to his employers the best he had to give. As a professional as well as a consummate musician, Bach maintained deep personal and professional pride in what he did and made sure that everything he produced met his high professional standards.

Naturally, he had a religious upbringing and had personal religious views. But I think he concentrated on producing the best music he was capable and didn't think of whose 'glory' his music might be proclaiming. >
I completely agree with the statement that Bach concentrated on producing the best music he was capable of. But it is quite obvious that he did think of the glory of God. One only has to look at his Bible-notes, and listen to his word-paintings and expressions in his church-music.

He is not nick-named 'the 5th evangelist' for nothing. I personally get quite tired of attempts to rob Bach of his Christianity in 'doing all to the glory of God' which is enjoined upon all Christians. It says more about those who do it than about Bach.

Tor Tveite wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Jane Newble] I guess you are right about Bach's bible-notes being relevant to this discussion, but I can't see how Bach's use of word-painting or "expressions" (whatever that may mean) in his church-music can be seen as proof of his Christianity. Bach uses word-painting in his secular vocal music as well (as in the opening of "Tönet, ihr Pauken", where the music depicts the words in a more direct way than in the reworking "Jauchzet, frohlocket"). Word-painting is only a technique - or several techniques - and does not presuppose that the composer relates to the subject matter of the text in a certain manner.

As for the fact that he is nick-named "the 5th evangelist", I again fail to see the relevance. What does a posthumous (I presume) nick-name prove about a person's religious faith?

It may seem obvious to you that Bach thought of the glory of God, but it obviously isn't that obvious to everyone.

Valter Lellis Siqueira wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dick Wurten] As far as I know, Händel, the prolific opera composer, never wrote a single opera without being commissioned to. And he loved opera!

Charles Francis wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Dick Wurten] I fully agree (and indeed emphatise with Bach). Why corrupt that most noble art form - music - with visual distraction? And why push music into a supporting role for some trivial drama?

Uri Golomb wrote (June 25, 2003):
< As far as I know, Händel, the prolific opera composer, never wrote a single opera without being commissioned to. And he loved opera! >
But how many works, in any genre, did Händel write without a comission, or a definitive prospect for performance (and pay)? This is not a rhetorical question, BTW; my guess is "few, possibly none at all", but it's only a guess. The fact is, Bach did write works without being comissioned to write them -- and this might have included a large scale choral-orchestral work (the B minor Mass, or at least the second half thereof).

The Mass is an exception, however. Most of Bach's other self-comissioned works were keyboard works, which he could publish and which did serve other purposes besides Bach's satisfaction at satisfying a challenge he set to himself (though I'm sure that was one of his reasons for writing, say, the Art of Fugue): some financial reward for publication; added prestige; and an aid in teaching performance and composition to his own students. AFAIK, operas were not published in the 18th century, and certainly could not serve a didactic purpose; this made it less likely for Bach to comission an opera from himself. Of course, the same argument applies to the Mass -- which is why some scholars (a notable recent example is George Stauffer) insist on trying to find some occasion for which the Mass might have been completed.

But at least with the Mass Bach didn't have to search for a "libretto". With an opera, he would have. Of course, if he really wanted to write an opera, he could have comissioned something himself (say, from Picander; but would a librettist have agreed to write something without knowing when and how he'll be paid? Would Bach have been willing to pay the librettist out of his own pocket without a secure promise for the eventual performance of the opera?), and tried to lobby one of nearby opera houses (say, in Dresden) into comissioning an opera from him. There is no evidence that he did either of those things, and he probably never seriously contemplated this (if at all). Which is not to say that, if anybody had comissioned an opera from him, he would have turned it down automatically.

Johan van Veen wrote (June 25, 2003):
Jane Newble wrote:
< But it is quite obvious that he did think of the glory of God. One only has to look at his Bible-notes, and listen to his word-paintings and expressions in his church-music. >
The reference to the Bible-notes is relevant, the others less so. Word-paintings and expressions are the usual tools of every baroque composer and don't say anything about his convictions.

I can't see the relevance of trying to find out what Bach's beliefs were. The fact is that basically every composer until the second half of the 18th century was a Christian. Bach certainly was, but he was by no means an exception. I think I once read that Telemann considered composing religious music as his most important duty, whereas nowadays it is not his religious music which is most often performed.

Basically, whether we like it or not, it is impossible to know for sure what someone believes in. The only thing we have is circumstantial evidence. In the end it is the music that matters, more than anything else. Even if we would discover that Bach was an 'unbeliever' it wouldn't make his music any less Christian.

< He is not nick-named 'the 5th evangelist' for nothing. >
As far as I know that nick-name has its origin in the 19th century, when some Bach-lovers were so fascinated by him that the lost all sense of perspective. I wonder whether Bach would have liked that nick-name.

< I personally get quite tired of attempts to rob Bach of his Christianity in 'doing all to the glory of God' which is enjoined upon all Christians. It says more about those who do it than about Bach. >
Just like no-one can prove that Bach was a devout Christian, nobody can prove he wasn't. And the attempts to find ammuniation for the opinion that Bach wasn't as devout as he is often thought to have been are pretty pathetic and most of the time motivated by the ideological prejudice that being devout and believing in ecclesiastical doctrines can't go along with creativity and intelligence. But history makes it abundantly clear that you can be a devout Christian and be a great composer or scientist or writer at the same time.

Maybe some Bach-lovers feel a little embarrassed that they like music whose content they reject. But is that really different from people who love to listen to baroque operas even though they think the stories are pretty stupid?

Johan van Veen wrote (June 25, 2003):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< But ever wondered WHY Bach never wrote an opera or something like it. And don't answer by saying he sadly had no opportunity. Everybody who knows something of his biography can easily conclude that if Bach wanted to write something he created the opportunity and wrote it. Nobody asked him for SMP, nobody invited him for the KdFuge, nobody ordered the Latin MASS... My hypothesis (it 's nothing more) is that Bach was not really interested in the genre... The reason why... well that's pure speculation. >
I'm not sure it's accurate to say that "nobody asked him for the SMP". That piece was written as part of his duties as Thomaskantor. Perhaps nobody asked him to write it on that scale; but he was expected to contria Passion of his own (rather than use an older composition) at least for some years, wasn't he?

My own hypothesis -- which is, of course, as impossible to prove as any other speculation on this issue -- is that Bach was indeed not interested in opera; at least, he wasn't so interested as to seek out a libretto of his own accord and try to contact an opera house and to initiate a comission. On the other hand, if he had been comissioned to write one, I find it difficult to believe that he would have rejected it outright. The man who set the Coffee Cantata, or Phoebus and Pan, would surely have had nothing specific against opera as a genre. At most, I can imagine Bach rejecting specific libretti or subject-matters.

But he would have insisted on doing it his way, without making concessions to the taste of audiences and the demands of singers; which might mean that, even if he had been comissioned, the project would have been dropped before completion... Or else, the results might have been superior to all operas of the period to our ears, but his contemporaries would not have seen it that way.

On the other hand, we can't even be 100% sure that it would have been that fantastic. If Beethoven had written no operas, I'm sure we would all have asked why, and lamented a lost masterpiece. But the one opera Beethoven did write -- Fidelio -- is neither his best work nor the best opera. It contains a lot of great music, to be sure; but on the whole, it is less dramatically compelling (and certainly less theatrical) than Mozart's finest operas (to take an example that Beethoven would have known) -- or Beethoven's own symphonies. (Incidentally, not many people ask why Brahms never wrote operas... And he too, like Bach, contributed to all other main genres of his period).

Some episodes in Bach's Passions, cantatas (especially dialogical works – the Soul and Jesus, Fear and Hope, etc.) and Dramma per musica (the actual title of many of his secular cantatas) suggest that Bach had a better sense of theatre, and timing and dramatic characterisation than Beethoven. You could say that he did write at least two good one-act comic operas (the two mentioned above, which, though not intended for staging, nonetheless can be staged very succesfully). On that evidence, it's not unreasonable to specualte that he would have written a very succesful full-length opera without radically changing his style. But it's still speculation.

Once in a while, I daydream about putting together a Bach opera, based on the most dramatic music from his cantatas (sacred and secular alike), and with texts that resemble the originals as much as the texts of the parodies in the Christmas Oratorio resemble those of the models in cantatas 213-215. I don't think I'll ever actually do it, of course, and I suspect that if anyone does try the results will not be convincing; but the music still has enough drama to evoke such thoughts in me; and once in a while, when I listen to a cantata, I think to myself: "Now that aria/duet/chorus would be a wonderful candidate for the opera".

Johan van Veen wrote (June 25, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Wasn't the expression 'dramma per musica' also used for operas? That demonstrates that Bach didn't see a fundamental difference between his secular cantatas and the operas of his time. And it isn't always easy to make a clear distinction between operas and dramatic cantatas in Händel's oeuvre, for instance. The line between opera and secular cantata is fluent.

And wasn't Bach befriended with Hasse and his wife, the opera singer Faustina Bordoni? Would they have been friends if Bach rejected opera as a matter of principle?

I tend to agree with what you wrote: that a Bach opera would probably not have been appreciated by the audiences. The popularity of Hasse's operas, which are quite different stylistically from Bach's vocal works makes it very unlikely that the opera lovers of his time would have appreciated an opera in Bach's 'learned style'.

Henri N. Levinspuhl wrote (June 26, 2003):
I welcome Plato's dialogue in which Socrates wasn't interested in Homer's absent opinion while the present interlocutor could express his own. If I denied that Bach composed music soli Dei gloria because he was hired to write cantatas, someone could remind me he also wrote secular ones to earn subsistence to his family. But, after all, it does not matter as matters for each of us what we ourselves do while listening to sacred music. Mozart, once hired to compose it, gave up to embrace operas; without questioning or condemning that, someone can otherwise prefer Mozart's Missa Solemnis (K337) over all his operas. Mozart did not stand flute; but I will not throw away his concert for flute and harp; and, truly, we are neither Mozart nor Bach. Therefore, while a worshiper uses sacred music soli Dei gloria, a musician may exalt music and music alone over everything. And it does not make God less glorious, he is exactly the same through all generations. Let the cantatas praise him!

Bob Henderson wrote (June 26, 2003):
Dear Friends. I have read with interest the posts which posit a conflict between JSB secular compositions and the sacred. And whether or not JSB was "truely religious" or merely a good businessman. (italics mine). Allow me to add two cents.

JSB lived in a time far removed from our own. I speak in historical but also psychological terms. In 17th century Germany (as in any western society) religion and non-religion were not as separate as now. What we call "religion" today was in fact the day-to-day fact of life, the stuff of living. No separation. No divisions into sects. Universal Truth. ( I believe that in part the attraction os JSB music to contemporary man is attributed to his realization of one world and our yearning for that spirit)

With the Enlightment we fell into division, democracy, individualism, religious tolerance and secularism. These would appear strange to JSB. As to any man living in his culture. Recent posts reflect our current situation rather than an understanding of JSB' world.

Jane Newble wrote (June 26, 2003):
Tor Tveite wrote:
< As for the fact that he is nick-named "the 5th evangelist", I again fail to see the relevance. What does a posthumous (I presume) nick-name prove about a person's religious faith? >
Private and personal Bible notes are quite enough evidence in themselves of Bach's deep-felt and sincere faith. The other things are deductions, but a legitimate deduction can be offered as evidence, as the following illustrates:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are going camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson up: "Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce."

Watson says, "I see millions of stars and even if a few of those have planets, it's quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life."

Holmes replies: "Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!"

Peter Bright wrote (June 26, 2003):
[To Paul Farseth] Isn't it Christoph Wolff thesis that in Bach's later writing, he may have been trying to describe or prove the existence of God through the principles of musical theory. So he may have attempted to prove a relationship between logic and religion via "musical science". Presumably, the thrust is that Bach must have sensed some form of order or unity in the world which he attributed to the force of God - and in his music he produced a window through which this God could be glimpsed. If this theory holds any water it might suggest that for him, all his music was in the service of the God he served, and the labels of 'sacred' or 'secular' only operate on a surface level.

Uri Golomb wrote (June 26, 2003):
On the issue of Bach the Fifth Evangelist (an image which strikes me as highly exaggerated), I think we should separate two issues here:
1) Does Bach's music express religious devotion more deeply than that of his contemporaries (or at least most of them)?
2) Was Bach himself more devout, more religious, than most other people employed by the church at the time?

my mind, there is no doubt that the answer to the first question is yes. I am not sure, however, about the answer to the second question. Bach was a religious man -- but the vast majority of the people at the time, and certainly in Bach's own surroundings (his family, his fellow-musicians, etc.), were also religious. Was Bach more devout than them? Was his faith stronger than theirs? Did he study theology more fervenelty and in greater detail than they did? In order to know that, it's not enough to look at the Bach evidence in isolation (such as his bible annotations). This evidence tells us something about Bach himself, but they don't tell us about Bach as compared with his contemporaries.

Here is my guess: Bach was a strongly religious man -- perhaps more so than many of his contemporaries. It's quite possible that he was more interested in theology than most other composers -- but we cannot know this until we examine their libraries, their upbringing, etc. I seriously doubt, however, that he aspired to be a theologian, that he took more interest in religoius dogma than the priests. When setting a religious cantata, he certainly tried to convey at least part of its message to the listeners; but my impression is that he was not interested in providing a detailed, erudite exegesis -- or (as the Fifth Evangelist image seems to imply) in providing something akin to a prophecy or a revelation. It's much more likely that his main aim to make the message come "alive" -- to make it emotionally immediate and compelling. Religious cantatas are sometimes referred to as sermons in music, and in some cases that's true. But perhaps the cantata was also a relief from the sermon -- the chance for the congregation to move from recitation of dogma and detailed exegesis to something that they can relate to more directly, on a more emotional level.

Here's an interesting bit: in the notes to a disc of Graupner's music, I found the following quote:

"[Graupner] held religious music in such high, venerable, and saintly esteem that he made a fundamental distinction between his religious style and that of his opera and chamber music. He approached religious composition with devotion and precision, happily but silently, and with a sweet happiness of heart; he was not a servile imitator of the composers of his time, but rather a genius with a distinct quaity to his work uniquely his own".

(Here's the German original, from the same source: "[Graupner] sich die Kirchenmusik so hoch [dachte], ehrwürdich und heilig, dass er sie von dem Opern- und Kammerstil himmelweit unterschied; der Fremde, der ihn yum erstenmal hörte, staunte und wähnte in eine andre Welt versetzt zu seyn. Verband Kunst mit Natur, Pracht mit Einfalt, Reitz mit Schönheit udn Bewürkte, Erbauung und Vergnuügenö war kein sclavischer Nachbeter gleichzeitiger Componisten, sondern selbst Genie mit eignem Gepräge").

This was written by "an anonymous columnist in the Darmstadt Almanach, 1781" -- 21 years after Graupner's death. And the CD actuallly belies the statement: it contains both a solo cantata by Graupner and excerpts from one of his operas, and the style is not that different...

But here's my point: if this report is indeed accurate with regards to Graupner's self-image, then Graupner was no less devout, no less dedicated to church music, than Bach. In fact, quantatitvely speaking, Graupner was more dedicated: he wrote 1,418 sacred cantatas, compared to a "mere" 300 (at most) from Bach. Bach stopped writing cantatas regularly after five years in Leipzig; Graupner kept at it for much longer. In terms of productivity, he showed more dedication to church composition than Bach did.

However, to judge by the very few works of his I know (a mere two cantatas out of those 1418), Graupner -- though a fine composer -- simply doesn't express his devotion in the way Bach does. And that brings us back to my two points above: Bach's music expresses devotion more profoundly than Graupner, but that doesn't prove that he was a more devout Christian. On the admittedly slim and 2nd hand evidence I have, it seems fair to say that Graupner was no less devout than Bach, and quite possibly had a better relationship with his court-church in Darmstadt than Bach had with his town-churches in Leipzig. Assuming Bach and Grauper to have been equally devout in their private beliefs, the fact remains that this devotion comes through more clearly and more movingly in Bach's music than in Graupner's. But that doesn't prove that Bach's beliefs were more profound -- it just proves that he was a better composer, capable of producing more profound and moving music.

The problem -- well, one of the many problems -- with the Fifth Evangelist image is that it implies that Bach was far more devout than any other composer in history (including Palestrina, Haydn and Bruckner), and that his religion dominated everything he did and composed; at its extreme, this image is related to the notion that Bach rejected secular influences in his music -- an implication that strikes me as patently false, yet is not at all rare in discourse on Bach. But it is possible to reject this extreme version without jumping to the other extreme and implying that Bach was not religious, or that his religiosity had no bearing on his music. We don't have to throw the baby with the bathwater.

Bart O’Brien wrote (June 26, 2003):
Bob Henderson wrote:
< In 17th century Germany (as in any western society) religion and non-religion were not as separate as now. What we call "religion" today was in fact the day-to-day fact of life, the stuff of living. No separation. >
You often see this kind of thing said (and about the Middle Ages too of course).

Does it just mean 'religion was a very important part of people's lives'. Or something more than that? If so, what?

 

Bach’s words

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 15, 2003):
When Bach parodies one cantata from another, especially when a secular and sacred cantata contain the same music, and only the words are different, I was just curious how other listeners react: can one switch automatically from a secular to a lofty religious mode easily? Just curious....

Neil Halliday wrote (July 15, 2003):
Francine asks:
"can one switch automatically from a secular to a lofty religious mode easily?"
Consider words such as "Lord Jesus, judge not my terrible sins", and "beloved wife, depart not from me".(!).

Music that captures, eg, a mood of anguish could obviously be set, in identical fashion, to both sets of words, because music is concerned with the underlying emotion. (praise, joy, fear, anger, calmness etc.)

Bach knew this, and I doubt that any listener would have trouble "switching from religious to secular mode".

OTOH, I'm surprised by an "athiest" stance - implying a meaningless world of chance pleasure and pain - in the face of Bach's cantatas; such intellectually logical and emotionally satisfying music as this surely affirms the existance of a deity of some kind. (Not necessarily the "God" of the Old Testament, or the Koran, both of whom seem to countenance (even merciless) destruction of "enemies"; more like Jesus' loving Father in the "Kingdom of Heaven", or the "Nirvana" (absolute bliss) of Buddhism.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Neil Halliday] Thanks! :) Now I can rest better! I'm an atheist, BTW, but strongly believe in Christ's ethics, and Bach is absolutely my favorite composer, satisfying me both intellectually and emotionally.

Uri Golomb wrote (July 15, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< Consider words such as "Lord Jesus, judge not my terrible sins", and "beloved wife, depart not from me".(!).
Music that captures, eg, a mood of anguish could obviously be set, in identical fashion, to both sets of words, because music is concerned with the underlying emotion. (praise, joy, fear, anger, calmness etc.) >
In most cases, I agree with this perfectly. There is, however, at least one exception: the transformation of Hercules's renunciation of Vollust in Cantata BWV 213 ("Herkules auf dem Scheidewege", aria no. 9: "Ich will dich nicht hören") into the alto aria "Bereite dich, Zion" in the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) (cantata no. 1, aria no. 4). The theme of the Hercules aria is angry rejection; the theme of the Christmas Oratorio aria is joyful, loving acceptance. Bach did make some changes in the transition from one to the other, and they are often performed very differently (compare Rene Jacobs's conducting of both) -- I am not sure to what extent the performative differences were prescribed by Bach. But it's still a puzzling case.

< OTOH, I'm surprised by an "athiest" stance - implying a meaningless world of chance pleasure and pain - in the face of Bach's cantatas; such intellectually logical and emotionally satisfying music as this surely affirms the existance of a deity of some kind. (Not necessarily the "God" of the Old Testament, or the Koran, both of whom seem to countenance (even merciless) destruction of "enemies"; more like Jesus' loving Father in the "Kingdom of Heaven", or the "Nirvana" (absolute bliss) of Buddhism. >
I think it affirms the human capacity to believe in such a deity, rather than the existence of a deity "out there". I am reminded of the words of one character in an Israeli novel, Nathan Shaham's Rosendorff Quartet: "I believe there ought to be a God on Earth, even if there is no God in Heaven". (The speaker is a Jewish refugee from pre-world-war-2 Nazi Germany -- a secular, atheist Jew trying to explain why he considers himself Jewish, notwithstanding his atheism). For me, Bach's music is indeed one of the most powerful testimonies for the existence of a God on Earth -- of humanity's potential, not only to believe in the divine but to make some aspects of it "real", in the sense that they can have a genuine impact on our lives. I don't think it says anything, however, about the "objective" existence, independent of human belief, of a God in Heaven. I'm not saying that human existence has no meaning; but I think that meaning is what we (individually and collectively) make of it, not what some divine entity has made for us in advance. We create Gods in our own Images -- but, metaphorically at least, these Gods are powerful (for instance, they are strongly implicated in making wars -- or peace), and therefore we must be very careful about what we make of them.

Bach's music testifies movingly about one (or indeed several) of humanity's images of God. But I don't see what it can tell us about the "objective" existence of a divine entity. Think about it: humanity has only been around for a tiny fraction of the entire age of the universe. Perhaps there are other intelligent species out there, older than humanity, but so far we have no conclusive evidence of that (and, if they exist, we have no idea what they might believe in). If one insists on the reality "out there" of a God, that God would have had to exist throughout the entire existence of the universe (at least). I don't see how Bach's music can tell us anything about that, one way or the other: how can it be used as evidence for what hapenned before life existed, or -- more ot the point -- before the emergence of any creature intelliegent enough to believe in anything? It does, however, tell us a great deal, however, about the human capacity to believe in the divine.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Uri Golomb] Can you believe I was thinking of Hercules at the Crossroads (yes, the Jacobs) with the Christmas Cantata also?! You know, the great Socrates, with all his creative thought- provoking dialogues always ended his sessions with the answer of the 'Divine'. Simply put, he had no other answer because science was simply too weak at the time to provide answers. Yes, Bach inspires us spiritually, and deeply so. However, the notion of God and religion only provides fanaticism, war and death. I'd
like a kind of Arthur C. Clarke world where reason coupled with awe does away with war and its costs. Instead we can focus on extreme engineering (let's say building a bridge over the Bering Strait; or passenger travel by jets traveling at Mach 2; or having roadways covering all the continents around the world), and getting third world countries free from hunger and ready for entering a new era.

Peter Bloemendaal wrote (July 15, 2003):
Francine Renee Hall wrote:
"Yes, Bach inspires us spiritually, and deeply so. However, the notion of God and religion only provides fanaticism, war and death. I'd like a kind of Arthur C. Clarke world where reason coupled with awe does away with war and its costs. Instead we can focus on extreme engineering (let's say building a bridge over the Bering Strait; or passenger travel by jets traveling at Mach 2; or having roadways covering all the continents around the world), and getting third world countries free from hunger and ready for entering a new era."
<<Bach inspires us, because he was inspired himself. Spiritual inspiration always comes from a higher dimension, a higher cause, belief or idealistic motivation, some notion transcending ourselves. I wonder if Bach would ever be inspired by humanist ideals like building bridges to unite the peoples of the world and strategies to cut out starvation without being inspired by Christ. You once said he was ahumane person. I quite agree, but he was not a humanist in the modern sense. His humane ideas came from his Christian faith, and -as you rightly observed - this was not always very tolerant to other religions. As a Christian I hope that there will come a time when religion will no longer be abused by intolerant leaders, guided more by lust of power than moral righteousness.

Personally, I am far more inspired by Bach's sacred works. Since I hardly ever listen to his secular cantatas, I have no problems with his reuse of secular into sacred movements. In fact, I am happy Bach selected several of his best secular arias to be reworked into his sacred works. Otherwise they might have fallen into oblivion, whereas they now keep on inspiring you and me.

Neil Halliday wrote (July 15, 2003):
Uri Golomb wrote:
"The theme of the Hercules aria (in
BWV 213) is angry rejection; the theme of the Christmas Oratorio aria is joyful, loving acceptance".
I'm curious: what is the setting for which you feel the music is most apt? Has Bach made an obvious mistake in one of the settings of the music? (I don't have access to it at present).

Or is the music designed in such a way that it can handle these opposite sentiments (if that is at all possible)?

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Peter Bloemendaal] You are such a good teacher!

thanks,

Jay H. Beder wrote (July 15, 2003):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< OTOH, I'm surprised by an "athiest" stance - implying a meaningless world of chance pleasure and pain - in the face of Bach's cantatas; such intellectually logical and emotionally satisfying music as this surely affirms the existance of a deity of some kind. (Not necessarily the "God" of the Old Testament, or the Koran, both of whom seem to countenance (even merciless) destruction of "enemies"; more like Jesus' loving Father in the "Kingdom of Heaven", or the "Nirvana" (absolute bliss) of Buddhism. >
I have to interject a strong note of protest here. I can't speak for the God of the Koran, but the God of the OT doesn't countenance the even merciless destruction of "enemies".

This is an old canard that is not based in a serious reading of either text. Certainly Jewish literature portrays God almost exclusively as infinitely loving and patient, and where Jews have experienced divine chastisement they seek to find the cause in their own behavior. God acts with consistent justice -- an innovation in the ancient pagan world – but also with mercy.

And I bet Jesus would agree with me.

Bradley Lehman wrote (July 15, 2003):
< Francine Renee Hall wrote:
< When Bach parodies one cantata from another, especially when a secular and sacred cantata contain the same music, and only the words are different, I was just curious how other listeners react: can one switch automatically from a secular to a lofty religious mode easily? Just curious....>
As I began to point out a few monthsago re Cantata BWV 171,
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachCantatas/message/5296
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV171-D.htm
...a revision or rearrangement by Bach is a different piece of music, whether he's changed merely the words or more than that. It's helpful for the performers to know the genesis of a piece, for better understanding of the creative process (and to think like Bach, as much as can be derived)...it informs the interpretation, as background. Articulations, tempos, details to emphasize, more. But ultimately the performance has to be committed to the task at hand, the text and notes for the current occasion. When he wrote the revision, the composer thought about the piece some more and changed it to suit a different occasion; so should the performers rethink a piece each time it is performed (whether it's a rearrangement of something else, or not).

When we performed this cantata BWV 171's soprano aria in June, at a concert, the piece was about Jesus-on-New-Year's-morning, not about kisses of Zephyrus. The earlier 205 version helped us understand the piece's structure (and Bach's changes to that)...made it easier for us to recognize and bring out the elisions and other musical surprises. (Musical analysis is easier, the more things one has available to compare.)

And that knowledge of the music's earlier character--puffs of breeze--helped the violinist and cellist keep the piece lighter in weight (more easily flowing, a better sense of the longer tactus) than they might have done; in the first rehearsal the violinist had sawed away very emphatically at each note, and it had seemed too busy and loud, overbearing. Also, the hall's acoustics (hardly any resonance at all) guided us to a much more legato presentation of the bass line than the cellist had done in the first rehearsal in a different room. And it wasn't an unheated church in midwinter (as it was for Bach), it was a hot and rainy day in June. And because the concert hall didn't have an organ, we used harpsichord. And because I wanted a radical temperament for the expressive range of another piece on the same program, we used that: quite far from equal temperament. [A "radical" temperament to modern ears, but one of the most ordinary ones in Bach's time.] And since we weren't doing the whole cantata but just this one movement, that too affected the way we played it. That movement had to stand on its own, as a complete thing, a vignette. Every performance is--has to be--doing the best one can with the circumstances at hand.

When as an organist I play a secular composition at some important liturgical moment in a church service, does it become a sacred piece? The character of the performance, and the selection of the music, has to suit the needs of the occasion.... For example, last Sunday I played part of Georg Bohm's Capriccio for an offertory, but the occasion didn't allow enough time for the whole piece, so I (on the spur of the moment) recomposed the ending (various cuts), and differently in the two services the same morning. And I chose different registrations for this Bohm piece than I might have done, had it been at a different point in the service or in a secular concert. And I played one of Johann Gottfried Walther's chorale preludes as the service postlude, but composed a second variation to go with it to make the piece longer, because we needed more music there (and I didn't tell anybody that half the music was by me and half by Walther--why would they need to know?--I just put Walther's name in the bulletin, and played the thing as a seamless composition). And the introduction to each congregational hymn was a short improvised bit according to the needs of the moment, at that point in the service's flow. And I accompanied the hymns in the two services differently (changing registrations, articulations, and some of the notes) depending how the congregation was singing at the moment. And during the Psalm reading, I varied the registration and character of the sung interludes according to the character of the words that had just been spoken, even though it was the same notes on the page each time. This flexibility is all normal practice in church music, thinking as the moment demands, going with the flow. This is the way Bach put together his cantatas, too, and so should we think in such practical manners when performing them. The music is not ossified.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 15, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Yes, improvisation! You've certainly got it! And as a professional musician, you see into Bach's mind, his method. Thanks for your illumination.

Bach liked to improvise on organ during church hymns.... and it got him into trouble, but he knew better :)

thanks,

Johan van Veen wrote (July 15, 2003):
< Uri Golomb wrote:
< Bach's music testifies movingly about one (or indeed several) of humanity's images of God. But I don't see what it can tell us about the "objective" existence of a divine entity. Think about it: humanity has only been around for a tiny fraction of the entire age of the universe. Perhaps there are other intelligent species out there, older than humanity, but so far we have no conclusive evidence of that (and, if they exist, we have no idea what they might believe in). If one insists on the reality "out there" of a God, that God would have had to exist throughout the entire existence of the universe (at least). I don't see how Bach's music can tell us anything about that, one way or the other: how can it be used as evidence for what hapenned before life existed, or -- more ot the point -- before the emergence of any creature intelliegent enough to believe in anything? It does, however, tell us a great deal, however, about the human capacity to believe in the divine. >
Bach certainly didn't intend to prove the existence of God. Why should he, since almost nobody doubted that. And he didn't compose his cantatas to convert the 'infidels', but to strengthen the faith of the congregation.

I am not saying that listening to Bach's music couldn't lead someone to ask himself whether there may be some truth in the message Bach's music contains. But nobody's music - not even Bach's - can prove the existence of God. Nothing can. It is only a matter of faith.

Paul Farseth wrote (July 16, 2003):
Seems to me that calling Bach's music a proof of the existence of God is a kind of poetry. What Bach's music does (among other things) is persuade us that order, and harmony, and fabulously marvelous structures are possible, and that not only are they possible but that they can be pleasing and calming and reassuring. Bach's music persuades us to believe in our hearts and lives that life is more than one damn thing after another, that chaos is not the final master nor the creator of the universe. This is not propositional proof by scientific means but only an invitation to marvel.

The Psalmist says, "Taste and see that the LORD is good." The disciples of Jesus say to their friends, "Come and see." Bach says, "Listen to this!" And (according to the Good Book) the Almighty says to Job, "Look around you. All your suffering has been worth-while simply for the chance to see what you have seen, to know what you know."

So maybe Bach's "proof" is simply a demonstration by taste, by touch, by story, and by a concluding Picardy Third, rather than by a formal QED. The proof that Bach offers is simply a compelling alternative to despair in how we live.

Charles Francis wrote (July 16, 2003):
[To Paaul Farseth] Christoph Wolff, in his biography of Bach, writes "Most notably, Bach's compositions, as the exceedingly careful musical elaborations that they are, may epitomise nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God - perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science."

Dave Harman wrote (July 17, 2003):
Johan van Veen wrote:
< Bach certainly didn't intend to prove the existence of God. Why should he, since almost nobody douthat. And he didn't compose his cantatas to convert the 'infidels', but to strengthen the faith of the congregation. I am not saying that listening to Bach's music couldn't lead someone to ask himself whether there may be some truth in the message Bach's music contains. But nobody's music - not even Bach's - can prove the existence of God. Nothing can. It is only a matter of faith. >
Well written.

While well intentioned, it seems to me that some on this list are determined to project their own religious beliefs and fervor onto Bach himself. I stand by my feeling that Bach's 'god' was music and the extent and practice of his religion was through music.

Jane Newble wrote (July 17, 2003):
Francine Renee Haall wrote:
< Yes, Bach inspires us spiritually, and deeply so. However, the notion of God and religion only provides fanaticism, war and death. I'd like a kind of Arthur C. Clarke world where reason coupled with awe does away with war and its costs. >
This would only be possible in a world without human rebellion against God. Please don't equate 'God' with 'religion'. They are not the same, and 'fanaticism, war and death' are caused by human sinfulness, not by a holy, righteous and loving God, who has revealed Himself in the Bible. Bach knew this only too well, and was deeply moved to express a loving response to God's merciful solution for this sinful world.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (July 17, 2003):
[To Jane Newble] Your cantata write-ups are a sheer joy to read, providing warmth and hope to all. Your personal strengths are evident and embraced. Bach gives me intellectual and emotional strength, but, as I said before, my 'religion' is physics. Thanks so much again!

Jane Newble wrote (July 18, 2003):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. Enjoy your physics while you can! One of the wonderful things about faith in God is that I shall enjoy Him (and Bach) forever.

 

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