Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Bach Books: Main Page / Reviews & Discussions | Index by Title | Index by Author | Index by Number
General: Biographies | Essay Collections | Performance Practice | Children
Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
Instrumental: Organ BWV 525-771 | Keyboard BWV 772-994 | Solo Instrumental BWV 995-1013 | Chamber & Orchestral BWV 1014-1080

Bach Books



Bach & God




J.S. Bach Works:

BWV 1-248


Michael Marissen





May 2016




Hardcover: 288 pages


HC / Kindle


Oxford University Press; 1 edition (May 18, 2016)


ISBN-10: 0190606959
ISBN-13: 978-0190606954


Bach & God explores the religious character of Bach's vocal and instrumental music in seven interrelated essays. Noted musicologist Michael Marissen offers wide-ranging interpretive insights from careful biblical and theological scrutiny of the librettos. Yet he also shows how Bach's pitches, rhythms, and tone colors can make contributions to a work's plausible meanings that go beyond setting texts in an aesthetically satisfying manner. In some of Bach's vocal repertory, the music puts a "spin" on the words in a way that turns out to be explainable as orthodox Lutheran in its orientation. In a few of Bach's vocal works, his otherwise puzzlingly fierce musical settings serve to underscore now unrecognized or unacknowledged verbal polemics, most unsettlingly so in the case of his church cantatas that express contempt for Jews and Judaism. Finally, even Bach's secular instrumental music, particularly the late collections of "abstract" learned counterpoint, can powerfully project certain elements of traditional Lutheran theology. Bach's music is inexhaustible, and Bach & God suggests that through close contextual study there is always more to discover and learn.


Buy this book at:

HC (2016): | |
Kindle (2016): | |

Source/Links: Oxford University Press
Contributor: Aryeh Oron (September 2017)


Book Review: Michael Marissen's "Bach & God"

William Hoffman wrote (July 9, 2016):
Among the spate of new books on Bach studies this year is one with an intriguing title, “BACH& GOD,” in bold letters with a dark portrait background (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). The author himself, Michael Marissen ( in a Bach Cantata Website posting this week describes it as one of “Two new books on positive and negative religious aspects of Bach." Details can be found at

The other book is a mystery novel by his wife, Lauren Belfer, And After the Fire: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2016); details: “You might also find interesting an interview about these two books that was published recently in The New York Times, ” “A Literary Couple Grapple With Bach and His God,” By James Oestreich; May 25, 2016: New York Times: Interview.”

Marissen’s book, dedicated to Lauren, “really is very much about the importance of religion to an understanding of Bach’s music,” he says in the interview. “What I’m trying to show is that in some of Bach’s music, at least, you can’t really understand unless you have the historical and contextual stuff.” Essentially, “I am interested in investigating the explanatory power that religion does seem to have, after all, for eliciting a greater understanding of Bach’s compositions,” Marrisen says in his book’s Introduction (p. 2f). Interestingly, Marissen concludes the Times interview that, while working on a new edition of Bach’s collection of four-part chorale harmonizations, “I’m actually not planning to do any more writing about religious polemic. I’ve done my bit.”

“Bach & God” is a collection of seven essays on the religious character of Bach major vocal and instrumental work. They are updated versions of articles that appeared in various scholarly publications and collections from 1995 to 2008. It is a summation of much of his scholarly work and, like all of his studies, it involves rigorous, source-based research that explores the music itself to better understand the religious meaning(s). Essentially, Marissen, professor emeritus of music at Swarthmore College (1989-2014), is a philologist of the first order: examining original sources with accessible translations and providing clear and detailed understanding of the word. At the same time, his book provides a definitive view of his work involving Parts I and II, “Basic Lutheranism” and “Anti-Judaism” in the sacred cantatas, Part III, “Anti-Judaism” in the John and Matthew Passions, and Part IV, “Religious Expression in Secular Chamber Music,” focusing on Bach’s Musical Offering.

The back of “Bach & God” begins with a “Works Cited” bibliography of most important Bach studies as well as German theological writings, accessible to Bach, and other important, recent studies. These are grounded in Marissen’s co-authored An Introduction to Bach Studies (Oxford, 1998) with Daniel Melamed, as well as his Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (Oxford, 1998) and Bach’s Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (Oxford, 2008). The back “Index of Bach’s Work” covers a wide range of music listed alphabetically by German title, with special emphases on Cantata 46, “Schauet doch und sehet” (Behold and see), for the 10th Sunday after Trinity 1723, in Marissen’s Chapter 3, Bach’s Cantata on the Destruction of Jerusalem, “Part II, Taking Up Anti-Judaism” in Cantatas.” Another is the “Index of Biblical and Other Ancient Sources.”

“Part I: Basic Lutheranism in Cantatas” “concerns essential Lutheran ideas in Bach’s cantatas, how they are expressed both textually and musically,” says Marissen in his Introduction” (p. 5). The basic tenets are: the word alone, faith alone and grace alone. Chapter 1, “On the Musically Theological in Bach’s Cantatas,” “explores via several detailed examples the notion that Bach’s musical settings of church cantata poetry can project significant Lutheran theological meanings that are not identical to those arrived at by simply reading the librettos; that is to say, Bach’s music can interpret, not only reflect, the words.”

While the remaining chapters of the book often involve significant material from his previous writings, Marissen in a separate Preface provides an account of his Calvinst background and Bach pursuits, his interest in Bach’s theology, and conflicts regarding later anti-Judiasm elements in his writings on Cantata 46 and the St. Matthew Passion. The emphasis in “Bach& God” is on “the projected religious import of Bach’s vocal and instrumental ” (p. xv) While many Bach scholars have focused on the religious influences only in Bach’s vocal music, from the beginning of his pursuits, Marissen first wrote abut The Social and Religious Design of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton, 1995). This is both commendable and an advantage in Bach studies, particularly since Bach himself saw little distinction between vocal and instrumental music (each has qualities of the other), and between sacred and secular works where all of it is “To the Glory of God alone” (soli Deo gloria).

At the same time, Marissen -- while not seeking to preach or get caught up in the myth of “Bach as the Fifth Evangelist” -- eschews the still-prevalent notion among some musicians -- and sectors of the public -- that these aesthetes can simply enjoy Bach’s music for its own sake. Much of the prejudice in the 19th century was due to a general lack of religious interest, call it “secularization,” and more specifically in the 20th century to both a need for objective analysis of creativity strictly on its own terms (“New Criticism”), while specifically having to “ignore or trivialize” the literary merit in Bach’s vocal works, which seem obscure, quaint, embarrassing, or irrelevant today. The challenge, says Marissen, is that Bach’s “texts and their musical settings are inextricably linked. Meaning is not exhausted in, or shut out by, musical beauty and magnificence. The words matter.” Bach in his calling sought to create and present a “well-ordered church music” and that ordering involves both text and music, content and form, always in context.

Turning to the religious arena, Marissen in his Preface (pp. xvif) is critical of a lack of understanding of three elements in Bach’s music: 1. the “darker content and contexts of Bach’s life and music”; 2. The music’s seeming to be “ecumenically compatible with Roman Catholicism,” despite Luther’s condemnation of Papists and Turks (found in Cantata 93, below) and Jews, and even the peasants; and 3. Bach’s liturgical music as “friendly to Calvinism,” despite strong orthodox opposition. “The topic of Bach and his Lutheranism’s God is nuanced and intricate, and I have sought to explore it in its far-ranging complexity.”

The First Chapter, concludes with a study of “An Inverted World,” the central aria, “Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen” (How I surely pity the froward hearts,” Marissen translation), in the alto solo contentment Cantata BWV 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (Contented peace, beloved delight of the soul), for the 6th Sunday after Trinity (1726), set to a Georg Christian Lehms pietist printed text (Darmstadt 1711). This bassetto (no bass) aria is a commentary on the “condemnation of the evil and perversity of the present world,” says Marrisen, of the contrasting recitative (no. 2), “Die Welt, das Sündenhaus, / Bricht nur in Höllenlieder aus” (The world, that place of sin, / bursts out only in hellish songs; (Francis Browne English translation, BCW

The textual and instrumental inversion Bach creates in this aria, says Marissen, involves “The theme of inversion (that) also plays a significant part of Jewish and Christian biblical writing, often proposing messianic or utopian situations in which the present disordered world will be upended” (p.25). Concerning Bach’s musical bassetto style, Marissen (p. 23f) cites Alfred Dürr (Cantatas of JSB [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005: 435). This lack of a fundament symbolizes either “a Godly foothold is not needed,” as found in the St. Matthew Passion aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior is willing to die, Marissen translation Bach’s Oratorios: 58; Picander text) or the “foothold has been lost,” as in Cantata BWV 170/3 or in the soprano aria (no. 3), “Wie zittern und wanken / Der Sünder Gedanken” (How tremble and waver / the sinners' thoughts), in Cantata 105, “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (Lord, do not go into court with your servant, Psalm 143:2; Browne translation, possible Christian Weise text).

Marissen shows how in “religious usage symbolic inversion can be extreme,” citing the Reformation woodcut, “The Pope is adored as an earthly God” (p.26ff). Almost two centuries later, Bach’s music in the Cantata 170 aria contrasts the negative text with the positive instrumental treatment. Another cited aria in Chapter 1 (Ibid.: 15ff) is the contrasting, “Pastoral [dance style] and Meinen Seufzer, meine Tränen” (My sighs, my tears, Marrisen translation) opening soprano aria, SATB solo Cantata BWV 13 for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany 1727 (Lehms text). “Lehms libretto appears to be punning on weinen and Wein, the initial “tears” wine being transformed in to “joy wine” at the end of the [succeeding] recitative,” says Marissen. This is the theme of Eric Chafe’s recent book, Tears into Wine: J. S. Bach’s Cantata 21 in it Musical and Theological Contexts (New York: Oxford University Press: 2015). Marissen also examines Luther’s doctrine of “Justification by Faith and Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, chorale Cantata BWV 9, also for the 6th Sunday after Trinity (1732-35). “Bach’s musical setting appears to provide the doctrinal aspects missing from the libretto of Cantata 9,” says Marissen (p.22)

Beginning with Luther’s doctrine, Orthodox Lutheran teaching emphasized this reversal or seeming paradox as, for example, in the Gospel thematic pattern of paired miracle and teaching (Trinity 5 and 6), Luke 5:1-11 (draught of fishes) and Matthew 5:20-26 (Jesus preaching reconciliation and non-violence). This simultaneous juxtaposition is even more stark in the closing choruses of Bach’s three Passions: mournful texts and dance-style music (John ¾ menuett, Matthew ¾ sarabande, Mark 12/8 gigue), observing Ecclesiastes verse 3:4a, “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (KJV).

Chapter 2, “Historically Informed Readings of the Librettos From Bach’s Cantatas,” “shows via several detailed examples how Bach’s cantata librettos and even their musical settings are often seriously misunderstood, including in the ‘historically informed performance’ world, on account of unacquaintance with the specific phraseology and import of the Lutheran Bibles of Bach’s day, ” he says (p. 5). Marissen selects a great variety of recitatives, arias and chorales from 10 service cantatas. While he discusses the text and music at length, he does not identify the librettist. Here are the librettist or chorale by BWV number with types of music (R, recitative; A, aria): Salomo Franck: BWV 12/5 R, 31/5 R, 80/4 A, 152/3 R; Rudolstadt: 39/2 R; Christoph Birkmann?: 98/5 A; anonymous: 122/5 R; and Chorales: 28/6, Paul Ebert; 60/5, Johann Rist; and 190/7 Johann Hermann.

Marissen classifies the biblically-related texts (and identifies the sources) by the following five interpretive classifications: obscure biblical references, biblical phrases implied, biblical knowledge needed, archaic language, meaning unknown. His conclusion (p. 59): “Unlike us, Bach lived and worked in a biblically literate culture. We cannot hope adequately to understand his output unless we aim to become historically informed about his religious Sitz im Leben [place in life], whatever own predilections might be.”

Part II of "Bach & God" “concerns the taking up of Lutheran and biblical anti-Judaism in Bach’s cantatas,” says Marissen (p. 5). Chapter 3 focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem as found in Cantata BWV 46, “Schauet doch und sehet” (Behold and see, Lamentations 1:12), for the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 1723. The work “expresses a marked contempt for Judiasm” (p. 5). Chapter 4, “Bach’s Cantatas and ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John,” is “a study of Luther’s and Bach’s reception of the ‘synagogue ban’” in that gospel, writes Marissen (p. XIV). Here the author focuses on three Bach cantatas: BWV 179, “Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei” (See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy, Ecclesiastes 1:28). for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 1911, and two works for the Easter Seasonwith its emphasis on John’s Gospel: BWV 42, “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats” (On the evening of the same Sabbath, John 20:19), for Quasimodogeniti (1st Sunday after Easter), 1725; and Cantata 44, “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun” (They will banish you, John 16:2), for Exaudi (6th [last] Sunday after Easter), 1724, all three with librettos possibly by Christian Weise Sr., Bach’s pastor at St. Thomas, who resumed preaching emblamatic sermons on the gospel regularly, beginning with the Easter Season 1724, following a throat illness.

Part III of “Bach and God” deals with anti-Judaism not found in Bach’s Passion settings of John and Matthew, because, Marissen suggests (p. 6), that Bach and the Leipzig congregations observed Luther’s emphasis during this time in the church year that believers focus on their own sinfulness. Bach in his commentary choruses, arias, and ariosi emphasizes the two theories of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for sins as atonement in Matthew and Mark (Picander texts) while as a victorious, symbolic sacrificial lamb in John (Hamburg-influenced text). Marissen’s materials will be considered next Lent when the Passions and other appropriate music will be considered as part of the weekly BCML (Bach Cantata Mailing List) Discussions with updates.


Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


Back to the Top

Last update: Monday, September 11, 2017 13:24