Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

General Topics: Main Page | About the Bach Cantatas Website | Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Scores & Composition, Parodies, Reconstructions, Transcriptions | Texts, Translations, Languages | Instruments, Voices, Choirs | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings | Life of Bach, Bach & Other Composers | Mailing Lists, Members, Contributors | Various Topics

Church Music Practice

Articles about church music practice

Chris Kern wrote (August 26, 2005):
As I listen to more cantatas (and Bach's church music in general) I find myself wondering more and more about the church culture that Bach lived in with regards to the music, and how specific it was to his location. If the questions I have can be answered by books or articles, please direct me to them.

For instance, when I go to a church service, there is very little music that is not sung by the entire congregation. The collection or offertory songs can sometimes be just instrumental preludes or the like. It's also rare in the churches I've been to for any instrument other than the organ or piano to be used (occasionally I've seen one of the churchgoers accompany one of the organists' songs on a violin or something). There is certainly nothing of the caliber of Bach's cantatas, which are longer, more complex, do not involve the congregation, and seem to require a dedicated group of singers and players beyond what you would find in most modern churches. In addition, I have never been to a church where someone at the church composed the music to be used within the services.

Did Bach's congregation feel at all strange about going to church and hearing a 30 minute musical composition (give or take)? Or did every church have their own person composing these cantatas? How did anyone justify the money needed to hire all these performers and singers, and the rehearsal time (or did they work for free)? How long were cantatas a part of the church service -- are there still some churches today that use them?

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] One of the reasons I am always harping on the liturgical context of Bach's music is that our experience of Bach in the concert hall or the present shape of Lutheran church music distorts much of perspective.

Eric Bergerud wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] I think it's safe to say that the average 18th century Lutheran wasn't accustomed to the music performed for the good parishioners in Leipzig. I'm not sure where Leipzig would have ranked among Protestant German cities in terms of size, but it would have high. And the churches were big by anyone's standards. Indeed, I doubt many if any of the classical "masters" performed in front of more listeners than JSB during his career.

But they would have been hearing some sweet music throughout Germany. I just picked up a collection of Christmas music by Michael Praetorious (Parley of Instruments and the Westminster Choir - all male - why do English boys sing so well?). Anyway according to the liner notes "Certainly, Praetorious's collection of concertato chorale settings Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica (Wolfenbuttel 1619) suffers by comparison with Schutz's great collection of Germany polychoral psalms Psalmen Davids of the same year until it is realized that the two composers were writing in different genres for rather different markets. While Schutz was writing freely for an expert court ensemble in an idiom derived from Gabrieli, Praetorious devoted himself to marrying the Italian Baroque style to the Lutheran chorale, and to writing music that could be performed, if necessary, by the humblest village choir." The liner notes for Rheinhard Goebel's wonderful recording of Cantatas by Members of the Bach Family (all pre JSB: not sons) notes that the works furnish "astonishing evidence of the high technical standards of central German town musicians in the 17th century." I must say that I am rapidly picking up a taste for 17th century Protestant church music and Bach's own chorales and smaller choral works. I don't suppose it sounded quite as good as tunes done by the Westminster Choir or Rheinische Kantorei, but this music couldn't have existed in isolation and must indeed have been the tip of the a wonderful musical iceberg.

John Pike wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] I think the idea of people performing music in churches was very common in Bach's day. A number of the larger towns had someone as Cantor/composer and some of these are now well known, eg Telemann. However, I think what was unusual was the degree of sophisication of the music performed by Bach. He refers in documents to "the old music no longer pleases us" and he largely stopped performing the work of his predecessors after he had his feet under the table. Bit by bit, old styles of performance went out of the window, in favour of his own styles. I am currently reading "Bach's Continuo Group" by Laurence Dreyfus, which is a really excellent read. Very well written, very interesting to read. Although the focus is mainly on the continuo group, the reader will get a very good overall insight into general performance styles.

You will probably be aware, also, of the controversy around OVPP/OPPP (one voice per part and one player per part), espoused by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott especially, and many others, though other notable scholars remain unconvinced. Dreyfus himself, in a note to one passage early in "Bach's Continuo Group" says that he does not accept Rifkin's claim that singers and players did not share music. He claims that there is evidence for sharing but then, tantalisingly, does not say what it is. However, that is not the main subject of his book and it would be impossible to do the subject justice in a small note outside the main text of his book.

I suspect that concerted music in churches gradually went out of fashion, and society in general, especially in this country (UK), has become gradually secularised. However, every fortnight at Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtnis Kirche in Berlin, they perform a Bach cantata as part of the service (Gottesdienst)....wonderful stuff.

John Pike wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To Eric Bergerud] Wolff reports in "The Learned Musician" that there used to be on average several thousand people at the services in St T and StN.

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To John Pike] There is a very good article somwhere in "Early Music" on what Sunday morning in Leipzig was like both liturgically and socially. The experience of Bach's congregants was VERY different from either our modern concert hall or contemporary church servces. Perhaps one of the last Romantic myths about Bach is the notion that somehow St. Thomas, Leipzig, was a quaint old country church with a misunderstood Byronic giant as its organist. It wasn't. It was a large ecclesiasical establishment supported by a residential college and expected to reflect the power and influence of the municipal state -- just as chapels royal expressed princely magnificene. Neither was the choir a sweet little band of volunteers from the congregation. The church was served by professional musicians and the city burgers expected the highest quality music-making in their church. Bach was not only a composer and performer of the highest order, but an experienced and effective state functionaire. That model of church music simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Leonardo Been wrote (August 26, 2005):
[To Douglas Cowling] Well summarized: 'Expected to reflect the power and influence of the (local) state.'

Makes me curious for the article in 'Early Music.'

Eric Bergerud wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Douglas Cowling] I have no quibbles at all with Doug's post - it was my original point that church music Leipzig was a big affair all around in the terms of Protestant Germany. I think Chris originally was asking what things were like in more humble churches of the period - the vast majority in a society dominated by the village and small town. My guess is that the range of sophistication musically was very great, but probably pretty impressive overall. For instance, Bach's immediate ancestors didn't hold positions as exalted as JSB's as Leipzig and their music as recorded by Goebel is wonderful. But how about the poorer and smaller rural churches? The recordings I have of simple hymns of the 17th century are also lovely.But I don't know whether that would stand as evidence for "real life" musical experience inside the Lutheran churches of Bach's general era.

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 27, 2005):
Eric Bergerud wrote:
< I have no quibbles at all with Doug's post - it was my original point that church music Leipzig was a big affair all around in the terms of Protestant Germany. I think Chris originally was asking what things were like in more humble churches of the period - the vast majority in a society dominated by the village and small town. >
Luther envisaged two kinds of masses at the Reformation:

1) An elaborate "high mass" with polyphonic music, a good deal of which was still in Latin. This was to be the standard in large urban churches with choir schools (such as St. Thomas, Leipzig), cathedrals, university chapels and chapels royal. The music and liturgy in these churches required substantial endowments and financial support in order to maintain their professional personnel. There was never a volunteer choir.

2) Luther also designed an order of mass which would could be used in small parishes with no professional singers or even an organ. Here the music was almost wholly congregational. This was the origin of the so-called "German Mass" which subsituted metrical congregational chorales for the ordinary of the mass: "Allein Gott in de Höhe" (Gloria), "Wir Glauben All" (Credo), "O Lamm Gottes" Agnus Dei, etc.

These two parallel traditions coexisted for centuries. One even sees it in 18th century North America where the parishes of the American Midwest continued the congregational model with unaccompanied chorales. On the other hand, the American Moravians imported the concerted tradition. A descendant of Pachebel even wrote Baroque music for these New World churches.

If we want a comparable contemporary example of Bach's situation we should probably look at the choir of King's College, Cambridge where the boys are educated in a residential school and the male singers are paid professionals. The college choir has limitless financial resources (the fruit of their recordings) and frequently engage top vocal soloists and orchestras to perform with them.

I doubt if there is any Lutheran church in the world which still performs a weekly cantata in the same order and function as Bach for the Sunday mass. One of the Lutheran churches in New York has performed the appropriate cantata at their evening service for years but this has been more of a sacred concert than a liturgical Vespers. In fact, probably the only way we can hear what a Lutheran service sounded like in the 17th or 18th centuries is to listen to one of Paul McCreesh's recorded reconstructions.

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 27, 2005):
One of the finest works on the subject of church life in Bach's time is Gunther Stiller's "Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig" published by Concordia Publishing House.

It is presently out of print, but it might be found via Internet search of used book sites. I recommend

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 27, 2005):
Do some chuches still use Bach's cantatas

[To Chris Kern] Chris, here in my Lutheran parish in St. Louis we have a Bach cantata for our service several times a year, paricularly around the major church festival days, like Christmas and Easter. It is an extremely moving and powerful experience to hear a Cantata in an actual worshiop service, as Bach intended them.

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Paul T. McCain] This is the article I was referring to in an earlier posting:

Kevorkian, Tanya: The Reception of the Cantata during Leipzig Church Services, 1700-1750. EarlyM xxx/1 (2002), 26-45

It offers a splendid sociological picture of St. Thomas' Church on a Sunday morning: the division of genders in seating, the class structure between wealthy box-pews on the floor and poor students in the galleries, the late arrival of some prominent burgers to hear only the cantata or only the sermon, the vergers poking students to stop dozing or stop leering over the galleries at women below, the exodus of many parishionners after the sermon before the eucharist proper.

The Stiller book is a brilliant analysis of the whole structure of Lutheran worship and the pecking order of Leipzig's churches: we forget that Bach was not just the cantor of St. Thomas, but a municipal bureaucrat charged with the oversight of practically all religious services in the city. Wolff's biography has a detailed description of Bach's VERY long Sunday morning, with a second noon-day service followed almost immediately by vespers in the early afternnoon. All of these sources give us a much-needed historical perspectibe on Bach.

On a related note, I notice that the International Bach Festival with Helmut Rilling in October in Toronto has sessions on "Death Everyday: The Anna Magdalene Bach Book of 1725 and the Art of Dying" and "God's Time is the Very Best Time: The Social and Cultural Context of Lutheran Funeral Music."

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Paul T. McCain] I'm curious to know if you perform the cantata as Bach did within the context of a eucharist/mass.

Aryeh Oron wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Paul T. McCain & Douglas Cowling] In the following page of the BCW you will find a list of more than 20 Bach Cantata Series around the world:
In at least two of them the cantatas are performed within the context of the Lutheran service: Thomaskirche in Leipzig and Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin. Maybe there are others. To find that you will have to follow the links to the relvant websites and look into them.

Paul, should I add your church to the list?

Douglas Cowling wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Aryeh Oron] Interesting to look at the webpages of these two churches which have extensive music programs. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin performs a monthly Bach cantata as part of their evening service which doesn't appear to be strict Lutheran vespers but rather a "Sacred Concert" or "Music-and-Meditation" kind of format. This is the standard approach in most churches who, when they perform a major choral work, add a few prayers and a short reflection/sermon to create a "service".

St. Thomas, Leipzig, performs a lot of Bach -- as is to be expected. The Passions, including the St. Mark Passion this year, are performed as stand-alone concerts in the evening. Very occasionally, the church recreates the musical program of the morning Lutheran mass as Bach knew it. Here is the music for Ascension Day this year:

Donnerstag 05. Mai 2005 (Himmelfahrt)
9.30 Uhr
Kirchenmusik im Gottesdienst
(Christi Himmelfahrt) (Bach: Kyrie, Gott /
Bach: Gloria aus Magnificat (Anh.) /
Sanctus D-Dur BWV 238 / Kantate BWV 37Wer da gläubet …”)
Solisten, Thomanerchor, Gewandhausorchester
Leitung: Thomaskantor Georg Christoph Biller
– Thomaskirche

Now that would be an occasion to attend: a liturgical performance of Bach's music in his own church!

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 27, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] Yes, the cantata is sung throughout the service and we gather instrumentalists and the choir sings the choir part and the congregation sings with the choir during the chorale parts. It is not the goal to imitate or try to replicate precisely what Bach did, but we do try to use the whole cantata, and yes, it is in the context of a service of Holy Communion.

Eric Bergerud wrote (August 28, 2005):
[To Douglas Cowling] Very odd to think of the Kaiser Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin as a place of worship. It never dawned ome to look at it as a church in 1972 - one of the world's most powerful memorials to war's tragedy, certainly, but not a church. Obviously my head was in a different place at that time then it is now. (I was in Leipzig and didn't even think of Bach. Was in a Wagner phase then: the folly of youth.)

It did, however, strike me that in the old DDR/East Germany that more people came out of churches by a good margin than you found on the west side of the Wall. I was in East Berlin on a couple of Sunday mornings for some reason (maybe museum looking: I forget) and remember seeing a decent crowd of parishoners leaving a church - in the West it was strictly Easter & Christmas spare a handful of old people and young families. I also remember seeing some very well tended churches in the DDR smaller towns that the rail went through on the way to Leipzig, Prague and Dresden. Humble affairs, but very pretty: reminded me a lot of the Lutheran churches I'd seen in rural Minnesota. I was told that the heavy handed anti-clericalism of the communist regime had actually helped keep some of "old" Lutheran Germany alive in the East. Might have been true. (You got an odd variant of that theme from the DDR government itself: somehow the DDR had kept "authentic" Germany alive more successfully than found in the materialist West. And it was true that you saw horse drawn farm machinery on occasion in the fields. In other words, the DDR was trying to score propaganda points on their lower level of economic development. Obviously that didn't work in the long run.)

John Pike wrote (August 30, 2005):
[To Douglas Cowling] You are right about Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtnis Kirche in Berlin. I have been to that service several times on a Saturday evening and the cantata follows the service, ie it is not incorporated into the service itself.


Bach not sustained in the Lutheran Church; (was Mendelssohn)

Continue of discussion from: Felix Mendelssohn & Bach - Part 1 [Bach & Other Composers]

Erik Bergerud wrote (August 30, 2005):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] True enough about Bach's music and the concert hall. But the question that perplexes me is why didn't the churches, at least in Germany, (or German speaking America which existed in the midwest for nearly 100 years) try to keep part of it for themselves? After all, the Bach cantatas never established a place in mainstream 18th century Lutheran service across Europe. I wonder if the melding of Calvinism and Lutheranism and the pietist revival around 1800 might have played a role here. I'll stand correction, but I think the majority of the hymns (barring the occasional rendition of Mighty Fortress) I've heard in Lutheran services are 19th and early 20th century tunes from England. Pretty in their own way, I suppose, but nothing like the small scale works of religious composers like Praetorious, Bach's forbearers or JSB's own chorales. I can understand why a full scale Bach cantata would have been out of reach for most churches. Thomaskirche as I understand it was big enough to be considered today a "mega-church" (although I just read about one that serves 15,000 parishioners: wonder what St. Peter's does on a normal Sunday?). In any case, there was no particular reason that I can think of that church music could not have been shared with the concert hall. Obviously it didn't work out that way.

BTW: I will grant Mendelssohn doesn't rank with Berlioz. (Berlioz didn't help popularize Handel and Bach either.) In my humble book Berlioz ranks only slightly under Beethoven as the greatest composer of the 19th century. No coincidence that Berlioz was a Beethoven booster. That said, I really like both Mendelssohn and Schumann. The romantics, including Berlioz, to my ear really benefit from HIP. I've got really wonderful Mendelssohn pieces from Mackerras and Norrington, and Schumann from Gardiner. (Although I have to admit Gunter Wand's Schumann is just as good in its own way.) Gardiner's renditions of Berlioz with the ORR are some of my favorite discs.

Dale Gedcke wrote (August 31, 2005):
[To Eric Bergerud] I think you provided most of the answers to your own question regarding why Bach's music did not become a universally-supported, integral part of the services in the Lutheran Church.

1) We can only speculate as to the reasons.
2) The music and performances of J. S. Bach were exceptional at the time (and still are).
3) Much of the music required highly skilled musicians.
4) Few churches had the resources (musicians and money) to support such performances on a regular basis.
5) Perhaps it required an acquired taste to appreciate Bach's music at the time, which most inhabitants of Germany had not acquired due to lack of exposure.
6) Bach was not living in an era where musical compositions could be popularized in a mass media like radio, or CDs. If the idea was going to spread, it would spread orders of magnitude more slowly, and would have required a strong effort by Bach to export his music to other churches. But, Bach already had a heavy load, consuming essentially all of his time in his own church.

Having written the above summary, it strikes me as ironic that all except point 6) apply to today's situation.

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 31, 2005):
Let me also add this thought. The Divine Service of the Lutheran Church is not the same as a Bach Cantata. The Cantatas were written to go along with, and to be used, the context of the Lutheran Divine Service, the Hauptgottesdienst. In other words, the Bach Cantatas were not in fact the Hauptgottesdienst proper, but "add ons" to it -- beautiful and powerful indeed. So, while Bach Cantatas may not be integral to Lutheran services, as they were at least in Leipzig when Bach was working there, the Lutheran Divine Service is still very much in use across world-wide Lutheranism, though under pressure and even attack from all those who wish to substitute for it the so-called "contemporary worship" that has been a challenge for all liturgical churches.

Doug Cowling wrote (August 31, 2005):
[To Dale Gedcke] To this I would add that the 18th century still expected that its church musicians would write new music in the current styles. I suspect Bach would have assumed that his successors would write in a more "galant" style as his sons already were during his lifetime. Bach probably expected that his music would attain the status of "antique" and be performed as he performed the motets of Lassus and his own earlier relatives.


General Topics: Main Page | About the Bach Cantatas Website | Cantatas & Other Vocal Works | Scores & Composition, Parodies, Reconstructions, Transcriptions | Texts, Translations, Languages | Instruments, Voices, Choirs | Performance Practice | Radio, Concerts, Festivals, Recordings | Life of Bach, Bach & Other Composers | Mailing Lists, Members, Contributors | Various Topics


Back to the Top

Last update: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 05:30