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Bach and Religion
Part 3

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Bernard Nys wrote (April 22, 2002):
I see that my e-mails always cause some reactions. Why not?

About Bach & faith :
I learnt from the Gardiner Bach Cantatas DVD that the soloists were probably standing on the pulpit like a preacher/priest. They say that the audience in the church was probably singing the chorales. I like the idea that Gardiner says that we have no idea how it was in Bach's time (a boy's voice changed at the age of 16, now it changes at the age of 10-11). One thing is sure : Bach worked "Soli Deo Gloria" and all his sacred Cantatas (there were about 500 according to Gardiner) wanted to glorify Jesus or to warn the sinners. In the Cantata BWV 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut), the text, the content, explains the whole rythm & structure of the Cantata. Like it's said in the Gospel : I write this down to make you believe. I'm sure Bach wrote most of his music to make his audience believe, to give a sermon,... If you don't care about this content, you don't get "the message". I know that many of you can appreciate the music itself without believing the story it tells, but for me, it's the same as watching a beautiful, a well made Chinese movie, without understanding Chinese. I'm also sure that if we could ask Bach what is the essence of his music, he would say the ultimate legacy, the B minor Mass, and nothing else. According to Gardiner, that was Bach's goal: writing good church music for every Sunday service.

About Great Performers & criticism :
Of course, you can say that you don't like a great performer, but I think you cannot say it's a bad performance. Someone gave the example of the Messiah by Solti, "starring" Kiri Te Kanawa. I adore that version, for me it's the best available (I know it's not authentical, but who cares ?). I adore Von Karajan's Sanctus in the B-Minor Mass and his Magnificat and his Violin Concerto with Ann Sophie Mutter (enormous emotion in the very slow Adagio).

Juozas Rimas wrote (April 22, 2002):
Bernard Nys wrote:
< his music to make his audience believe, to give a sermon,... If you don't care about this content, you don't get "the message". I know that many of you can appreciate the music itself without believing the story it tells, but for me, it's the same as watching a beautiful, a well made Chinese movie, without understanding Chinese.>

Isn't that possible? But the movie would have to be very good. Just as Bach's music - it can be approached at without any knowledge of its background and still be wonderful.

Robert Sherman wrote (April 22, 2002):
Bernard Nys wrote:
< Of course, you can say that you don't like a great performer, but I think you cannot say it's a bad performance. Someone gave the example of the Messiah by Solti, "starring" Kiri Te Kanawa. I adore that version, for me it's the best available (I know it's not authentical, but who cares ?) >
The "someone" was me. I wasn't criticizing the Solti performance as a whole, some of which I like, but only Te Kanawa's part of it. To each his own, but I ask you to listen to "Redeemer" by Heather Harper with Jackson (not ornamented) or the earlier Colin Davis (well ornamented), or by Judith Blegen with Westenberg. Then re-post your view of Te Kanawa's Messiah.

Donald Satz wrote (April 22, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] I think that if Bernard were not a religious person, he would feel the same way that I do - religious belief has nothing to do with a full love and appreciation of the music that Bach set to religious text.

Eitan Loew wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Donald Satz] Don is absolutely right. I enjoy Bach music and I am moved whenever I listen to it. I can tell about myself that not only that I'm not a Christian, I consider myself atheistic: this does not deprive me from admiring what a genius Bach was and enjoying the music.

Bernard's analogy to a Chinese movie is somewhat out of the way: I think that in a movie the text is the most dominant element, everything else is there to support it: very rarely you may take away the text and still keep something that you may enjoy. I can recall only a fistful of movies like that. It is entirely different when it comes to music, especially Bach.

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 23, 2002):
Science and art are religions to me. As Goethe once said: "He who has science and art also has religion; he who has none of these left him have religion!"

Actually, physics is my religion. And so is Bach. (I'm an atheist too). Later in life he studied the abstract of fugues. That's why his B-minor Mass (BWV 232), the MO and KdF mean the most to me. They are like the beauty of mathematics so loved by the listener. And there is a corresponcdence to the curve of a graph of a tangent that never quite hits the x coordinate; thus Bach's eternal touch.

(PS: there was a young critic applying for a job. In it the test asked what religion he followed: without a blink of an eyelash he wrote down "Mozart"!)

John Grant wrote (April 23, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Well there's at least one other atheist on the list, and that's me. From an atheist standpoint it's curious that Bach's greatest work, or at least much of it, appears to be inspired by religious faith (in God). The SMP is the most obvious example, but there are many others. Other than the fact that the church was central to Bach's working life as a musician, one wonders whether the extraordinary power of his church music also has something to do with a thorough-going faith in God. Could there be, perhaps, some kind of intrinsic connection between musical genius and religious belief?

Bernard Nys wrote (April 23, 2002):
As I see that most of you are atheistic, and that you love JSB's music as much as I do, I have this thought for you.

There has been a tremendous discussion between authentic performance or romantic performance : Leonhardt, Harnoncourt, Herreweghe, Koopman & Co versus Richter, Von Karajan, Bernstein & Co. I think that JSB himself would not be shocked at all by a Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations on a modern piano or a Von Karajan playing the B-minor Mass (BWV 232) with a huge orchestra ; but that he would be shocked by the place and the purpose and the audience of his music. For instance, the Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) in a Japanese Concert Hall (Suntory) on 28 of July (the day of his death) and not on Good Friday, played by mostly pagans for mostly pagans.

I think he would not mind HOW his music is played (he had often bad musicians and he liked transcriptions) but WHY and WHERE his music is played now. I agree his music is so universal and so powerful that it survived the decadence of the Christian faith : churches are empty, unless there's a Bach concert. That would make the Maestro very sad. And it's makes me sad when I see enormous churches, so beautiful (for instance, in the Gardiner Pilgrimage), and so empty on Sunday. My hope is that Bach's music will manage to fulfill it's primary mission, which is to wake up, to warn, to convert,... "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme !" It's that faith that inspired JSB so much, that gave him so much energy, in spite of horrible tragedies throughout his lifetime ; that's why there are no more great composers in our time, they don't have that divine, infinite, beautiful inspiration. One example : Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - how do you want it to be nice and beautiful ?!

Juozas Rimas wrote (April 23, 2002):
< As I see that most of you are atheistic, and that you love JSB's music as much as I do, I have this thought for you. >
Atheistic is the wrong term here in my opinion. Atheism implies active denial of God or any other supernatural phenomena. I presume both Francine and John Grant aren't atheists actually but simply non-believers ("pagans"), ie they don't go to church, don't pray etc. I don't do this as well but I don't regard myself as an atheist. I never deny supernatural things and I rememberthis when listening to Bach.

< versus Richter, Von Karajan, Bernstein & Co. I think that JSB himself would not be shocked at all by a Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations on a modern piano or a Von Karajan playing the B-minor Mass with a huge orchestra; but that he would be shocked by the place and the purpose and the audience of his music. <
Are you positive that the Goldberg Variations or Partitas or English suites should be played in a religious environment such as a church? I always imagined them as utterly chamber music (literally, to be played in a small chamber, room). Bach's Sinfonias and Inventions make me imagine a small dusty room, beds, household utensils, smell of food, children running around... But the music presumably was celestial even in those surroundings.

François Haidon wrote (April 23, 2002):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< "Atheistic is the wrong term here in my opinion. Atheism implies active denial of God or any other supernatural phenomena. I presume both Francine and John Grant aren't atheists actually but simply non-believers ("pagans"), ie they don't go to church, don't pray etc. I don't do this as well but I don't regard myself as an atheist. I never deny supernatural things and I remember this when listening to Bach." >
I'm another one of the wretched godless souls on this list. ;)

A French writer, Francois Cavanna, once wrote that the difference between atheism and agnosticism was irrelevant since practically it amounts to the same thing: a life without a g/God.

As for the religious componant in JSB's music I have to admit that at some point repeated listening to the SMP brought back reflections I never would've thought they would ever come back (ooh, that was a clumsy sentence!) I still don't go to church, but admittedly my views on religions have become much more nuanced and much less arrogant compared to what they were before.

Dave Harman wrote (April 24, 2002):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< "Atheistic is the wrong term here in my opinion. Atheism implies active denial of God or any other supernatural phenomena. I presume both Francine and John Grant aren't atheists actually but simply non-believers ("pagans"), ie they don't go to church, don't pray etc. I don't do this as well but I don't regard myself as an atheist. I never deny supernatural things and I remember this when listening to Bach." >
A-theism is the denial that God is a 'person' - that is, some persona with eyes, ears, nose, and a mouth - like the Sistine Chapel guy.

I consider myself an A-theist - I believe in a force, a higher power, but not a person. The Bach B minor mass (BWV 232) is a great work. Too bad it doesn't fit into any religious service.

Dave Harman wrote (April 24, 2002):
Bernard Nys wrote:
< It's that faith that inspired JSB so much, that gave him so much energy, in spite of horrible tragedies throughout his lifetime ; that's why there are no more great composers in our time, they don't have that divine, infinite, beautiful inspiration. One example : Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - how do you want it to be nice and beautiful ?! >
Excuse me, but how do you know what Bach believed?
Are you sure you're not projecting your 'faith' onto Bach?
Are you sure you haven't convinced yourself that Bach just had to have the same faith as you in order to write the music you like so much .

And, of course, if Bach has the same faith as you, and writes music you admire, then you can project 'non-belief' onto Penderecki and dislike his music.

And what 'horrible tradedies' did Bach endure? Aschwitz? Dachow?
How about music written in the concentration camps?
Could music written by someone about to die be as beautiful as Bach's?

You are, of course, entitled to your beliefs and views, but I think you've let your faith narrow your appreciation.

As I remember it, and I could be wrong, Bach looked on his position in Leipzig as a job to provide music for the liturgical year. He was a musician. He was hired to provide music to be sung in church. In Cothen, he was hired to write instrumental music. He did that also. Much like Hindemith 200 years later, he looked on his music as 'practical' music - music to fulfill a certain need.

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (April 24, 2002):
[To Dave Harman] Bach did see a lot of his children die. Anyway, didn't Bach write some initials at the end of every piece he wrote? Something like 'Jesus help me' and 'For the greater glory of God'. I believe the initials are in Latin.

Francis Browne wrote (April 24, 2002):
[To Trevor Evans-Young] From The Cambridge Companion to Bach, p52:
"The handful of dedications on title pages from Bach's oeuvre presents a rather mixed picture. While the title page of the Orgelbuchlein presentsthe 'Praise of God' as the foremost aim, none of the others makes this explicit. The standard initials 'J.J.'(Jesu iuva - Jesus help) and 'S.D.G.' (Soli deo gloria - To God alone be glory) are found at the beginning and end of church compositions and of some, but by no means all, of the secular pieces....'

There is also a well known quotation from the thorough -bass primer of 1738
attribuuted to Bach:
....And so the ultimate end or final purpose of all musicand therefore also of the thorough-bass is nothing other than the praise of God and the recreation of the soul'

But this is a paraphrase of an earlier treatise by F.E. Niedt

i.e. this sort of evidence can be used for different arguments.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (April 24, 2002):
Trevor Evans-Young wrote:
< Anyway, didn't Bach write some initials at the end of every piece he wrote? Something like 'Jesus help me' and 'For the greater glory of God'. I believe the initials are in Latin. >
SDG = Soli Deo Gloria

Craig Schweickert wrote (April 24, 2002):
Trevor Evans-Young wrote:
< Bach did see a lot of his children die. >
As personally affecting as that may have been, it was hardly out of the ordinary in the 18th century and hardly constitutes a series of "horrible tragedies" that Bach had to deal with "throughout his lifetime." In fact, Bach led quite a mundane life, espeically compared with a composer like Händel.

On a tangent: I recall reading, but now cannot track down the source, that Bach died a bitter man because he had actually wanted to be an opera composer. Does anyone know if this is true? References?

Piotr Jaworski wrote (April 24, 2002):
[To Dave Harman] Without getting involved in the whole discussion - who needs another agnostic's view ...? - I'd like to thank you for the words and example below.

This is really strange that we frequently forget about this side of Bach's life. Seeing all the time the result of divine creation we loose the man of flesh and blood, as well as many, many earthly needs, desires and weaknesses.

Peter Bright wrote (April 24, 2002):
[To Craig Schweickert] I have never heard that Bach wanted to write an opera - I remember reading somewhere that he thought operas to be far to frivolous and undeserving of the time needed to sit down and write one. I guess it's just as likely that these comments weren't from Bach at all but someone believing that he understood Bach's motives.

With respect to how religious Bach was, I find it difficult to believe that his "beliefs" were merely fashioned by his position as composer for the church (i.e., that, in reality, he may not have had strong religious beliefs). It's all conjecture, but wasn't it Christoph Wolff who strongly believed that Bach, through musical science, was attempting to prove the existence of God in works such as the late canons and the Art of Fugue. Furthermore, the last piece of music he is thought to have produced was an arrangement of a chorale, the title of which can be roughly translated as "before thy throne I come herewith". This is the work of a deeply religious man...

Robert Sherman wrote (April 24, 2002):
Trevor Evans-Young wrote:
< Bach did see a lot of his children die. >
True, but so did everybody back in the days before antibiotics and valved trumpets.

 

JSB’s faith

Bernard Nys wrote (April 25, 2002):
I know and respect that most pehere in the West don't have faith (anymore) but some people on the JSB mailing list throw doubt upon the faith of our dear Maestro. Let me be very clear : JSB's faith is beyond doubt. I can hear that in his music and if you don't hear that in his music, you have a serious problem.

I spoke about "horrible tragedies" in his life : the loss of his parents, and a dozen of children. I know : child mortality was frequent in that time, but the pain must have been the same. Perhaps you could get used to it. Don't forget that Bach used to give religious names to his children (for instance, Gottfried - peace of God) and that loosing one of them must have hurt his faith, his confidence.

I know that other composers like Penderecki also suffered tragedies, but my point is that Bach's faith gave him a kind of hope, optimism, energy and peace of mind that's missing in modern times (XXth Century). Let me remind you that I'm Christian for only 2 years and that I started my classical music "career" in anti-chronological order (first love : Stravinsky, Bartok, Lutoslawski, H. Dutilleux, Prokofiev, Shostakovich ; then Beethoven, Brahms,...; after that Mozart, Händel, some Bach, Vivaldi,...). I can appreciate modern classical music, but now I cannot find peace, hope or sermon in that music. Some examples: Penderecki's Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima or Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin des temps (I know Messiaen was Christian)

---> there's no hope in that music; take Bach's "Aus der Tiefe" (BWV 131): after a few minutes of deep sadness, JSB starts swinging or "Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut", where it takes more time to find his joy, but the finale is so joyfull ; some of Bach's most joyfull arias speak about his willingness to die as soon as possible in order to see his Savior A.S.A.P. (Ich habe genug (BWV 82) or final Aria BWV 170). Give me any modern composer with such hopeful faith! Quite often, I envy Bach's faith or the faith of those old times; we don't have that kind of faith anymore (even the Pope, bishops or priests have moments of doubt now). Please let there be no doubt about Bach's faith.

You can here it in his sacred works, but also in the Goldberg Variations (buy the Gould DVD and see how much in metaphysical extasy he is : after the final note, he seems to pray), the Art of the Fugue, his Organ Works (Passacaglia & Fuga, Toccata & Fuga,...). Did you know that the Toccata was meant to wake up the church-goers before the Sunday Service and that the Fuga was meant to edify, uplift at the end of the Service?

You want to know how much JSB loved his Savior? Listen to "Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ", where Bach "invents" romantic keyboard music "à la Chopin". This idea can disturb somebody who is really atheistic but even then, try to recognize that JSB had an enormous faith and love of Jesus. I can assure you this : if you listen to SMP or SJP (BWV 245) on Good Friday, without food in your stomach, you "feel" that music better than on a hot summer day after a rich meal. The weekend after Good Friday, eat well and feel the joy of the Easter Oratorio.

Every Sunday, I try to listen to the Cantata that was written for that Day.And I understand much better.

Der Friede sei mit dir!

Pete Blue wrote (April 25, 2002):
[To Bernard Nys] I second every observation in the Mr. Nys's post. I might only add that Bach was writing exclusively, he thought, for fellow observant Christians. (Did he ever correspond with or even meet a non-Christian?) For a nonbeliever like myself, to fully appreciate the music of Bach I feel it is absolutely obligatory to SUSPEND DISBELIEF, rather like movie and theatre audiences do. How can the Passions, for example, be appreciated if the composer thinks of the Passion narative as the bedrock of his faith while the listener (for Bach, remember, also a participant) thinks of it as a mere fairy tale?

Juozas Rimas wrote (April 25, 2002):
< (Passacaglia & Fuga, Toccata & Fuga,...). Did you know that the Toccata was meant to wake up the church-goers before the Sunday Service and that the Fuga was meant to edify, uplift at the end of the Service? >
JSB did more than he was asked for. I have read (someone may provide a more exact retelling) that JSB has actually been warned by the clergy that his improvisations on the organ distract the church-goers from their prays. If this story is at least a bit true, it shows how much more broad-minded Bach was than his dogmatic employers who preferred insipid boring church music as a background (a today's analogy of music in the supermarkets).

Yet you are absolutely right that JSB was deeply religious. Now he would be regarded to be almost fanatical but in those times it was a common state of mind. I've read a book about Bach written by a Soviet musicologist - this is a great comedy book, telling nonsenses about Bach getting his inspiration from folk music and describing the noble and the church of that time as evil forces that didn't allow Bach to create and ruined his life and let him die in porverty etc etc.

However, even that Soviet book couldn't be as tendentious as not to mention Bach's religiousness. It was said in the book that "it is impossible to deny that Bach was a deeply religious man". So even the Soviet censorship didn't dare to deny this!

< I can assure you this : if you listen to SMP or SJP on Good Friday, without food in your stomach, you "feel" that music better than on a hot summer day after a rich meal. >
This opinion is highly subjective. "Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ"/SMP/SJP are absolutely God-oriented and divine but the formal adherence to the fast you're mentioning has nothing to do with music in my view.

Trevor Evans-Young wrote (April 26, 2002):
[To Bernard Nys] Try Arvo Pärt, I like the Passio the best but he has a number of works in his 'new' style that for me are some of the most amazing pieces of our century. He is from Estonia I believe. His use of polyphony is quite amazing. In his 'Te Deum' he has the violins and violas playing in strict contrary motion or inversion( I have forgotten what it is called but one voice has the melody and the other voice the same melody upside down. All of my books are in storage.) Others on this list that have heard Part can probably describe him better than I.

p.s. There was a reviewer in Fanfare years ago that blasted Part for being too simplistic and two years later the same reviewer completely changed his mind and found his music to be great.

 

A man of faith

Bernard Nys wrote (July 15, 2002):
A scholar studied the Calov Bible annotations by J.S. Bach and proved what I've always said about Bach : he was a man of great faith and theology is the best way to understand his music.

I found this article thanks to the link Kirk proposed to us
(www.BACHorgan.com) - Articles

http://www.christiantimes.com/Articles/Articles%20May%2002/Art_May02_05.htlm

Juozas Rimas wrote (July 15, 2002):
from the article:
< "Bach decided at that moment to do his work at the church, but he didn't write any more church music," he said. "He used work by other composers and did his writing at a coffeehouse where he was appreciated. It's a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we have all of these glorious concertos and sonatas and all of those things that were written there. But the dark side is that we lost a huge amount of church music that might have been." >
I see no dark side here. We are indeed lucky that Bach was allowed to "chill out" and compose the Well-Tempered Clavier, Partitas, French and English Suites, Brandenbrugs, Orchestral Suites, Violin S&P, Goldbergs and countless other non-religious works.

If Bach was a son of some arch-bishop and wouldn't have problems with hemployers, thus being able to concentrate exclusively upon church music, we would have lost a huge treasure. The cantatas alone would be enough to declare him the best composer but we have MUCH more than that now.

So it seems the constraints that were not welcome by such a religious fanatic as Bach, turned out to be very valuable to us :)

Inclined to mark the difference between the religious and secular works of Bach, I therefore cannot agree with the following assumption from the article:

< "No longer can we have purely academic performances where all the notes are lined up right and the phrases are beautiful and it's done musically," Rossin said. "It has to be more than that. One must understand the theology in order to perform the music well. >
The author is right that lined up notes aren't enough but I cannot perceive what can be more than performing musically. "Musically" is such an ample adverb that you can put everything in it. Soulfully, beautifully, convincingly, movingly, emotionally, touchingly, gracefully, simply WELL for every particular individual. I don't think you can perform music better than "musically".

If the author had elaborated a bit what exactly performing with the understandin g of theology is, the article would have been more grounded.

Moreover, I dislike the word "theology" here. It connotates with special knowledge of the history and written sources of religion. I'd accept "religiousness", "religious feeling", although how exactly it enhances the musicality, is still a mystery to me.

The thesis that "the music should be done far more in churches than in concert halls (...) because that's what they were written for" seems redundant because cantatas and organ repertoire are already mostly performed in the churches and the suggestion of performing *all* music in churches is hardly understandable as it does not seem that works like inventions or partitas were intended for church performance. After all, Bach himself notes in his Bible that "in devotional music, God is always present with His grace" and "this chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music", obviously emphasizing "devotional" and "church" music, not all music.

I perfectly agree, though, with the theses from the article that Bach wrote church music not only because he was paid to do so and that he was deeply religious.

Donald Satz wrote (July 15, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] I very much agree with Juozas. To hold the premise that one must understand the theology in order to play Bach's music well is absurd and quite narrow-minded. Seems to me that the writer takes his strengths and makes them absolute requirements to do well with Bach; it's self-serving and not deserving of quotation.

James Whiskeychan wrote (July 15, 2002):
I'm with Don and Juozas here. I am a Christian. I think it's wonderful that Bach was a Christian, but that doesn't mean that others can't perform and hear the joy in his music.

Being a Christian doesn't mean you can't have fun. We can all be grateful that Bach sometimes took the time to have fun.

Thomas Radleff wrote (July 16, 2002):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< I perfectly agree, though, with the theses from the article that Bach
wrote church music not only because he was paid to do so and that he was deeply religious. >
Without touching the very subtle question of J.S.B.īs grade of religiosity (which had a different weight & quality at his time), it is important to accept the simple fact that he did not like his job in Leipzig. His origins - family, musical education - where those of an instrumentalist. Actually, in Köthen, he wished to stay for his whole life, and when he had to go, he found it strange to become a "Cantor". His struggle with the authorities, who couldnīt share his demands towards musical quality, are as well known as his trials to get to Dresden (early h-moll-Messe movements!) or even to Potsdam. This is not hypothetical, but stated clearly in two of the very few letters where Bach drops, in a very discrete manner, his personal opinions about his work.

The letters are:
"Leipzig, d. 28. Octobr. 1730" to Georg Erdmann.
"Dresden, den 27. Juli 1733" to the Herzog of Saxony.

Both are collected and commented in Wolfgang Hildesheimerīs splendid, somehow surprising lecture "Der ferne Bach" (= "The distant Bach"). Even Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (Bach - wer ist das?) comes to the same conclusions. Both books highly recommended!

That Bach was still busy and fertile in his Leipzig job for 20 more years until the end of his life, is, in my eyes, a sign for pragmatism towards the demands of life, and an enormous professionality, which, I dare to say, might have been carried by a certain numinous attitude: "religiosity".

Charles Francis wrote (July 16, 2002):
[To Bernard Nys] You will probably be interested in the following book containing colour facsimiles of nearly all the marginal comments and corrections in Bach's hand together with a selection of the most significant underlyings and other markings:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0570013291/qid=1026777829

Some of the things Bach marked are weird, take Exodus, for example:

Exodus 28:20 where alongside the description of precious stones, each one representing a tribe of Israel, Bach has placed his marks of emphasis, and each of the stones are numbered from 1 to 12:
1) Sadius
2) Topasius
3) Smaragd
4) Carbunckel
5) Saphir
6) Demant
7) Lyncurer
8) Achat
9) Amethyst
10) Chrysolith
11) Onych
12) Jaspis

Exodus 15-27: where Bach marks "Then came Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees"

Exodus 37:24: where Bach has underlined and marked in the margin that one talent (Centner) is equivalent to 18'000 Reichsthaler

Exodus 38:24-29: where Bach has underlined and marked the values and weights of the various metals used for the artefacts in the Tabernacle.

etc.

Concluding that these markings imply Bach was a man of faith, is itself something of an act of faith. Bach's first biographer Forkel is silent on the matter, although he detailed a number of other aspects of Bach's character.

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 16, 2002):
Thomas Radleff stated:
< Actually, in Köthen, he wished to stay for his whole life, and when he had to go, he found it strange to become a "Cantor". His struggle with the authorities, who couldnīt share his demands towards musical quality, are as well known as his trials to get to Dresden (early h-moll-Messe movements!) or even to Potsdam. This is not hypothetical, but stated clearly in two of the very few letters where Bach drops, in a very discrete manner, his personal opinions about his work. >
In the letter you referred to: >>"Leipzig, d. 28. Octobr. 1730" to Georg Erdmann<< there is also a telling comment by Bach regarding one of the key reasons for accepting the position in Leipzig: "zumahln da meine Söhne denen studiis zu inclinieren schienen" which refers to the fact that he very much wanted to see his sons attend the University in Leipzig since they seemed to have the abilities to carry this out successfully - they would get an excellent university education, but they could still live at home and all of this would cost Bach less money as well as the fact that he would be proud of the fact that they might achieve something that he had been unable to do (perhaps this was a personal dream which he now wanted to see fulfilled through his sons - this would not be the first time that something like this has occurred.)

 

Bach as Christian

Jim Theven wrote (December 30, 2002):
I was wondering if anyone can recommend a good source for finding out more about Bach's religious beliefs and his personal devoutness..

Also, I recall having read once about a Bach cantata which dealt with the earliesr forms of "Modernism" and had the line: "Belial invades the house of God, for even Christians from Christ are turning." Does that ring a bell?

Uygar Polat wrote (December 30, 2002):
[To Jim Theven] I heard this maxim lately, i don't know if it is relevant;

"You can find a musician who doesn't believe in God, but you can't find one doesn't believe in Bach."

The wierd thing is, it is actually true :)

Matthew Neigebauer wrote (December 31, 2002):
< I was wondering if anyone can recommend a good source for finding out more about Bach's religious beliefs and his personal devoutness.. >
I actually read somewhere (I forgot where) that they have recently found the Bible that Bach used. In it, there are many comments and thoughts from Bach's pen, and only 3 of them have to do with music. The rest have to do with theological and personal Christian issues. I know this isn't 100% solid proof (a human cannot judge a human-that is God's right alone), but it does give us a good idea of what Bach's faith was like.

< Also, I recall having read once about a Bach cantata which dealt with the earliesr forms of "Modernism" and had the line: "Belial invades the house of God, for even Christians from Christ are turning." Does >that ring a bell? >
I've never heard that before, but isn't it possible that this line is treated as if it were a bad thing?

Boyd Pehrson wrote (December 31, 2002):
[To Jim Theven] Hello. J.S. Bach demonstrated an extremely sophisticated understanding of Christian and Orthodox Lutheran belief.His use of scripture and Christian poetry as framed and illuminated by his music betrays his resoundingly Christian faith. As Matthew Neugebauer pointed out Bach's personal bible with marginal notations was discovered. This would be considered the objective evidence of Bach's personal faith. The bible and Bach's personal notes in it are detailed in a book by the current President of the American Bach Society Dr. Robin Leaver (Professor of Sacred Music at Westminster Choir College of Rider University). It is titled: "J.S. Bach and scripture : glosses from the Calov Bible commentary." It was published by Concordia Publishing House St. Louis, MO. 1985. Dr. Leaver briefly examines the various claims and the counter claim about Bach's faith in this book.

Also, a book detailing the historical circumstances under which Bach worked in his church Cantor duties was published in 1970 in the German language, and is titled "Johann Sebastian Bach und das Leipziger gottesdienstliche Leben seiner Zeit" by author Günther Stiller. Dr. Robin Leaver edited (1984) the English language translation of the work: "Johann Sebastian Bach and liturgical life in Leipzig" (translated by Herbert J.A. Bouman, Daniel F. Poellot, Hilton C. Oswald). It is still available from Concordia Publishing (ISBN: 0-570-01320-8).

The latest book to wade into the Lutheran Hermenutic in Bach's music is the work by Eric Chafe titled "Analyzing Bach Cantatas" (2000, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0-19-512099-x). Chafe lays out in detail the musical/text view from J.S. Bach's theological perspective. (I recommend you request from your local librarian these books to be borrowed for your use through inter-library loan service. Otherwise they are a dear but good investment when purchased.)

These are probably the most intensive works on the subject of J.S. Bach's Christianity. One may also examine the list of theological works owned by J.S. Bach at his death. His library is listed as part of his estate, and is detailed in the New Bach Reader- a book of Johann Sebastian Bach documents, readily available in new and used bookstores and libraries. The significance of the theological books from Bach's library are the polemical nature of the writings. This also betrays an excellent knowledge of Christian theological themes that Bach employed in his music. Bach was no mere Christian; with such a library, and the way he structured his music and texts, it tells us
that J.S. Bach was not only a Christian, but a theologian of the first order.

Your quote about Belial is from Cantata BWV 76 ("Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes" - The Heavens Declare God's Glory) movement no. 4- the Bass Recitivo: "Die Weisen brüten Torheit aus, und Belial sitzt wohl in Gottes Haus, weil auch die Christen selbst von Christo laufen." Perhaps it can be translated in vernacular thus: Such a route is folly, and Belial probably sits in God's house because the Christians run from Christ.

Text from movement 4 of BWV 76:
Wer aber hört,
Da sich der größte Haufen
Zu andern Göttern kehrt?
Der ältste Götze eigner Lust
Beherrscht der Menschen Brust.
Die Weisen brüten Torheit aus,
Und Belial sitzt wohl in Gottes Haus,
Weil auch die Christen selbst von Christo laufen.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (December 31, 2002):
[To Uygar Polat] I like your quote- ever relevant and amusing.

 

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Last update: ýMarch 11, 2012 ý17:58:20