Recordings/Discussions
Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Bach and Religion
Part 6

Continue from Part 5

Bach the Mystic?

Paul T. McCain wrote (July 31, 2007):
I believe it is incorrect to say that Bach was not an Orthodox Lutheran. He was indeed that. We know from his experiences that he battled quite regularly against the inroads of Pietism, of which Mysticism if a kissing-cousin. The books he owned, and used, demonstrate his love for the works of Martin Luther. He went out of his way to acuire not simply orthdox Lutheran books, the personal copies of Luther's works owned by none other than Abraham Calov, who earned the nickname, the Watchdog of Orthodox Lutheranism.

I believe, in fact, there is every reason to regard Bach as an orthodox Lutheran, and every good reason to eschew speculations that he was a mystic.

One reason some wish to advocate for such views [not you Jean], but scholars of older periods, is because they personally had rejected orthodox Lutheranism, while retaining some elements of Lutheranism.

A study of classic Lutheran devotional literature reveals a wealth of materials that bespeak a deep and pious devotion and spirituality. Case in point: the works of Paul Gerhardt, or even Martin Luther himself.

For that reason, respectfully, I would have to register a disagreement with the claim that Bach was a "mystic." He was, in fact, a Christian, and an orthodox Lutheran Christian.

Jean Laaninen wrote (July 31, 2007):
[To Paul T. McCain] Well, as you well noted, it was not my information, but Albert Schweitzer who came up with this idea. So, I anticipated that you might have some idea on the topic, and I'm glad to see you back writing on the forum. Before I started studying so much of the literature that I have available to me now, I didn't think about a theological identification for Bach per se, but thought of him as a Christian with a clear and devoted mind. That still works pretty well for me. And good Christians do focus on the life and death mysteries and musicians and music lovers on how all of this plays out in composition and performance. And the points you make as to Bach's appreciation of Luther are also included in many texts. I think the main reason I shared what I did today was primarily to help Ed a little with the issues he was raising, and even where interpretations differ as you have pointed out, Bach's center was clearly on his relationship with God for what it took to manage his life.

The various books, including one Julian recommended, Robert Gaines book titled, A Night in the Palace of Reason, includes a lengthy section on Luther and the influence Luther had on Bach, so I'm mainly in agreement with you. If you have not had the opportunity to read this book, you might find it worthwhile. I did.

Peter Smaill wrote (July 31, 2007):
While it is generally true to say that Bach is not a Pietist, as contended in the 1959 by Erik Routley and later refuted by the scholar Robin Leaver (_www.ctsfw.edu/library/files/pb/1381_ (http://www.ctsfw.edu/library/files/pb/1381) ), it is quite another thing to say by extension that he was not a mystic.

Gunther Stiller's "Liturgical Life in Leipzig" makes it clear that mystical ideas and images were taken up by both Pietists and orthodox Lutherans, and many posts to this site have noted Bach's evident care to set these to music. An example would be the "Kreutzstab Cantata" BWV 56 which is an extended metaphor of the mediaeval mystical idea of the navigatio vitae. In the tenderly expressive final chorale Bach makes a shift of a semitone in the final chord of the first line relative to the (adjacent) opening harmony of the second, a key change against normal rules of harmony but entirely appropriate to the text "Come O death, thou sleep's brother".Bach thus embraces mystical imagery with some of his finest writing.

In other Cantatas previously discussed the mystic image of the Rose is evident and prominent ( e.g., My soul on roses walks/ As it thinks that Thou preparereth a place for me") . Bach frequently uses Chorales with a mystical/pietist origin, especially in the Passions. His library included works by the pastor Mueller who was a Pietist. He opens the second part of the SJP (BWV 245) with the Moravian i.e Pietist chorale, "Christus der uns selig macht", which originated in the hymnal of 1532 by Michael Weisse he owned, now in Glasgow University.

While most of Pietism was anti-figural music it is not the case that all parts of the movement were neccesarily so; the Herrnhut movement under Zinzendorff placed music high on its list of aims of worship.

Finally the troublesome text of BWV 116 (trio) "Jesus brought himself into the world out of brokenheartedness at the sorrows of the fallen", which is formally heretical (cf the orthodox "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son") seems to be to originate in Pietism. Similar ideas of a preexisting Jesus (before the incarnation) are found in the writings of Johanna Eleanora Petersen, a leading Pietist.

So the picture is complex: while Pietism was formally banned in Leipzig, aspects of it and certainly mysticism strongly influenced Lutheranism. Just as Bach was open to a syncretic adaptation of the stile antico with French and Italian musical influences , so in his theology he accepts a wide range of texts and influences. These range from frankly Calvinist positions in some Cantatas to the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) whose parts he sent to a Roman Catholic patron ..

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks for all the points made below. I have saved the article to my computer and will read it sometime soon. I really do appreciate the time people take to share these points. At times I imagine that I am still going to school, but this is the school of life as experienced by studious others, and how fortunate.

Ed Myskowski wrote (August 1, 2007):
Peter Smaill wrote:
< Finally the troublesome text of BWV 116 (trio) "Jesus brought himself into the world out of brokenheartedness at the sorrows of the fallen", which is formally heretical (cf the orthodox "God so loved the world that he sent his only Son") seems to be to originate in Pietism. Similar ideas of a preexisting Jesus (before the incarnation) are found in the writings of Johanna Eleanora Petersen, a leading Pietist. >
First off, let me state that I am asking these questions only because I am in full agreement that understanding the texts that Bach set is essential to understanding the music of the church cantatas. These are not personal belief issues for me. The points do seem critical to understanding the texts, and in particular, whether the texts represent a consistent theology from first to last.

(1) Did Jesus, an aspect of the one God, bring himself into the world, or was he sent by his Father?

(2) Was the motivation 'brokenheartedness at the sorrows of the fallen', or that 'God so loved the world that he sent His only Son'.

I really have a problem in thinking about how to translate these words into English, let alone other languages. If the concept is monotheism, how does God send His only Son? Isn't 'Jesus brought himself into the world' much better, or at least more (theo)logical?

< So the picture is complex: while Pietism was formally banned in Leipzig, aspects of it and certainly mysticism strongly influenced Lutheranism. Just as Bach was open to a syncretic adaptation of the stile antico with French and Italian musical influences , so in his theology he accepts a wide range of texts and influences. These range from frankly Calvinist positions in some Cantatas to the B Minor Mass whose parts he seto a Roman Catholic patron. >
A carefully stated summary. I wonder if others will be able to accept the range of texts and influences? It seems difficult to refute the texts, and I agree with the apparent variety of dogma. I am also curious whether you think (and is there evidence) that the range of influences evolved over Bach's lifetime in response to social and personal changes? Is there any change in belief which can be seen over Bach's lifetime?

Peter Smaill wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Ed Myskowski] Thanks indeed for taking an interest in the growing body of scholarship which indicates that although bach was a Lutheran and Leipzig (also Hamburg) centres of orthodoxy, there were cross currents of other thought at work and evident in the Bach texts. These positions in the case in point? I enumerate below.

Ed asks some pertinent questions. regarding BWV 116, the orthodox position is that:
?
1??? God so loved the world that he sent his only Son..."
2??? Jesus exists etrnally as the divine Logos, but is only made flesh at the incarnation

Whereas the text of BWV 116 says

3? Jesus sent himself into the world
4??out of brokenheartedness, i.e, a human , sensory trait -before appearance on earth

The position that the Jesus-centric ideas of the Pietists are heading for is more properly called monarchianism than monotheism. It is the view that Jesus is God, and always therefore had the same God-man hybrid characteristics, an unchanging God pre and post his earthly appearances. As we discussed earlier the view thus picks up the persistent heresy of theopaschitism (watch my spelling!) , i.e., that God suffers, not only as Jesus on earth (the orthodox and Luther view ("One of the trinity suffered on the Cross")), but also in heaven . In this case, pre appearance on earth.

So it appears that in the heart of Orthodox Leipzig a heretical doctrine was set to music. Did Bach know what was involved/ Well, he sets the text as a trio,(rarae in the cantatas) ?implying certainly he knew he was touching oin the doctrines of the Trinity.whetehr he did this ironically we cannot tell.

Ed's second question ifs very interesting, and difficult to answer without speculation. Did Bach's religious position basically Lutheran, but open to setting texts with other inferences- change over time? As?I recall, the Calov Bible and commentaries, very orthodox, was bought late on, in the 1730's. However, the Schemelli Gesangbuch texts, also quite late, strike me as Pietist in style - does anyone have a view on this??

If we accept that BWV 668 is indeed his last (canonic) setting of a chorale, it is as one commentator says, "every note? by Luther". Note that "Vor deinen thron" is God-centric and neither text? (cf., Wenn wir in hoechsten Noeten sind" ) talks of Jesus- ?only God. Bach changes the text from a penitential verse to a triumphant expectation of the hereafter. If there is a shift in Bach's outlook, then perhaps -entirely within Lutheranism- this is it.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks for the details. My time is a bit crowded today, but after taking a quick look at both Peter and Julian's postings I have to ask if there is a connection related to Bach's artistic choices that he emphasises musically with the texts a cantata...particularly in regard to the Gospel lesson for the day? Perhaps Schweitzer and Julian and others are correct in saying we cannot know Bach's theology from the cantatas, but if the texts for the day convey a principle idea and the cantata motifs of importance support that idea from the texts we have an important link in this topic. I don't recall that Schweitzer addresses this in the sections I have read. And should this be the case that the link is generally quite strong such a view could offer another discussion angle. When one is dealing with Biblical texts the complexity generally increases even if the goal is that everything is pointing in a general direction of understanding God and godliness. This can be understood in the case of the Gospels by some diversity in the writing styles of the authors of the Gospels, and in what texts were used in Bach's setting. Complex...is it not? I do not remember if Bach worked from Latin Biblical texts or German texts, but perhaps he used the German. And we know that Biblical scholars to this day still debate the exegesis of the texts. Time to go and stay off email and get some things done here for a day or two.

Julian Mincham wrote (August 1, 2007):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
< but if the texts for the day convey a principle idea and the cantata motifs of importance support that idea from the texts we have an important link in this topic >
I think I would say that the chosen texts do tell us something of the Lutheran attitudes of the day. My point is that I don't think that the complex ways in which Bach set them tells us much (or anything) about his own personal religious attitudes.

Does that make sense? It is a difficult area but highly fascinating area of discussion.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Julian Mincham] Yes, Julian...I see what you mean.

Then, I will avoid drawing any such comparisons in the future. I read in Schweitzer last night that Bach was busy enough with his own work to leave the theologizing to the theologians. One Bach singer I know tends to feel the same way--his job is to give the performance with some understanding, but not to promote his own opinions...acting more as a vehicle, rather than the driver--if I may.

I am delighted that you are back on the list writing again--because you do bring clarity to issues, and you know so much.

Bradley Lehman wrote (August 1, 2007):
I don't think it's reliably possible to extrapolate someone's personal beliefs from the texts of the professional work they turned in...even if they wrote those texts themselves, or made alterations to them during the compositional process. Maybe they're just doing their job well, to other people's expectations or express requests.

For example, if we had to make a statement of Gian-Carlo Menotti's beliefs/ethics/morals/spirituality: should we extrapolate from the libretti of "The Medium", "Vanessa", "The Telephone", "Amahl and the Night Visitors", "The Consul", "A Hand of Bridge", "Help, Help, the Globolinks!", and/or others? How do we know which one(s) among those to favor as the most central statement of belief, if any?

We don't. Nor for Bach, despite several fruitful avenues of speculation.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] I'm not quite sure how I got myself into this, but I imagine it was something I said about Bach's big heart, or the emotional reaction I get in the history of my Lutheran context. Maybe it was my quote from Schweitzer...he was the one who called Bach a mystic--not me. Schweitzer was the one who said that we could understand Bach as a mystic from his writings related to death.

From now on I will leave that area alone as applies to the interpretation of the cantatas. I did however, encounter one letter Bach had written where he says (paraphrase) that his musical gift is from heaven. The theological detail here is very general, and theology is not the context of the letter...but I tend to think, not imagine, that Bach was a believer if he would make such a statement and that works well enough for me. Since he worked for Lutheran Churches during his adult life I think, not imagine that he had a working faith even though I do not plan to be his theological interpreter. I don't think I was saying that I could interpret Bach from the cantatas, but maybe I left the implication. That Schweitzer had come up with this idea seemed interesting to me, and apparently this is an interesting topic for a lot of people.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 2, 2007):
The point arising from this debate by extension is: did Bach influence the texts of the Cantatas; or did he just accept what he was given and set to music as best he could?

Early scholarship suggested that many of the texts were by Bach himself. Nowadays (as far as I know) no texts are definitively and in their entirety believed to be by him.

What the recent BCW discussions did reveal, and what his generally accepted by scholars, is that Bach made quite radical changes to some of the texts supplied by Mariane von Ziegler, in fact removing in one case the rhyme pattern to suit his musical requirement. In one he changes "Der Geist" to "Dein Geist" (as I contend} to emphasise Jesus as a source of the Holy Spirit, a theological point. Clearly that change has no musical purpose to it.

Not all Cantata texts bear a close resemblance to the Gospel for the day on which they were performed, especially the Chorale Cantatas where the hymn dictates the text. So it does appear that Bach and his librettist could in collaboration had a measure of freedom to choose the doctrinal influence they wanted, independent of the church authorities. Exactly how this interaction operated is an open question.

It is difficult to sustain the view that Bach was disinterested in the texts in view of the scope and size of his theological library plus the direct evidence of his annotations to the Calov Bible.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 2, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman]
?
Is it not a question of degree, the extent to which the evidence suggests belief?
?
Of course, belief changes even over a lifetime - even for the ordained, a good example being Cardinal Newman. Gian-Carlo Menotti would certainly be an interesting case study as his fluctuating lifestyle as well as his works says a lot about him (He lived for many years near me in decaying splendour at Gifford, East Lothian, incidentally?the place which also produced the founder of Princeton University).

Precisely what Bach believed at any time is as you say speculative but in general the volume of work by Leaver and Stiller refutes the position that he simply worked to get on, a thesis put up in the 1950's and seized on by the East German authorities who praised Bach for his work ethic.

As Leaver says :"the church music of Johann Sebatian Bach is in many respects the product and culmination of Luther's principles". As mentioned, the deathbed chorale affirms fidelity to Lutheranism . Bach if he had wanted could have become a Calvinist at Coethen to achieve more favour at that Court, or Roman Catholic with an eye to the Dresden court. But he did not: his actions as well as texts have a predictive bearing on the likely inward belief.

The affinity of music to Lutheranism is in general the key to Bach', a point put in an entertaining fashion by Mattheson in 1740;

"Music is a noble art and a great embellishment for a noble spirit, all other arts and sciences die with us.....Nobody in heaven will ask a doctor for a prescription or a purgative. But the things that theologians and musicians learned on earth they will also practice in heaven, that is, to praise God".

Thus Leaver finds in Bach both a "musical theologian" and a "theological musician".

 

OT: Shades of Lutheransim

Jean Laaninen wrote (July 31, 2007):
As I've mentioned recently I've been reading book one of Schweitzer, among others. I find there is quite a variance of scholarship, and one conclusion that I've come to is that scholars do take a variety of views toward the elements that influenced Bach. To hazard a guess based on the amount of reading I've done so far, Bach did everything he could his way, but occasionally fell under the influence of competing elements. By that I mean to say that the poetry in some cases reflected Pietism, and even so Bach was able to make something memorable of the work of various writers, even though we probably don't know precisely how he felt about being swayed one way or another. It seems to me that many times there are shades of gray when we try to define human beings in very precise terms.

In general I think that the Pietists focused on the individual (and his or her behavior) more than they focused on the community...and looking back at history one could take the position that the divisions that occurred in Lutheranism were all bad. On the contrary, it seems to me that if Bach could work with the materials of the differing factions and make something memorable of particular texts he might have understood the devotion of the heart toward God which others possessed even when there were differences.

At Bach's time and considering some splinter groups that emerged later one might also think that the serious and manipulative elements in Lutheranism kept people from enjoying life. I have to say looking back that I wish things had not been so strict, but that life was fun in many ways in spite of such limiting rules. And a sense of humor is not limited only to Orthodox Lutherans, although in the course of recent discussions related to the way we were at home, I was a little shocked more than once at some Lutheran jokes at least when I was younger.

The hymns Bach wrote were to some extent reinstated in the 1930s or so in our denomination, while the really old hymnals going back into the 1800s reflect the simplicity the very pious required, and some of those hymns are pretty boring. By the time I was able to play in church more of Bach's music was available, but I didn't own a lot of it until I was married and had to play for church as needed.

And I have been intrigued by the fact that in various places and at various times Bach's music has moved in and out of fashion. But I think that the cantatas are exceptional, and I'm glad that Aryeh has gone to so much work to create an open forum where people can learn from each other, and join in celebrating these works, and know them better. I always felt a bit deprived after college when I did not have enough exceptional music in my life, but with the BC forum I get to learn and share weekly, and we all have reason to be appreciative of these discussion opportunities, from the beginners up to the experts. The more participants--the more interesting.

Paul T. McCain wrote (July 31, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] Thank you Jean for your thoughtful reflections.

Harry W. Crosby wrote (August 1, 2007):
Perhaps I drift too far from the points of this discussion, but it seems to me that a fascinating and highly significant element in the whole question of Bach's micro-idealogical stances as a composer of Lutheran liturgical music was -- deep breath -- his very personal, complex, and certainly, to me, obscure relationship with the verbal texts that he employed, some by choice, some by fiat, some in the line of diplomacy, and so on. I have read all sorts of discussions of this relationship and none of them convinced me that it was as simple as the various proposed formulas suggested.

Since I do not see Bach that all ruled or directed by his texts, I hate to see them employed in any way as measuring instruments of his beliefs. But I admit that I am out of my depth since my historical background, while temporally related, is so culturally and geographically detached. And my musical background is, well, non-existent beyond being a longtime and intense listener.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
[To Harry W. Crosby] The points you make are valid in so far as we cannot know the exact thoughts Bach harbored at any given time, any more than we can know what our next door neighbor is thinking though perhaps it is interesting to conjecture under certain circumstances. However, if you were to look at my library you'd be able to surmise some of the thoughts that might be going on here, and the fact that Bach was a member of a Lutheran church at any given time and did not seem to have much trouble composing for the needs of these churches suggests that he was in agreement with some aspects of the faith and I believe his autographed signature in several places at least points to the fact that he wrote to the glory of God. I don't believe it was a secret either that he wrote using Trinitarian formulas in his notation, and took pride in that suggesting he was pleased to put forth his understanding in his way. is not a wholesale defense of Lutheranism, but historically documented evidence.

However, author's like Schweitzer, et. al., have some historical license I think in taking note of various elements, and authors like Spitta have enough research to suggest that when we talk generally about Bach's beliefs we have enough information to support many of the contentions that are made.

Of course, there are authors who like to study history without getting into the subjective angles, and I think that is their right. By the same token, if there are times when something applies pretty clearly even if it sounds a little subjective, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that maybe someone has hit the nail on the head.

This comes down to me naturally as my Dad was a fine debater in his youth, and a few years spent in his company taught me that a well supported argument right or wrong can often be won on the merits of the way the subject hangs together. As an example, I was in a class at Fuller Seminary. The teacher had a couple of debatable subjects and she divided the class into four groups. The quarter of the class that was in my group had twenty minutes to put together an argument on a topic, but the whole idea we had to defend was clearly in violation of our principles. So to make a case in point, and being the oldest in the group, I told the group that I knew how to win the argument even if we were dead wrong and we would be. They did not care--they wanted to win. We made a fast outline, and picked the smartest looking and sounding member of the group to defend our point. And sure enough, we won, but we were dead wrong. I was astounded to discover that people within our group believed we were right because we had won. Life and reality are not that simple. But in Bach's case I believe we have enough evidence to suggest that the way he applied himself to the task is pretty good evidence that he believed in the project. Also, most of the history that I've read thus far suggests that as often as he could he did things exactly as he wished, but sometimes he had to bend a little.

So I believe you are correct in saying that he worked directly from his texts, but I believe his composing and work with the texts also came from his remarkable heart.

I have mentioned the Gaines book Julian recommended to me a number of times, A Night in the Palace of Reason, and I think you might find this a good challenge, historically. I certainly did.

Ed Myskowski wrote (August 1, 2007):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
< I don't believe it was a secret either that he wrote using Trinitarian formulas in his notation, and took pride in that suggesting he was pleased to put forth his understanding in his way. >
Not citing out of context, Jean, just trying to be concise.

We have had much discussion regarding 'crux' notation, but I don't recall it being called 'Triniterian'. Is this what you refer to? The mathematicaly oriented among us have pointed out that you can make a cross of some sort from any four points, as long as they don't lie in a straight line. Even three points in a line and one off can be construed as a cross. The opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony , for example.

< Of course, there are authors who like to study history without getting into the subjective angles, and I think that is their right. By the same token, if there are times when something applies pretty clearly even if it sounds a little subjective, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that maybe someone has hit the nail on the head. >
Yes, but look what you are saying. There is a kilometer (perhaps a mile) between saying 'this is most likely', and 'this is not impossible'.

< And sure enough, we won, but we were dead wrong. I was astounded to discover that people within our group believed we were right because we had won. >
Even more astounding, the people who have won get to write the history books.

< Life and reality are not that simple. >
I am with you. I am an optimist. Good works can triumph over greed (or the other six deadly sins). Cara's equations suggest that good works and Faith are inseparable, one cannot exist without the other? I can live with that.

< But in Bach's case I believe we have enough evidence to suggest that the way he applied himself to the task is pretty good evidence that he believed in the project. Also, most of the history that I've read thus far suggests that as often as he could he did things exactly as he wished, but sometimes he had to bend a little. >
But not too much!

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 1, 2007):
To Ed Myskowski] Your final comment about Bach not giving in too much seems to be correct from my present reading. Although the authors at my disposal currently tend to describe Bach as man of utmost charm, apparently he also had some temper tantrums, and even threw a book or hymnal at someone at least once. I had someone do that to me once, and I knew an organist in Michigan who actually tossed a hymnal at the pastor in church one Sunday. This was a rude gesture from a temperamental person. So the humanity is included, but the great artistry probably would not have survived to this day in my opinion had Bach not been able to do things in the manner of his chosing.

Trinitarian refers to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost traditionally, and pairings of notes in sets of three related to text painting some lines is what I am discussing here. Both my primary professor in California, a Baptist by background, and my Baroque Music Theory teacher at ASU pointed out some such passages. I regret to say that my notes are buried deep in a filing cabinet in the hot garage, and I am not inclined in 110 degree weather to go out and dig around for them. However, at some point in the late fall when things cool down if I can find them I will put the specifics on the mail list.

I think that some illustration of this figuration might be mentioned in Vol. 2 of Schweitzer, so I might look there to see whether I am having a senior moment or not. I will get this to you eventually.

I believe there is also a certain amount of correspondence or writings of Bach's that has been considered to be evidence of his theological positions, and I will keep an eye out for this, but other members may have an inkling and something to contribute now.

At the moment I have gathered the scores for the weeks I will provide intros for next spring, and I have just started the research. Hopefully I will get to campus next week, and maybe I will run across some material there that will be helpful to this discussion. At the moment I cannot remember the name of the small journal, but there is a publication that is all about Bach's music in the stacks at school. Since music libraries do not generally have the funds to cross-reference all the material that could be catalogued, I used to go into the stacks when I was a student and browse through these journals...I think there were two sets if I remember correctly. I may find some interesting information in these resources, and I hope that I do. I was trained to analyze a score, and I also went through the online orchestral score offered by Native Instruments, but I consider myself to be a bit of a novice in this area. When I took Baroque Music theory at a later age I had to really tow the mark to keep up with the rest of the class...but I made it. So supplemental evidence or information is very helpful for me.

Anyway, as I continue to find information that might be evidential I will present it as the others do for the scruitiny of the group--it's a great way to learn.

Maybe when I have put forth some evidence this will not seem so vague, but I have become inclined lately to think that if we want to know a little more about Bach the man and even his beliefs we have to read European scholarship...they knew him before we did. I tend to summarize, but I cannot figure out in human terms how anyone could spend a lifetime in Lutheranism and not believe a good share of it, or have early indoctrination absent from creative musical workings. That's Psychology.

 

Bach the Mystic/Lutheran?

Julian Mincham w(August 1, 2007):
Firstly many thanks to those who, on and off list extended the hands of welcome back--I feel just like the prodigal son returning. Where's the fatted calf then?? Ok, I'll settle for a bottle of claret.

To Business:-----on Bach's own nature, religion and philosophy I have come to the conclusion that one can learn nothing of his views, religious or otherwise from a study of his music or the texts he set (something that may, of
course apply to all composers--was Mozart actually happy and contented when he wrote the piano concerto in A no 23 and feeling tragic when he wrote nos 20 or 24 in D and C minors ???)

But with Bach there is evidence to the effect that his setting of texts was guided more by musical imperatives (e.g. matters of structure, balance and variety) than by religious or philosophical ones. Time and again we see him focussing upon a particular image from a stanza because it fits the overall structure of the cantata rather than because of the religious/philosophical messages. Bach was the consumate editor--he frequently concentrates upon the particular aspect or image of a text which suits his 'artistic' rather than a pietist or Lutheran perspective.

Similarly (a point which has not yet been fully explored) Bach constantly draws attention to the contrasts between the communal and the personal expressions of faith, praise and piety and again, alters the particular focus of the text to suit.

Examples abound but here is one of his 'editing' process from this week's cantata BWV 79. Movements 1 and 3 (clearly conceived together as they employ the same rousing horn theme) are clearly examples of communal expressions of faith in the Lord---God is our sun and shield.The alto aria between them is a quieter, more personal, less extrovert expression of the same basic sentiments (and linked to the adjoining movements by the opening three note motive, indicating that the three movements were almost certainly conceived as a cognate
group).

The last two lines of the stanza ----though our enemies sharpen their arrows whilst the hounds of hell bay at us----would, in other circumstances, offer Bach powerful images which he could use as the basis of an extended middle section of tortuous melody and chromatic harmony;- and often did. Not so here. The lines are dispensed with in a mere four bars and there is no underlining of the graphic images! There is no middle section of any proportionate dimension and, after these words Bach returns to the first lines of the verse and a reconstituted section A.

It seems reasonable to assume that Bach, whilst seeking to ensure musical variety with this aria, strove to avoid too much dilution of the fundamental mood of overt celebration. The odd structure of the aria serves to illustrate
the point. This is (I suggest) a matter of editing for reasons of balance and seems to me to have little to do with an expression of personal belief or commitment.

We have to wait for the duet to hear the personal pleas of God--do not ever foresake your people (emphasised by its articulation at the very beginning of what is otherwise a ritornello movement, and repeated several times
thereafter). This example also serves to demonstrate Bach's frequent use of the penultimate movement to express the obverse or opposite position from the rest of the cantata e.g. doubt where there was certainty or joy where there was sorrow etc (and vice versa). God may be our sun and shield---but there are still fears that he might forsake us!

Sorry if all this sounds a little turgid--it would take a much longer essay to fully clarify what I am saying with suitable examples and I have cut all this down to bare bones. In short though, my contection is that Bach edits his texts so as to concentrate upon the ideas and images which are ARTISTICALLY most successful, rather than promolgating a personal religious or philosophical viewpoint---and it is propbable a mistake to try to draw conclusions about these.

But others may well disagree!

Ed Myskowski wrote (August 2, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< We have to wait for the duet to hear the personal pleas of God--do not ever foresake your people (emphasised by its articulation at the very beginning of what is otherwise a ritornello movement, and repeated several times thereafter). This example also serves to demonstrate Bach's frequent use of the penultimate movement to express the obverse or opposite position from the rest of the cantata e.g. doubt where there was certainty or joy where there was sorrow etc (and vice versa). God may be our sun and shield---but there are still fears that he might forsake us! >
The contrast is often between Faith/Faith tested, with Faith of course triumphant in the final chorale. I was struck (still am) that in BWV 164, good works on Earth are evidence of Faith (or the opposite, for lack of good works), even in the chorale.

< Sorry if all this sounds a little turgid--it would take a much longer essay to fully clarify what I am saying with suitable examples and I have cut all this down to bare bones. In short though, my contention is that Bach edits his texts so as to concentrate upon the ideas and images which are ARTISTICALLY most successful, rather than promolgating a personal religious or philosophical viewpoint---and it is propbable a mistake to try to draw conclusions about these. >
This presumes that Bach had final editorial control of the texts. Is this not an open question?

I find Peter Smaill's summary concise and to the point: there are a variety of subtle theologic distinctions represented throughout the cantata texts. We are not likely to resolve the reasons with certainty, but the variations are difficult to reconcile with a fixed, inflexible theology.

Even if Bach did have the option to edit for artistic reasons, doesn't this imply some theologic flexibility as well?

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 2, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< This presumes that Bach had final editorial control of the texts. Is this not an open question?
I find Peter Smaill's summary concise and to the point: there are a variety of subtle theologic distinctions represented throughout the cantata texts. We are not likely to resolve the reasons with certainty, but the variations are difficult to reconcile with a fixed, inflexible theology.
Even if Bach did have the option to edit for artistic reasons, doesn't this imply some theologic flexibility as well? >
~~~ I've often heard that for most people their theological perspectives are not set in stone, but continue to be grounds for exploration throughout life. Most humans that I've known go through periods of doubt and belief, and try on various solutions. One individual who I met who was unsure about an after-life attended Jewish services, Catholic services and Protestant services. I say with a big smile that she told me she was taking no chances. And then there is the perspective that many different groups have some of the truth. But given the poetry and texts Bach was able to work with, representing a variety of approaches to Faith, if indeed all the work is his, he must have had flexibility. I would think someone who had many children, and many students and many colleagues would also need flexibility. Flexibility isn't disbelief per se, but rather a little bit of humility mixed with the ideas each person may possess.

Julian Mincham wrote (August 1, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< This presumes that Bach had final editorial control of the texts. Is this not an open question? >
I felt at the time that I probably wasn't making myself clear to everyone.

Peter has already made the point that it is well attested that Bach made changes to some texts particularly to those of von Ziegler.

But this was not my point. I was trying to say that Bach edited the texts 'artisically'rather that by changing the actual words i.e. he took a particular image from a verse, maybe only one word, and the whole construction of a movement might be based upon it because that was right for the balance of the work overall. Or he other tempting possibilities such as in the example I gave from BWV 79 for the same reasons. His editing was a sort of shifting of focus or emphasis with the balance of the whole work in mind AND (I suggest) giving this more significance than the illustration of the fundamental religious tenet.

In a sense you might say that this was inevitable and self evident given the repitition of the (often tedious and rather turgid) texts he was handed and the sheer range of variety and invention he brought to their settings.

A full study of the recits alone (yet to be done) would demonstrate the many times that he declined to illustrate tempting images or messages ---and the other times when he did not.

Ed Myskowski wrote (August 2, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote
<< This presumes that Bach had final editorial control of the texts. Is this not an open question? >>
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I felt at the time that I probably wasn't making myself clear to everyone.
Peter has already made the point that it is well attested that Bach made changes to some texts particularly to those of
von Ziegler. >
My understanding (perhaps not correct) is that the texts Bach set differ from texts subsequently published, in this case, but it is only presumed that Bach was responsible for the changes .

< But this was not my point. I was trying to say that Bach edited the texts 'artisically'rather that by changing the actual words i.e. he took a particular image from a verse, maybe only one word, and the whole construction of a movement might be based upon it because that was right for the balance of the work overall. >
Thanks for the clarification. I did misunderstand your point.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 2, 2007):
[To Ed Myskowski] Even though the Swedish Lutherans came out of Pietism, the Bach I heard even as an infant is an integral part of my spiritual heritage and overrides church politics as they play out even today. So I guess my view of what this music is to me personally is closest to Paul, and not far from Peter...excuse me for smiling, but that almost sounds Biblical. This discussion has been beneficial to me since even as an adult in music circles I have been surrounded almost entirely by Christians for whom Bach is in many cases a reflection of Biblical understanding. Now I understand how Bach worked with the librettists, and that he had some flexibility in working with them. And I think Peter makes an excellent point that Bach stayed with the Lutherans his entire life. That fact persuades me most of all of Bach's Lutheran convictions.

Today diversity is so in the forefront that I have noticed that when people hold opinions of their own in society, and in some university settings others say these folks do not understand diversity. And I guess the reason this topic comes up repeatedly is that someone like me who is still a student and will always be a student raises issues or responds to issues from what I am reading at the moment. I am all for a cordial discussion, and took the liberty of sleeping in late this morning after so many email exchanges. I ended up tiring a little yesterday. Now, as Paul points out, for the most part I have an idea what others will be saying. If I sounded put-off at one point the fact is that Bach's music is part of a unifying element in my life and terribly precious to me. That's where I am coming from.

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 2, 2007):
Jean, if I may offer a little correction, Lutheranism in Sweden began well before the age of Pietism. The Swedes were, early on, supporters of the Lutheran Reformation and their greatest hero in the modern era, Gustavus Adolphus, was an ardent Lutheran who was nearly personally responsible for saving Lutheranism in Europe during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.

Pietism came later on the scene, and like in Germany, influenced various strains and strands of Swedish Lutheranism, even to this day.

One of the finest books prepared in Sweden exploring the impact of Pietism on the faith and life of Swedish Lutherans is, translated into English, "The Hammer of God" by Bishop Bo Giertz, available from Concordia Publishing House: http://www.cph.org

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 2, 2007):
[To Paul T. McCain] Thanks, Paul.

My Dad gave me a copy of The Hammer of God for Christmas last year. I did read the first half before I got distracted by something else...another project. I still have the book where I can get at it easily and will plan to finish it.

I can't remember for sure, but as far as I know related to family history the Pietists were in force, but I do not think anyone living probably knows exactly when our family became Lutheran, though I may call my Dad and ask if he knows. The reason I probably did not know about the Swedes supporting the Reformation is that once Pietism took root in the family other discussions probably went by the wayside. There is so much to know.

Incidentally, after I completed my recording of Cantatas 51 and 52 and the flute concerto recently, for the first time in my life my Dad was actually impressed with the music and what I had accomplished. Given his views in the past at 98 this was quite a step, and he has decided to share that CD with a friend of his who is an arts supporter and opera buff. At 63 I've waited a long time for him to give recognition to both my ability and the worth of Bach's more elaborate compositions. I really did not expect such a positive response. Better late than never.

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 3, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] Great to hear of it Jean. God bless your recording efforts.

I would hazard a guess that your father is very proud of you, but just has a very hard time articulating his emotions.

Old Swedes are that way, you know.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 3, 2007):
[To Paul T. McCain] Thanks, Paul. Maybe, and I hope that has been the case. At least now he seems to be in the ball park. I consider that a good thing, and if he appreciates Bach in all his excellence a little more that isn't a bad thing either.

 

OT: Reflection on Conversations about Bach the Lutheran, or not, or how much..

Paul T. McCain wrote (August 2, 2007):
It's interesting that the conversation about whether or not, or the degree to which, J.S. Bach was an orthodox Lutheran Christian, or not, comes around here on the Bach Cantata site every few months or so.

Having been reading this site for several years now, it follows a fairly typical pattern, for typical reasons.

People who are not, themselves, orthodox Lutheran Christians, do not, understandably so, really have the background to understand Bach's religious beliefs, and therefore, either do not recognize the extent and depth of them throughout his work, or find it more difficult to comprehend them, or even to understand how, or why, Bach could in fact possibly be an orthodox Lutheran Christian.

Still others, themselves being fairly negative over against "organized religion" of any kind, and others being fairly hostile toward Christianity come into the conversation and suggest how entirely irrelevant Bach's religious beliefs are to this list, or to his work, that it is all about the music only and .... etc.

Still others of a different Christian faith and belief perhaps do not with for Bach to be so associated with one particular "brand" or "kind" of Christianity and for them it is a bit uncomfortable to accept the fact that Bach was not a modern day liberal Christian who really did not have any strong convictions that there is one correct interpretation of Christianity and that others are not correct.

Then along comes the few orthodox Lutheran Christians who read this material regularly and we are tempted to get all "huffy" over anyone questioning/challenging or otherwise doubting "our" Bach. And thus it is tempting for us to immediately jump to Brother Bach's defense and take umbrage with speculations about his lack of commitment to what he clearly had embraced throughout his life.

It's an interesting pattern of conversation to observe, one that comes along with some regularity and ebbs and flows in a pattern that is similar to how it goes every other time it comes up.

Though, this time, I must say, for a very long time, I have not sensed the same degree of rancor that has characterized similar conversations. Perhaps it is because the "regulars" on this conversation already basically know what the others are going to say and so are not as emotionally invested in defending or asserting our views as vigorously as in the past.

My position remains quite simple: J.S. Bach was an orthodox Lutheran believer, doing his best to do all he could to bring glory to the God whom He worshipped and adored: the Blessed Holy Trinity, trusting in his Lord Christ to guide him. He was a man of his times, with all that means. Was he "influenced" by other movements and things about him? Of course. Was he however a "closet secularist/agnostic/revolutionary/atheist/socialist/communist/libertine" ... simply put, no. But that's ok.

We can all enjoy and love his music. Those who share his faith, I'm convinced, have even more reason to love it and enjoy it and can understand it in a way that is more difficult for those who do not share his faith.

Many of the speculations about whether or not he was a mystic/Pietist/crypto-Calvinist/crypto-Romanist are based on a pretty serious lack of knowledge about historic Lutheran spirituality, that can easily be traced right back to Martin Luther. Orthodox Lutheranism is, and was, vastly more rich and complex than the stereotypes of it often asserted by modern folks who have a very difficult time, in this highly secularized age, comprehending any society or social structure or culture so deeply immersed in the worldview of orthodox Lutheranism.

And, there you go. My take on this conversation, which remains, interesting as always.

Julian Mincham wrote (August 2, 2007):
Paul T. McCain wrote:
< We can all enjoy and love his music. Those who share his faith, I'm convinced, have even more reason to love it and enjoy it and can understand it in a way that is more difficult for those who do not share his faith. >
Something which we will continue to (amicably) disagree about. I do not agree that sharing the faith puts one on some sort of superior or higher plane of listening, understanding or enjoyment. On the contrary I believe that NOT sharing the faith gives one a degree of objectivity which aids a deep understanding of the music and texts and, through this enhances enjoyment.

Having said this I was not partaking of 'a f'airly typical pattern, for typical reasons' but suggesting soemthing rather different---a way of anaylising both text and music which illuminates much of Bach as an artist but little of his theology.

 

OT: Tracking Pietism

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 3, 2007):
This evening I checked with my 98 year old Dad, who says he has been told he is a Pietist (he is) and he can track the family history in this movement back to Rosenius, and the early 1800s. Prior to 1800 he is not sure if the family followed the Pietist tradition. But apparently they were Lutheran from Gustavus Adolphus on, and Dad even knew the dates of the Reformation wars and details of Adolphus' military acumen. This he did not share with us when we were young, however.

My sister was also in on this call and with her calculations the family must have followed this vein for about 200 years though some have becomes more orthodox or liberal. That's a lot of history. Now I am much clearer on the issues as to why Bach's more elaborate pieces were excluded at least in some cases until probably the 1960s when I took my first college voice lessons and worked on a couple of arias--performed in our church. And our most capable organists did play the great works, but with Dad's influence no doubt some very devotional pieces. However, I read online some of the devotionals that Rosenius wrote so long ago, and they are pretty scary. But it is clear to me at this point that if Pietism has had 200 years within this rather good sized family of mine, why I have wished for a greater sense of freedom both mentally and musically. In the cantatas I suppose I am not put off by the poetry so much because it is not so far from things we heard and read at home, but I like Bach's texts a great deal, too. At 98 Dad can still recite long epic poems and recite hymn verses in a number of languages, and even recited one in Swedish this evening.

The story Dad told me this evening regarding my Great-Grandmother Anderson, who was a staunch Pietist is however, interesting. She had a very fine voice, and Dad says that when hymn sings were held in the various churches people would often turn around to see who was there when they heard her voice. In lieu of an alarm clock, she also roused her family once breakfast was cooking with the hymn, Again Thy Glorious Sun Doth Rise. I think that is a rather standard hymn, though I have not looked up the date or background, but apparently when it came to music she had some flexibility. My Dad believes that I got my vocal inclination from her.

In retrospect, if the strain of Pietism kept me from pursuing a music career in my youth, at least now I have the freedom to really enjoy doing my music my way, and especially the works of Bach. For me, this is living.

Andreas Sparschuh wrote (August 3, 2007):
Jean Laaninen wrote:
< This evening I checked with my 98 year old Dad, who says he has been told he is a Pietist (he is) and he can track the family history in this movement back to Rosenius, and the early 1800s. Prior to 1800 he is not sure if the family followed the Pietist tradition. >
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietism
"Pietism was a movement within Lutheranism, lasting from the late-17th century to the mid-18th century."

< In retrospect, if the strain of Pietism kept me from pursuing a music career in my youth, at least now I have the freedom to really enjoy doing my music my way, and especially the works of Bach. >
Appearently 'pietism' hasn'nt died out by extinction back in "the mid-18th century" as 'wiki' wrongly assumes.
Amazingly it has even survived until now in an 98 years old man:

Are there any other such antediluvian fossils still alive, that presumes to frustrate deliberately musical careers of of gifted talents? Or is that hopefully the ultimate endmost of an endangered species?

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 3, 2007):
[To Andreas Sparschuh] Good to hear from you. I believe that my Dad had two reasons for frustrating my goals. The first was probably the Pietist leaning toward simple hymns and I think he thought my music was getting a little too fancy. And he wasn't keen on me getting a career that might mean he would not get grandchildren for a while if ever. He felt it was a woman's duty to produce the next generation. So the religious aspect entered in, including the idea that children of Lutheran Pietism should be very humble individuals. I had the idea that Lutheran children should be joyful individuals with some exuberance. We don't discuss that topic anymore, but the approach was different.

Then he also had three other children to educate and he was afraid that if I didn't get what he thought to be a practical degree I might be a long-term financial burden. So I got the degree in Sociology, and involved myself thereafter for some years playing the piano and organ for church, and occasionally using the flute and singing solos. But it has only been in the last eleven years that I've really been free enough to work on the more eloquent musical materials. And now Dad is happy enough about it. And, he has his great-grandchildren. I have them listen to my recordings when they come here to visit as they would not know Bach without a little help from Grandma.

The history begun in Europe shaped us and continues in some respects to shape us even though we are in America. That's pretty interesting to me now as I think to ask the questions I didn't explore when I was younger.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 3, 2007):
Oh...I forgot to answer the last part of your question. There are some others who share my Dad's views, but I do not believe that this as a movement. And I don't know enough to say for sure, but I think the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are pretty strict, and maybe a few other groups of Lutherans that are very small denominations also retain some of those past elements. I haven't kept up on that discussion, but maybe someone else on the list knows.

Peter Smaill wrote (August 3, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] If you want to delve more into the Pietist movement, I can recommend "The Pietist Theologians", edited by Carter Lindberg (publisher Blackwell) 2004. It has much Bach cross-connectivity especially through the analysis of the chorale source Paul Gerhardt.

Jean Laaninen wrote (August 3, 2007):
[To Peter Smaill] Thanks Peter,

The Bach connections would be interesting. I'll check into this text.

 

Continue on Part 7

Bach & Religion: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8
Bach the Evangelist:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Introduction | Cantatas | Other Vocal | Instrumental | Performers | General Topics | Articles | Books | Movies | New
Biographies | Texts & Translations | Scores | References | Commentaries | Music | Concerts | Festivals | Tour | Art & Memorabilia
Chorale Texts | Chorale Melodies | Lutheran Church Year | Readings | Poets & Composers | Arrangements & Transcriptions
Search Website | Search Works/Movements | Terms & Abbreviations | Copyright | How to contribute | Sitemap | Links



 

Back to the Top


Last update: ýMarch 11, 2012 ý17:24:22