Very few would place Bach anywhere outside of one of the top musical masters in history. He has universal praise and admiration for his talent, innovation, and inspiration. Personally for me, Bach stands at the top, with Beethoven a very close second. I have yet to read a full-fledged Bach biography, but those that I have glanced at so far turned me off by phrases like, “A man of great musical genius and simple faith,” or “His outstanding musical ability contrasts with his unadorned faith,” or some other such sentiment.
Certainly having a “simple” faith should be praised, if by the term one means something akin to purity of trust, or as Aquinas might have used the term, i.e. “unclouded.” But I doubt that the authors intend this meaning of the word. Instead I get the impression that they mean something like, “Bach poured his genius into his music while rubber-stamping his faith.” Jaroslav Peikan’s Bach Among the Theologians dispels these notions once and for all, and shows Bach to have thought deeply about theological concerns, which he expressed not in letters, memoirs, or treatises but in his music.
Pelikan first sets the context of Bach’s music within the Reformation as a whole. Living on this side of the Reformation many may take certain things about worship for granted. Before the Reformation, churches had musicians, “striving for perfection in the true style of this music, a a performance far removed from subjective expression and concert effectiveness” that often centered around Gregorian chant. The dissolution of this heritage opened up new possibilities for good and evil. Granted, Pelikan admits that Protestant worship music might tend to take on a “performance” character, and hence the horrifying “worship leader” stereotype, which must be one of the worst inheritances of the Reformation. On the other hand, we had the introduction of congregational singing and participation in the service. And while I do think that the Reformation should have kept the baby and at least some of the bathwater from their medieval past, the changes allowed Bach to develop music along a “concert-like” character and forge a whole new style of church music.
But Pelikan does not start his work here. Instead he contextualizes Bach’s work within the Church calendar as a whole. Luther himself kept many so-called Catholic “trappings,” with the Church calendar as a whole. Of course the vast majority of Bach’s works were commissioned for worship settings, and the church calendar dictated at least something of the tone and style of Bach’s work. Here we can make two conclusions, one rather obvious, and the other less so:
- Artists in the modern era often talk of the need for them to be free to create what they wish. I think this idea would have struck people in earlier eras as rather odd. The artist had a job like anyone else. We should not assume that strictures such as “commissions,” and “orders” restrict creativity. Unquestionably, the west’s greatest artists (Machiavelli, Bach, Rembrandt, etc.) did their best work under such so-called “limitations.”
- “The liturgical year is the context in which the Church commemorates, day by day, all history.” Pelikan reminds us that the Church calendar doesn’t merely provide a convenience, it expresses a theology of time.* The major festivals of the church with one exception (Trinity Sunday, the latest addition to the calendar) celebrate not doctrines, but events. The cycle of four seasons integrate our experience with that of creation as a whole. This formed the subtle, sometimes unseen backdrop to Bach’s work. Since much of Bach’s work, then, got commissioned to commemorate events, the possibility of more emotional and experiential content in his music.
Bach never wavered from his staunchly confessional Lutheran perspective. He appears not to have thought much about ever joining a different church. Some might use this to support the “simple faith” thesis of Bach, but Pelikan shows that Bach interacted with many different prevailing ideas of his time and yet was captured by none of them. Bach admired Frederick the Great and Enlightenment rationalism, with its emphasis on balance and symmetry, and muted sensibility. We see this influence in his Well Tempered Clavier, and The Art of the Fugue to great effect (Pelikan also points out the geometrical symmetry of some of his cantatas). This is the kind of Bach music that gives you a contented sense of completion.
But unlike other somewhat contemporary artists (perhaps like Vivaldi, for example), Bach’s range extended far beyond “rationalist” confines. To the dismay of some of his Lutheran patrons, Bach admired some aspects of the emerging Pietist movement, which stressed the importance of subjective religious experience. Pietists occupied almost the opposite point on the spectrum from the rationalists, yet Bach felt comfortable here too. He could see that just as reason has a place in God’s economy, so too does subjective emotional experience. Bach applied his understanding in his St. Matthew’s Passion, where he emphasizes the suffering of Jesus the individual.
In emphasizing such “subjective” emotions, Bach went against some of his staunchest Lutheran supporters (which undercuts whoever sees Bach as a mere tool of his patrons). But in St. John’s Passion Bach picks up on that gospel’s different perspective. In John’s narrative the resurrection receives far more attention, and the resurrection is not just Christ’s victory, but that of all mankind. So he makes St. John’s Passion more magisterial and universal in scope. In these different emphases Bach paid heed to the differences in the texts themselves. Matthew’s gospel has the most Old Testament references so might be described as the gospel that gets the most context, hence, the most particularity. John wrote his gospel much later after the fall of Jerusalem, and so his account gives us more universal, grand themes. Again we see Bach not merely as a musician in a vacuum, but using music to express theology (as I suppose all music does in one way or another).
And finally, the wilder, unhinged Bach of the B Minor Mass . . .
Pelikan reminds us that we will not see the modern view of the artist as the man freed from all limits in Bach no matter how hard we look, however. Yes, he innovated and tweaked sensibilities. Yes, he refused to let one particular theological perspective bind him But his “sacred” works (Pelikan recognizes that with Bach the line between his “sacred” and “secular” works is very thin indeed) all answered to the liturgy of the Church and its measurement of time. If the four seasons of the year give us different perspectives and priorities, so too the Church calendar gives time itself a context. In rooting us to all of time and mapping it out for us, the Church reminds us that God has something to say about all of our experience in His world. God’s limitations, then, are much broader, wider, and deeper than any freedoms we might imagine we grant ourselves. No matter how hard we may try, none of us can break free from the limitations of time itself.
*This gives us a hint as to why controversies in the church surrounding say, when Easter should be celebrated seem arcane and irrelevant to us, but had much greater importance to them.