Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) lived at the midpoint between Luther’s Reformation (1517) and today. Interesting times for both religion and music. The latin settings of Psalms and the modal harmonies of Gregorian Chant were receding into the past as many new sound possibilities for music in worship began to emerge.
“Next to the word of God,” wrote Luther, “only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of Human feelings. And when music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect Wisdom of God in his wonderful work of harmony.” – Martin Luther, c. 1517
The Democratization of the Bible
Luther had translated the New Testament into German for the first time from the 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament of Erasmus, and published it in September of 1522. Luther also published a German Pentateuch in 1523, and another edition of the German New Testament in 1529. In the 1530’s he would go on to publish the entire Bible in German.
Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press had already made the mass-production of books possible for the first time around 1450 (in Europe that is, China had been doing it since the 9th century), and the Bible was the first real book to be published using this new technique. It was like the ‘digital democratization of information’ idea that many still hope the internet and world-wide-web will make possible (how is that been working out for you all?) – for anyone to be able to access the information that for so long had been only available to the ‘high priests’ who maintained the Latin and Greek handwritten Bibles.
Now that Luther had translated it into a language of ‘the people’ for the first time, Bach would be composing cantatas and other choral music for each week’s service that would have these same Bible texts in German, reinforcing each week’s message, even allowing the congregation to sing along, since many knew these texts by heart, even if they could not read. So the combination of Gutenberg’s press, Luther’s translation of the Bible to German, and Bach’s incorporation of these Bible texts in German into his music used in the weekly services, all this resulted in more people gaining access to the text, being able to hear it in their own language and read it in their own language.
J.S. ‘Papa’ Bach
When it is said that J.S. Bach was a prodigious composer, it is not in reference to his being the loving father of 13 children. Bach was proud of his musical heritage. Lutherans all, since the Reformation, his family tree included many successful composers and musicians. Most were employed by churches to compose and perform new music weekly, and special music for the sacred holidays. So it was natural to produce a huge catalog of music in one’s lifetime. What is not so usual however is for so much of one man’s work to be still so widely known, taught and performed over 300 years later.
Whether commissioned to write a piece for sacred or secular use, all of J.S. Bach’s music is infused with spirit. A master of the contrapuntal technique of the Baroque period, his music is never simply mathematical. It is one thing to master the forms and harmonic relationships well enough to crank out formula pieces, but it is another thing to use the power of those limits to generate unique musical experiences that can actually affect the listener’s consciousness. There is an implicate grace in the order and harmony of Bach’s music that uses the launch pad of logic to take off and soar majestically among the higher heavens of the Divine Forms of God.
For Bach not only believed that
“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
He also knew how to pull it off.
Here Is How He Went About It – The Short Version
1685 – 1695 – When he was eight years old he went to the old Latin Grammar School, where Martin Luther had once been a pupil; he was taught reading and writing, Latin grammar, and a great deal of scripture, both in Latin and German. The boys of the school formed the choir of the St. Georgenkirche, which gave Johann Sebastian an opportunity to sing in the regular services, as well as in the nearby villages. He was described as having ‘an uncommonly fine treble voice’. The Lutheran spirit would have been strong in Eisenach, for it was in the Wartburg Castle standing high above the town, that Martin Luther, in hiding from his persecutors, translated the New Testament into German.
Roads were still unpaved in the smaller towns, sewage and refuse disposal poorly organized, and the existence of germs not yet scientifically discovered. Mortality rates were high as a result. At an early age Johann Sebastian lost a sister and later a brother. When he was only nine years old his mother died. Barely nine months later his father also died.
1695 – 1700 – Johann Sebastian and one of his brothers, Johann Jakob, were taken into the home of an older brother, Johann Christopf, a formal student of Pachabel. During this period Johann Sebastian attended the Gymnasium (grammar school) of Ohrdruf, once a monastic foundation, which had become one of the most progressive schools in Germany. He made excellent progress in Latin, Greek and theology, and had reached the top form at a very early age. The scholars of the Gymnasium, as at Eisenach, were also employed as choir-boys, and their Cantor, Elias Herda, had a high opinion of Johann Sebastian’s voice and musical capabilities.
1700 – He had been highly valued in choirs due to his unusually fine soprano singing voice. But when his voice began to change, he made himself useful with violin and harpsichord.
1705 – Bach meets the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude in Lubeck, is so inspired by Buxtehude’s music and his ideas on art, that he takes every opportunity over the next several months to meet with him and discuss these ideas.
1703 – 1707 – Employed as organist in Arnstedt during this time, Bach attempts to put his exciting new ideas to work in his compositions. The congregation however was completely surprised and bewildered by his new musical ideas: there was considerable confusion during the singing of the chorales, caused by his “surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation”.
The Church Council resolved to reprimand Bach on his ‘strange sounds’ during the services, and they also asked him to explain the unauthorized extension of his leave in Lübeck. Bach did not attempt to justify himself before what must have seemed to him a group of narrow-minded and conservative old gentlemen; yet the Council, knowing how skilled his playing was, decided to treat their young and impetuous organist with leniency.
However, new conflicts soon arose when Bach, citing a clause in his contract, refused to work any longer with the undisciplined boys’ choir which the Council, for economic reasons, forced Bach to train on his own. For this the Council further reprimanded him and also added the complaint that he had been “entertaining a strange damsel” to music in organ loft of the church. The young lady was probably his cousin, Maria Barbara, whom he was later to marry.
1707 – Bach marries Maria Barbara. By now, Bach has high ideals for the church music of Germany, and to start with, he began organizing the rather poor facilities of Mühlhausen; he began by making a large collection of the best German music available, including some of his own, and set about training the choir and a newly created orchestra to play the music. He had also become an expert on organ construction and repair and the Council approved a major rebuild on the organ there.
However, before the organ was completed, a religious controversy arose in Mühlhausen between the orthodox Lutherans, who were lovers of music, and the Pietists, who were strict puritans and distrusted art and music. Bach was apprehensive of the latter’s growing influence, in addition to the fact that his immediate superior was a Pietist. Music in Mühlhausen seemed to be in a state of decay, and so once more he looked around for more promising possibilities.
1721 – Bach went to work for 5 or 6 years as Cappellmeister for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, barely twenty-five years old, the son of a Calvinist. As the Calvinists were antagonistic to the splendors of the Lutheran liturgy, there was no church music at Cöthen; however, the young Prince’s religious beliefs did not bar him from enjoying a cheerful and cultivated style of living complete with secular cantatas and instrumental music featuring the latest styles and fashions. During one of their travels , he returned home to find that during his absence, his wife Maria Barbara, whom he had left 3 months earlier in perfect health had died. They had no children.
1726 – At 36, Bach marries Anna Magdelena, age 20, a soprano in one of the choirs Prince Leopold employed. Anna was very kind to Bach’s children, a good housekeeper, and she took a lively interest in his work, often helping him by neatly copying out his manuscripts. During their 28 years of marriage, 13 children were born to their family, though few of them survived through childhood.
1723 – 1729 – During this period Bach is employed in Leipzig composing and performing Odes and Cantatas for the weekly church services. To reach a fuller understanding of Bach’s approach to and role in church music-making we need to go back a couple of hundred years (from 1725) to Martin Luther who, with his Ninety-Five Theses founded the Reform Church in 1517. “Next to the word of God,” wrote Luther, “only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of Human feelings. And when music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great and perfect Wisdom of God in his wonderful work of harmony.” Luther’s conviction of the dignity of music caused him to elevate it in the orthodox German liturgy to co-ministrant with the sacred Word, adopting the biblical text for the day as the theme for the cantata, and elaborating the associated chorale on the organ. The Bach Family, Lutheran from the time of the Reformation, seem from conversion to have cast themselves for this supporting priesthood until, after two hundred years, members of this prestigious family were playing and directing in over a dozen German churches simultaneously. Johann Sebastian Bach was speaking with some authority when he stubbornly and continually asserted that in matters of Church Music he, a Bach, should not be contradicted.
The Leipzig Church Service was highly structured. It was based first and foremost on the Biblical Text appropriate for the day, from which all else followed. Along with the Biblical Text, there would be one or two Chorales which, being based on the Biblical Text, would normally be integrated into the Service. The Organist would be expected to feature the Chorale Melody of the day throughout, preluding and extemporizing on the Melody before, during and after the Service. The Chorale would also of course be sung in its entirety by the Choir and the Congregation who though largely illiterate probably knew the words by heart. The Biblical Text would be read, and would then form the basis for the Sermon, in which the Biblical Text would be explained, with morals drawn from it and applied to everyday life and everyday conduct. The Cantata formed a central part of the Service, and would integrate both the Biblical Text and the Chorale for the day. Bach was a deeply religious man very familiar with the Bible – his own copy being carefully annotated in the margins. His Cantatas were as much a lesson as the sermon itself.
Bach’s Opening Choruses represent some of his finest and most compelling compositions. Here he would use all his arts to create music which would inspire his congregation; he would carefully craft the music and its mood to reflect the biblical text, a feature which can clearly be seen and heard when one listens to the opening chorus in conjunction with its text. This was music which for Bach represented the highest purpose to which any art can aspire: the Glory of God. Indeed his cantatas were generally “signed” S.D.G. for Soli Deo Gloria – to the Glory of God Alone.
1750 – Johann Sebastian Bach was originally buried at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894 his coffin was finally discovered and reburied in a vault within St. John’s Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, and in 1950 Bach’s remains were taken to their present resting place at Leipzig’s Church of St. Thomas.