Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

John Ito

Looking for Bach

The mystery of the missing years

The world of Bach scholarship was rocked in the 1950s and early 1960s, when new research into the chronology of the Leipzig cantatas overturned the view of Bach that had prevailed since Philipp Spitta's monumental biography of 1873-1880. It had been believed that during Bach's 27-year tenure as cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig he had devoted himself primarily to the creation of sacred vocal music, writing around 150 cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the B Minor Mass. But the new research indicated that the vast majority of the cantatas and the two passions were all produced in a four-year period, from the middle of 1723 to the middle of 1727. These revelations had two main effects: they demanded reevaluation of the place of the sacred vocal music within Bach's oeuvre, and they raised the question of what had occupied Bach's energies in the final 23 years of his life.

Bach scholars frequently use seismic imagery when describing the new cantata chronology and its effects; Malcolm Boyd, in the preface to the original 1983 edition of his Bach, wrote that "the new Bach image … will not be seen clearly until the tremors set up by that earthquake have subsided." One might hope that in the intervening 20 years this new image would have been brought into clearer focus, and if anyone could be expected to do this it would be Christoph Wolff, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, and arguably also dean of current Bach scholars. Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is one of several books on Bach that appeared in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his death, and it is the most substantial biography to appear since the crisis of the late '50s.

Readers coming to Wolff with hopes of finding this new image will therefore be surprised to read in the preface that his intent is "not so much to rewrite a full account of Bach's life and works as to update and adjust [Spitta's] image of Bach in order to bring it in line—as objectively as possible and as subjectively as legitimate—with the current state of scholarship." Perhaps motivated by a desire to speak to a broad audience, Wolff never mentions any of the debates within Bach scholarship, presenting his narrative as a sober reading of the original source documents. An extremely cautious and conservative scholar, Wolff probably believes that his account is as much of a "new Bach image" as can be constructed at this point, with hope for future clarity resting solely on the possibility of discovering additional primary source materials. But by denying his readers exposure to questions that he seems to regard as unanswerable he does them a disservice.

Wolff consistently emphasizes the intellectual aspects of Bach's life and the systematic and exploratory nature of his compositional career. Thus he underlines Bach's educational achievements, from his attendance of a traditional Latin school—a departure from the craftsman's training typical in his family of musicians—to the Latin theology examination that he had to pass prior to assuming the cantorate in Leipzig. During his lifetime Bach was famous primarily as one of the leading keyboard virtuosi of the day, and Wolff stresses Bach's consistent career choices to make composition more central to his job description. This is certainly true of his early trajectory, when he gradually went from church organist at the age of 18 to court music director for a minor German prince at age 32, late in 1717.

Biographers wishing to see Bach as devoted first and foremost to church music have sometimes read Bach's move to Leipzig in 1723 to take the position of Thomascantor as a welcome return to the world of sacred music after his sojourn at the Calvinist court of Anhalt-Cöthen. This view is flatly contradicted by documentary evidence, however, as Bach wrote to an old friend in 1730 that he had been extremely happy in Cöthen and only thought of leaving when the court reduced its once lavish spending on music. Bach knew of the opening in Leipzig long before he applied for the job, and he had good reason to hesitate.

On the one hand, the Thomascantor functioned as a sort of municipal music director for one of the most vibrant cities in Germany, a point Wolff underscores by discussing Leipzig's importance as a commercial, cultural, and intellectual center. The cantor provided weekly music for both of the main churches, as well as music for ceremonial occasions at Leipzig University, one of Germany's oldest and most prestigious academic institutions. Wolff stresses the desirability to Bach of the connections available, and he includes biographical sketches of a fairly long list of Leipzig University professors with whom Bach is known to have had personal contact. The position also offered good educational prospects for Bach's sons, who in Cöthen attended the poorly run school of the town's small minority Lutheran congregation. Most important for Wolff, who sees a drive to develop as a composer as the most prominent of Bach's recoverable character traits, in Leipzig Bach would have far more musicians at his disposal than in Cöthen, and his music would be heard by larger audiences in more prominent venues; in moving to Leipzig he would take one of the more important posts a musician could hold at that time in Germany.

On the other hand, his workload increased dramatically with the move to Leipzig. In addition to preparing weekly music to be presented at two different churches each Sunday, he was expected to teach music classes, give private instruction in both singing and instrumental performance, teach Latin (a duty he, like his predecessor, delegated), and serve as a sort of hall monitor for one week each month, calling the boys for morning prayer at 6 o'clock or earlier, supervising meals, and enforcing curfew. Moreover, though he was apparently led to expect a raise of around 50 percent relative to his income as court music director, he instead found himself with the same income as before—but in a more expensive metropolis. He also proved to have a very limited budget for paying professional musicians, so that for the most part he either had to use children whom he was in process of training himself, or else trade instruction for performance with some of the more musically advanced students at the university. It's not surprising, then, that in the same letter of 1730 he stated his intention to find new employment, an intention he never realized.

Wolff draws relatively little attention to the main questions about Bach's period of frenetic cantata composition—namely, why it began in the first place and why it stopped. It certainly wasn't a rush to complete a burdensome task; Bach was not required to provide a cantata of his own for each Sunday and major feast in the liturgical year, let alone the five annual cycles he is believed to have composed (only three survive mainly intact). No other Thomascantor ever did this, and Bach's superiors on the Leipzig town council were not entirely supportive of the project, at least not agreeing to Bach's requests for allocations for hiring additional professional musicians, the ideal performers for Bach's complex scores.

Wolff takes a very traditional position in suggesting that the Leipzig cantatas represented the fulfillment of his goal of "a well-regulated church music," stated in a letter of resignation of 1708. This phrase has probably been overrated as a historical datum, judging both by its context and by its date (in 1708, Bach was 23 years old and 15 years from assuming the Cantorate). Wolff is usually much more cautious in interpreting such statements from the Bach documents. While not explaining the pace of Bach's work, the most satisfying explanation for the Leipzig cantatas to be gleaned from Wolff is that these works fit a pattern of exhaustive exploration of musical possibilities, whether of a single theme, as in the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue, or of a genre (and of the circle of keys) in the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Wolff offers no explanation for the shift in Bach's attention away from sacred vocal works, though again he offers grounds for inference. In 1729 Bach became director of the town's most prestigious Collegium Musicum, a student performing ensemble which had served as a training ground for some of Germany's leading musicians. The Collegium offered Bach opportunities to present a greater variety of works via weekly performances for as many as 150 at Leipzig's most prominent coffee house. Yet while Wolff makes clear that this added to the already busy Cantor's obligations, he steers well clear of implying post hoc ergo propter hoc.

No "new Bach image" can yet claim the completeness of the old one. Wolff's narrative loses steam after 1730, in part because of the insertion of two topical chapters, one of which defends and explores Wolff's thesis about the intellectual side of Bach, but largely because we still don't know much about those years. Bach scholars universally stress that a good deal of information about Bach's life has been irretrievably lost, and that what remains paints an uneventful, even boring, picture.

This last description is, of course, largely a matter of context. Bach's life is deadly dull if placed next to those of Carlo Gesualdo, Frederic Chopin, or Franz Liszt. But compared to the average boy born into a tradesman's family in small-town Germany in 1685, Bach's career was meteoric. A virtuoso from an early age, he ranked among the most accomplished keyboard artists of his time, and events of his life were reported in the major newspapers of Northern Germany with the adjective "famous" routinely applied; by the end of his life his achievement as a composer was described as unsurpassed and even unequalled by musicians in Germany and on the larger European scene. It is, then, the many lacunae, and not the nature of the subject itself, that give the later chapters of Wolff's account a certain flatness.

The eminent Bach scholar Robert Marshall, in The New York Review of Books, charged Wolff with 19th-century-style hagiography.1 If this is true, Wolff's hagiography is a sin of omission, not of commission. Yes, Wolff is steadfast in his refusal to speculate about Bach's character and emotional life, but the vast majority of Bach documents are of an impersonal, official nature. With the exception of diligence and hard work, Wolff attributes neither virtues nor vices to Bach. Also the editor of The New Bach Reader, a collection of the most important Bach documents in English translation, Wolff is as qualified as anyone to make judgments about the reasonable limits of speculation about Bach.2 It is disappointing nonetheless that Wolff neither opens areas of conjecture for his readers nor exposes them to debates within Bach scholarship. Though he states in the preface that "it would not be difficult to devote entire chapters to what is not known about Bach's life," the brief sentences regarding things unknown generally serve as barriers to restricted areas rather than invitations to the reader to personal engagement with difficult questions.

It is clear that Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician has been both designed and marketed for a general audience, from the minimal use of endnotes (almost exclusively referring to The New Bach Reader or the more exhaustive German collection) and the avoidance of technical discussion of music to the quotes from famous performers (n.b. not scholars) that adorn the dustjacket. Perhaps he wished to spare his readers difficulty; if so, he was probably underestimating them. It is hard to imagine that anyone willing to read the 450 pages of Wolff's account would not also be willing to wrestle with challenging issues.

For readers who wish to delve into issues of Bach scholarship beyond what a single volume offers, Wolff's book will be particularly frustrating in its failure to offer any orientation at all to the Bach literature beyond the original source materials. Such readers will probably want to consult Malcolm Boyd's update of his life-and-works Bach. Boyd packs twice the material into a book half the length (Wolff will survey the music in a planned second volume), and in the process orients readers well to current issues in Bach scholarship. His bibliography is also both more complete and more usefully organized than Wolff's.

Boyd's book lends itself to selective reading. Interleaving biographical chapters with chapters on the music breaks the flow of the narrative, especially as the treatment of the music can be heavy going. But those looking for a briefer account of Bach's life than Wolff's could read the biographical chapters only and gain a good overview in a hundred pages. And because Bach tended to focus on a few types of composition at a time, Boyd's chapters that treat related clusters of genres fit logically between the biographical chapters. Performers wanting to increase their understanding of a particular genre will be grateful for this sensible organization.

Boyd's treatment of the music is clearly intended for a more scholarly audience than Wolff's. It's not that Boyd is particularly technical in his discussion, though he does use more musical jargon than Wolff. Rather, his focus on the overall character of a genre will only be meaningful and interesting to real aficionados of music. Musical novices tend to respond well to detailed exegeses of individual works (provided of course that these are couched in simple enough language). It takes a much more knowledgeable and experienced listener to find interest in a discussion of the evolving role of the chorale in Bach's cantatas. Readers who do have such interests might well enjoy reading only the chapters on the music; Boyd offers many fascinating insights, such as a suggestion that Bach prefigured the tonal plan of sonata form in both keyboard preludes and da capo arias.

Boyd calls more attention than Wolff to the apparent decrease in Bach's output around 1730, but he doesn't have much more to offer in the way of explanation. Though admittedly speculative, as of course any hypothesis would be, the best account I have seen is probably the one offered by Gerhard Herz in "Toward a New Image of Bach" from his Essays on J. S. Bach.3 Herz, who has studied the new chronology in great detail, correlates Bach's compositional activity with his professional hopes and frustrations. Many times, Herz shows, intense compositional activity ceased when new jobs or positions that Bach had desired failed to come his way—or, in the case of the cantatas, when promised income and privileges were withheld. Particularly with the cantatas Herz makes remarkably close correlations between the dates of Bach's various exchanges with his superiors and the stages of his turning away from cantata composition. Herz and Boyd both believe that at the end of Bach's life, when published criticism of his music made him clearly recognize how deeply out of step with his time that music was, Bach made posterity his audience, producing the B Minor Mass and the Art of Fugue as magisterial summations of his art. For Herz, only then were Bach's compositional efforts fully freed from attempts to gain recognition and reward.

Bach's biographers frequently mention that the man would hold little interest if not for his music, and many Christians are likely to find engagement with the music more deeply edifying than engagement with the man. It is ironic that while Bach is frequently regarded as the paradigmatic example of the Christian composer, the works that earned him that place remain relatively little known. Remedying that situation, and thus allowing Bach's sacred music to benefit contemporary English-speaking believers, is the goal of Calvin Stapert's My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach. Stapert's book is a guide for listeners who wish to use Bach's music devotionally, organized around basic doctrines as expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism. Any concern that this Calvinist document might be used to co-opt the Lutheran Bach is set to rest in the preface, which forthrightly brings up the evidence that Bach was probably not sympathetic to Calvinist teachings. Stapert's use of the Heidelberg Catechism is not historical but devotional; it is the doctrinal statement he is most intimately familiar with, and he feels that it, like Bach's music, puts primary emphasis on the most basic themes of orthodox Christian belief.

My Only Comfort is a real gift to the church, as it offers insightful readings of many of Bach's greatest sacred works in language accessible to readers with only moderate musical training. Some of these readings are original, and some are culled from writings by Jaroslav Pelikan, Eric Chafe (both discussed below), and Friedrich Smend. Smend, the godfather of all who do theological close reading of Bach, is curiously never explicitly cited, perhaps because the intent of the book is devotional rather than academic. Among Stapert's original contributions, his discussion of the connotations of instrumentation in the second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio is particularly valuable. This kind of work requires considerable insight into both music and theology, and Stapert shows both in abundance. Such insight is also on display in his relatively extended discussion of the complementary relationship between freedom and constraint in both music and theology; also discussed at length in Jeremy Begbie's Theology, Music and Time, it may be an idea whose time has come.4

One of Stapert's virtues is that he requires his readers to have relatively little in the way of musical background. The book should be readable by anyone who played an instrument moderately seriously as a child and who has some degree of knowledge about Baroque music. Stapert frequently discusses the basic materials of music (notes, intervals, time signatures, etc.), and he also uses musical terms such as "basso continuo" or "ritornello" that are the stuff of college-level music appreciation courses. A glossary of terms at the back will help fill in gaps in readers' knowledge, but will probably not be sufficient for those who are starting from scratch. The one complaint in this area is the lack of musical examples. Stapert does admirably well without them, but as few people who can't read music could really follow his discussion in the first place, some well-chosen musical examples might well have been included without driving many readers away. They would be particularly useful in listening to chorale preludes; the hymn-tunes so familiar to Bach's listeners are often hidden in complex textures, and without knowing the tune it can be hard to distinguish the main melody from the rich tapestry Bach weaves around it.

Though generally very illuminating, Stapert's readings are not all equally convincing; at times he stretches his interpretations a little too far, and his reading of Cantata 56, "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen," doesn't seem to fit as well as other works might have with the theme of discipleship under which he discusses it. (To Stapert's credit, the friction is between a good reading and its place in his argument, not between a forced reading and Bach's music.) His insightful readings of progressions in discipleship in the passions and in Cantata 147 occasionally have a stronger flavor of late-20th-century conservative American Calvinism than of 18th-century Lutheranism, but the reader attuned to such fine points will have no trouble in making the necessary adjustments herself. The relatively minor flaws in this book will not substantively diminish the service it will render to the reasonably musically literate reader who wants to open her ears to the theology Bach embedded in his music.

Stapert wishes to encourage an engagement with Bach cantatas beyond those that he discusses, so he informs his readers about several translations of the texts of the cantatas, the German language being of course the primary barrier for English-speaking listeners. A resource that I suspect he would have endorsed strongly had it appeared prior to his own is Richard Stokes's new translation, J. S. Bach: The Complete Church and Secular Cantatas. This work is in general very accurate, and Stokes follows earlier translators in including helpful features such as italics for biblical quotations and boldface type for preexisting hymn stanzas. Most important, he almost always translates line by line, which is ideal for listening to the music; a less precise translation makes it hard to correlate text with music, while a word-by-word translation is rarely comprehensible as English.

The most significant problem in using the translation is found in the biblical quotations. Unlike the rest of the texts, which are formatted as poetry, they are formatted as prose paragraphs, making it harder to correlate text and translation. Stokes also chose to use the King James Version, which can be somewhat different from a literal rendering of Luther's translation into English. In general, though, Stokes' translations will be a much more consistently useful guide than most translations included in cd booklets, certainly better than previous full translations.

Readers with the musical background to delve more deeply into Bach's musical expressions of faith will find that detailed theological exegeses have not formed a large part of Bach studies. Jaroslav Pelikan presents a historical theologian's perspective on the sacred music in his Bach Among the Theologians, placing the works in the context of the intellectual and theological currents of their day.5 Unfortunately Pelikan deals primarily with the texts of the cantatas and passions, saying relatively little about the music.

It remains rare for a musicologist to examine the role of the music in the theological statements of the cantatas with the kind of depth that would be standard in a literary study. Among contemporary scholars, Eric Chafe is at the forefront of this enterprise, and his Analyzing Bach Cantatas is a truly remarkable achievement, at once expanding the depth of his inquiry and making his theories accessible to readers with relatively little knowledge of music theory. Though the range of disciplines Chafe draws upon is formidable, much of the book should be comprehensible to anyone with the equivalent of one college-level harmony course. Some knowledge of German is helpful, and access to a library that has scores and recordings of the complete cantatas is essential.

Chafe's basic premise is that Bach made allegorical use of the musical relationships between tonal centers in his music. Keys relate to one another by being sharper or flatter, which corresponds to using higher or lower notes. For example, the notes used in C major differ from those used in G major in that the key of C uses Fs while the key of G uses F-sharps, which are higher than Fs. All other notes used are the same. We thus say that G is sharper than C, or that G is higher than C. (This latter usage has become less common than it was in Bach's time because of increasing realization that the keys form circles. If you continue moving to higher keys you eventually return to your starting point via lower keys, making the higher/lower concept problematic.)

For reasons having to do with the history of music theory, Chafe maps movement among keys in terms of motions to higher or lower keys; in Analyzing Bach Cantatas, Chafe calls these relative motions tonal ascent and tonal descent. Because Bach frequently changed key when a significant change in the text occurred, and also frequently changed key between movements of a larger work, Chafe is able to correlate the relative position of the keys with certain kinds of oppositions within the texts. The description of relative position as higher and lower had a history of being associated with affirmative/negative; thus keys can be mapped to such pairs as happy/sad, future/present, heavenly/earthly, fulfilled/anticipating, divine/human, etc. There was also a history of describing higher and lower keys as relatively hard or soft, respectively. This reinforces some of the correlations already present, as well as opening ones such as strong/weak and harsh/gentle. Motion among keys can thus function allegorically in a number of different contexts.

Chafe's book divides roughly in half, with the first four chapters laying out his methodology and the latter five applying it in increasingly in-depth analyses. Early chapters provide an overview of orthodox Lutheran theology, hermeneutics, and liturgical practice, and present his theories about the allegorical use of keys. After a chapter that illustrates his theories in a detailed analysis of Cantata 21, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis," chapter 4 presents the main new extension of his theory, which has to do with the use of modal chorale melodies. Bach frequently incorporated these old modal hymns in his cantatas, and when viewed from a perspective of tonality, and especially when embedded in a tonal setting, these modal melodies opened a wealth of possibilities. This chapter is the most dense and challenging in the book, and it will make for slow going for readers with less background in music theory. Some basic knowledge of modal theory will be needed, and some of the terminology Chafe introduces will likely be unfamiliar.6

The remaining chapters explore Chafe's theories by means of increasingly large-scale analyses. These culminate in chapters 7 and 8, which are devoted to Cantata 77, "Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, Lieben" ("You shall love the Lord your God"). Chafe's analyses are consistently illuminating, and this one serves well as the centerpiece of the book. In Chafe's treatment of the first movement of the cantata we see his interpretive approach functioning at its best, performing a revelatory exegesis of a remarkably complex musico-theological statement. The text for the movement is taken from the gospel reading for the day, the statement of the greatest commandments in Luke chapter 10. The melodic materials, however, come from the tune usually associated with Luther's chorale "Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot," which paraphrases the Ten Commandments and places them within a distinctly Lutheran theological context. For Luther the main purpose of the Old Testament law was to enable recognition of human sinfulness, and thus of the need for the gospel. Though the greatest commandments are presented as instructions to be followed elsewhere in Bach's sacred music, here Bach emphasized their status as a summary of Old Testament law. By using the melody of the familiar Ten Commandments chorale, Bach was reminding his listeners that the greatest commandments cannot ultimately be fulfilled, but instead point to the need for grace.

What Chafe's analysis reveals is that Bach's musical statement goes far deeper than merely using the melody to Luther's chorale. He first examines the modal melody, and shows that it moves consistently toward lower keys, also moving from major to minor. Put more precisely in modal language, the melody starts in a bright G Mixolydian. Its initial cadence points are Cs, and it continues an implied tonal descent, cadencing on F. B-flats are then introduced, so that the melody ends in G transposed Dorian.

In Chafe's analysis of the first movement of the cantata he then reveals that, in parallel with the previously known use of the number ten in the segmentation of the movement, Bach created a tonal path similar to that of the chorale melody. The movement starts in an optimistic major (C major or G Mixolydian), but gradually makes a tonal descent to F major and B-flat major. It then switches to the parallel minor mode and continues the descent, moving from G minor to C minor, before an eventual return to G Mixolydian to end the movement. Both in its tonal descent and its move from major to minor, the first movement expands the tonal dynamic of the chorale melody so that it steers the course of the movement as a whole.

Chafe's analysis does not trade in music theoretical arcana, but rather in structures which will be readily hearable for many listeners, especially the shift from major to minor. Heard as Chafe suggests, the movement's gradually changing keys represent the dawning awareness of the impossibility of obeying the law.

The rest of the treatment of Cantata 77 is unfortunately marred by Chafe's most frequent failing. Bach's cantatas are sufficiently rich that Chafe's interpretive method often raises more potential interpretations than can coexist without at least apparent contradiction. Chafe does not always make a choice when these conflicts arise, and in this case he seems to suggest that Bach is simultaneously reminding his audience about the impossibility of perfectly fulfilling the law and also suggesting love of neighbor as a solution to this dilemma. But if we agree with Chafe that the first movement has powerfully expressed the law's role in conviction of sin, then for a Lutheran of Bach's time the only next step can be faith in the atonement of Jesus for salvation. Without that prior step, extolling love of neighbor would sound like endorsing justification by works.

There are, to be sure, many issues of history and music theory raised by Chafe's book, and I have dealt with some of these in a review in the journal Current Musicology.7 For readers who are not scholars of music, however, the main question is, does Chafe's interpretive lens lead to a richer hearing of the cantatas? The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Though certainly needing to be used with discretion, Chafe's approach brings attention to rich relationships within the music, and allows large works to make coherent statements in new ways.

In particular, musicians, composers, and musicologists concerned with how music might be able to express theological truth should not miss Chafe's book. I know of no work that offers a more powerful or comprehensive picture of how the basic materials of music can serve the expression of faith. Chafe's earlier book on Bach, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach, also contains many insightful discussions, in particular a chapter on the relationship between faith and reason and extended analyses of the passions.8 The more recent book should definitely be read first, however, as it provides a much clearer introduction to Chafe's theories. The first several chapters of Tonal Allegory are very heavy going and can be skipped by readers of Analyzing Bach Cantatas. They will only need to know that the cumbersome terms catabasis and anabasis are forerunners of the more direct tonal ascent and tonal descent of the later volume.

Some of Bach's works approach timeless universality more closely than any other body of music. A perfect example of the 19th-century concept of absolute music, the inner structures that can be abstracted from the surface of the music can be dressed in the trappings of almost any style of Western tonal music. Bach's works have been endlessly reorchestrated, adapted into jazz pieces and pop tunes, and overlaid with operatic melodies. When European art music is combined with music from other cultures, Bach's works are often called upon as the most flexible representatives of the West. His A minor Invention even survived a mechanical performance by a Commodore 64 in television commercials of the 1980s. As particularly extreme examples, the riddle canons are perfect models of a deistic Enlightenment cosmos: they have been designed to run perfectly and perpetually, sustained by the mathematics of their contrapuntal dynamics, and requiring no involvement from their creator apart from that initial act of creation—indeed, any intervention would be a sign of the imperfection both of the creator and of his creation.

The flip side of the coin of transcendence is emotional distance. Many of Bach's more translatable musical creations speak with a certain reserve; though all are not as austere as the Art of Fugue, they are not usually among Bach's most impassioned works. The B Minor Mass is a particularly interesting example. As a setting of the Latin Mass, the work seems to embody the voice of the Church Universal. Though certainly containing strong emotional statements, as for example when the Crucifixus leads to the Et resurrexit, these tend to be public, communal emotions. Perhaps most tellingly, the Et incarnatus, in sounding a theme that so often led to intimate statements in the cantatas, emphasizes the mysterious aspect of the Incarnation with jarring chromatic harmonies and dissonant voice leading.

What a contrast there is between the B Minor Mass and the cantatas. The cantatas are in general emotionally vivid, striking in their immanence. In this they represent the apotheosis of Baroque opera. Recitative and aria, which could be so stilted as a means of representing a conventional drama, are ideal bearers of a psychodrama of the soul, well-suited to conveying tensions between head and heart, action and reflection. In contrast to the emotional distance that Bach’s works can have, and far from the profound sense of abstraction that allowed Bach to fail to specify instrumentation in the Art of Fugue, the cantatas bring before the listener with often overwhelming power the inner workings of a soul in relationship with God.

But the price of emotional immediacy, of greater immanence, is being culturally situated to a higher degree. When Bach prepared fresh manuscripts of some of his greatest works late in his life, presumably as a sign that he saw them as the primary testaments to his accomplishment as a composer, the St. Matthew Passion was the sole representative of the German-

language sacred works. There would have been little reason for him to believe that his cantatas would be studied or performed extensively in the future. And we do indeed need to cross significant cultural barriers when we strive today to apprehend the cantatas. At the most basic level we need to understand the language—either by knowing German or by following a translation—and we need to get used to a highly idiosyncratic musical language. The more deeply we are drawn in, the greater investments we make, as we broaden knowledge of theology and music theory to include 17th- and 18th-century Lutheranism and issues in the history of music theory.

I find that these costly investments pay off richly. I love the instrumental music, and the B Minor Mass is among the glories of Western music, but it is the German-language sacred music that most powerfully challenges and encourages my faith, that most strongly spurs me on to love and good deeds. If I allow this valuation to color my perspective on Bach, then I must wonder if he was called to a particularly close imitation of the Man of Sorrows. Underappreciated by those he served, he would render his deepest, most lasting service to God’s people in the creation of those works seemingly surest to be swept away by the ravages of time and changing fashion.

But entertaining this picture of Bach raises the question of the extent to which he might have understood and accepted such a calling. If he indeed curtailed work when he failed to receive the recognition and reward that he saw as his due, could we then see him as an 18th-century Jonah, attempting with limited success to stray from the path chosen for him? Could his late works be seen as a misguided attempt to gain transcendence and leave something of lasting value? Put most pointedly, did Bach have too much regard for worldly acclaim and not enough trust that God could bring lasting fruit from his work? At a historical level these questions are speculative and ultimately unanswerable, but they are not thereby rendered trivial. Indeed, they have an uncomfortable resonance for all of us who would put our work at the service of God's kingdom.

Books discussed in this Essay:

Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton, 2000).

Malcolm Boyd, Bach (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000).

Calvin R. Stapert, My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach (Eerdmans, 2000).

Richard Stokes, trans., J. S. Bach: The Complete Church and Secular Cantatas (Scarecrow Press, 2000).

Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000)

John Ito is a doctoral candidate in music theory at Columbia University.

1. Robert L. Marshall, "In Search of Bach," The New York Review of Books, June 15, 2000.

2. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Rev. and expanded by Christoph Wolff (Norton, 1998).

3. Gerhard Herz, Essays on J. S. Bach (UMI Research Press, 1985).

4. Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

5. Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians (Fortress Press, 1986).

6. The ease of reading is not helped by the most clear-cut error in the book; the discussion of the hymn "Durch Adams Fall" on pp. 89-91 makes sense only if a passage from a music treatise is applied to the melody of Example 4.4 and the discussion linking the passage to Example 4.3 is ignored.

7. John Ito, review of Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas. Current Musicology, Vol. 70 (2002), pp. 141-157.

8. Eric Chafe, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach (Univ. of California Press, 1991).

Most ReadMost Shared