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Bach & God

Michael Marissen
Published by Oxford University Press in 2016

Reviewed by Markus Rathey, Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University

The title of Michael Marissen’s new book, Bach & God, seems to be redundant. No other composer in music history has been defined as much by the religious import of his music as the “fifth evangelist,” Johann Sebastian Bach. And yet, readers familiar with Marissen’s previous books and articles will be aware that the case is not as clear-cut as it seems.

In his introduction, Marissen clarifies that the book is not so much dealing with Bach, the person, whom we know little about, but rather with Bach’s music and the religious content of this music. While Marissen identifies himself as agnostic, he reminds his readers that a purely aesthetic reception of Bach’s works that does not acknowledge its religious and liturgical contexts misses an important layer of meaning. Constructing some of these contexts is the goal of the publication.

The chapters of the book are revised and updated versions of essays that have been published in the last two decades, most of them in non-musicological periodicals. Readers will therefore find essays that have not been readily available to a wide array of scholars. And even readers who are familiar with the original versions will appreciate the updated bibliography and some clarifying additions.

The book consists of three major sections. The first section explores the impact of Lutheran theology on Bach’s cantatas, the second section focuses on the problem of anti-Judaism (and the absence thereof) in Bach’s works, and the final section provides a theological reading of Bach’s Musical Offering.

In the opening section, Marissen shows how a profound knowledge of Lutheran theology in the early modern period is indispensable for a deeper understanding of the meaning of both the texts of Bach’s cantatas and some of Bach’s compositional decisions. Marissen argues against the notion that Bach was merely a composer sensitive to the text he was setting but otherwise uninterested in the meanings of his texts. The first chapter of the book provides short case studies that show how individual movements of Bach’s cantatas reflect aspects of Lutheran theology. The examples, taken from cantatas 13, 9, and 170, do not provide complete interpretations of the cantatas, but they can serve as a models for interpreters of how to read and analyze Bach’s vocal works. Readers interested in the theological import of Bach’s music will find useful examples for further investigation.

The second chapter focuses on the libretti of Bach’s cantatas and the problems of translating the sometimes-challenging eighteenth-century texts. By comparing different translations that can be found in books and accompanying recordings, Marissen shows how misunderstandings of antiquated words in eighteenth-century German can lead to incorrect and anachronistic readings. He also demonstrates that the texts for Bach’s vocal works operate with biblical allusions, which also have to be recognized by the reader. Marissen develops five useful categories for his study of the libretti:

(1) where the text seems straightforward but has a different meaning when viewed biblically, (2) where the text assumes specific biblical knowledge on the part of the listener to complete its thought, (3) where the text assumes specific knowledge of Lutheran theology, (4) where the text contains archaic language, and (5) where the text may on the face seem well nigh impossible to understand. (31)

Like the first chapter, the second chapter should again be read as a collection of case studies that provide models for the reader.

The main body of the book comprises four chapters that deal with the problem of anti-Judaism in Bach’s vocal works and in the Lutheran tradition in general. In an illuminating study of cantata 46, Schauet doch und sehet, Marissen demonstrates how anti-Jewish tendencies in Lutheran theology of Bach’s time inform the libretto for the cantata and subsequently Bach’s setting of the text. True to the paradigms developed in the opening chapters of his book, Marissen provides a “historically informed reading” of the libretto for cantata 46 in which he consults a wealth of theological sources, most of them known as having been part of Bach’s own library.

Some readers might view Marissen’s explanations critically: Was Bach anti-Jewish? Don’t the negative depictions of Jews often lead in Bach’s works to criticism of the Christian congregation? Marissen responds to both. As he had pointed out in his introduction, the goal of the book is not to reconstruct Bach’s own faith, but rather to provide the framework in which Bach’s music and the texts he set have to be understood. As for the second counter-argument, Marissen is right to point out that even if the negative depiction of Jews serves as a mirror of Christians’ sins, the image of the Jews is still negative. For the disconcerted reader, Marissen adds,

Cantata 46 cannot reasonably be expected to have accommodated twenty-first century liberal convictions, and even so, the verbal polemic in Bach’s Schauet doch is not particularly vitriolic. … His cantata is altogether temperate, for example, compared to Luther’s violence-espousing “On the Jews and Their Lies” of 1543. (113)

The subsequent chapter takes a broader view of Jews in the Gospel of John and how these views are transformed in Bach’s cantatas. The focus is particularly on the depiction of the Pharisees in cantata 179 (Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei), as well as the meaning of the term “the Jews” in cantata 42 (Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats) and cantata 44 (Sie werden euch in den Bann tun).

While Bach’s cantatas and their historical context resonated with anti-Jewish sentiment, Marissen also shows in two chapters that the libretti for Bach’s passions do not take up the anti-Judaism that we find in contemporary settings by other composers in the eighteenth century. The chapter on the “St. John Passion and the Jews” is rather short and was originally published as an article for a general audience in the New York Times in the year 2000. Readers might want to consult Marissen’s Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion (Oxford University Press, 1998) additionally, which elaborates on this issue and provides an annotated libretto of the passion.

In the following chapter, Marissen devotes significant attention to a close reading of the use of the term Volk (“people”) in Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew and subsequently in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Marissen concludes,

given the historical evidence, it does not appear that the kind of interpretation of the gospel projected by the words and music of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion can be said to have any reasonable connection with the physically violent or determined eternal-damnation strains of anti-Jewish sentiment often associated … with Matthew’s Passion narrative. (187)

Like in the St. John Passion, Bach and his librettist refrain from possible anti-Jewish polemics. What remains in both the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions is the Christian hope for the conversion of the Jews. This can be understood as being anti-Jewish, as it views the Jewish religion as being inferior to Christianity; however, it is a view that has biblical roots and does not imply the violence and persecution to which the Jews have been subjected throughout history.

The final chapter of Marissen’s book shifts from Bach’s vocal works to his instrumental music. In an earlier book, Marissen had already studied The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton University Press, 1995), and he now extends the religious reading of an instrumental work to the Musical Offering (BWV 1079). Marissen argues that, while dedicated to King Frederick II of Brandenburg-Prussia, the work challenges both the aesthetic ideals of the King and the religious convictions of the “strongly anti-Christian” Prussian monarch (198). Marissen views the Musical Offering as an “homage to God” (194). A case in point is the fourth canon of the Musical Offering, in which Bach distorts the rhythmic proportion of a French Overture (typically a symbol for royalty in baroque music) and embeds it into a complex polyphonic framework that, for Bach, was a reflection of the perfection of the divine creation: “The melancholy Affect and the deregalized canonic solution link regal fortune (worldly works, glory) not to splendor, might, and fame but to the theology of the cross” (223).

Readers who look for a confirmation that Bach was indeed the “fifth evangelist” will probably be disappointed by Marissen’s book. We learn less about Bach as a person than about the world in which he lived and the religious landscape in which, and for which, he created his music. Marissen’s book shows how theological ideas from the eighteenth century resonate in the texts for Bach’s works and how a deeper understanding of these contexts may lead the way to a historically informed listening to his music. This can bring us closer to Bach, but it also reminds us of the historical and theological distances that separate listeners in the twenty-first century from this eighteenth-century composer. The faith of Bach’s time is not necessarily our faith; and while we can detect certain commonalities, we also see differences. Marissen’s inspiring book points out these differences and urges us to take them seriously.

Cite this article
Markus Rathey, “Bach & God”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:3 , 292-294

Markus Rathey

Yale University
Markus Rathey is Professor of Music History at Yale University.