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The Significance of Bach

  • Nov 25, 2010
IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position

Bach's Church Music

Before we engage ourselves in an evaluation of the previously mentioned interpretive approaches from the standpoint of Bach's music, let us take a look at Bach's church music itself. Almost without exception, Bach's church music was written for a very specific purpose: for the worship services of those churches in which he was active as cantor in the course of his life. What the preacher said in words was also the topic of Bach's music. In the context of the worship service of his time, Bach restated and interpreted the message and belief of the church. As the basis for his music, he used texts written by theologian-poets or poet-theotogians that other composers set to music as well. In all likelihood, it is these texts that have stood in the way of the wider propagation of Bach's cantata output for some time. There are three reasons for the alien nature of these texts. In the first place, they constantly associate Biblical ideas in new ways that presume a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Consider as an example the text of this recitative from cantata BWV 113, which refers in close proximity to no less than four different Biblical stories that have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. He calls: "'Come here, to the fount of every blessing. I have chosen you as my friends!' With this assurance, I want to come before you like the penitent Publican, and with humble spirit, pray, 'Lord, be merciful unto me.' O comfort my feeble heart … so shall I also from henceforth become, like David and Manassah … a child of heaven." Bach's congregation was probably immediately able to associate the individual key phrases with their corresponding Biblical stories. How well did you do? They heard references to two stories from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament, from the books of Samuel and Chronicles as well as from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew I 1: 28, Luke 18:13, Samuel 12:13, and Chronicles 33:12-13). Likewise, Bach presumed a knowledge of the hymns of his day. He often cites chorale melodies in the instrumental parts-that is, without words-of movements with totally different texts. His congregation would have recognized these melodies instantly and put them into associative context. As an example, consider cantata BWV 70, Watch, Pray. There, in the orchestrally accompanied recitative "Ah, Shall Not This Great Day," a chorale appears in the trumpet. The trumpet here is intended to be a symbol of the last judgment. The meaning of its presence becomes apparent, however, only when one understands that the chorale being played, "It Is Certainly the Time That God's Son Shall Come," announces the event that is to occur immediately before the judgment of the world. I imagine that Bach's listeners understood this. The second reason Bach's texts seem so strange and foreign to us is the compressed presentation of radical images one after another that to us seem turgid and, often, even ridiculous. Take the beginning of cantata BWV 199 as an example: "My heart is swimming in blood because the hatching of my sins makes me a monster in God's holy eyes." A third and final reason for the disinterest in Bach's cantata texts is the fact that the connections between ideas often seem too simple or even silly. Consider as an example this aria text from cantata BWV 84: "With joy I eat my little bread, and from my heart, I do not envy that of my neighbor." We encounter these problems in the texts of Bach's cantatas and oratorios, just as previous generations of earlier Bach lovers certainly have. On the other hand, there are positive qualities in Bach's cantata texts. This is especially true where they quote Biblical texts or cite important hymns such as those by Martin Luther-the cantatas God the Lord is Sun and Shield (BWV 79) and A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (BWV 80), for example. These texts do not seem alien to us, since the church itself continues to use both their content and their precise wording today, just as it did during Bach's time, and it sees these texts as central expressions of its teachings. Finally, though, I think that the most important quality of these texts is that they touch upon problems-even though often under the surface or using antiquated wording-that affect us just as much as they did the people of the eighteenth century. The beginning of the first recitative in cantata BWV 25-"The entire world is but a hospital"-is irritating only at first, since these words describe a situation of distress that exists today, just as it did in Bach's era. Of course, these combinations of texts would be of little interest to us if taken alone. But, even with all their problems in terms of wording and content, they are what stimulated Bach to compose. Bach's imagination was ignited by their words, his thinking about musical structure was set in motion by their wording, and his ability to construct large architectonic connections was challenged by the goal that such texts provided. Let us summarize all of these thoughts on Bach's self-concept and his life's work. The main importance of Bach's works lies in his church music. J. S. Bach, the church musician, composed for the worship services of the churches in which he was employed as cantor. He set to music texts that were appropriate to his time. The basic idea of the music that came into being under these circumstances was, on one hand, the glorification of God-Soli Deo Gloria, as Bach wrote at the close of many of his scores. On the other hand, it was the message of the church, directed at the people of his time, and reshaped anew within each successive worship service. Bach served these purposes, these goals, with all the powers available to him. To make this tangible in a contemporary presentation of his works seems to me to be the most important task of the interpretation of his music. Next: My Own Position IntroductionInterpretation TodayBach's Concept of Himself Bach's Church MusicMy Own Position Read All