Mar 04

BachTheologians

Bach Among the Theologians, by Jaroslav Pelikan ★★★★★

This book explores the theology of Bach, written by an eminent conservative Lutheran theologian who taught church history at Yale University. It is a delightful easy read. JS Bach, while known as indubitably and unquestionably as the greatest composer to ever have walked terra firma, also had an interesting theological side to him. Bach was known to have an exceptionally large library of theological texts, and most of his texts were heavily annotated by him, as seen as column notes in all of his books in his own handwriting. An analysis of his musical output demonstrates that this interest in theology had a highly significant impact on the music that he wrote. In particular, Bach was caught in Germany during the struggles of Pietism (centered in Halle, not far from Leipzig), and the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) mentality. Pietism sought for a strong personal religion without the public sphere and without “fancy” music, which Bach strongly opposed, while in conjunct with the Pietists, pleaded in his music for a strong personal relationship with God. Contrary to the Aufklärung, which sought to “de-mythologize” the Scripture, Bach sought through his music to emphasize the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in opposition to Aufklärung thinking. Thus, Pelikan would call each cantata of Bach also a sermon in music by Bach.

Pelikan provides marvelous insights into the theological culture of Bach’s time, and shows how Bach confronted culture with his music. Much of the second half of the book details Bach’s thinking in the two existing Passions and the H-moll Messe. With the H-moll Messe (B-minor mass), Pelikan shows how Bach thoroughly “Lutheran-izes” the mass, making it a more Catholic mass than just the confines of the Roman Catholic church. Pelikan’s final discussions counter a contemporary move to make Bach an essentially secular thinker, highlighting the much smaller volume of Bach’s secular works. Even here, Pelikan is able to show that Bach is thinking sacred in his secular music, and that it is impossible to strip Bach of a religious, theological context.

This book is a must read for anybody that enjoys Bach and delights in vast array of music that he produced. It also gives one a greater interest in not only listening to the cantatas, but following along the words of the cantatas to hear the “sermon” that Bach is preaching through music.

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