The synergy of talent, training and an eye for God’s glory
Asserting his kinship with Luther, Bach set all seven of Luther’s verses verbatim and without additions, following a line of distinguished 17th-century composers, including Samuel Scheidt and Johann Schelle. He used the chorale tune as the basis for all movements, each beginning and ending in the same key of E minor, yet without a trace of monotony. At each step of the narrative, Bach shows that he is alert to every nuance, scriptural allusion, symbol and mood in Luther’s hymn.
Bach drew on the whole repository of his learning to date: habits of communication and performance, music he had memorized, the family’s rich archive of motets and Stücken, the music put before him as a chorister in Luneburg, as well as works that he had studied or copied under the aegis of his various mentors. His approach seems to exemplify the advice given to budding composers by the Bavarian music theorist Mauritius Johann Vogt (1669-1730): “to be a poet, not only so that he recognise the meter of the verse, but that his themes also be inventive and, like a painter, place the beautiful or frightful images lifelike before the eyes of the listeners through the music.” [Conclave thesaurus magnate artis musical, M.J. Vogt (1719)]
There also were techniques borrowed from the ancient art of rhetoric to help him on his way. The theorist who did most to make rhetoric an integral part of German musica poetica, with everything directed toward grasping and then sustaining the listener’s attention, was the Luneberg cantor Joachim Burmeister (1564-1629). [Music Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque, John Butt, pg. 47; and Musica Poetica, Dietrich Bartel, pg. 84]
Many of Bach’s later works — including the two great Passion settings, Johannes-Passion (St. John Passion) and Mattäus-Passion (St. Matthew Passion) — deal with the same subject as a dichotomy between a world of tribulation and the hope of redemption, which was quite standard in the religion of the day. But none does more so poignantly or serenely than the Actus tragicus. This extraordinary music, composed at such a young age, is never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid — on the contrary, though deeply serious, it is consoling and full of optimism. The more one peers below the surface the more complex the Actus tragicus turns out to be.