Evoking the Scripture’s passions through music
Composite texts had come into fashion in northern Germany from the 1670s onward, the idea being to elucidate and interpret the Scriptures by juxtaposing different passages on a single theme. In all likelihood Bach got the idea of selecting seven biblical quotations and interweaving them with familiar Lutheran chorales from the aforementioned theologian Johann Gottfried Olearis. Through the text’s particular disposition and arrangement, we are presented with a clear juxtaposition of Old Testament Law and New Testament Gospel.
Luther put it this way:
“the voice of the Law terrifies because it dins into the ears of smug sinners: ‘In the midst of earthly life, snares of death surround us. But the voice of God cheers the terrified sinner with its song: ‘In the midst of certain death, life in Christ is ours.’ … The timing of any individual death was God’s secret: it is He who ‘sets the clock’ of human life and orders matters according to His own timetable.” [Luther’s Works, 13:83]
Luther’s underlying purpose is to prepare the believer “to die blessedly” and to comfort the bereaved with the notion that life is essentially a preparation for death: acceptance of this provides the only reliable way of coming to terms with our humanity and the futility of our endeavors.
Bach creatively matched his musical design to the theological principles outlined. As with another piece, Aus der Tiefe, he has to impose his own musical structure. To mirror the theological division between Law and Gospel, he sets out asymmetrical baseline, the individual movements arranged so that, as listeners, we can trace in music the journey of the believer progressing via Old Testament Scripture — with its blunt statements about death’s inevitability — downwards to his lowest ebb and then, through prayer, upwards again to a more spiritual future.
Closing his massive work on Bach, Gardiner wrote,
“It is tantalizing how a generation later Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) seems at times to have articulated some of the processes in which Bach as both composer and performer was involved, but without referring to them directly. Herder grasped the crucial idea that the creative and spiritual activist of man leads to expressions of an individuals’ vision of life, to be understood only by sympathetic insight — the ability to ‘feel oneself into’ (sich hineinfuhlen) the aspirations and concerns of others. One imagines that he understood the supreme value of Bach’s vocal works — not primarily as objects or artefacts, but as individual visions of life and as priceless forms of communication with his fellow man. For this is what is so distinctive when we compare Bach’s legacy to that of his forerunners and successors. Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.” [Gardiner, pp. 557-558]