Bach’s inescapable gospel focus
In the history of Western music, J.S. Bach is unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled, in master of technique and profundity of thought. He was a devout Lutheran whose knowledge of Scripture and theology was so broad and deep that the eminent historian of theology, Jaroslav Pelikan, was inspired to write Bach Among the Theologians. Given Bach’s combination of musical prowess, personal devotion and theological understanding, it’s not surprising that his music stands unsurpassed among artistic expressions of the Christian faith.
At the center of Bach’s musical output stand about 200 cantatas along with four monumental works — the Christmas Oratorio, the two Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John, and the Mass in B Minor. The four large works have long been heard fairly regularly in concert and recordings also have been easily available (But they’re performed less and less, commensurate with the shrinking attention spans of modern audiences. How many people these days want to sit through a three-hour production?). The same cannot be said for the cantatas, but at least with regard to recordings, the situation is changing.
An understanding of Bach’s music begins with the cantatas. The cantatas are central to what musicologist Richard Taruskin calls “the essential Bach,” but they are peripheral to the Bach most people are familiar with — “the canonical Bach” of the Brandenburg Concertos, the suites and sonatas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B Minor, and to a certain extent, the Passions. It is not to say that the “canonical” works are not bona fide Bach, but Taruskin asserts that these canonical works are best understood in the light of the cantatas, not vice versa.
The great 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, even as an apparent agnostic, understood something of the importance of the cantatas and their theological grounding. As one of the subscribers to the Bach Gesellschaft edition of the complete works of Bach, he was well-known for his admiration of Bach — which is remarkable considering his apathy toward matters of faith. And since that edition begins with the cantatas, and therefore would have been the first works the subscribers received, there can be little doubt that Brahms’ knowledge of the cantatas was thorough and comprehensive. Furthermore, at least one of the sources for the theme and some of the technical procedures of the final movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was the movement of Cantata 150.
Posterity generally has not been as astute as Brahms, so the cantatas became, and remain, a peripheral part of Bach’s repertory. In the eyes of posterity, the reason Bach’s cantatas moved from the center to the periphery is the post-Enlightenment preference for generic religious feeling over an explicit Christian message. Bach’s cantatas do not fit that bill. They are nothing if not explicitly Christian.
So after his death in 1750, Bach’s un-Enlightened music was hardly known until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn dusted off a copy of the the St. Matthew Passion and conducted a public performance. This started a revival that gave Bach’s music an honored place in the classical music canon — we use the term “classical” here very broadly — a place it still occupies today more securely than ever. But, as we’ve already noted, the “canonical Bach” is not the “essential Bach.” The emphasis in the canonical Bach is on the instrumental music. The vocal music, of course, is not totally ignored, but the post-Enlightened mind accepts it only after “mentally divorcing” the music from the explicitly Christian content of its texts.