Spirituality in the essential Bach
The Mass in B Minor, despite a deeply ingrained post-Enlightenment habit of mentally filtering out the undesirably specific content of Mass texts, had little problem entering the canon. It could even be heralded as “the greatest piece of music ever written,” alongside Mozart’s Requiem. But the Passions, certainly no less great, present a big problem to the post-Enlightenment mind, as do the cantatas. Although the cantatas are of smaller dimensions than the Passions, they are so numerous and so consistently maintain Bachian levels of artistry, they can hardly be ignored.
The problem is the Passion and cantata texts are more overtly Christian than post-Enlightened minds can tolerate, and they require greater “mental gymnastics” to render them generically religious. Therefore, for most music lovers, they exist uncomfortably at the margins of Bach’s catalog.
In his 1991 New York Times review of the Teldec recordings of the complete church cantatas of Bach, Richard Taruskin summarizes the post-Enlightenment problem with the “essential Bach” of the cantatas. [“Facing Up, Finally, to Bach’s Dark Vision,” reprinted in Text and Acts, pp. 307-315] It stems, he says, from the Enlightenment definition of music, given classic formulation by Charles Burney in the 1770s and still repeated in various guises in most dictionaries today: “Music is the art of pleasing by the succession and combination of agreeable sounds.”
To this Taruskin retorts,
“How utterly irrelevant this whole esthetic is to the Bach of the cantatas! [For the] essential Bach was an avatar of a pre-Enlightened — and when push came to shove, a violent anti-Enlightened — temper. His music was a medium of truth, not beauty … [For him] there is no ‘music itself.’ His concept of music derived from and inevitably contained the Word.” [ibid., pp. 309-310]
Post-Enlightenment discomfort with the specific message of Bach’s vocal music appeared already on the eve of Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, said that the obstacle “toward appreciation” in Bach’s music was “the altogether contemptible German church texts, which sifter from the earnest polemic of the Reformation.” Such as “thick fog of belief,” he said, “stirs up nothing but disbelief.” [quoted in Taruskin, pg. 311]
That post-Enlightened attitude persists to the present, as demonstrated by the following blurb that appeared in Encore, the magazine of BMG Classical Music Service. To reassure its post-Enlightened customers that buying CDs of Bach’s cantatas and Passions would not threaten their generic religious sensibilities, BMG makes this outrageous claim: “From his cantatas to his epic Passions and oratorios, most of Bach’s music was written for the Lutheran Church. Interestingly, Bach never used his music to interpret or dramatize the sacred texts he set. Instead, he distilled their message into music of unparalleled purity and profundity.”
Perhaps the most flagrant and misrepresenting statement along these lines came from Albert Schweitzer. He said that the texts of the cantatas and Passions “are so insignificant that we need all the beauty of the music to make us forget them.” [J.S. Bach, le musicien-poète, Albert Schweitzer, pg. 241]
Bach would have been appalled and incensed. Stapert writes, “[Bach’s] aim was to write music that would vivify the Christian message of the texts and make them memorable. That was the end to which he bent his uncommon energy and unsurpassed musical skill.” [My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance and Discipleship in the Music of Bach, Calvin R. Stapert, pg. 6]