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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Bach’s theological background

Bach’s school days concluded with three years at the Michaelisschule in Luneberg from 1700 to 1702. Again “a distinctly theological education formed the center of instruction.” [Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, Günther Stiller, pg. 175] Hutter’s Compendium continued to be part of the curriculum, and through it Bach “became intimately acquainted with the most essential details of orthodox Lutheran theology. Thus we may say without reservation that Johann Sebastian Bach’s training in school was extensively carried out and determined theologically, predominately in the sense of strict Lutheran orthodoxy, and that he possessed a finished theological education when he left school.” [Stiller, pg. 175]

Title page of the Calov Bible from Bach’s library. image: the Library at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

Bach’s library indicates that he “did his homework” and that he would have been able to hold his own in both professional and convivial theological discussions with colleagues and friends. When he died, an inventory of his belongings, including, his books, was taken. Fifty-two titles — more than 80 volumes — appear on the inventory, all of them theological works. [The New Bach Reader, Christoph Wolff, pp. 253-254] At the top of the list is “Calovius, Writings, 3 volumes.” Next come two sets of Luther’s complete works.

Also included are Martin Chemnitz’s four-volume reply to the Council of Trent, Olearius’s three-volume Bible commentary, and Johannes Müller’s Defense of Luther. Most of the authors were orthodox Lutherans, but two Pietists, Auguste Hermann France and Philipp Jakob Spener, also appear on the list. There is a volume by Heinrich Bunting entitled Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, which describes the travels of characters in the Bible. Josephus’ History of the Jews is there, as is a volume of sermons by Johann Tauler, a 14th-century Dominican monk and follower of the mystic Meister Eckhart.

The only books from Bach’s library known to survive today are those at the top of the inventory, the three volumes of the Bible commentary of Abraham Calov. Calov actually was more the compiler than the author, as the title page makes clear:

“J. N. J. [In Nomine Jesu.] The German Bible of Dr. Martin Luther so clearly and thoroughly expounded from the original language, the context, and the parallel passages, with the addition of the exposition to be found in Luther’s writings, so that, in addition to proper arrangement, everywhere the real literal understanding, and to a considerable extent also the salutary application, of Holy Scripture, especially together with the inspiring words of that man of God, is presented by Dr. Abraham Calov.” [J. S. Bach and Scripture, trans. Leaver, pg. 52]

The Calov Bible commentaries were not just owned by Bach. The corrections, underlining, and marginalia in Bach’s hand show that he read and carefully studied them. Some of Bach’s markings are corrections of printer’s errors, some according to the list of typographical errors at the end of volume 3, others apparently caught by Bach himself, such as correcting “Dan” to “Gad” in the commentary on Genesis 49:19. Some of Bach’s corrections simply omitted words. For example, in the commentary on Genesis 3:6-7, Bach supplied in the margin a phrase from Calov’s quotation from Luther’s commentary. Such markings reveal not only an attentive reader but also a knowledgeable one.

Some of Bach’s underlining or marginal comments show his interest in the biblical foundations for church music. For example, at I Chronicles 25, a chapter that describes King David making provision for the music of the tabernacle and for its 288 musicians, Bach wrote in the margin, “NB. Dieses Capital ist das wahre Fundament aller gottfalliger Kirchen Music” (“NB. This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music”). Bach obviously looked to his Bible for guidance in his profession.

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