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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Bach as a formidable theologian

“Bach might not have gone to university, but that did not prevent him from becoming a knowledgeable theologian. Throughout his life he built on the solid theological foundation laid during his childhood and youth. His library reveals a man with a deep and abiding interest in theology, and the only surviving books from that library reveal a man who read them with care, intelligence, and commitment. His music shows that he applied what he learned toward achieving his goal of ‘a well-appointed church music,’ well appointed not only musically but also theologically.” [Stapert, pg. 11]

Bach’s handwritten note in the margin of I Chronicles 25: “NB. This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music.” image: public domain

Stapert continues, “Music is an art closely related to rhetoric, a fact that has been recognized since Greek and Roman antiquity. In no period of history has this been more consciously recognized than in the Baroque period, when theorists overtly described music as a branch of rhetoric and often borrowed their terminology directly from the rhetoricians.” [ibid., pg. 12]

 

The position Bach took at the German church of Leipzig gave him the opportunity to realize his goal of a well-regulated church music, and he pursued it with unmatched energy. Historians once assumed that Bach wrote his more than 150 surviving Leipzig cantatas gradually during the 27 years he worked there until he died in 1750. But in fact, he composed a new cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast Day during his first two years — about 60 per year. Spirituality and genius aside, that’s just a massive output.

This work involved discussion of the cantata texts with the pastors he served with. An inventory of Bach’s personal library suggests that he went well-prepared to those discussions of the texts’ lyrical substance. It included 80 theological volumes of 52 titles. At the top of the list is the three-volume “Calov Bible” — Luther’s translation of the Bible including¬†parallel commentary selected from Luther’s Works by Abraham Calov — followed by two sets of Luther’s complete writings.

Bach’s cantata output slowed and by 1727 had all but stopped. Unsurprisingly, even Bach’s enormous energy had its limits. He’d achieved his goal of a well-regulated church music — with at least three yearly cycles of cantatas churches could use.

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