The Profound Theological Significance of J. S. Bach’s Music

The theology of the Reformation was central to J. S. Bach’s (1685–1750) compositions. Bach was a careful student of Scripture, who at his death owned an ample library made up exclusively of theological books. The music produced by Bach was an expression of his own Christian faith. He made a regular practice, for example, of inscribing his scores of sacred and secular music with the letters J. J. (Jesu Juva, meaning “Jesus, help”), S. D. G. (Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to God alone the glory”), and I. N. J. (In Nomine Jesu, meaning “in the name of Jesus”). The theology of the Reformation was so much a part of Bach’s music that the two are truly inseparable.

His influence upon Western music cannot be overstated, and the influence of the Reformation, particularly the Lutheran Reformation, is equally important in Bach’s work. To illustrate Bach’s place in musical history, consider one of his Catholic predecessors, the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594). Palestrina is the composer of the Catholic Counter-Reformation known as “the Prince of Music.” Prior to Bach, Palestrina held more fame as a composer than any other. Palestrina’s music was marked by a professional choir made up of polyphonic voices sung a cappella. Neither key consciousness nor measured time was part of Palestrina’s compositions. Each vocal piece was sung in Latin, the simple lyrics often being repeated throughout. Palestrina’s music is certainly beautiful, and it inspires the awe of a person being transported to a heavenly world. 

By the time of Bach, a scant ninety years after Palestrina, music had developed to its modern form.  Bach’s cantatas were sung by congregations, not professional choirs. He utilized the aria, or solo voice, in his arrangements. He also accompanied the voices with the organ and orchestra. Key consciousness and measured time were also found in Bach’s music. Bach did not attempt to introduce drama to the biblical motif, but lets the drama of the motif speak for itself, thus the otherworldliness of Palestrina is not to be found in Bach’s music. Bach’s revolutionary compositions reflect the changes wrought in faith and practice by the Reformation. Congregational involvement in worship sung in the vernacular, a portrayal of theological motifs in realistic rather than idealistic fashion, a break from the established rules of religion and melody all set Bach’s music apart from that of the Catholic Church.
Bach based his cantata for the Sunday nearest Reformation Day in 1724 on Luther’s hymn Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From the depths of woe I cry to Thee”). While Luther is the author of the words and basic musical structure of the hymn, Bach harmonized it into a four-part cantata. Luther founded this hymn on Psalms 32, 51, 130, and 143 because these psalms expressed the meaning of what he called Anfechtung, or awareness of sin.

First, listen to the Gloria, from the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which is composed by Palestrina. Imagine yourself living in 1600s Europe as a commoner. All your days are spent in the toil of cultivation of the land or in the manufacture of basic goods or implements. There is no time for you to spend in anything other than your work, day in and day out. The one break in the routine of your existence is the going to hear the Mass at the cathedral, perhaps at Rheims, or Notre Dame, or at Chartres. You enter the cathedral, a massive, beautiful, towering structure. You are used to living in a small hut, drafty and damp, cold in winter and stifling in summer, crowded and dirty. Entering the massive cathedral, you hear the polyphonic chant of the choir, but they are unseen. Your mind is drawn upward, to another world, a world of unchanging perfection, where there is no death, no corruption, no evil, no darkness. But this world is incomprehensible, unattainable, eternally distant. It is where God and His angels dwell.
Next, listen to Bach’s cantata. Notice that the words of the cantata are in your own language. You are invited to sing the words. These are not repetitive chants of words in a language incomprehensible to you. And the words are from the Scriptures, the same Scriptures that have been closed to you by centuries of church tradition and authority. Now, they are yours to read and absorb. They are God’s words written to you personally. As you sing these words, you believe them, and you pray them directly to God, trusting that Christ advocates for you before the Father. No human intermediary is necessary, for you may stand before God and plead your case before Him in the name of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest Himself. Heaven is not so distant now. Your life is not defined now by unending futile toil. The glory of God has been brought down to you through Christ, and you may claim it as your own through Him and Him alone.
God be praised for the indescribable gift of His grace poured out upon us by His Son, Jesus Christ!

[This is part of a more extensive article I wrote entitled “The Impact of the Reformation on the Fine Arts with Emphasis Upon Selected Works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Rembrandt van Rijn.” Faith and Mission23 (Spring 2006): 31–54.]


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