Bach and Pietism (Chuck King)

Chuck KingToday I’m happy to present a guest post on J. S. Bach and Pietism. It comes from Chuck King, visiting assistant professor of music at Trinity International University, where he teaches courses in music and worship and music history, as well as directing the Symphonic Band. He has three decades of experience as a pastoral minister of music. This post is drawn from Chuck’s thesis for the M.A. in Historical Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, “Piety and Poiesia: J. S. Bach, Devotional Hymns, and the Lutheran Liturgy.”

Week after week for at least three years, J. S. Bach produced three full cycles of cantatas for the principal churches of Leipzig. The cantatas include rich Pietist hymns — verbatim and paraphrased — for a liturgy in a city that had banned Pietist clergy from its pulpits. He found common ground between the hymns of the “Schwärmer” [“fanatics,” Luther’s term for radical Protestant groups and later applied to some Pietists], the chorales of Luther, and the Gospel-centered preaching of the Lutheran liturgical year.

There is a troubled record of scholarship and performance history around the question of J. S. Bach’s relationship to Pietism. In his landmark study of Bach and his music, J. S. Bach, Albert Schweitzer went to great pains to account for, discount, or bemoan the Pietism of Bach’s more personal, intimate, romantic, and bloody metaphorical lyrics. English translations of the cantatas, from the late nineteenth century on, often glossed over these “embarrassing” texts (and, usually, the explicit gospel tenacity of the works), often producing sung versions that Bach and his first auditors would scarcely recognize.

In three issues of Pietisten, musicologist Don O. Franklin addressed several topics and themes related to Bach and Pietism. The articles are excellent introductions to the question, and a wealth of bibliography. Douglas Shantz’s 2013 Introduction to German Pietism updates the sources and our understanding of the Pietism with which Bach may have been familiar. Eric Lund has demonstrated that the gap between eighteenth-century Pietists and pious scholastic clergy was not as great as previously believed. Indeed, many of the Seventeenth-Century Lutheran Meditations and Hymns in his work were treasured by both groups, and might just as easily be considered part of the Bach “Pietist” repertoire.

Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, recorded in the estate catalog of Bach’s library, was found in nearly every home throughout Lutheran lands through the end of the nineteenth-century (including, as it turns out, the Schweitzer home). The presence of other Pietist literature in Bach’s library is itself no argument for Bach as a Pietist. It is a testimony to the wide-ranging reading of the composer, and perhaps to soft barriers between Lutheran “parties.”

Luther, Pietism, and Bach

Johann Arndt
Johann Arndt (1555-1621) – Wikimedia

Robin Leaver asserts that the theological and devotional element of Bach’s library was comparable to a university’s holdings, and would have been the envy of any Lutheran pastor. It is filled with works by Luther, commentaries on the Scriptures and chorales, and authors who pre-date Luther and indeed influenced the Pietists by way of Luther. Arndt’s True Christianity aside, the collection also included the sermons of Johannes Tauler and the anonymous Theologica Germanica, both from the fourteenth-century German mystical tradition from which Luther came to understand the “theology of the cross.” That tradition includes Bernard of Clairvaux, whose hymns were among those translated into German to enter the Evangelical repertoire. (“O Sacred Head” is the best known of the medieval hymns retained by Luther/Lutherans.)

The theology of the cross, through which Luther understood both justification and sanctification, was a hallmark of Arndt and his successors. And it is this thread — from medieval German Catholicism on through to eighteenth-century Leipzig — that Bach understood and highlighted in the cantatas. I argue that this theologically astute and devotionally sensitive composer conserved a theme of Luther’s piety that was embraced by the Pietists (if not always by mainstream Lutherans). As A. W. Tozer supposedly said some two centuries after Bach, “I want to learn about God from any who know him other than by hearsay.” I believe this was Bach’s approach to the cantata librettos.

Cantata sources, and Bach as editor

The cantatas were a musical exposition of the Gospel text for the day. There seems to be little question that Bach had a hand in selecting and editing cantata texts. The practice of the day set the texts in an operatic pattern of arias and recitatives, often framed by a chorale setting (first movement) and a standard hymnal harmonization (final movement). Recitatives describe and advance plot, character, and emotions. Arias reflect on the theme of the day.

While most eighteenth-century recitatives (whether operatic or sacred) were passive presentations of text — simply setting up the more dramatic arias — Bach exploited the full range of expressivity even in those relatively brief movements. Still, it is in the arias that Bach exercised his considerable skill to highlight devotional reflection.

The poetic practice of cantata literature served Pietist texts extremely well. Since the late sixteenth century, madrigal poetry existed solely to provide composers with opportunities to exploit expressive musical devices. Madrigalized sacred poetry provided congregations with a vibrant contemporary dramatic experience in the Lutheran liturgy. This was especially so in Leipzig, especially so in Bach’s tenure, and especially so in the more Pietist cantatas — even if Pietists themselves never embraced the formal stylized church music style.

Musical practice and juicy texts

In the cantata Wo soll ich fliehen hin (Where shall I flee, BWV 5), an anonymous librettist madrigalized the hymn of the same title, written by Johann Heermann. (We recognize Heermann for his widely known hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.”) Heermann’s hymns were sung by Pietist and scholastic Lutherans alike. He falls chronologically between Luther and Paul Gerhardt, and his hymns have been described as “between the Reformed ‘We’ and the Pietist ‘I’.” Friedrich Blume has observed that “the step from Arndt to Heermann is as close as that from Heermann to Pietism.”

Statue of Bach at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
Statue of J.S. Bach at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig – Creative Commons (Zarafa)

The cantata begins and ends with the first and final stanzas of Heermann’s hymn. The interior movements (2–6) are paraphrased along madrigal principles, recasting the pietistic hymn in the dramatic mold of the liturgical cantata. The opening stanza highlights the Pietist Bußkampf, the soul struggle for repentance (full of anxiety and pain). Bach frames the stanza around the opening question of the hymn, “Where shall I flee from my sins?” by crafting a brief, fleeing motive from the opening of the hymn tune. The persistent motive, unresolved, answers the question: If everyone in the world came to my help, they could not help my anguish. The first recitative (movement 2) presses the point: Sin’s rubbish has stained me, and only by being immersed in the precious Blood can I be rid of the stain. The blood imagery, so familiar in Pietist hymns and devotion (as, indeed, in the theology of the cross), begins as a little drop and becomes a vast sea into which the penitent sinks himself. (“Him,” because the Bass sings here. Through the cantata, all four voice parts take the role of the penitent.)

Bach cannot ignore such rich imagery, and in keeping with the hymn writer and the librettist, he loses himself in it in the first aria (movement 3). The Tenor and an obbligato viola pour out one of the most expressive of all Bach arias. (And yet, the aria is largely unknown; is this an example of the discomfort audiences and artists have with the Pietist theme?) “Pour out yourself richly, you divine stream, well up on me with bloody streams.” Bach outdoes both hymnist and librettist, weaving two themes that spring up, fountain-like, and flow down profusely.

The middle movement (4th of 7) employs the only other verbatim Heermann lyric, “whatever I have sinned,” in the context of the penitent having come to the faithful Savior for comfort. In the exact center of the Alto aria, Bach sets the fulcrum of the work, the words “anxiety and pain.” But now the Bußkampf is resolved: “When the faithful find refuge with Him, must anxiety and pain no longer be dangerous and therefore quickly disappear.” And yet, through this breakthrough recitative, the obbligato oboe intones, simply and slightly dissonantly, the hymn tune that reminds us that the question is still, “Where shall I flee?”

But relief has been found, and the believer is now encouraged: The Bass sings “I only need show this blood, and [the host of hell] must suddenly be quieted,” with the stirring obbligato trumpet both victory and joy. Finally, the Soprano recitative brings us to a place of repose on the other side of true repentance. Every drop of the precious blood can cleanse the whole world of sin; so even I (the smallest part of the whole world) can inherit heaven.

The closing chorale is verbatim Heermann: So guide my heart and mind through your spirit so that I may avoid everything that can separate me and you, and in your body may I always remain a member.

With this cantata, as with many (and better known) others, Bach, the devout Lutheran working in scholastic eighteenth-century Leipzig, bridged Evangelical worlds by conserving a devotional legacy that both inherited from Luther. It is perhaps due to him that we still sing “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Writing in a contemporary structure and a timeless musical idiom, Bach preserved Pietist texts that may otherwise have been lost to audiences and worshipers.

– Chuck King


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