Friday, January 6, 2012

Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Part 3: Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian BachOur Third and final installment1 of Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas, features a famous Christmas piece by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Before introducing that piece, however, it may be interesting to review a little about Bach and his artform. As we summarized last April in the post, Music for Holy Week, Part 1 – excerpts from Matthäus Passion,
    Bach perhaps needs little introduction: he was and remains the master of counterpoint and represents the pinnacle of Baroque musical achievement. In addition to his many secular works, as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he composed a full series of Cantatas to accompany the Lutheran liturgy for each week of the Church Calendar, along with many other Sacred works as he was commissioned... It is worth noting, however, than in addition to his status as a composer, Johann Sebastian Bach was also fiercely orthodox in his Lutheranism. Being active as a composer during the rise of German Pietism2 and attempting to ward it off through the Sacred works he was often commissioned to compose, his professional library was proliferate with personally annotated works of Lutheran theology – he had the library of a theologian, and he used it as reference material in the composition of his works.
Bach's genius as a composer was not entirely his own. He is known to have studied the Masters of the previous generation and incorporated their genius into his own art: men like Michael Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Schein, and especially Heinrich Schütz – who was the subject of Part Two of this Music for the Twelve Days of Christmas series. Indeed, Bach's relationship to Schütz is almost serendipitous. Recall from Part Two the concern Schütz had in the second third of his life over the decline in compositional integrity he had been witnessing, for "
    the advent of the chordal style dispensing with linear but rich polyphonic textures made it possible for technically less accomplished composers to shine with concertante figured-bass music. According to Schütz, there were hardly any younger composers in Germany willing to deal with the more profound aspects of composition. So their tonal idiom was bound to become increasingly shallow and banal.
As a result, he published his Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choral Music) in 1648, dedicating it to the choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, to "encourage budding German composers, before they would try their hand at the concertante style first demonstrate their skill in this area."

It seems to be unknown whether Bach took the recommendation of Schütz to heart, or whether those responsible for calling Bach to be Cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig were seeking to diligently live up to the encouragement Schütz obviously meant for them, or whether his Geistliche Chormusik had any such impact by that time at all. But it is, at least, an interesting coincidence. Other interesting coincidences include Bach's place in time: Heinrich Schütz died as Pia Desideria (published 1675) was percolating in the mind of Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705); Bach was born as plans for the Pietist learning center, University of Halle were being drawn; while Bach served in Leipzig, the last of the Lutheran theologians from the Lutheran Age of Orthodoxy," and vigorous opponent of Pietism, Valentin Ernst Löscher (1673 - 1749), served as Superintendant and as pastor at the Kreuzkirche in Dresden (practically a stones-throw from the Royal Court, and a place known to benefit from regular collaboration with Schütz); and both Bach and Löscher, being in such proximity, battled with fierce dedication against Pietism in their respective vocations. Löscher and Bach died at the opening of the Enlightenment, in 1749 and 1750, respectively – with no one, really, to take their place.

Art following the Enlightenment ceases to speak of objective subjects
The opening of the Enlightenment, around 1750, marks the end of the Baroque Period, and the beginning of the Classical Period. This period lasts roughly until the period in which German Romantic philosophy began to have cultural significance, around the turn of the 19th Century; this is about the time that Romanticism began to displace Classical expressions of the Enlightenment. But what is it about Baroque music that sets it apart? What really were the "the more profound aspects of composition" referred to by Heinrich Schütz (above)? Why does there appear to be a rigid structure and order in the Baroque period, to the point where J.G. Walther (a cousin of Bach) would define such music as "a heavenly philosophical and specifically mathematical science?"3 From the time of Plato and re-emphasized by Martin Luther, music was viewed as a direct reflection of and "evidence of divine order,"4 in the world and in the Universe. Johannes Kepler wrote "Now one will no longer be surprised that man has formed this most excellent order of notes or steps into the musical system or scale, since one can see that in this matter he acts as nothing but the Ape of God, the Creator, playing, as it were, a drama about the Order of celestial motions."5Evening in the Palace of Reason, by James R. Gaines

As a result of such a lofty view of music and composition, Baroque composers infused their music with numerical code and allegory, attaching meaning to specific numbers and ratios, and in this way, the learned composer attempted "to replicate in earthly music the celestial harmony with which God had joined and imbued the Universe."6 Therefore, as Luther put it, music is the "faithful servant of theology" and ought to deliver "sermons in sound."7

Contrary to those of later era's, like the Classical and Romantic, the Baroque composer saw
    "himself as an artisan: not an artist 'expressing' a personal idea or feeling – a conception the Baroque composer would have found entirely strange – but as a professional with an assigned task and learnable, teachable methods of doing it. Combined with the Baroque infatuation with encoded allegory, this concept of music as an oratorial craft inspired a vast compositional vocabulary of passages, rhythms, key changes, and other devices that could telegraph in music the meaning of a text, the language of which came to be known as musical-rhetorical figures."8
Thus we see the force of Natural Law9, observations of Divine Order and understanding of their significance, informing the expression of Baroque "artisans."
    "The rich acoustic medium of the medieval stone church had encouraged composers' experiments writing note against note (punctus contra punctum) and eventually of braiding related vocal lines through one another to form increasingly rich weaves of melody. The most rigorous of part-writing, such as cannon and fugue, came to be known collectively as learned counterpoint."10

    "For Bach and his musical ancestors ...composing and performing music was ...a deeply spiritual enterprise whose sole purpose, as his works were inscribed, was for the glory of God. [And to His glory], Bach represented Church music and especially the learned counter-point of cannon and fugue"11
Yet, as the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy came to a close, as the strong Lutheran voice in culture began to wane, as fidelity to God's Word in thought, word and deed gave way to new ways of thinking, and as man in his natural state of rebellion thereby sought freedom from God and the Church, clinging to the only other tools available with which to make sense of the world, empiricism and reason, the necessity and reality of Divine grace also gave way to "confidence in human perfectibility."12 Oddly, the result in artistic expression was that instead of outward or objective subjects, the work of the composer became significantly more subjective, especially by the time of the Romantic Era, standing as much as self-projection as anything else:
    "the expression of feeling in music was all, and the affectation that mattered was not a text or other object for depiction but the feeling state of the performer and composer... the new 'enlightened' composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience."13
In this way, the subject of musical compositions following the Enlightenment became the composer, became his thoughts and his feelings as he struggled to give voice to them through his art, while the performer strove to abscond with that subject by embodying and personifying the composition in his own performance of it, thus making himself the subject of the art.

By the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Enlightenment composers had thoroughly
    "denigrated counterpoint as the vestige of an outworn aesthetic, extolling instead the 'natural and delightful' in music, by which they meant the easier pleasure of song, the harmonious ornamentation of a single line of melody... For Frederick, the goal of music was simply to be 'agreeable,' an entertainment and a diversion, easy work for the performer and audience alike. He despised music that, as he put it, 'smells of the Church,' and Bach's chorales specifically as 'dumb stuff.'"14

Bach's Evening in the "Palace of Reason"
Frederick the Great of PrussiaLater in life, Bach was given the opportunity to respond to the Enlightenment, in one of his most outstanding works. As one who represented the modern philosophies of his day, Frederick the Great of Prussia grasped an opportunity to summon the elderly Johann Sebastian Bach to his palace in 1747, for the purpose of presenting "history's greatest master of counterpoint the most taxing possible challenge to his art,"15 for what seems to have been simply a joke out of contempt for the "old" style of music which Bach so ably represented – that of the "learned counterpoint" of cannon and fugue which had been used for centuries to mirror the celestial harmony of heaven and nature. Frederick proceeded to play for Bach a melody of twenty-one notes which had been "constructed to be as resistant to counterpoint as possible"16 and then challenged the elderly composer to improvise a three-part fugue using the theme he had played. Bach, who had mastered the art of his craft and who understood the mechanics as well as the power of music to communicate, was able then and there to improvise "a three-part fugue on Frederick's Royal Theme [which] had all the intellectual rigor of a finished work."17 Not impressed, Frederick demanded that Bach start over, this time composing a fugue in six parts – something which Bach had never done. Bach agreed, but added that he would need time to work out the composition. Two months later, Bach had finished his six-part fugue – but not only this, for Bach had something to say to the monarch who had not simply challenged him, but who had rejected God and the music of the Church. In that time he had composed two fugues, the first being the three-part fugue requested by Frederick, the second being the six part fugue he had also requested, along with ten cannons (each representing the Ten Commandments) and a sonata, bundling them in a single work he titled, Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering). The two fugues he named Ricercar, a term he had never used as a title for a fugue. The term is at once a Latin acronymn representing the words Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Cononica Arte Resoluta (At the king's command, the song and the remainder resolved with cannonic art), and is also a Latin word meaning, "to search out with diligence."18 Bach wove his message to Frederick throughout his composition, using musical-rhetorical tools such as rising and sinking keys. For example, inscriptions were written to the king in the cannons, telling him in one cannon to "Seek and ye shall find" (referring to God's mercy), and indicating the fate of Enlightenment thinking in another cannon which was inscribed to represent the king's glory: though the notes would rise, it never seemed to have left its original key or to go anywhere. One could say that this "Musical Offering to Frederick represents as stark a rebuke of his beliefs and worldview as an absolute monarch has ever received,"19 and at the same time "it is one of the great works of art in the history of music."20 And this is but a small taste of what was going on in art of the Baroque Period. Not just vague sentiment the artist attempted to evoke in the heart of his viewer or hearer, but a specific message using a system long developed according to observation of God's General Revelation.

Bach: Weinachts Oratorium
For this final installment of Christmas Music, we present Bach's Weinachts Oratorium. It's six parts were intended for the context of worship on three generally observed Church holidays immediately following Christmas Day: Parts 1 and 2 for the Feast of Christ's Circumcision (celebrated on January 1), Parts 3 and 4 for the Sunday following the New Year, and Parts 5 and 6 for the Feast of Epiphany. There are multiple recurring themes in Bach's Christmas Oratorio – one of which is a Lutheran lenten theme the reader may recognize from Bach's use of it in his Matthäus Passion. What does he do with this theme throughout the Oratorio? As you listen, what else do you hear?

Johann Sebastion Bach: Weinachts Oratorium
The standard recording of this piece in our household, should the reader be interested,
has become that of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, under Martin Flämig

This full recording of Bach's Weinachts Oratorium is broken into two videos, which play consecutively. It is about 2.5hrs in length.


  1. I had planned additional installments, but illness has prevented me from getting to them – so I publish this post, even though it is no longer Christmas, but the first day of Epiphany. In fact, credit for most of the content of this post belongs to my wife, who, as an accomplished vocalist and skilled artist, knows these details better than I do. Since her interest and growing area of expertise is cultural apologetics, I asked her to help me out, giving her a few guidelines from which she produced most of the above...
  2. Radical German Pietism, its causes and impact on orthodox Lutheranism, was briefly described in the following post on Intrepid Lutherans: Law and Gospel: What do they teach? -- Part 3.2, What Happened to the Events of the Gospel? (The Church Responds to the Enlightenment: Pietism)
  3. Gaines, James. (2005). Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: Fourth Estate. pg. 116.
  4. Ibid., pg. 49.
  5. Ibid., pp. 49-50.
  6. Ibid., pg. 47.
  7. Ibid., pg. 81. Note also, that numbers not only had significance in music, they had significance in Lutheran theology at the time and even today, particularly in the interpretation of prophetic books of the Bible: the numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10 & 12 have long been recognized as significant – Dr. Siegbert Becker's (WELS) work on Revelation, Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song, and Rev. Wayne Mueller's (WELS) follow-up commentary on Revelation for the People's Bible Commentary series, are evidence of this significance. Rev. Jack Cascione (LCMS) published a work studying the use of number in prophetical books of the Bible, entitled In Search of the Biblical Order, and the publisher of this book, Biblion Publishing, used his research in their typesetting of of the Book of Revelation that appeared in the Lutheran translation of the New Testament, God's Word to the Nations (1988), to visually, and very effectively, impress upon the reader how number was being used in the text.
  8. Ibid., pg. 81. See also this Wikipeadia article on "'musical-rhetorical' figures," a.k.a. Musica Poetica
  9. Intrepid Lutherans featured a piece which included a brief explanation of General Revelation or Natural Law. For more information, read Law and Gospel: What do they teach? -- Part 2, The Teaching of the Law
  10. Gaines, James. (2005). Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: Fourth Estate. pg. 50.
  11. Ibid., pp. 7-8.
  12. Ibid., pg. 8.
  13. Ibid., pp. 117,220.
  14. Ibid., pp. 7,8.
  15. Ibid., pg. 11.
  16. Ibid., pg. 9.
  17. Ibid., pg. 226.
  18. Taken from the liner notes of the album, Bach: Die Kunst der Fugue & Musikalisches Opfer
  19. Gaines, James. (2005). Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: Fourth Estate. pg. 12.
  20. Ibid.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you again Doug. One of the joys of this Christmas season has been my subscription to the Spotify music service (and my dropping of service) so that I can take these wonderful musical pieces and listen to them immediately. The art and musical history and traditions in Lutheranism and Christianity are a treasure to discover.

Thanks again.

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