A WORLD WITHOUT CHANGE: LUTHER TO BACH
MEN of many ages and temperaments have responded to the music of Bach. This lasting and universal quality of his music is due to its spiritual content and deep meaning as much as to its technical genius. Even twentieth-century man, with his scientific and rationalistic predisposition, has felt spiritual communion with the music of this artistic giant, although he can find no satisfactory modern explanation for his emotional response. In our particular intellectual culture we take delight in reading the passionate iconoclasms of Nietzsche or the witty sobriety of Bertrand Russell. Yet the voice of Bach’s music seems to remind us that great art works contain more permanent substance than any form of discursive thinking. Upon listening to his greatest works—the Magnificat, the Passacaglia, or The Art of the Fugue, to name but a few—we surrender reverently to this voice of spiritual reality that speaks from strata of thought deeper and more immutable than any intellectual forms of communication.
The modern conflict between the intellect and this emotional response of total acceptance arises in part from the uneven flow of our culture. During the time of Bach man broke away from the Age of Faith and entered the Age of Reason with its accompanying rise of science. But many moderns have not quite recovered from the wounds of this cleavage, nor even completely achieved the divorce. The religious existentialism of modern thinkers—Unamuno, Jacques Maritain, Tillich, Niebuhr, and others—points to the uncertain relationship between our rational thinking and our spiritual intuition.
Bach lived during an epoch in which a new philosophy of rationalism gained great popularity. In Leipzig he came into painful contact with the new movement of the Enlightenment—painful, because his education had not prepared him to evaluate it philosophically.
At the close of the seventeenth century, the dawn of the Enlightenment, young Johann Sebastian Bach was educated in a world view inherited from the Middle Ages. He lived in a period when the tides of modernity seemed about to engulf the last areas of traditional culture; nevertheless the postmedieval world of Martin Luther formed his pattern of life, thought, and work. Rationalist deism in all its fashionable forms was foreign to him; the discoveries in the natural sciences did not weaken his acceptance of traditional supernaturalism. Bach remained untouched by the emancipation associated with the name of Frederick the Great—though three years before his death he played before Frederick. Nor was Bach familiar with the writings of Voltaire (a sometime guest of Frederick), nor with the revolutionary theories of Isaac Newton, who died one year before Bach created the St. Matthew Passion.
A study of Bach’s education reveals the continuation and persistence of Luther’s conception of knowledge. Bach’s cultural aims, his ignorance of science, and his historical perspective came from Luther himself. Traditional Lutheran views were the views of Bach. Although the interim of two centuries between Luther and Bach had seen great scientific and philosophic innovations, which would eventually emancipate man from the medieval view of himself as the center of the universe into an uncertain new orientation, Bach was educated and inspired by the same “unscientific” views that had fired the religious passion of Luther. Bach was at least acquainted with the scientific contributions of Copernicus and Kepler—as we learn from the contents of certain musicological books that he read. But he knew mostly the philosophical aspect of their science, in which they appeared as traditional minds in the Age of Faith. Though these thinkers gave a first momentum to the fall of the geocentric doctrine, they were still in many respects traditional or even medieval. They believed in astrology and in the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, in the biblical story of the Creation, in witchcraft and other superstitions. During Bach’s youth contemporary European scientific thinking had but slight influence in Germany. Very little of the “new” science had yet penetrated the universities, much less the Gymnasia, the only schools that Bach attended.
In different eras education has had different objectives. In ancient Greece, for example, its goal was to produce ideal citizens. Modern aims in education have varied in emphasis: certainly great stress is now placed on the acquisition of factual information for practical pursuits. In Bach’s time, the aim of education was the same as it had been throughout the preceding Christian era; theology was its focal point. Bach’s education laid the permanent foundation for his spiritual world view. It was therefore the strongest factor contributing to the formation of that art which he exercised (to quote his own words), “only for the Glory of God” To understand his education we must go back two centuries to the educational concepts of Martin Luther.
Knowledge of the classics and the study of history had made remarkable progress during the medieval Scholastic period and the early Renaissance. But Luther, zealous to revive Christianity’s original simplicity of spontaneous faith, regarded the intellectualized religion of the Scholastics as an obstruction. The church, he claimed, had wandered far from Christianity’s original intent when it embraced humanistic studies and called on the assistance of the “pagan and godless” Aristotle to justify its tenets.
At first Luther had the support of sympathetic humanists in his daring attacks on the church, among them Erasmus, Reuchlin, and von Hutten. Like Luther, they were opposed to scholasticism—but for very different reasons. When it became evident that Luther’s antischolasticism was merely an aspect of his general mistrust of the human intellect, Erasmus withdrew his support. He feared that if Luther succeeded in excluding humanistic learning entirely, a return to the Dark Ages would ensue.
Luther soon had to modify his opposition to all humanistic studies. His stand against naturalistic philosophy remained firm, however: for Luther the Gospel was supranaturalistic and contained all truth and necessary knowledge. Pagan ethics he also considered an abomination, an arrogant denial of the Christian doctrine of divine grace. And the sciences, as Erasmus remarked, fell into ruin wherever Lutheranism prevailed.1
Luther and his close collaborator Melanchthon soon realized however that the neglect of the classics would inevitably lead to the decline of learning. In 1522 Melanchthon, with Luther’s reluctant consent, restored the study of certain classical works, including those of Homer, Sophocles, and Demosthenes, for their linguistic and literary values. They were to remain servants of the all-important study of theology, however. “A thorough theology,” wrote Melanchthon, “is impossible without philosophy and philology. If theology is not the beginning, the middle and the end of life, we cease being men; we return to the animal state.” Later Melanchthon admitted that other subjects might have disciplinarian value and recommended grammar, dialectic and rhetoric (the medieval trivium); and physics, morals, psychology, history, mathematics, and astronomy (remnants of the quadrivium). These latter studies, called Realien (a term derived from the medieval artes-reales, or quadrivium), were concerned with the “special knowledge” to be found in the classics.
Luther in his zeal to restore pure Christianity was drawn very close to the culture and spirit of the Middle Ages. Truth meant illumination of the soul, which could be received only directly and mysteriously through the Holy Writ and by spontaneous faith. He regarded all discursive knowledge as a hindrance to revelation.
Luther’s passionately antirational position had a destructive effect on German education. German schools of the sixteenth century, instead of advancing like the rest of Western Europe, tended to stagnate or even to regress into the Middle Ages. The only notable change in the university curriculum during the seventeenth century was the introduction of the study of Hebrew as an aid to the study of the Bible. Hitherto it had been studied only by individual scholars. The Greek as taught in the universities was not the classical but that of the New Testament. If a scholar strayed into the alluring world of Homer, he was likely to be reprimanded. Joachim Jungius (1587-1657) maintained that the Greek of the New Testament was not linguistically pure, whereupon the Hamburg clergy protested that this was an insult against the Holy Spirit who had written it.
The devastating Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) contributed markedly to the stagnation of learning in seventeenth-century Germany. It left Germany a disorganized and disunited area ruled over by some 300 independent princes. Not until the reign of Frederick the Great (1740-1786) did Germany begin its slow emergence from the feudal state and from its physical and mental regression. It was almost a century before Germany again had schools on a par with those of its neighboring countries who had fought on German soil. (The peace of Westphalia was concluded only 37 years before Bach’s birth.)
The curriculum and the general plan of education in Bach’s school differed little from those set up by Melanchthon over a century and a half earlier. Latin grammar was often studied before that of the mother tongue, although in this respect Bach benefited from a recent reform. Classical texts were studied for style and the methods of argument; Aristotle had been replaced by Cicero. The knowledge of physics, mathematics, medicine, geometry, cosmology, and other realien (or practical subjects) were still studied only from the ancient authors such as Pythagoras, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, or Boethius. Since Bach never attended a university, he was deprived even of this classical conception of science.
Luther’s anti-intellectualism is very important to an understanding of Bach and his music. The antirational position, however untenable in itself, seems paradoxically to nurture the creation of great and profound music. Art, and especially music, seems to spring from other, perhaps hidden, strata of the religious and artistic mind than the discursive intellect. The ultimate flowering of German music may have been caused in part by the emphasis in German schools on the inner experience of faith over intellectual pursuits. Bach’s music, arising out of his narrow, profoundly religious schooling, has been regarded as the highest artistic realization of the spirit of the Reformation—indeed of Christian culture as a whole.
The scientifically conditioned mind of the twentieth century is likely to see only the negative side of an education centered in theology. The old and the new theories of education do not clash over its purpose— which is gaining knowledge of reality—but in the conception each holds of reality. The positivist of today will say that only experimental and measurable facts lead to truth and reality; the Lutheran transcendentalist uses the spirit and inner illumination to find the true and real. Spiritual experiences were the only real experiences, and were the work of supreme reality, the Godhead, operating through the Holy Spirit. The aim of education in seventeenth-century Germany was to condition man for the cognizance of this all-important knowledge.
Which is the correct view? We are still faced with our inexplicable, moving response to Bach’s music. His art is revered even if his philosophy is unacceptable. Can it be that our objections to the Lutheran system are not as valid and firm as we expect them to be? Or is it perhaps that Bach’s music speaks so powerfully to us because despite our confident faith in the facts of the world, revealed to us by science, we are still uncertain of life’s ultimate meaning? Still, we are living in a vastly different culture from Bach’s and in order to begin to obtain a true perspective on the master and his works we must understand his cultural environment and his faith in the metaphysical purpose of life and art —in short we must discover Bach’s World.