THE Catholic church had almost entirely abandoned congregational singing, and here lay Luther’s third reform. The singing, he believed, should come directly from the hearts of all believers and not be treated as an esoteric art only, although Luther himself was sensitive to the beauty of artistically refined and sophisticated music. He loved the contrapuntal compositions of Josquin Depres, Heinricus Isaac, and Ludwig Senfl, and he wrote a most eloquent and romantic eulogy to polyphonic art. He stated that he did not wish all the arts crushed out of existence, clearly opposing certain religious sects that were inclined toward such barrenness.1 Thus Luther preserved not only congregational singing but also the infinitely more valuable treasure of Germany’s great religious musical art.
The Lutheran chorale kept many ancient hymn tunes alive. Luther, who abhorred the deliriously wandering melismata in which the words evaporated like incense, sought to restore the intelligibility of the text. With the help of Johann Walther and Conrad Rupff, he recast many old tunes to new words of his own, which were German paraphrases on ancient Latin texts. In these sessions, the religious genius would pace the floor, playing his lute (some say it was a flute)2 experimenting and adjusting old Gregorian and Ambrosian melodies, folksongs, Minnesinger Lieder, or ancient tropes and sequences of the ninth century. In the manner of song writers of his day, he fashioned everything after the rhymed and metrical pattern of folksongs.3 His melodies are stirring, strong, and sincere.
Some salient features of the evolution of the chorale should be mentioned here briefly. In Luther’s time the congregation sang in unison without accompaniment, while the professional choir performed the more sophisticated polyphonic art works of the period. Since these congregations were not accustomed to singing, they were urged to attend regular practice hours to learn the new devotional songs.4 The professional choir relied on the Catholic repertoire at first but soon Protestant polyphonic songs began to increase in number. In 1586 the preacher Lucas Osiander published “fifty spiritual songs and Psalms, with four voices in contrapuntal manner ... so constructed that the entire Christian congregation can join in with them.” For this communal purpose the melody was laid in the soprano, instead of in the tenor, as had been customary. This new practice coincided with the general change in style that came to Germany from Italy with those composers that had spent their years of apprenticeship in that country such as Michael Praetorius, Hans Leo Hassler, Hermann Schein, and Johannes Eccard. Osiander’s title page shows that the choir attempted to lead the congregation, still in great need of assistance. During the first decade of the seventeenth century Hans Leo Hassler, with the same purpose in mind, added instruments to his setting of four-voiced gemeine Melodien.
At the same time organ builders moderated their medieval concepions of confused mixture stops with Italian clarity, and these instruments became the permanent guide for congregational singing. By Bach’s time, the full harmony of the organ and the professional choir were joined by the entire congregation in unison, thoroughly familiar with the chorales after two centuries of practice. Every burgher with even the least musical qualification knew his Lutheran chorale as well as his Bible, for he sang at home as well as in church. Moreover, the hymns were heard at all occasions. The city pipers (Stadtpfeiffer), the guild of professional wind instrumentalists, played them almost daily from the towers of churches and from the balconies of public buildings.
Although the harmonization, rhythm, and general setting of the hymns underwent considerable transformation during the two centuries between Luther’s creation of the Protestant chorale and Bach’s accession to the cantorship, its original melodic texture changed remarkably little. Especially in the chorale-preludes Bach preserved the original church modes and the rhythmical malleability of the chorale melodies, even though his harmonization is in his own contemporary style. He retained the signature used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the flat, in those days, indicated the transposition of one fifth down from the original church mode, and a sharp that of a fifth up from the original. Thus the Dorian mode (roughly equivalent to D), transposed a fifth down, apparently sounds in g minor; yet it shows only one flat in the signature. Even when Bach actually harmonized such a transposed Dorian melody in g minor, he kept only one flat in the signature. Similarly the Mixolydian mode, transposed one fifth up, shows only one sharp, although it sounds in D major. Many modern editions of the chorales have abandoned this ancient manner of writing the signature, but most good editions of the chorale-preludes preserve Bach’s original notation.
These melodies would seem quite devoid of character, and tonal as well as rhythmical direction, when heard by themselves. Through Bach’s harmonization, however, they gain life and the music evokes feeling for the text. Bach’s four-voiced harmonization is of such contrapuntal mastery that each individual voice is actually more melodious than the given chorale melody itself. Yet the whole sounds so simple and natural that Bach’s transcendental technique is not apparent at first hearing.
Almost 400 of the chorale harmonizations of Bach have been preserved, gathered together by modern editors who gleaned them from various works in which they were incorporated—cantatas, Passions, oratorios, and motets. But it is estimated that these constitute about one half the amount he actually wrote for organists and choirs that performed regularly in the four churches under his direction.
In his private library Bach had the encyclopedic collection of hymn texts in eight volumes by Paul Wagner. For melodies, he had access to several collections in the Thomas School library, the oldest among them Vopelius’ Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch of 1682 and a large collection by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The Vopelius collection contained the oldest chorales, which the Leipzig congregation gustily sang them out from memory;5 Gerhardt had included a much larger number of melodies; but the largest was the collection of 1729, Das vollstandige und vermehrte Leipziger Gesangbuch, which had 530 pages of hymns and an index of detempore hymns.6
On the strength of his prerogative as cantor Bach chose the hymns for every service, a task he approached with a staunchly conservative bent. Terry states that more than half of the 76 hymn writers whose verses appear in his cantatas belong to the sixteenth century.7 Bach preferred the hymns he believed to have been written by Luther himself or his contemporaries.
One of the most important duties of the organist was to introduce every hymn, whether sung by the congregation or the choir, with a prelude. This body of almost 200 chorale-preludes, perhaps the choicest treasure among all the works Bach has left us, forms in itself a mine of thoughtful, philosophical, descriptive, and symbolic musical poems, as well as instruction for composers and aspiring organists.
With this musical form Bach traced the entire history of music, as far as he knew it in extant compositions, in an amplitude of infinite variety in musical devices, forms, and techniques. Numerous choralepreludes are composed in the style of the motets and madrigals of Luther’s time. As musical commentaries on the succeeding hymn, these preludes always use the hymn tune as their motive for elaboration, ornamentation, musico-philosophical illustration, or other flight of the imagination. The hymn tune, cantus firmus, can be presented either in its original continuity or broken into small episodes that are linked by interludes that can be part of a motet-like or madrigal-like structure, or of a free fantasy of new and possibly unrelated material. In the motet each phrase of the hymn is treated fugally. In the madrigal-like prelude, fragments of the hymn tune are distributed over the entire score of four to six voices in a mosaic of inverted, diminished, or augmented pieces of the original tune. The hymn tune in its original tempo or rhythm may accompany any of these forms; usually it is more unified and slower. The hymn tune is often presented in canon, either in double pedal (in two basses), or in any two other voices. Bach also composed half a dozen chorales in variation form, an antiquated style the old Hamburg master Reincken taught him. But this form was not suitable for preludizing, though it may at times have been used in organ voluntaries. One chorale-prelude is an adumbration of the sonata form.8
The extant chorale-preludes fall into six groups: the Orgelbüchlein, which Bach began in Weimar, but never finished (46 preludes); the series in the Klavierübung, published in 1739 (21 preludes); four canonic variations, published in 1747 by Balthazar Schmidt in Nürnberg (not suitable for liturgical use); and transcriptions of cantata movements published by Schubler in 1747 (six preludes); 18 choralepreludes that Bach composed shortly before his death; and some 80 more that were collected by his pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger and others. And this phenomenal production represents only a part of the work of his fluent and speedy pen. How many times did that inexhaustible musical mind improvise for his God and His angels, producing finished though highly artful compositions that amazed the greatest connoisseurs and colleagues for their perfection of form as well as for their profoundly moving humanity. If Bach had finished his Little Organ Book, it would have contained, 124 more preludes. He finished the works for principal feast days, and left blank pages, except for the titles, for the remaining Sundays, which would be apt to vary in different towns. (The services in several German towns in Bach’s time varied enough that Bach had to write out a reminder to himself of the first Leipzig service he directed.)9
While being detained against his will in the service of the angry Duke Wilhelm Ernst, Bach began working on an important portion of his “well-conceived” and “well-regulated” church music, a complete program of chorale-preludes for the entire liturgical year.10 The Little Organ Book, the Orgelbuchlein, was to include preludes introducing and interpreting all the hymns sung by the congregation or choir over a year’s span.11 Bach considered the content of the words of each hymn of foremost importance and he used a great variety of musical motives, rhythmical and ornamental figures, and descriptive intervals to illustrate the text. This highly refined art of musical symbolization, dating back to the Renaissance and earlier, usually falls undetected by the uninitiated, but in Bach’s time it was an essential part of the religious music literature. In select circles these devices and their meanings were well known. Fourteenth-century musicians saw all sorts of mystic connections between numbers of tones and corresponding numbers of gospels, apostles, and so on. Some even constructed the entire edifice of musical theory as a replica of the Church with all its ramifications, spiritual as well as secular. This play of intellectual imagination with hidden meanings continued to lure especially northern musicians for several centuries. Andre Pirro, in his L’esthetique de Bach, detected many of the descriptive devices that Bach used in works of several of his predecessors and contemporaries, including Johann Wolfgang Franck, Johann Sebastiani, Johann Theile, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Fischer III, Heinrich Schütz, Reinhard Keiser, Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), Giacomo Carissimi, Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, Giovanni Andrea Bontempi (Angelini), Sebastian Anton Scherer, Andreas Hammerschmidt, and Johann Ahle. Early opera adopted many pictorial figures from the madrigals of the sixteenth century. Bach’s contemporary Heinichen, in his General Bassschule of 1711 and 1728, recommends these devices to opera writers for proper “expression of the word and the emotions in music.” He speaks at length about the “doctrine of affections” (Affectenlehre),this technique of employing certain “musico-rhetorical” (musikalischerhetorische) and well-conceived, short clauses (kurtz gefasste Clauseln)or Loci topici.12 When applied to church music the art was called Bibelauslegung, interpretation of the Bible.
Thus in the chorale-prelude “Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar” (From Heaven Came the Host of Angels) while the chorale melody is heard in the soprano, the middle voice pictures the descending movement suggested in the text by sixteenth notes rapidly falling along a scale two octaves in span; the bass also descends, but in the slower pace of quarter notes, over an equally wide span. In the fiery, ecstatic “Herr Gott, nun Schleuss den Himmel auf” (Lord God, Now Unlock the Gates of Heaven) the figures of sixteenth notes depict the twisting movement of turning keys and then the upward rush of a series of swift runs, while the bass constantly leaps up in exuberant octaves. A similar device is found in “Erstanden 1st der Heilig Geist” (Arisen Is the Holy Spirit): figures, rising and marching in various tempi, combine with upward steps in the bass. In “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend” (Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Thyself to Us) the accompanying figures again are suggestive of a turning and bending movement.
In “Durch Adams Fall ist gantz Verderbt” (Through Adam’s Fall is All Corrupted) the fall is depicted by the gloomy sound of descending diminished sevenths in the bass, intervals of traditionally fearful and dreadful connotation. The chromatically winding middle voices cunningly depict the coils of the corrupting serpent. Joy, in “Der Tag, der ist so Freudenreich” (The Day Is So Rich in Joys), is expressed mainly through a swiftly tripping dance rhythm , a device that probably offended any sober Pietists who heard it. Similar dancing rhythms enliven “In Dir ist Freude” (In Thee Is Joy) and in “Mit Fried’ und Freud’ fahr Ich dahin” (In Peace and Joy Do I Meet Death). In such meditative chorale-preludes as “Das Alte Jahr vergangen ist” (The Old Year Has Passed Away), “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (O Man, Weep Over Thy Great Sins), and “Wenn Wir in hochsten Nothen seyn” (Whenever We Are in Deepest Distress) Bach expands the melodies by that highly developed art of ornamentation that, in his hands, has the poetic spontaneity of improvisation. These preludes are deeply moving by virtue of their utmost sensitivity and profound penetration of their literary content.
In this collection eight significant symbolic canons appear in the chorale-preludes: “Gottes Sohn ist kommen” (God’s Son Has Come); “Indulci Jubilo” (a sweet jubilance in contemplation of the infant Jesus); “O Lamm Gottes” (Christ, Thou Lamb of God); “Hilf Gott dass mir’s gelinge” (God May Help that I May Succeed to Sing my Praise in the Name of Thee, Noble Creator); “Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag” (The Glorious Day Has Dawned); “Liebster Jesu, wir sind bier” (Dearest Jesus, We Are Here); and “Dies sind die heil’ge zehn Gebot” (These are the Sacred Ten Commandments). (The “magus” Kircher, and Werckmeister as well, regarded the canon as fraught with scientific meaning, but we prefer to interpret the form as symbolic or emblematic.) All these canons deal with the concept of God and His Son, and whenever the text alludes to an immutable law, Bach is apt to reach for the canon as its symbolization. To make the canon he has had to adjust the original rhythm of the hymn tune so that the intervals would fit, for intervallic relations had important mystic meanings for musicians of the day. Bach may well have felt that in mastering these complex calculations he was actually dealing with a similar mystic power, a musical mathematics similar to that which Kepler believed to have discovered in his De Harmonice Mundi, in which he states that “the celestial harmonies depend on the various and varying velocities of the planets, of which the sentient soul animating the Sun was the solitary auditor.”13
Bach meant the Little Organ Book as an instruction for the art and science of writing chorale-preludes, and as a complete yearly series. The hymns follow the Lutheran calendar of Sundays and feast days for Advent, Jesus’ birth, His suffering, His Crucifixion, and His Ascension. Bach’s unexpected release from incarceration, and his new duties in Kothen, prevented him from finishing the entire series. He also seems to have run short of music paper, for on his last page he wrote out one chorale in an improvised tablature: instead of using notes he jotted down an entire prelude in letters. He inscribed the series with a little rhyme on the title page that summarized his purpose:
Dem hochsten Gott allein zu Ehren,
Dem Nachsten, draus sich zu belehren.
In honor only to the Highest God
Next to that, from this to gain instruction.
This comparatively small work, containing only 46 chorale-preludes, is only a small example of a number of larger cycles of church music that were to be composed in Leipzig. Bach would have to wait another seven years before he could even begin to realize his goal.
In the Orgelbuchlein Bach wrote preludes for hymns and motets used during the year and subject to detempore variation. The Klavierubung14 presents a set of preludes played during one Sunday service, for only those hymns and motets that are not affected by detempore variation. The Leipzig series is composed of the chorale-preludes preceding the hymns that took the place of the three Kyries, the Gloria, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer in the Lutheran service, and the three hymns in the Communion service, that were never varied, following the main service—the baptismal hymn, “To the Jordan Came Christ Our Lord”; the confession of sin, “Out of the Deep Have I Cried Unto Thee”; and the Holy Communion hymn, “Jesus Christ Our Savior, Who Turned the Wrath of God from Us.” In these preludes, like his Ogelbuchlein, Bach placed prime importance on the composition of music that would transmit the deep meaning of the hymn text to the congregation through musical symbolization.
The preludes to the three Kyries do not call for descriptive motives, however, and since the Kyrie hymn15 is an ancient chant sung as a hymn, the preludes to this hymn are kept in motet style, quite in conformity with its traditional character. That means that every phrase (in the hymn marked by a firmate sign. ) is treated fugally, with stretti, inversions, and imitations. The cantus firmus (hymn tune) appears as augmentation in any of the four or five voices. In the first Kyrie, “Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit,” the motet-like prelude treats the first five phrases of the Dresden hymn in this fugato fashion. In the second Kyrie, “Kyrie, Christe, Aller Welt Trost,” the six phrases of the second section of the same hymn are developed; the cantus firmus is consistently taken by the tenor, while the other voices play around this chant as in a motet. The third Kyrie, “Kyrie Gott, Heiliger Geist,” has the cantus firmus in similar style, but the third part of the Dresden hymn in the bass now emerges with greater calm, in measured steps of regular half-notes, while the other four voices increase the tempo of their diminutions, inversions, and stretti to eighth notes, creating an effect echoing Luther’s ecstatic description of polyphonic works of Senfl, Isaac, Josquin, and the like:
One voice taking a simple part and around it sing three, four, or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in Heaven with friendly bows, embracing and hearty swinging of partners.16
A certain symbolism may perhaps be read into the successive treatment of these three Kyries: the three appearances of the cantus firmus may symbolize stages of increasing confidence gained by the believer. In the first Kyrie God is invoked as the Creator of all things, hence the cantus firmus is woven in with all voices, like Christ’s ubiquity. In the second, when Christ is implored to have mercy upon sinners, the cantus firmus is separated from the rest of the voices, as men in sin live apart from God. In the third, God the Holy Spirit, is asked to give consolation, strength, and confident faith, therefore the even and more quiet rhythm of the cantus firmus appearing in the bass. Other, more lively, voices reflect the hopeful words that we may “blithefully and joyfully be relieved of this sorrow”17 (Arbitrary as this kind of symbolism may seem, it was directly related to Kircher’s conception of analogies, see pages 128-30, in which congruent elements were thought to have a common mathematical cause.)
The next great prelude in this series, Luther’s German setting for the Gloria, “Allein Gott in her Hdhe sei Lhr” (Only God on High Be Honored), is one of the most perfectly balanced in structure of all Bach’s compositions in this form. Here Bach depends exclusively on thematic material developed contrapuntally. No extraneous matter appears at all. The jubilant counter-subjects to the hymn tune, following each other in two-voiced fugato fashion, are in themselves florid variations on each phrase of the hymn. Even the leaping basses, in the interludes between the phrases of the hymn tune, punctuate the themes, while the fugato variations frolic upside down, like heavenly creatures unfettered by the limitations of gravity. After the first half of the hymn has gone through the usual repetition, except that the voices’ positions have been exchanged (triple counterpoint with obligato bass), the second period of the hymn modulates rapidly through D major, e minor, b minor, a minor, d minor, D major, back to G major. This modulating episode is very rare in such short compositions as hymns and chorale-preludes, but here Bach has extended this melody over 117 measures. This modulatory section and its sequential treatment give the composition as a whole the key balance and structure of the classical sonata. Within this form canons appear in the cantus firmus without in the least encumbering the joyous dance rhythm that reflects a warm and pure soul abounding with that peace and good will that the Gloria sings of.
In the prelude to the hymn of the Ten Commandments, Bach constructed a canon around the cantus firmus to symbolize the immutable laws, as he had done earlier in works in the Orgelbuchlein; but here the canon is arranged so that the same note sounds, unrelieved, ten times. In the “Water unser im Himmelsreich,” the hymn sung before the Lord’s Prayer, the pictorial image of the hymn’s first words is symbolized by the usual canon in the cantus firmus, while two other voices, in Luther’s words, “leap and spring about” in swift staccato arabesques, trills, and graces (all fully written out). This hymn also is an ancient one, dating from 1593.
The last three chorale-preludes belong to the baptism and the Communion service. The flowing passages of the first, originally composed by Johann Walther in 1524, “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam,” (Christ Our Lord Came to the Jordan), depict the smooth and peaceful movement of waves while the cantus firmus moves in even, slow steps in the bass. The second, “Aus tiefer Noth schrei Ich zu Dir” (In Direst Need I Cry to Thee), one of the most inspired and intensely felt supplications that Luther put into hymn verse, is not suited to a symbolic setting. Bach treats this ancient (1524) Phrygian melody in motet style with the cantus firmus in the tenor, the style that was often used in Luther’s time.
The third hymn again calls for powerful pictorial imagination, and “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Zorn Gottes wand”(Jesus Christ our Savior, Who Averted the Wrath of God from Us) has one of the most extravagantly mad fugue themes to be found in all musical literature. Wide intervals leap like bolts of lightning. Organists probably chose the strident and penetrating reed stops to create this frightening effect, heightened by the stern cantus singing its Dorian melody in the pedals with thundering 16- and 32-foot trombones.
The entire Klavierubung series is introduced by the famous Prelude in E Flat Major, originally played before the Introit, between seven and eight in the morning. Other organ voluntaries, the above described chorale-preludes, plus the detempore chorales with their chorale-preludes, the motets, and the cantatas followed. The musical service was climaxed toward noon by the St. Anns Fugue, a triple fugue based on the hymn to St. Ann. Today when the series is performed in concert this Prelude comes immediately before the St. Anns Fugue.
Luther included in his German liturgy a catechism for children, and so Bach accompanied all these chorale-preludes of the Klavierubung with a set of preludes for the small organ (the Thomas church had a second, smaller organ for just such occasions). These preludes in miniature are marked “Manualiter,” that is, to be played on manuals only. Although they display the contrapuntal master touch, they are less interesting because they are devoid of pictorial, symbolic content.
It is not difficult to imagine how much the musically sensitive persons of that epoch were moved by this magnificent music so rich in spiritual symbolism. Bach’s musical Bibelauslegung, or pictorial explanation of the Bible, combines the creation of a visual image in the mind’s eye with the emotional essence of its idea. Bach’s friend, the preacher Johann Matthias Gesner, who possessed both a highly cultivated mind and a profound and ardent faith, wrote glowing accounts of Bach’s organ playing. Marianne von Ziegler (who wrote such fitting texts for Bach’s cantatas), Anna Magdalena, Bach’s numerous students, and poets and philosophers of the University all were indebted to Bach for enriching their religious lives in the Leipzig churches.
In our century a new philosophy of symbolic thinking has appeared in the writings of Hans Vaihinger, C. G. Jung, and Susanne K. Langer,18 who regard symbols as spontaneous and direct means of transmitting thoughts or ideas, bypassing reason, and communicating directly and intuitively, giving rise to meaningful myths, religious rites, and various forms of art, especially music. In the case of music this obscure and subrational function of the mind might perhaps be designated as prerational or superrational. But Bach seems to proceed quite conventionally and consciously in his use of Bibelauslegung; his symbolism is not merely emblematic, however—nor as subconsciously dynamic as these modern philosophers describe it. In his case the idea given by the text is translated into music by emotion disciplined by esthetics.
Although the untrained listener of today cannot know spontaneously that a musical canon stands for law, or for the union of the Father and the Son, in Bach’s time initiates were versed in this symbolism. In their religious minds profound admiration for the masterful ingenuity of contrapuntal feats merged with feeling of awe that the symbolized idea communicated to them. Both these apparent miracles seemed to them to emerge from the same divine mind. Thought and emotion mutually joined in one esthetic and religious experience.