THE contents of Bach’s library strongly suggest that he had no interest whatever in any but orthodox ideas. Not a single book represented even the most elementary phase of the new movement. Of French literature Bach was singularly ignorant. His knowledge of the language was less than adequate, and German translations had not yet appeared in Germany.
Two men of the younger generation have dropped hints of Bach’s utter indifference to the new rational philosophy that they themselves valued highly. One of them was Johann Adolph Scheibe, who in 1738 wrote a spiteful, impertinent pamphlet against Bach, after he had applied in vain for the post of organist at the Thomas church. In a long tirade criticizing Bach’s “turgid and confused” style, his excessive ornamentation,1 and the extreme difficulty of execution, he gives the following reason for this incomprehensible art: “How can a man be faultless as a writer of music who has not sufficiently studied natural philosophy, so as to have investigated and become familiar with the forces of nature and of reason?”2 Since Bach was not versed in natural theology or deism, he was not a man of sufficient culture to write “with feeling and expression.”
Disregarding Scheibe’s lack of artistic judgment and his personal rancor, and the asinine philosophic conclusions, we are interested in the remark as another indication of Bach’s indifference to the new thought. Most certainly Bach had not “studied natural philosophy”; and it must have been true that Bach had paid no attention to Wolffian rational theology at a time when his mind was filled with the genuinely mystic beauty of the B Minor Mass. Whatever rumors about this new “heresy” may have reached his ears, he remained oblivious of them. But Bach’s cause was taken up by an able amateur musician and teacher of rhetoric at Leipzig University, Professor Birnbaum, in an article that now serves as a source of valuable information regarding Bach’s art of ornamentation,3 but does not deny the spiritual, nonrational foundation of his art. The article drew forth rebuttals and answers by others and created quite a stir in all of Germany, but throughout it all Bach kept serene silence.
The other remark about Bach’s indifference toward the new philosophy is more veiled, and in fact, misleading. It was made by Bach’s pupil Lorenz Mizler (1711-1778), who wrote the closing four sentences of the Obituary (Necrology), the oldest biographical document of the master, composed primarily by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and another pupil, Johann Friedrich Agricola. Mizler writes, “Our lately departed Bach did not, it is true, occupy himself with deep theoretical speculations on music, but was all the stronger in the practice of the art.”4 Although Mizler may be referring here to the speculations of Kircher and Werckmeister, or to the first volume of Fux’ Gradus ad Parnassum (which Mizler translated into German “under Bach’s very eyes,” as Spitta relates), it is most probable that this vainglorious eccentric in music and musical speculation was referring to his own dubious theories on composition, a curious amalgam of Wolffian rationalism.
It seems especially pertinent, while we are piecing together a picture of Bach’s reaction to rationalism, to understand how some of his pupils diverged from his orthodoxy when they embarked on their own careers. Mizler particularly moved drastically away from his master’s position. Among the many pupils of Bach, most of whom made excellent and well-deserved careers, Mizler cut a strange and somewhat ludicrous figure. He never reached enough proficiency as a musician to attain a professional position; his 24 odes were ridiculed by Mattheson and Scheibe, who considered them “so bad that they brought disgrace upon the printer for exposing such miserable scribblings to print.”5 According to Scheibe this opinion was shared by Telemann.
Lorenz Christoph Mizler (1711-1778) absorbed the traditional musical and theological program of the Gymnasium at Anspach. But his interest in the new philosophy was aroused early by the persistent fulminations against Wolff and Leibniz by the theologian Georg Ludwig Oeder, who regarded them as the originators of all modern evil. From 1731 to 1734 Mizler studied philosophy and mathematics at the university in Leipzig and music under Bach. There he came under the influence of the Enlightenment, mainly through Gottsched’s lectures on French literature and the Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy. During Mizler’s years as a student Gottsched published his own resume of the entire encyclopedic philosophy of Wolff in two volumes, entitled Weltweisheit (World Wisdom). After his studies in Leipzig Mizler studied law and medicine for two years in Wittenberg, but music, mathematics, and the new philosophy continued to fascinate him, and he devoted the rest of his life to “enlightened” speculations on music, and since he was not free of vanity, to the propagation of his new ideas.
Upon his return to Leipzig in 1736 he published a monthly magazine, the “Neu eröffnete musikalische Bibliothek” (The Newly Inaugurated Musical Library), and in 1738 he organized a society of the musical sciences (Societät der Musikalischen Wissenschaften). Its aim was to advance the “science” of music. Just as Gottsched had traced the esthetic appeal of poetry to rational and natural causes grounded in Wolffian thought, and after the manner of Boileau, from these causes had established rules for future poets, so Mizler challenged the members of his learned society to find the proven cause of musical esthetics in reason, mathematics, and natural laws. It should be possible, he was sure, to calculate the effect of chords and melodies upon the soul, and on the basis of these mathematical results establish esthetic rules for composition. This blend of French and Wolffian rationalism would thus lift genius and musical instinct from its dark prison of subjectivity into the light of reason and make the technique of musical creation common knowledge. In 1739 he offered a prize to anyone who could demonstrate scientifically why parallel fifths and octaves are offensive in contrapuntal writing. Many allegedly scientific proofs were offered by theologians, allegorists, and rationalists alike, but none proved satisfactory to Mizler. He wished his society to be another academy for the foundation of musical criteria based upon the new philosophy of Enlightenment. His Wolffian motto was “Conscia mens recti famae mendica ridet “ (The mind, conscious of the right vocation, laughs at lies). Such a search for truth may be laudable in the realm of “enlightened” religion, but how it can be applied to music is not at all clear.
Mizler wrote a dissertation in which he claims to demonstrate that music is a science, and should be part of philosophy. In the Middle Ages also music was called a science, and even Bach still employed the term often since he regarded it as a branch of learning in the service of religion. But during Bach’s lifetime music came to be generally accepted as an art—a practice for its own end. Mizler’s endeavor therefore sounds reactionary, a historical retrogression. In fact, he supports some of his views with quotations from Kircher. However, he rejects Kircher’s analogies based upon Pythagorean mysticism, and he no longer looks upon mathematics as the cause of phenomena, but attributes a certain symbolical significance to this science. Drawing upon Leibniz for support of this viewpoint, he writes:
According to his [Leibniz’] view it [music] is an unconscious arithmetic exercise of the soul, that does not know that it calculates, because much takes place in indistinct and nonsensous perceptions,. . . Even when the soul is not aware of calculation, be it as pleasure arising from consonances or as displeasure from dissonances.6
Mizler often mentioned a project for a book entitled “Uses and Advantages of the Wolffian Philosophy for Music” (Nutzen und Vorteil der Wolffische Philosophie in der Musik). His philosophical prattle echoes Gottsched’s W eltweisheit, which in turn resounds with all the pedantry and unimaginative sobriety of Wolff’s Rational Thoughts.7
Mizler sought fame and immortality as the discoverer of new natural laws of music on a mathematical basis, as Newton had discovered them in cosmology. He was convinced that just as science could reveal the efficiency of the world conceived as a machine, so the mechanical secrets and the natural laws of composition could be discovered by scientific means. He even envisioned a work entitled “The Thoroughbass Machine” (der Generalbassmachine).
Mizler mistrusted all spontaneous creation of the musical mind. His musical mathematics never reached any clarity, however, and his scientific dreams and desires hovered between conceptions of Kircher and the rationality of Wolff, while in Bach’s and his own time musicians had already freed themselves from mathematics. Werckmeister, despite his calculations of split commas, was actually depending on his ear for the tuning of his clavier. (And as we have said, Pythagorean calculations had even less practical value for Bach, although in his Weimar days he had been fascinated by Werckmeister’s metaphysical and mystical speculations.) Mizler’s philosophical speculations were of a very different nature from those of the pious Werckmeister, who dutifully absorbed them into his Lutheran theology and made them an integral part of faith. Mizler attempted to explain the mechanism of the musical soul through the application of the law of sufficient cause upon composition. His speculations, growing out of Wolffian deism, tended to destroy orthodox theology.
For Bach, the genius engaged in the reality of musical creation, Mizler’s speculations must certainly have appeared as theoretical shadow plays and futile but dangerous investigations. In a footnote to his translation of Fux’ Gradus ad Parnassum Mizler says, “According to the reasoning of the immortal Newton the assumptions and teachings of Kepler regarding his Harmonia Mundi are false.”8 Bach undoubtedly had read these words, for at the time he commented that the counterpoint in Fux’ Gradus was too strict and confining; he probably kept silent about the speculative part of this work.9 For the truth of the speculations of Kepler or Newton, of Werckmeister or Mizler, was secondary to the spiritual truth of Bach’s own orthodox faith or to its flowering in his art. Bach dealt in eternal metaphysical (ontological) realities, and could ignore Mizler’s intellectual exercises.
Mizler did succeed in attracting some famous musicians, including Bach, to his Correspondierende Societät der Musikalische Wissenschaften (The Corresponding Society of Musical Sciences). His vanity was flattered by such members as Telemann, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, Carl Heinrich Graun, Sorge, and even Handel. Mattheson was approached, but this fiercely independent critic-composer-author had no patience whatever with Mizler’s musico-philosophical endeavors. Bach waited a long time before he condescended to accept an invitation to join. He yielded to Mizler’s urging, but C. P. E. Bach later made this comment about it to Forkel:
It would hardly be worthwhile to mention that in 1747 he became a member of the Society of the Musical Sciences, founded by Mizler, did we not owe to this circumstance his admirable chorale Vom Himmel Hoch komm ich her (From Heaven High Do I Descend).
He presented this chorale to the Society on his admission, and had it engraved afterward.10 Bitter maintains that this work served as a formal test for admission, while Handel and Graun, on account of their fame, were admitted “on their merits” (aus eigenen Bewegung). Bach also presented the society with a puzzle canon that the learned members were unable to solve at the time.11 In a puzzle canon only one voice is written out; the place of entrance for the other voices must be calculated. In the case of a triple canon, it takes an initiate of unusual ability to find its solution. Mizler with all his “science” was not the man for such a task.
Bach’s Sons: Modern in Orthodoxy
Several scholars have given evidence suggesting that Bach’s sons eventually left the strict orthodoxy of their early home life, but the direction of their lives and work indicates the strong and steady influence of the faith of their father. Bach’s son Friedemann is reported to have befriended Mizler, and to have been inspired by his interest in mathematics.12 Both Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel studied at the Leipzig University—Friedemann in 1729-33, and Emanuel in 1731-34. Both chose to pursue law courses, which Emanuel continued at the University of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. Their program included mathematics, three branches of law, logic (Vernunftlehre), and philosophy,13 which Friedemann studied under Jocher and Ernesti.
The influence of Ernesti was not unduly disturbing to the orthodox Bachs, for at this early period in his career the rector was taking a carefully diplomatic approach to theological matters. A book he wrote in defense of the Lutheran dogma of the Holy Supper dates from that time.14 Not until 40 years later—in his school regulations of 1773—did he boldly advocate instruction in natural theology. When the two brothers studied in Leipzig their father was still on friendly terms with Ernesti; in 1733 the young rector stood godfather to Sebastian’s son Johann Christian, later known as the London Bach.
It is sometimes held that later, when Friedemann lived in Halle, he was influenced by natural theology. This assumption is based only on the lack of religious fervor in his church music. This lack, however, plus his small output of church music, must be ascribed to the animosity to music that was prevalent in the pietistic church of Halle, rather than to Friedemann’s inclination toward Wolffian philosophy.15
Bach’s sons did not cause their father any anxiety over their spiritual corruption. On the contrary, the loving and proud father had reason to rejoice in the harmonious development of these two talented young men. Even the environment of Frederick the Great’s court did not divert Emanuel from his parental Lutheranism. After 28 years of service in the sophisticated court he eagerly accepted the vacant post of cantor in Hamburg, where in 20 years he produced an enormous amount of church music, including no less than 20 Passions. Perhaps his setting of Christian Gellert’s Geistliche Oden und Lieder in 1757 points to a slight leaning toward rationalism. But Gellert, who followed the model of French poetry, was not affected by Wolffian philosophy. He was more of a true poet and a more truly religious man than his colleague, Gottsched.
Johann Christoph Gottsched
One of the strongest protagonists of the Wolffian enlightenment was the university professor Johann Christoph Gottsched, the poet who had provided Bach with the text of the Mourning Ode for Queen Eberhardine. He had been Mizler’s and Ernesti’s philosophy teacher, and he was the author of Weltweisheit, a resume of Wolff’s philosophy. Bach occasionally visited his home, but the contact was made chiefly through Mrs. Gottsched, who was an accomplished musician and who took lessons in composition from Bach’s talented pupil Krebs. Bach’s acquaintance with Gottsched was probably extremely formal and superficial—perhaps even a bit strained. For not only were the two men separated by a wide chasm of two opposing philosophies—of which they must have been painfully aware—but also because Gottsched had written some pointed remarks about the vocal style of cantatas that cannot have pleased Bach. Spitta doubts that Bach could “have had any very warm sympathy with a man who was so emphatically antagonistic to opera”16 but Bach might well have overlooked Gottsched’s criticism of opera17 for he himself was not a great enthusiast for this form of art. He never wrote an opera (unless one classes the little Coffee Cantata as a miniature comic opera), and although Bach maintained a cordial personal friendship with the Dresden opera composer Hasse and his celebrated wife, the beautiful prima donna Faustina, he seems to have considered his friend’s musical works only for light entertainment. At times he would invite his sons to visit Dresden to hear some of the “merry tunes” at its opera.
More likely what offended Bach was the professor’s criticism of cantatas in his Versuch einer Kritischen Dichtkunst (Essay on a Critical Art of Poetry). In the second chapter he severely criticizes and ridicules the style of musical treatment of the text that today we call baroque. He has no respect for the librettist who lowered the art of poetry to accommodate composers: “The more the music gained, the more the poetry thereby lost. ... If the ear got to hear a lot, reason was offered all the less to think thereby.”18 The rationalistic attitude in these words is only too apparent.
He further ridicules the use of recitatives and arias, especially the da capo aria:
As not all poetic lines were easy to set to these twisted ornaments, they let these lines sing off and pray off mechanically, so that the singers could all the better prepare themselves for the next more artificial strain. This last thing they called Aria.19
He attacks Menantes (pseudonymn for Bach’s librettist Hunold) saying that he has given:
... a mass of rules and made who-knows-what secrets out of them, that nobody understands, unless he is a great connoisseur of music. All these result in saying that the poet must be a slave to the composer, and must not think or say what he wants, but write so that the musician can let his caprices be heard right well.20
When he hints at the foolish adoration of the librettist for the composer, probably referring to Henrici, the adored composer can be no one but Bach. And no other musician wrote in such style that:
By an extravagantly wasteful musical art the work of poetry becomes invisible, or so hidden that it is not discernible. . . . This happens mainly when through countless repetitions of a line, half-hours are spent; when single words are so dragged out and expanded that the singer has to breathe ten times, and cannot be understood by his audience for the endless trills.21
After this tirade he then gives considerable praise to Handel, Graun, and Hasse, but never even mentions Bach. Clearly he had no love for Bach’s art. He praises the “Critische Musikus” of Hamburg (Mattheson), who had given such “reasonable rules” for vocal writing22 and who we remember criticized Bach for the “unreasonable” repetition of “Ich, Ich, Icia” in Cantata 21, “Ich hatte viel Bekummerniss” (I Had Much Sorrow).
Reason and nature shape the musical esthetics of Gottsched, Scheibe, and Mattheson, and also form the typical criteria in Boileau’s judgment of “good taste.” The new esthetics of rationality actually reached Mattheson from France and England (he was connected with the English legation), more from reading Newton, Locke, and French writers than from his compatriot Wolff. And despite these influences Mattheson adhered to the formal religion of the Lutheran church. Others of the new movement, whose musical ideas must have reached Bach’s ears more and more frequently, were not so orthodox in their faith and adopted more of Wolff’s philosophy.
Bach met the damaging incursions into his art by these enlightened estheticians with serene composure. He avoided theoretical discussions with them. Although famous musicians were welcome and frequent guests in his home, their conversations must not have centered on the new musical esthetics. Bach took to battle only when the domain of his church music was.invaded by irreverent intruders. Then his defense was stubborn, methodical, and implacable. Art was the manifestation of truth and ultimate reality, and needed no polemics. Musical creation merged into one with the act of faith.