BACH’S understanding of history is perhaps the best example of the theological focus of his intellectual life. Early in his life he accepted the premise that history was divinely guided. From this concept, basic to Bach’s life and faith, we may gain an insight into his rather unconventional viewpoint on the philosophy and musical speculation of his time. But we become aware of the implications of this providential view of history only through the process of reconstruction. Bach does not tell us himself; he left no extensive correspondence on these subjects. Still by examining the sources of his knowledge of history—the classroom approach and texts of schools of his time—we can put together the fabric of his philosophy of history.
The study of history suffered more than any other humanistic study under the reactionary rule of Luther and Melanchthon. The scientific approach was totally abandoned. The great Renaissance historians— Guicciardini, Machiavelli, and Vasari, among others—had refused to relate every event solely to biblical history and sought the material and psychological causes as well. But their influence was not felt outside some very limited circles. During Bach’s time their works had not been printed or translated from the Italian and they did not become available throughout Europe until the nineteenth century.
The German historians who followed the example of the humanists, relating secular events and rejecting classical fables and ecclesiastic legends—Ulrich von Hutten; Beatus Rhenanus, a disciple of Erasmus; Flacius; and Sleidanus—were all condemned by Luther and Melanchthon. Flacius was involved in a theological controversy that branded him as an arch heretic. Melanchthon charged Sleidanus with being “unfit to be put into the hands of Protestant youth”1 and regarded as rank heresy his daring statement that the Protestant revolt was mainly a political movement. For the same reasons, works of other historians such as Seckendorf (a disciple of Sleidanus), Pufendorf, and Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), were kept from the students in the Gymnasia through the protective vigilance of theologians, and theologian-historians like Johannes Buno.
The Lutheran historian could not take seriously suggestions that, for instance, the invention of printing had helped the spread of revolution, or that taxation in the form of indulgences had added economic weight to the success of Protestantism, or that the princes had ulterior motives in seceding. For Bach and many others like him, history was a revelation of God’s wisdom. The institutions of state, church, marriage of the clergy, and especially the Christian dogma, were static and immutable, and if mankind had been temporarily diverted from the right path, the sins of particular individuals had caused the movement.
Article VII of the school regulations of 1685 of Ohrdruf’s Lyceum reads: “It would be useful if the Historia Universalis of Buno and the Geography would be explained with it, and that Curtius as well as Terence were treated.”2 In 1702 another regulation advocated the use of Buno’s text, mentioning the partial title: Idea Universae historiae Johannis Bunonis cum sacrae turn profanae idea. . . . The edition with this title was printed in Leipzig in 1700 and had been updated to 1694 by Buno.3 Thomas reports that Buno’s text was studied in prima, the highest class, at Ohrdruf. Since Bach entered that class shortly after July, 1699, and followed the course in general history until March, 1700, when he left for Liineburg, he must have used an earlier edition, either 1672 or 1692.4 At the Ritteracademie of Liineburg the study of history took a prominent place in the curriculum but because the academy allowed a certain freedom in the choice of subjects, we cannot be sure that Bach continued his historical studies there.
Johannes Buno, or Bunonus (1617-1697), whose name was really Bonenberg, began his studies with theology, like most learned men of his time. After a short period of tutoring sons of nobility, he became the rector of the famous school of Liineberg, where he taught history and geography from 1653 until he crowned his career with the pastorship of St. Michael’s, the church in which Bach participated while a student. Buno’s popular books on history and geography were reprinted in Germany several times between 1662 and 1705.
Historia Universalis is a curious document, biased but representative of the educational methods of the seventeenth century. In the long title Buno promises a “short, summary picture of the principal histories of the world, ecclesiastic and secular, beginning with the creation of the world, leading to the year 1671, represented in agreeable pictures, clearly and concisely, so that adults as well as young people, and also those not well versed in Latin, can easily understand and remember it.”5 The book, like Hutter’s, was meant to be memorized, and Buno invented all kinds of devices to aid the students in this task.
Following visual techniques introduced by Comenius, Buno drew an ingenious series of pictures to go along with the text. Each of the four millennia before the birth of Christ is represented by a quasi-allegorical animal or object chosen by alphabetical order: an eagle (Adler) and planks (Bretter) suggest the Ark and the boats that the children of Noah built from it, a camel (C) brought to mind the Jew’s mode of travel when they returned to Egypt. The fourth is a dragon (D). The centuries of the Christian era are represented in 17 pictures—including a Cerberus, a Griffin, Janus, and a pope—depicting a main characteristic of the period. Innumerable small pictures of historical personages are crowded into these drawings, and the student discovered an object with or near each of them, intended sometimes to remind him of the famous person’s contribution to history, and sometimes merely to provide an amusing, mnemonic device. Ogyges, for instance, holds a fiddle, the German equivalent of which, Geige, sounds like his name. Two intertwined eels eating each other form a clever pun in German on Alexander the Great—”De Ahle essen ‘nander.”
Buno sees history from a narrowly Christian viewpoint, and as the following review of the content of Historia Universalis makes clear, he uses his subject to comfort doubters and confirm believers. In the 1672 edition a dedication in Latin assures the reader that the chief benefit drawn from the knowledge of history lies in its many lessons for Christians: History represents nothing but a demonstration of Christian truth (Historia nihil repraesentat, quod Christianus). Buno inscribes the title page of his book with the pious letters, I, N, J (In Nomine Jesu), a custom followed by many authors and composers including Bach.
Buno presents his material in a series of tales, another means of facilitating memorization. These tales explain historical developments in terms of the capacities of various individuals to act in a Christian way. Ideas and movements go unacknowledged; history gains importance only through its relevance to Christian living. Only Christians receive Buno’s praise—praise based solely on the profession of true faith, or rather of the right creed. Despite this unscientific viewpoint, the seventeenth-century student did become thoroughly acquainted with a great number of historical facts, and because of the system of memorizing, monthly recitations, open disputations, and general examinations, probably retained them longer than the modern student.
Buno begins, as he states in his title, with Creation which he places in 4004, the generally accepted date. In the first picture we see Adam, who achieves the age of 930 years; Buno uses Genesis for his source here and the Bible continues to be his primary source throughout the work. Buno is not humble in his opinions; he states categorically that “nothing happened” in the sixth and tenth centuries. In the third millennium some secular history is recorded in a separate column, and from this point on the text is divided into three or more parallel columns: church history, secular history (a separate column given for each country), and an account of ancient authors that forms an excellent bibliography.
Church history is always treated in more detail than secular history. Most of the Church Fathers—Augustine, Saint Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Ambrose among others—receive unlimited praise for their “glorious writings” (herrliche Schriften). The “errors” of heretics such as the Manicheans, the Montanists, the Pelagians, and the Arians are carefully described as are the blasphemous pretensions of Mohammed and his false theology. Emperor Augustus, however, is remembered solely because Christ was born during his reign, and Julius Caesar is barely mentioned. Cicero, the only “heathen” acceptable to Lutherans, is highly praised.
In spite of such glaring gaps in information, the history of Rome commands more attention than the more recent periods of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for German schools and universities of the seventeenth century characteristically based almost their entire body of knowledge upon classical literature and that of the Church Fathers. The discussions of most of the Roman emperors center around their dealings with Christians or Jews. Thus the only mention of Vespasian and his son Titus concerns their carrying the golden and silver vessels from the demolished temple of Jerusalem to the Temple of Peace in Rome. Similarly Emperor Hadrian is remembered because he rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem, and insulted the Jews by placing the image of a swine upon the temple wall.
After the Roman period several new columns appear in the text, but the emphasis remains on the history of the popes. Special columns are devoted to dry enumeration of Spanish, Italian, and English historical figures. Dates are quite inconspicuous, other than the lengths of reign of the various potentates, usually given with some mnemonic witticisms. After the Roman period the bibliography becomes considerably thinner. It is divided into ecclesiastic and secular literature, but secular “men of learning” such as Tacitus, Plutarch, Dion Chrysisthemus, Gellius, Lucian (called der Spotter, the Mocker), Suetonius, Athenaeus, Pausanias, and Ptolemy, and “Marcus Aurelius Antonius Philosophus” are merely listed.
A drawing of Janus, with his two faces symbolizing the growing hypocrisy of the church, introduces the ninth century. Church history and accounts of the German emperors now take the most prominent place in the narrative until the twelfth century. Buno does not use the familiar historical concepts such as Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or humanistic literature, since the only rebirth conceivable for a seventeenth-century Christian historian was that of the soul through his true faith in the Resurrection, or of the Church in its liberation from the Babylonian Captivity.
Gradually columns for the histories of Denmark, England, France, Spain, Bohemia, and Hungary are added. Buno treats Urban II extensively but mentions none of the complicated motives and politics surrounding the organizer of the first crusade. He does admit the disastrous results of the conquest.
Portuguese and Sicilian history are gradually brought in, and by the fourteenth century Turkish history begins to take a prominent role. Buno also considers the history of Switzerland now. Bibliographies and lists of learned men are abandoned at this point, and French, Dutch, German, and Turkish history dominate Buno’s scene.
Buno’s cursory treatment of Luther is more than offset by the excessive attention he gives to the arrogance and “errors” of the popes, particularly Julius II, Leo X, and Hadrian VI. The Thirty Years’ War is treated superficially, although at some length. The figure of Louis XIV just enters the panorama before Buno ends his history “leading to the year 1671.” He does relate Germany’s recent wars with Hungary and the Turks, but neglects to say much about the development of numerous German principalities.
Ancient Josephus: Companion to Buno
Along with the text of Buno, Bach read a substantial amount of historical source material. Although Orations of Cicero was presented for its rhetorical example and theological implications, Bach undoubtedly gleaned some first-hand knowledge of Roman history from the writings of the ancient statesman.
Bach also had to read the life of Alexander the Great by Quintus Curtius Rufus. Historians today question the reliability of the author, but his book stands out among the gloomy and bigoted texts that dominated the school literature of Bach’s Gymnasium. The refreshing tale of adventure and pagan times was favored by Reformation educators for its rhetorical bent and the author’s Stoicism, but was undoubtedly enjoyed by students for other reasons. Alexander’s romantic courage and reckless bravery, and the many frank tales of Oriental license, indulgences at banquets with concubines, strange sexual relations and passing affairs of the hero, must have been a welcome diversion for schoolboys, unless of course these passages were cautiously expunged by a protective authority. With such a lively text, the students were probably not too much bothered by the moralistic ending in which Alexander emerges as a repentant, ashamed soul. Curtius pleased teachers and theologians for his rejection of the skepticism of his god-despising age and his tendency toward a conception of universality in divine government.
The work of one ancient historian epitomized the providential conception of history—Flavius Josephus (c. 37 B.C.-95 A.D.). His writings were regarded in the baroque era as the greatest historical document in all classical literature; Bach owned his complete works, and most home libraries contained at least a Bible and a Josephus. Many passages from his works were incorporated into the sermons of the Protestant clergy of the day,6 since the viewpoint made them eminently suitable as commentaries of biblical passages. In fact, some passages from Josephus support Christian theology so well that their authenticity has lately been under suspicion.7 Josephus’ very detailed description of the temple of Jerusalem8 and his dramatic narration of its destruction9 were favorite topics for the pulpit, because they provided an occasion for rereading the New Testament passages in which Jesus predicted its fall.10 Josephus’ admonition that the Jews had caused their own downfall by disregarding, among other things, the instructions received in the Holy Script as to the prescribed architecture of their temple was another appropriate issue for Lutherans. Daniel’s prediction of its destruction11 affirmed the truth of Josephus’ history in the Lutheran mind.
Another attractive passage for Protestant preachers comes from Flavius Josephus Against Apion. In an elaborate commentary on the law of Moses, written in answer to Apion, the fifth-century leader of an antisemitic movement under the protection of the Roman emperor Caligula, Josephus says: “[T]hey calumniate Moses as an imposter and deceiver, and pretend that our laws teach us wickedness but nothing that is virtuous. . . . Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion . . . for all our actions and studies, and all our words have a reference to piety toward God.”12 Heathen laws, in contrast, encourage good behavior from habit rather than thoughtful obedience.
Along with his Hebrew theology Josephus gives the reader a great deal of detailed historical information, taking for granted extensive knowledge in general history and classical literature on the part of his audience. It seems safe to assume that to understand Josephus’ works, Bach either read several other historical works after his school days-works suggested in Buno’s text—or obtained some assistance from learned friends. He owned a 1544 German translation of Josephus. Very possibly Johann Matthias Gesner, the theologian, classical scholar, and historian whose company Bach enjoyed in Weimar from 1715 to 1717, and in Leipzig from 1730 to 1734, may have assisted the musician in his study of Josephus.13
Although Palestine is the center of interest in Josephus’ works, both contemporary writers in the ancient world and modern-day students marvel at his erudition that ranged over a great many international historical facts. From these writings Bach gained a realistic and accurate picture of the Mediterranean world as it related to the history of the Holy Land. Antiquities traces the story of his people from the earliest times to the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 A.D. The Wars of the Jews continues and completes the study with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. The detailed story of Herod the Great, given in books XIV to XVII of Antiquities and I and II of The Wars of the Jews, tells much of Roman history. In his telling of Herod’s visit to Rome Josephus provides a close view of the personality of Octavian Augustus, whom “he describes as a wise, tolerant, and magnanimous man. Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, and particularly Cleopatra often enter the story; Cleopatra appears here in some interesting traffic with Herod.
According to his own Life of Flavius Josephus, the historian was more than a passive chronicler. He held the office of governor of Galilee in 66-67 A.D., while the purple was worn by Vespasian, whose son Titus was general of the Roman army garrisoned in Judea. In The Wars of the Jews Josephus describes a country torn by various factions, some revolutionary, and some, like the group to which he belonged, pacifist. On the basis of his conference in Rome with Nero’s wife, Poppea, Josephus had an accurate estimate of Roman power, so tragically underrated by fellow Jews. When the Zealots under John of Gischala attacked the Romans, against Josephus’ advice, Josephus was forced to join the patriotic forces and was captured by the Romans. He was generously treated and finally freed. In his history of the war Josephus blames the seditious patriots, and thus incurs the hatred of the Jews, who returned a counter charge of treason. The Wars of the Jews, written in his own defense, explains how the Jews brought on their defeat, and the demolition of their temple.
History and Creativity
Josephus, who presented history as a startling, factual realization of biblical prophecies, fully confirmed for Lutherans the truth of Buno’s dictum that history is nothing but the demonstration of Christianity. From the standpoint of artistic creation such disregard for any “historical sense” may be regarded as good. Too much knowledge of his own cultural heritage often brings today’s artist (either consciously or subconsciously) to a painful awareness of his own transcience. His fragmentary efforts seem doomed to be ephemeral when viewed against the long history of predecessors whose acceptance is constantly subject to critical questioning. For Bach the present was vital, full, sound, and purposeful; eternity was its glorified projection. Like historians, working during the Reformation, who ignored material, psychological, scientific, economic, and political causes and motivations of events in the evolution of human destiny, the musician had no curiosity for what we call the cultural background and conditioning of artistic endeavors. He was free in a way we can never be.
Bach could be completely indifferent to the integrity of past styles. His arrangement of Palestrina’s Missa sine nomine, for example, is not a capella but with orchestration. He changed the Palestrinian tonality by adding sharps and flats, to bring the “old-fashioned” modality up to date and to close phrases with the “proper” cadences. He drastically altered the meter by means of bar lines, and arranged the words so that the accentuation would be as much as possible like that in his own works.14 Today we would consider such treatment a violation of Palestrina’s style. But music for Bach was not a museum of past art, to be kept musicologically and correctly mummified: it was a dynamic activity operating in the present and for the glory of a transcendental eternity.
Similarly Bach’s providential conception of history is related to his stand in matters of musical speculation, an interpretation which in turn explains some of his stylistic characteristics. His indifference to the choice of particular instruments for the realization of his musical thought; his peculiar fusion of vocal and instrumental writing; and his fusion of secular and ecclesiastical styles, his occasional symbolism, and his conception of the general purpose of music are all related to his sense of a purposeful past and hopefulness for the future.
Did Bach’s ideas evolve with the times? During his later life he witnessed the rejection of “antiquated” writers such as Athanasius Kircher and the innovation of theories under the influence of the Enlightenment. In his music he certainly was sensitive to change in the prevailing taste. In his memorandum of 1730 on well-regulated church music, submitted to the council of the town of Leipzig, he says: “Now the present status musices is quite different from what it was, its technique is so much more complex, and the public gusto so changed that old-fashioned music sounds strangely in our ears. Greater care must therefore be taken to obtain subjecta capable of satisfying the modern gustum in music . . .”15 Although Bach was aware that taste in music was subject to constant fluctuation, he continued to regard philosophical ideas— which in his case were dominated by theological dogma—as static and immutable. From Johann Walther’s book16 Bach had the whole evolution of harmony from Zarlino (1517-1590) to his own time before him. Yet this did not prove to Bach that speculative ideas on music too were subject to change, especially if they were a direct expression of theological truth. The structure and style of music might change but its purpose was unchangeable.
Bach undoubtedly believed in the biblical tradition that the origin of music was Hebrew. How much importance he may have attached to the kind of Pythagorean mysticism found in the works of Niedt, Printz, and especially Werckmeister, is not known, but mystical implications of musical mathematics formed an integral part of his theological Weltanschauung. The most acceptable authorities available to Bach-acceptable for their orthodox conception of history—approved of the speculative ideas of Pythagoras. Josephus even asserts that Pythagoras received his knowledge from Jewish wisdom.
Bach thus referred to history even in the most specialized and technical aspects of his art. But his providential view of history, together with his confident theological position, are more important to us for gaining insight into the mind of a great artist than for explaining fully the idiosyncrasies of his compositions. Bach’s optimism, buoyancy, and sense of purpose all emanate from the view of history and God taught to him. These personal qualities enabled Bach to endow his work with the profound spiritual tone that surpasses the significance of any unusual musical techniques or innovations he used.