AT about this point in Bach’s life an open clash, lasting more than two years, between two personalities representing the old and new cultures began. It was instigated by the self-admitted enemy of music, August Ernesti, who undertook the rectorship of the Thomas school late in 1734, when Gesner, staunch friend and supporter of Bach’s musical ideals, left for a university post at Göttingen. A year earlier he foresaw the danger of Ernesti’s cultural leanings and wisely took steps to strengthen his own position.
Bach Courts the King
After King August II died, on February 1,1733, Bach applied to his son August III for the title of Royal Court Composer, for such an attachment to the head of the state would immeasurably enhance his prestige in the eyes of his employers. As an example of his skill in composition he submitted two movements of the B Minor Mass —the Kyrie and the Gloria in Excelsis. A letter that accompanied this gift clearly shows the object of his application:
At the same time I solicit your Majesty’s powerful protection. For some years past I have exercised the directorium of the music in the two principal churches in Leipzig, a situation in which I have constantly been exposed to undeserved affronts, even the confiscation of the accidentia due to me, annoyances not likely to recur should your Majesty be pleased to admit me to your Capelle and direct a Praedicat to be issued to that effect by the proper authority.1
The application did not receive immediate attention for the king was involved in the same political difficulties in Poland that had plagued his father. Political affairs and military conflicts kept him much too preoccupied to attend to such minor matters as bestowing a title upon a cantor. But three years after the application had been filed it finally was honored.
Meanwhile Bach found several opportunities to demonstrate his art to the royal family. On August 3,1733, he performed a cantata for the king’s birthday; on September 5, a more elaborate work was performed for the birthday of August’s son. For this unhealthy and lame crown prince the ever helpful Picander constructed a eulogistic poem ironically entitled “The Election of Hercules” (Die Wahl des Hercules). The music for this insincere piece of poetry (except for recitatives and final chorus) is that of the Christmas Oratorio, which was performed a year later. Which was the original and which the parody poses a difficult question.
Three months later a Bach cantata celebrated another royal birthday. Tonet ihr Pauken (Sound ye Tympanies) was performed in honor of the Queen-Electress Maria Josepha. A daughter of Emperor Joseph I, she was the sister of Maria Teresa (the imperial successor to the father), and aunt of Marie Antoinette, the fateful Queen of France. The cantata in honor of this noble lady sings of the triumphs in Poland (triumphs that at the time were still rather problematical and that were finally achieved by Peter the Great rather than by the unwarlike August). This cantata shares four movements with the Christmas Oratorio.
In 1734 Bach demonstrated his talents to the royal house on four more occasions: at the crowning of August as Polish king on January 17; at his birthday on August 3; and on the celebration of his “election” to the Polish throne on October 5, when the king himself traveled to Leipzig and heard the cantata Preise dein Glück, gesegnetes Sachsen (Praise Thy Fortune, Blessed Saxony). For this occasion the city of Leipzig was illuminated with 600 burning wax torches carried by university students; cannons were fired. In this incongruous setting Bach’s Christmas Cantata and B Minor Mass music was again heard, this time to laudatory rhymes by Christian Clauder.
Praise ye thy fortune, fair Saxony blessed! God doth the throne of thy Prince firm sustain! Happy thy land! Give thanks to Heaven! Now rev’rence the hand by which thy fortune is daily increased And all thy borders in surety remain!
The irony of such exultations is painfully apparent when one remembers how Saxony was being ruined by the former king, the present one, and the corrupt minister Brlihl, how part of its territory had been sold to buy soldiers for these ruinous Polish enterprises, and how both kings forsook the Lutheran religion for their greed of power and lust.
That the music of such sacred works as the Christmas Oratorio and the B Minor Mass should be used to glorify unworthy monarchs would seem the height of insincerity, if the people of Bach’s world had the same political consciousness as Westerners of the twentieth century. But the librettist was perfectly in tune with those days of absolutism when he wrote, “Are we not justified ... to recognize thy glorious doing as God’s in thee fulfilled.” He simply states the idealistic psychology of his time. This illusionary and sublime relation between the citizen and his government is difficult to understand, today; then, it was not an insincere gesture.
Ernesti Becomes Rector
Meanwhile on November 18,1734, Ernesti was promoted to the position of rector of the Thomas school. He was 22 years younger than Bach but had none of the respect a more humble young man would have shown to a venerable celebrity. Instead, he was aspiring to further his own ideals of education, which were at sharp variance with those of Bach. He was completely indoctrinated in Wolffian philosophy, which was far removed from Luther’s conception of “good works,” and had no use for music. In a curriculum written much later for his school laws he prescribes the study of philosophy for the higher classes, specifically “the doctrine of the human soul, which comprises the foundation of the doctrine of reason and morals, as well as the doctrine of concepts in general.” The expression is typically Wolffian, but the influence is even more obvious in the following:
In the highest classes thereupon shall be undertaken the doctrine of reason and the natural theology and moral philosophy, whereby its correspondence to revealed religion is to be demonstrated. In reference to moral philosophy Gellert’s moral lectures shall be used.2
(Although Gellert, a professor of literature at the Leipzig University, was not an avowed Wolffian, he was of the French school of Enlightenment, in which morals were pragmatically defined.) The enmity between Bach and Ernesti thus went deeper than the open disputes over music in the school and was rooted in the conflicting philosophies of the two men.
The emancipation of education dreamed of by Ernesti would have been impossible in 1734. It would have amounted to a fierce but surely unsuccessful revolution, because the traditional school laws were firmly legalized and backed up by the state machinery of councils, the consistory, and, above both, the supreme power of the sovereign. The Saxon government, with its Catholic kings, tended to be conservative; Bach generally won his disputes by appealing to established regulations and ancient tradition. The Enlightenment movement glided practically unnoticed past their lives of carnal enjoyment and their pastimes of war and the chase.
Ernesti was not a man patiently to bide his time, even though he was forced to postpone some of the major elements of his reform. He took every opportunity to disparage the music students, to infringe upon the cantor’s prerogatives in musical matters, and thus to impair the successful performance of the musical service. When he found a student practicing his violin he would snap, “So, you want to become one of those beer-fiddlers.” He might have unsaddled a less indomitable opponent with these petty tricks, but Bach proved to be the stronger and the wiser. Still the story of the ensuing two years does not portray merely a struggle for personal authority but the tragic conflict between the last and most mighty musical representative of the age of faith and one of the younger protagonists of the age of reason and science.
During the years 1734-35 Bach’s choir suffered a great loss with the graduation of seven excellent singing musicians. Among those who began independent careers were Christian Friedrich Schemelli, who later became cantor of Zeitz; Johann Ludwig Dietel, afterwards cantor at Falkenheim; Johann Ludwig Krebs, one of Bach’s best pupils; and three of Bach’s sons, who began their careers as organists in Dresden, Hamburg, and Mühlhausen. The seventh graduating student was Gottfried Theodor Krause. A series of troubles began over this talented young man that display both the educator and the artist in the worst personal light. Ernesti, wanting complete authority, irritated and humiliated Bach relentlessly, causing him more than once to lose his usually dignified composure.3
Bach had selected Krause, upon graduation, to take the post of head praefect, and Ernesti approved the appointment on the basis of the student’s excellent academic record. The choirs this young man had to conduct were among the most undisciplined and most unmanageable. As “the evil and indecent behavior of these young students in the churches and at other sacred functions got worse and worse,”4 Bach advised the use of force for their control, but when Krause applied the stick, the culprit precipitated a crisis by complaining to the rector. Ernesti seized this first opportunity to assert his authority over the cantor, and at the same time, to undermine his prestige with the young singers.
According to Gesner’s school law of 1723, the rector was allowed to punish the praefect for exceeding his prerogative.5 Ernesti ordered the praefect to be thrashed in the presence of the entire student body, a sure way to ruin his prestige when he was so much in need of support. The ulterior thrust of this cruel punishment was aimed at his superior. Bach, feeling responsible for the incident, had pleaded for the boy. The implacable rector had responded cunningly; by ordering public humiliation he reasserted his authority. The unfortunate Krause begged for permission to leave the school, but Ernesti refused him. Krause then departed secretly, leaving a few of his personal belongings behind. Since he had been a scholarship student the school laws permitted Ernesti to confiscate his few pieces of furniture and 30 Thalers in salary due him.
Now Ernesti, feeling confident in his new power over Bach, appointed a new praefect. By a confusing coincidence this man’s name also was Krause: Johann Gottlieb Krause. Bach objected to the nomination of a man of bad character and told Ernesti that he considered him ein liederlicher Hund, a dissolute dog. Nevertheless, a compromise was soon reached; the second Krause was made third praefect. When the post of first praefect again became vacant Ernesti wanted to give it to Krause. This time Bach objected on the basis of his musical deficiency, and presumably also because he felt that Ernesti was infringing upon the cantor’s prerogative to choose his own assistant conductors.
The overly detailed school laws, however, specified that the cantor’s choice had to be ratified by the superintendent (Vorsteher) of the school. Bach had overlooked this minor point of law earlier when he appointed his student Krause, and Ernesti self-righteously reported his neglect to Deputy Mayor Stieglitz, then acting superintendent. Perhaps overawed by the order of an official, Bach gave in and promised to reinstate Krause. He could not fulfill this promise immediately because he suddenly departed on a two-weeks journey. Upon his return, August 11, 1736, Ernesti wrote him that he would reinstate Krause himself unless Bach did so without delay. This threat aroused Bach, and as on previous occasions, he chose to present his side of the case in a series of letters, methodically dispatched first to the council, then to the consistory, and finally to the king.
The first letter, written on Sunday, August 12, 1736, begged the council “to instruct Ernesti in the future to act in accordance with the usages and practices of the school,” which he explained had given the cantor prerogative to select praefects on the basis of musical competence “without interference on the part of the rectors.” On this same Sunday, however, Ernesti had quietly reinstated the incompetent Krause. When Bach ascended the choir loft and saw Krause at his post, he immediately replaced him with Kittler, the more efficient second praefect. Ernesti used the interim between the main service and Vesper to reverse Bach’s orders under the threat of suspending all the singing money of the choirboys. When Bach returned for the afternoon service and saw the boys at their places, he lost his temper and chased Krause from the gallery “with loud cries and noise” a commotion that did not pass unnoticed by the congregation. Since Ernesti had given the choirboys strict orders not to sing under anyone but Krause, they were struck with fear and confusion. Bach, however, made them sing under his pupil Krebs. All day Bach remained in a state of uncontrolled wrath over the affront. When he entered the refectory in the evening and saw Kittler there, he drove that poor lad out for having obeyed Ernesti’s orders.
The next day he dispatched another letter to the council, in which he related the events of the preceding Sunday, accusing Ernesti of having “seriously weakened, if not wholly undermined my authority over the scholars in the churches under my charge. If high-handed action such as this is repeated, the sacra are in danger of interruption.”
Meanwhile it had come to Bach’s ear that Ernesti insisted upon Krause’s competence. Promptly Bach wrote a third letter on Wednesday to supplement Monday’s. This document is the chief source for the story. He headed it “The full and authentic history of alumnus Krause, and of the rector’s attempt to force him on me as first praefect .” With great clarity and precision Bach relates the history of the case, including reference to Krause’s dissolute character and incompetence, the musical difficulties that a praefect has to master, and a detailed description of exactly which aspects of conducting he had so utterly failed.6
Two days later the council received a very lengthy letter from Ernesti stating his version of the case. He pointed out Bach’s neglect of submitting his nomination of Krause to the superintendent, a point which might have tipped the scale of judgment against Bach. When, however, Ernesti directly contradicted Bach’s expert judgment of Krause’s competence as a musician, he lost his advantage. Then Ernesti brought up the old contention “that he [Bach] might in general fulfill his office with more diligence,” for Bach had left his post for a fortnight.
The council, undecided, took no action, but its request for another explanation from Ernesti, following Bach’s urgent request that they settie the matter as soon as possible and reprimand the rector,7 seems to indicate that the members favored Bach’s position. Ernesti complied with the council’s request. In this letter (September 13,1736) he begins to lose his restraint. He malignantly questions Bach’s veracity and makes some vicious insinuations against his character. There, however, the matter again remained, undecided. At last, on November 19, 1736, the much desired title of Court Composer was bestowed upon Bach. In his new office he drafted a fresh account of his grievances, to be submitted to the Consistory in Dresden, that body of supreme judges appointed by the king himself. He tactfully mentioned only the essential points of the controversy and requested their “Magnificences to protect [him] in his office, and to let Ernesti understand that he must in the future abstain from molesting him, refrain from choosing praefects without his consent and knowledge,” and so forth.8
In April, 1737, the council in Leipzig finally came to a decision, one not wholly satisfactory to Bach, however. It amounted to a compromise, upholding Bach’s prerogative of appointing his praefects but cautiously avoiding censure of the rector. Moreover, Krause was to retain his post till Easter. Thus the main issues for Bach—restoration of his professional prestige and improvement of the generally weakened position of cantor—had not been resolved. A clause in Gesner’s school laws, requiring the approval of the rector for an appointment of a praefect, had already lowered the cantor’s status. (Gesner had perhaps not foreseen this possible consequence, but the elder Ernesti had opposed this clause.)
Bach tenaciously continued the struggle. He wrote another letter to the Consistory, pointing out that these new school laws had never been ratified by this higher court, and therefore “had never been legally in force.” Bach shrewdly commented that the present rector Ernesti had discouraged their publication because of this, but that he nonetheless tried to enforce laws that suited his purposes. He finally requested the Consistory:
. . . that Rector Ernesti be admonished not to interfere with me, that my dignity, which has been lowered, be forthwith restored in the eyes of the scholars, and that I receive your support in my opposition to the new school laws, in so far as they prejudice my office and impede my duties.
But the Consistory continued to delay. After two months it sent the question to the council, who shelved it temporarily. This time Bach did not give his opponents time to realign their forces. He wrote to the king himself, stating that Ernesti wanted to enforce a law that had not been ratified by His Majesty’s Consistory—a law that Bach did not “accept as valid.” Therefore he appealed to His Majesty:
To direct the council not to molest my prerogative of appointing the praefecto chori musici, jure quaesito, but to uphold my prerogative therein ... to be pleased graciously to order the Consistory here to demand an apology from Rector Ernesti for the indignity put upon me, and to charge Superintendent Dr. Deyling to instruct the student-body to show the respect and obedience due to me.9
The government took immediate action; the Consistory ordered the council to examine the charges. To all appearances the matter was then settled but we do not know the actual outcome since no record of the council’s decision has been found. But the importance of this tedious battle of accusations and counteraccusations lay in its psychological effect on Bach. Soon after this he retreated from the bitter philosophical melee at the school and devoted himself entirely to his musical art.
By coincidence the king came to Leipzig during Easter of 1738—about the time Bach had written his appeal to him—for the celebration of Princess Amalia’s marriage to Charles IV of Sicily. Bach provided a serenade on a poem by Gottsched, “Wilkommen, ihr herrschenden Cotter der Erde,” (Welcome, Ye Reigning Gods of the Earth). The combination of Gottsched’s grossly exaggerated homage to mundane power with the metaphysical quality of Bach’s music (most probably again incorporating parts of religious works) created a thoroughly baroque phenomenon in the worst sense. Bach’s score to this work has not been preserved, for the same obvious reason that there are no scores for similar musical occasions; they never existed.
Bach’s Liturgical Art Work: The Final Chapter
Bach lost his zest for writing church music after this long conflict with Ernesti. A year later, at the approach of Easter, 1739, Bach printed and distributed the libretto for the Good Friday Passion, as he always had done. This time he received an order from the council to withdraw it, on the petty grounds that he had not submitted its publication for official approval. Bach immediately expressed contempt for any further duties as church composer, an attitude he would not have taken had his relations with church authorities been fully restored to mutual respect and cooperation. Bach replied that he had acted according to previous custom, but that he did not care whether the performance of the Passion took place at all, for it was nothing but a burden—em Onus— to him anyway.10 He treated the annual Ratswahl cantata with similar indifference by using a work, “Wir danken Dir,” performed 8 years before.
From this time on no liturgical music flowed from his pen. Only one cantata—No. 16, Du Friedensfürst, Herr Jesu Christ (Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ)—is listed as having originated after 1740. In general, Bach now used old material. He also neglected his school teaching so much that in January, 1740, the council looked for an assistant to instruct the schoolboys in the theoretical subjects Bach no longer chose to teach.11
Despite the irritations, interferences, and the unsympathetic milieu of colleagues and even churchmen influenced by natural theology and the Enlightenment, Bach had brought his liturgical art work to completion. He had provided every detail of the Lutheran service with the proper music. Had his surroundings been more harmonious he would perhaps have evolved the chorale-cantata into a still higher form, and thus have completed a sixth series of cantatas. But from now on he would devote himself to the perfection of his musical science for its own sake and “for the glory of God,” whom he now served within his private musical domain, for the purpose of instructive demonstration and as a spiritual and musical discipline.
He studied orthodox theology with more intensity now, for the one addition to his library made after 1736 was Schola pietatis oder ttbung der Gottseligkeit by Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), one of the classics of Lutheran orthodoxy.12 Gerhard had studied under Leonhard Hutter, whose catechism Bach had memorized in his school days. He also was an enthusiast for the earliest form of Pietism, then represented by Johann Arndt, with whom he was friendly. This association led to suspicions that his work bore a heretical tinge of mysticism, but in Bach’s time he was cited as one of the best representatives of orthodox Lutheranism.13 Gerhard aimed at proving that Lutheran evangelism is the true catholic church; and he found the true Christian principles in ancient writers such as Augustine, Anselm, Bernard, and Thomas a Kempis. The five volumes of Schola pietatis are representative of the trend of Bach’s thought in his later years, which had not deviated one iota from his earlier orthodoxy, however slightly it leaned toward Pietism.
Gerhard’s conception of the relation between philosophy and theology is diametrically opposed to that of Wolff and Gottsched, and others surrounding Bach. Gerhard said the science of philosophy had “neither the right to be an organ for religious insight or religious experience, nor to furnish means of proof for a specific dogma, nor to attack it on its own premises.14 He does not categorize theology as antiphilosophical, only as hyperphilosophical inasmuch as its origin—meaning, of course, biblical revelation—is higher. If theology were set up against philosophy, Gerhard reasoned an insuperable dualism would invade the spiritual operations of the mind. (This is exactly the dilemma of the age of Beethoven.)
Gerhard along with Christoph Scheibler (1598-1653), another author found in Bach’s library,15 thus recognized an inner and mutual relation between the two faculties, and he favors the restoration of their coefficacy, which Luther had distrusted. Both appeal to the church fathers, who made use of philosophy to support their faith, but as an auxiliary, if not a subservient organ of spiritual realization.
His acquisition of the Schola pietatis is an indication of Bach’s fidelity to the revealed theology of the orthodox school—and some might say of his desire for an antidote against the independent, rationalistic philosophy that surrounded him in Leipzig. But it is more likely that he needed no such medicine. Scheibe’s remark that Bach had not “investigated the forces of nature and reason” is to the point. There is no evidence that he tried to familiarize himself with the new deism, nor even with any tenet of natural philosophy. His acceptance of the Lutheran doctrine of original sin and the earning of grace through faith was so complete that any part of natural philosophy must have seemed entirely irrelevant to him.
After his victory over his employers he withdrew himself, as much as his office allowed—and quite a little beyond that—from his superiors, “these strange folk with little care for music in them,” as he had long ago observed. Perhaps he became detached from the church. Perhaps he withdrew into a more private form of religion suggested by his reading of Johann Gerhard. Bach expressed a certain contempt for his own surroundings at the Thomas Church, it is true; this does not mean that he digressed from the Lutheran church as the embodiment of truth.