THE religious focus of all of Bach’s formal education deeply impressed him. Although we cannot be sure of the exact content or manner of presentation of theology in the Ohrdruf Klosterschule or the Liineburg Ritteracademie, we do know in general about the nature of religious education in German schools of Bach’s time. Theology was the primary emphasis of education in this age of faith, and Bach’s attitude toward it holds the key to his religion, his conception of all cultural endeavors, history, and literature, and above all to his music.
Luther: Reformer and Sanctifier
The great authority Wilhelm Gass says of Protestant theology in the eighteenth century that “it is not easy to grasp the spirit, or even to touch upon it, so deep lies it hidden behind its bulwarks of various schools and traditions;”1 its development seems particularly strange and difficult to the twentieth-century mind. Each of the many variants of the original Creed claimed to be the sole custodian of the true faith. Luther did not seek at the start to break with the spiritual intent of the Catholic faith, only to reform it. He attacked the abuses of the Church and the exclusive authority she had assumed over spiritual as well as secular matters. Essentially there was very little difference between Catholic and Lutheran Christianity. In fact, Luther regarded his revolt not so much as a reform as a restoration of the original faith of the fathers. His translation of the Bible into the German vernacular returned the source of authoritative truth to the people and obviated the need for any intermediary interpreter. He succeeded in this way in animating a rebirth and a deepening of individual religious experience.
Luther curtailed priestly authority by reducing the seven sacraments to two—the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.2 The liturgy of the Eucharist had to be revised since the ordained priest was no longer conceived of as the sole agent endowed with the power to change the substance of the bread and wine. In fact, Luther utterly denied the doctrine of tran-substantiation, the idea that ordinary matter was changed into divine spirit. The sacrament of the Holy Supper in Lutheran theology therefore became a ceremony of communion with the Spirit of Christ, which any member of the fellowship of believers could administer. The importance of the rite lay in the state of mind of the participant, and Holy Communion was taken only when the believer felt the inner need for it. (Bach is reputed to have taken Communion, together with some of his sons, about twice a year.)
All the manifold and subsequently developed tenets of Lutheran theology spring from one germinal idea: the assurance of redemption given freely, without the mediation of a priest, by the grace of God. Man receives redemption only through his personal faith in God. He trusts Christ fully to fulfill His promise of forgiveness because of the sinner’s true faith in Him. Luther quotes especially the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul to support his interpretation.
Catholic doctrine holds that man is born in sin—original sin inherited from Adam—and that faith alone can save him from damnation. Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk, differed only in his new trust in man’s individual power, inherent in his faith. The Augustinian concept of original sin comprehends all human strife, actions, and passions as regarded by themselves and for their own ends; our very nature is isolated and estranged from God.
Just as the connotations and implications of this view of original sin are limitless, so the concept of faith is capable of infinite expansion, as Luther’s passionate writings suggest. Luther’s notion of faith is more than just an alternative to doubt; it is a dynamic function of the soul, “the act of faith,” which puts man in touch with God—”just as iron glows red in its union with fire,” and “not only gives faith so much that the soul becomes united with the divine word, but also with Christ, as a bride with her bridegroom.”3 The Lutheran believed that the act of faith would ultimately bring full spiritual revelation and complete freedom of “original sin” in death, conceived as eternal life. What the philosophers of a later period conceived as irrelevant to time and space is represented by the dynamic imagination of religion in the form of anthropomorphic projections of deeper, inexpressible perspectives of truth.
Luther retained many medieval traits. He still believed in demons and witches. But his superstitions did not form an essential part of his faith, and however medieval Luther seemed in many respects, he was emancipated from that age’s conceptions of spirituality and showed himself a true man of the Renaissance. Medieval man held that the life of the spirit was entirely incompatible with human life. He severed himself from life in order to pursue his faith: he lived in celibacy, withdrew into a cloistered cell, and sometimes even vowed never to utter a word. Saint Bernard, when crossing the Alps, covered his head lest he be moved by the beauty of the earth. Luther, reinterpreting Saint Augustine, brought about a reconciliation of nature with the spirit, of the finite with the infinite, of the individual with the universal spirit. Life and nature were again affirmed and accepted as expressions and manifestations of infinity. Luther rejected celibacy and urged marriage for the clergy.
Above all by granting man the certainty of divine grace by faith, Luther revived individual self-esteem and freed man from the bonds of his physical existence. The promise of Christ, the promise of man’s exaltation as a reward for faith, replaces despair with joy. Man gains a powerful sense of freedom in his identity with the spirit as divine universality, as supreme goodness.
Images of Christian mythology, not some rationalistic philosophy, reveal the nature of faith to the religious soul, and the longing for death, notwithstanding a healthier attitude toward life, remained a vital element in the Christian’s thought. While to the modern’s mind this longing can be seen only as symbolic, the Lutheran quite literally desired death. The theme of his nostalgia occupies a large number of Bach’s cantatas: “Come Sweet Hour of Death”; “Oh World, I Must Leave Thee”; “The Terror of the Grave and Death No More I Know”; “Sustain my heart by faith divine, that I in life and death be Thine”; “Give Thy servants power and light. . . till that day when, through the grave, death to Thee above shall call them”; and “with joy I see the gate of death, for when the dreary journey is ended, there 1/11 find nor woe nor grief, but joy and peace forever blended.”
Luther’s Followers: Scholastics and Compromisers
While Bach’s simple, poetic utterances echo the essential kernel of Luther’s faith, the work of the professional theologians in Bach’s time was far from such unsophisticated interpretations. Even during Luther’s life his intrinsically nonintellectual faith was fitted with extremely precise theological statements, partly due to the proliferation of sects and dissenters during the early decades of the Lutheran Reformation, and partly for political reasons. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, would have been willing to use coercion against all heresies, but he was faced with opposition from the pope himself, and by rivalries among the Catholic princes in Germany, who might by acts of persecution have effected a strengthening of their enemy, the Hapsburgs. The result was compromise and ultimately recognition of the Lutheran faith. At the diet of Augsburg a peace treaty was drawn up in which Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560)~L uther’s enthusiastic supporter and the first theologian of the faith, clearly defined the Lutheran position.
In the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon stressed with fine diplomacy the original accord between Catholicism and Lutheranism, but he stubbornly held to the position that the transubstantiation was a Catholic error, and he courageously defended Luther’s idea of justification by faith. Writing under the guidance of Luther, his personal friend and collaborator, Melanchthon brought out the essential elements of Luther’s ideas without becoming involved in scholastic jargon and metaphysicial discussions of the ontological nature of God, the Trinity, and the existence of Christ before Creation. He considered such speculations futile and beyond man’s understanding.
Dissension continued to grow, within Protestant sects in general and even among Lutherans. Theology evolved into a new form of scholasticism, with syllogisms to prove or disprove its various theses, and with divisions and subdivisions of concepts, cataloguing of errors, and so forth. Despite Luther’s strong aversion to scholastic Aristotelianism, theological polemics, armed with the philosophical terminology of Descartes, Spinoza, and others, built an ultrarationalistic defense of basically unscientific and subjective religious opinion. This trend reflected the need at that time in history to define, redefine, and defend the state religion. The celebrated theologian Paul Gerhardt was employed by the Elector of Saxony to settle dogmatic questions at Lutheran conventions during the seventeenth century in an attempt to form a supreme tribunal for the Lutheran state church.
Strife and bloodshed inevitably followed from this use of religion as a political tool. Never have men of God fought more viciously among themselves than did these sanctimonious doctrinaires. Few theologians, preachers, or hymn writers of the period escaped the humiliation of persecution, dismissal, even imprisonment, torture, and execution— always inflicted for clinging to doctrinal “errors” that appear to a non-sectarian observer as the acme of pedantry. Catholics and Protestants alike had Anabaptists drowned for denying the Trinity or for being baptized a second time. In Geneva, any who denied predestination, immortality, or the Trinity, could be burned alive or beheaded. Nikolaus Selnecker (1528-1592) induced the Elector August of Saxony to torture and imprison the Philippists. From this grew the Torgau Articles, a confession of faith in which Selnecker lay down a severely dogmatic and strictly Lutheran conception of the Last Supper. (Selnecker’s hymns entered the standard repertoire of the Lutheran church, and many melodies of this zealot appear in Bach’s cantatas and chorale-preludes.) Paradoxically, the Syncretists, followers of Calixtus who strove to end theological warfare by uniting all Christians in a common faith, were threatened in Denmark with capital punishment.
Indoctrination in the Classroom
Compared to this world of religious strife the classroom of young Sebastian appears a haven of peace. We can picture the intimate atmosphere of devotion in his theology class where the cantor-theologian taught with deep reverence and with respect for his unusually talented students. It is hard to imagine a more propitious situation for molding the mind of an artist destined to devote his life to the sanctuary. In addition, lessons in rhetoric and classical literature were planned to underline right religious doctrine.
Although educators included the classics in school curriculum for their rhetorical instruction, they could not resist using the material further to sharpen the dialectic wit of future defenders of the faith. The students also profited from the historical, dramatic, and mythological contents of their studies; the ancient historical source works will be discussed further in Chapter 3. The Latin works studied at the Ritteracademie included Cicero’s De Inventione, Orations Against Cataline, De Officis, and Letters ; Eunuchus of Terence; the Aeneid of Virgil, the Odes of Horace; and the historical works of Quintus Curtius Rufus. Of the Greek works the students read only Cebes of Thebes and Phocylides’ Perceptive Poem, which Bach had already studied in Ohrdruf.
Cebes of Thebes reflects in his Pinax on the course of human life, drawing on Stoic convictions that usually did not offend the Christian tradition. The poetic philosopher was not a disciple of Socrates, as scholars in Bach’s time believed, but contemporary with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Lutheran school teachers were pleased with his Platonic theory of pre-existence of the soul and his emphasis on education’s role in character formation, which provided avenues for moral teaching in the rhetoric classroom.
Cicero was the major classical author studied at the Ritteracademie. Throughout the Middle Ages Cicero’s De Inventione had been a main text for teaching the theory of writing and oratory. The involved, unnatural, and pompous prose the German language of Bach’s time derived from the examples of Latin grammar and construction. German poetry of the period (and the libretti in quite a few of Bach’s secular music-dramas and cantatas) followed the style of rhetorical adornment and mythological imagery of Latin examples. Bach was more likely to have been acquainted with the philosophical rather than the historical writings of Cicero, although we cannot be certain of his particular texts or exact course of study at the Ritteracademie. He had begun studying Cicero in Ohrdruf and it would have been out of character for him to leave his work unfinished; also, Luther in his Table Talks, which were found in Bach’s library in two editions, praised and recommended Cicero, for his philosophy and ethics as well as his exemplary Latin. He far surpassed “that tiresome ass,” Aristotle, who to him seemed but a heathen, wallowing “in worldly possessions and lazy days.” In Cicero Luther found considerable sympathy for his ideas, and particularly for his strong distrust of reason.
In fact, Cicero appealed to almost every school of thought. Both Saint Augustine and his archenemy Pelagius quote from him for support of their ideas. He commanded the respect of the pagan Romans as well as of the pre-Christian Gnostics. Much of Cicero’s philosophy contributed to the formulation of Christian thinking of Lutherans and Jesuits, and then rationalists like Voltaire based much of their enlightened deism on his writings. After the French Revolution Republicans quoted from his Orations Against Cataline.4 The noble reflections in his De Officis— the work most likely to have been studied by Bach—on justice, generosity, love of truth, and the human appetite for power would be accepted by any serious school of thought.
The main interest in all these classical writings remained, however, in the rhetorical exercise and examples they offered. Bach gained final confirmation of his unwavering orthodox faith in his theology classes. The prescribed theological text was the Compendium Locorum Theologicorum ex Scriptoris et Libro Concordiae Collectum, or “Guide to the theological passages from the Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord,” by Leonhard Hutter (1563-1616). This text, almost completely free of controversial and argumentative material, indoctrinated the young with Lutheran orthodoxy in the simplest manner, and with imperceptible gradations of difficulty. Hutter intended “to have the young imbibe, as with the mother’s milk, the first elements of the purest Christian doctrine.”5 According to Wilhelm Gass, Hutter’s Compendium actually is the purest and simplest exposition of the orthodox faith6 but failed to make students aware of the historical evolution that had wrought this crystallization of the faith. So meticulous was Hutter in his search for pure Lutheranism that he even criticized Melanchthon and the Formula of Concord.7
In 1610, when controversy raged in Germany among various Protestant sects and the need for unity in the face of the powerful Catholic threat was great, Duke Christian II commissioned Hutter to write the Compendium in conformity with the Formula of Concord. The document also contains the official articles of the Lutheran church. In 1536 the first Formula of Concord was drawn up between the Lutherans and the Swiss Protestants, and at the same time a military alliance, the Smalkaldic League, was formed to combat the forces of Charles V. Three other attempts at agreement were made from 1573 to 1576, the last resulting in the Torgau articles of Selnecker. In 1582 the Formula was endorsed by signatures of several princes and by 8,000 ministers. But it was far from universally accepted. In many states it was still forbidden, and in Denmark and Sweden its followers were punished by death.
In Bach’s time every educated Lutheran burgher knew the articles in this Formula by heart, thanks to Hutter. When Bach at the age of 38 applied for his post of cantor in Leipzig, he had to prove to his examiners that he knew it well, and he, and all other officials of the community, signed it as a pledge of faith. Following ancient school methods, Hutter demanded that the entire Compendium be memorized as a requirement for graduation. A quarto copy of 18558 contains 203 closely and finely printed pages; memorization was carefully spread over a number of years, with recitations taking place at regular intervals. Moreover, according to a custom dating from the Middle Ages, the students engaged in monthly disputation of the material covered during that period. Hutter’s text presented each doctrine in the form of a thesis followed by an objection and its refutation, and a conclusive demonstration of the truth of the assertion by quotations from the Holy Writ. Thirty-four questions or loci comprise the entire Lutheran doctrine. They are arranged in order of their difficulty, from the definition of the Scriptures as the source and matrix of the truth through the Trinity, Christ, Providence, the concept of original sin, predestination, to the subjects of free will, justification, good works, the sacraments (especially the specifically Lutheran conception of the Last Supper), and finally, the conceptions of the Last Judgment and eternal life.
The dominant note, both in the Formula of Concord and in the catechism of Hutter is total surrender to God’s will. Man’s nature is completely corrupt and depraved when isolated from God’s grace. Bach and his schoolmates, as well as generations before and after him, memorized these words from Hutter’s Compendium: “How do you define the justification of man in relation to God? Justification is the work of God by which He absolves man from sin by grace or mercy, but only if man believes in Christ. Then He gives to him the remission of sins; and thus is the reckoning of Christ’s justice that, when man is fully reconciled and received in the Son, he is liberated from the snare and suffering of sin, and enjoys eternal bliss.”9 And, “What are good works? They are the internal and outer actions divinely commanded and contained in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments): thus they may be done by the reborn in faith through the Holy Spirit, for the Glory of God, and for the purpose of declaring both our obedience and our gratitude to God.”10 . . . “It is not through our merits that we accept the grace of God, the remission of sins, justification and eternal life, but through faith.”11
Throughout his discussion of the Holy Supper, Hutter was clearly more disturbed by the calvinistic tendency toward giving the human intellect supremacy over faith than by the corruption of the Catholic Church. Hence the good Lutheran watchword “Lieber Katholik als Calvinistisch” (Better be Catholic than calvinistic).12 And indeed the spirituality of Bach’s music has more affinity to the basic irrationalism of the medieval church than to the rationalism of Calvin, Erasmus, and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that aligned itself with Calvinism and Pietism. The reasons for the rich development of music on Catholic and Lutheran soil—and its impoverishment in calvinistic, Puritan, and rationalistic countries—are not merely exterior and ritualistic. Certainly music could not flourish either in churches that tolerated only untrained, congregational singing of psalms or sentimental hymns, or where Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) had banished music altogether. There was no religious occasion for which to compose music. But more significantly, the spirit of music is stifled in an environment of rationalism or of overly moralistic discipline. Music is mystic and Dionysian and feeds on intuition of divine and human nature rather than on reason—though it may employ reason for exterior tools of the metier. The living soul of music, however, is no more accessible to reason than is faith, love, or the essence of beauty.
Early in his education Bach probably accepted the Lutheran reconciliation of matter and spirit. God, and therefore Christ, became ubiquitous, even in the material world. Augustine’s statement, “To enjoy is to cleave fast in the love of a thing for its own sake,” was now shorn of its pessimism. The newborn individual, through his faith in the promise of Christ, is now able to remain a spiritual being without denying himself the pleasure of living. While the ultimate fulfillment, the complete identification with the ideal, is achieved in personal and physical resurrection in Heaven, the spirit of the Lutheran God pervades life on earth: morbidity is overcome by health.
This philosophy is the key to the understanding of many phases of Bach’s art. His practice of incorporating so much secular music, dance music, and “Epicurean” music, to use Luther’s favorite term, into his religious cantatas is perfectly consistent with the Lutheran conception of Christ’s presence in nature. We can even relate his use of instruments in religious music to Luther’s Augustinianism; while the organ was barely tolerated in Italy, composers from northern Germany frequently designated a variety of instruments for the music of the Mass. His spirituality and his continuous regeneration by faith form the substance of Bach’s exalting art, and are the source of the endless stream of metaphysical yet utterly human music that flowed from his pen. He expresses his sincere and very real spiritual experience in his music, which was at all times in the service of his deity. To his pupils he often quoted the words of Erhard Niedt: “The sole purpose of harmony is the Glory of God; all other use is but idle jingling of Satan.”
Bach’s education avoided at all costs provoking resistance against supernatural conceptions. His theology served its magnificent purpose and Bach accepted it as the embodiment of ultimate truth. Although still significant and even efficacious for some, the old theology has lost its power to inspire the composition of great music. It remains as a philosophical symbol of bygone days while Bach’s music lives, the object of universal appreciation, precisely because music is not bound to the intellectual framework, either theological or philosophical, of its creator. These scaffolds are temporal. Music remains alive to intuition, and Bach’s art finds international response among those who are sensitive to metaphysical realities whatever their intellectual predispositions may be.