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Was Bach a Rationalist, Pietist, Neither, or Both?


When Bach was nine, two seemingly unrelated events occurred. First was the birth of one who would come to epitomize the Enlightenment, Francois Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. Bach's and Voltaire's paths would nearly cross fifty years later, in Potsdam, when both men would entertain Frederick the Great of Prussia--Bach with his Musical Offering, and Voltaire with his satire of, among other things, faith and religion. Most people think of Voltaire as an atheist; he was actually a deist, a loose label denoting one who believes in God but denies any personal expression thereof, such as the virgin birth and the deity of Christ. Beliefs like those of Voltaire and his contemporaries came to permeate European thought to the extent that nothing, especially religion, would ever be quite the same. The rationalism of the Enlightenment was bound to come into conflict with the seemingly irrational tenets of the Reformation, namely, salvation through faith, and Divine revelation through Scripture.

The second important event of 1694 was that Bach's parents died. The young orphan went to Ohrdruf under the custody of his brother John Christoph. Ohrdruf was at that time safe haven for the most radical elements of Pietism. The school that Bach attended, however, was Orthodox--its teachers required to pledge loyalty to the doctrinal positions of the Formulae Concordatae. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that the schism dividing the city would have not left its mark on Bach's young mind. The Pietists advocated an almost mystical interpretation of faith and Scripture, an interpretation most contrary to rationalism, namely, that faith would come only after personal awareness of the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice and that the true meaning of Scripture would be revealed only after intense and pious contemplation.

Ironically, both Pietism and Rationalism manifested themselves in Bach's lifetime in ways that were hurtful to music, therefore unacceptable to the composer. The more radical Pietistic element subscribed to a puritanical view of the arts in general and music in particular. They considered the arias and recitatives of Italian opera to be inappropriate for Christian worship, and they sought to restrict music in the church to congregational song. The Rationalists, by contrast, wished to do away with what they considered to be anachronistic chorale tunes and words and replace them with a simpler, more understandable, style.

After Ohrdruf Bach encountered Pietism again at Mühlhausen, where he served as organist at the church of St. Blasius. The pastor of the Blasiuskirchen, Johann Adolph Frohne, was a Pietist. The other church in Mühlhausen, St. Mary's, was pastored by Georg Christian Eilmar, a personal friend of Bach's and a staunchly orthodox Lutheran. Thus, while his employment--and possibly his private beliefs--inclined him to be sympathetic toward the intensified devotional experience of Pietism, his talents, training, common sense, and friendships bound him to the other. At any time the authorities could have forced Bach to declare his position openly, something that Bach could not have done without alienating both camps.

What was Bach's attitude toward Pietism? Among Bach scholars this is a matter of no small debate. Those in the minority, those who say that Bach was himself a Pietist, point to his occasional refusal to toe the orthodox line in the selection of texts and librettos, many of which exhibit Pietistic influence. They also remember the composer's library which contained works by Pietistic theologians. Those in the majority point to the incongruity of a composer of Bach's stature aligning himself with a movement that in some places was positively antagonistic toward music. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, as expressed by the following excerpts from Leo Schrade's essay Bach: the Conflict Between Sacred and Secular. Of Bach's tenure in Mühlhausen, Schrade feels confident enough to write:

Pietism had now become for Bach an idea which involved his own religious and artistic feelings, quite apart from all its outward implications. We know what books were in Bach's own library, and that among them theological works had an outstanding place. We also know the scope of the Pietistic writings he possessed. A good many of the works in which the religious movement found expression were in his hands.... It is Pietism that inspires Bach's attitude toward the religious text that is to be transformed into music. It is Pietism that accounts for his unswerving resolve to approach the concealed meaning of the word, for his devout contemplation of the religious value inherent in the word, and for his anxiety to do full justice to the word whose religious connotations the artistic form must not injure.

If Pietism produced Bach's characteristic approach to the Holy Word, it was also responsible for many a conflict he had to undergo. We can imagine how deeply this conflict affected him, if we take into full consideration that his artistic goal was once and for all church music; that church music called for a reorganization; that Bach was about to make the individual artist alone responsible for the creation of church music so organized that it would interpret the Holy Word in the spirit of Pietism; furthermore, that this goal was possible only within the forms of the orthodox church and could never be reached within Pietism; and finally, that Pietism must have repelled Bach because of its denial of artistic music while it still attracted him for personal religious reasons. And it is this contradictory situation that wrested from him the final decision. There was no escape for the man placed in the midst of antagonistic parties. As a matter of fact, he had no choice; he did the only thing he could--he left the place.

In his farewell to the Pietistic church in Mühlhausen--one of his most quoted documents--Bach reminds the reader that he had accepted the position in order to construct "a well-regulated church music to the glory of God," but that he had been hindered in this goal and wished, therefore, to resign. Bach left Mühlhausen for court appointments in Weimar then Anhalt-Cöthen. It was these years that Bach later called the happiest in his life. It was the compositions of these years to which Bach's enlightened sons turned, and our own culture turns, most often.

In 1723 Bach took a huge cut in salary to return to the service of the Church, this time in Leipzig where he continued to his death in 1750. While in Leipzig Bach wrote what are, arguably, his most important compositions: his passions and oratorios, most of the cantatas, the B-Minor Mass (see YouTube instructions), the Musical Offering, and Art of the Fugue. While the sacred music of this period, with the exception of the Mass, demonstrates Pietistic influence, there is also an increased preoccupation with symbolism and numerical artifice.

In 1747, three years before his death, Bach joined the Society for Musical Sciences--the so-called "Mizler Society"--a colloquium of mathematicians, philosophers, and artists dedicated to the proposition that mathematical rubrics could be used to explain artistic, philosophic, and cosmic phenomena. Mizler, a former student of Bach's, offered a reward to anyone who could prove mathematically why parallel fifths were undesirable. Association with this society was certainly a gesture of homage on Bach's part to the tenets of eighteenth-century style Rationalism. The musical work best representing Bach's intellectual assent to such rationalism is his Musical Offering. Here Bach improvises upon a theme given to him by Frederick the Great, turning it into an hour-long series of cleverly disguised canons and ricercare.

While his Musical Offering and membership in Mizler's society would indicate that he was a Rationalist, nearly everything else in his life suggests that J. S. Bach was at least sympathetic toward Pietism. So what was he: a Rationalist, Pietist, neither, or both? The answer is probably best seen in his eclectic musical tastes and influences. With respect to the music of his own day, Bach studied the most up-to-date Italian and French models, incorporating features of both styles into his own works. But his interest in modern music did not come at the expense of ancient models--the stile antico--which he continued to study, assiduously, until the day he died. Thus, J. S. Bach was willing to consider many points of view and come to his own conclusions. We have every reason to believe that in his devotional life Bach was at least as eclectic. In that sense Bach was probably a little of both.

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