Johann Sebastian Bach on the Christian Life

o the honor of the Most High alone,
and for my neighbor, to be enlightened from it….

– Inscription from Orgelbüchlein by J. S. Bach, Weimar, c. 17141

The Ethical Overtones of a Famous Inscription

[1] Searching for an ethical tone in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach is difficult but not impossible. It is difficult because J. S. Bach wrote so little about himself, in fact resisted writing about himself, and because those closest to him — his two wives and surviving children — either found such reporting socially unusual or not important. An exception, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian’s third son, in an effort to supply raw material for his father’s first biography, provided author Johann Nikolaus Forkel with insightful reflections on family life and elder Bach’s continuing relationships with students and colleagues.2

[2] The paucity of first-hand information about Bach’s personality and character yields a vacuum that has over the years attracted a flurry of interpretations drawn partly from his known works but mostly from projections generated by fans with their own self-interests. These ranged from viewing him as the Superman of the German musical spirit to positing a gruff, sex-crazed pietist whose single preoccupation in life, judging from cantata libretti, seemed to be yearning after death.

[3] Since Bach left little behind, the search for what drove his ambitions, and more pointedly his behavior, takes us to secondary information, even anecdotes. Not the least of such material would be the inscriptions the composer attached to his compositions. His “Soli deo gloria” (To God alone be glory) at the conclusion of most of his works is well known. Often he began his composing with the initials “J.J.” (Jesu, juva [Jesus, help]), and then there are other occasional inscriptions such as from the Orgelbüchlein. One must assume that if Bach has any integrity at all these written notices describe his intents and provide a framework from which one might extrapolate character.

[4] Such a project always needs to be balanced by some juicy biographical tidbits that always trigger raised eyebrows. There was, for instance, that incident in Arnstadt when at the age of twenty Bach publicly called student bassoonist Johann Heinrich Geyersbach a “greenhorn,” prompting Geyersbach to respond with similar insults, upon which, according to the Consistory’s records, Bach drew his sword and struck out at him. Or, consider his behavior a few years later while in Mühlhausen. He asked for and received permission to leave his newly won parish position for a four-week trip to Lübeck in order to study with the great Dietrich Buxtehude, only to stay for nearly four months, oblivious apparently to the needs in Mühlhausen during the Christmas season. His explanation upon returning: he wanted to “comprehend one thing or another about his art.”3

[5] If that were all one knew about the man, one would be prone to think of him as quarrelsome, even quarrel provoking. But then, in his favor, other personal traits suggest a person with a high regard for fiscal responsibility; a substantial amount of extant receipts indicates his faithfulness in paying debts, if not a certain penchant for rectifying accounts down to the last penny.

[6] Still, there are those quarrels. Just while in Leipzig, 1723 to his death in 1750, Bach became involved in six contentious situations, together affording more than a little insight into his personality:

In September 1723 Bach stirred the waters by claiming his right to direct music at the university-related church for a specified fee. He was allowed only half, but he subsequently appealed to the elector and won.

Good Friday 1724: Bach mistakenly thought St. Thomas Church was the location of the yearly rotation of Passion performance; he was compelled to re-advertise for St. Nicolas, but then complained and insisted that the harpsichord at St. Nicolas needed improvement.

In October 1727 Bach secured a commission to write and then perform funeral music for the Elector’s wife, Christiane Eberhardine, ignoring the protests of the university organist who arguably might have been the one to have performed this service.

September 1728: Bach brought charges against the sub deacon at St. Nicolas for taking upon himself the selection of hymns for vespers, a task customarily lodged with the cantor. Arbitration apparently went on for several years before a ruling was made in his favor.

August 1730: The council for St. Thomas school where Bach taught rebuked him for behaviors that included being absent without leave, not supervising his substitute teachers, showing little pleasure in his work and being “incorrigible.”

Six years later, in 1736, an extended quarrel with a new rector at the school, Johann August Ernesti, came to a head over who had the right to appoint the choir prefect (assistant conductor), Bach or Ernesti. The argument proceeded through several levels of adjudication with the King apparently ruling in Bach’s favor months later.4
[7] Present-day readers may look at this history and, if they have any experience whatever in congregational administration, will likely roll their eyes, recognizing a familiar pattern of behavior commonly attributed to controlling church musicians. Are we starring into the eyes of one here who is volatile, aggressive, or, as Williams suggests, “truculent,” one without due concern for another’s point of view, not to mention another’s integrity?5 If so, then the ethical behavior of this revered composer comes into question, at least if one measures it against common courtesy or, raising the bar, against Werner Elert’s definition of Christian ethos as “the quality of man according to divine judgment.”6

[8] The temptation to rush for a verdict in these matters meets resistance in other contemporaneous witnesses to his character that have come down to us. Bach’s son C. P. E. Bach, probable author of his father’s obituary, wrote: “Of his moral character those might speak who have enjoyed dealings and friendship with him and have witnessed his honesty towards God and his neighbor.”7 In his 1802 biography Johann Nikolaus Forkel devoted one of his eleven chapters to Bach’s character but of all the possible ways to describe him Forkel chose to mention his modesty as a distinctive personal trait, assuring his readers that Bach was never seduced by his own gifts to be a “musical bravado.”8

[9] Modest artist of moral character or “solitary hothead,” as Martin Geck has suggested?9 A closer look at one of the infamous quarrels may yield some insight as we probe this astonishing individual for his ethical core.

[10] Extant materials documenting Bach’s late summer 1728 complaint about hymn choices are only partially complete. Apparently Bach was adamant about his right to choose hymns for afternoon vespers, enough so that the sub deacon with whom he had disagreement on these matters submitted a complaint to the Leipzig Consistory. The latter group acted in behalf of the Elector of Saxony, whose residence was in Dresden, and was made up of two jurists and two clergy. Their task was to mediate issues that had to do chiefly with religious life in the city though often the lines between sacred and secular were not clear. In any event the Consistory was always in a delicate relationship with the Leipzig City Council and was the last court of appeal before an issue reached Dresden.

[11] Concerning the issue raised by Gottlieb Gaudlitz, the sub deacon at St. Nicholas, the consistory instructed his superintendant, Rev. Dr. Salomon Deyling, that he (Deyling) should inform the cantor

that when the ministers who are preaching cause it to be announced that particular hymns are to be sung before or after the sermon, he shall be governed accordingly and have the same sung.10

[12] Bach is not about to let this be the final word. However, he responds not to the consistory, nor does he make an appeal to the elector, but instead lodges protest with the Leipzig City Council. Why he took this route is unclear though when he was hired by the council five years earlier several council members acted as staunch supporters of his nomination.

[13] His protest is too long to include here in its entirety but certain points are noteworthy. He begins by reminding the council that on the occasion of his acceptance of their call to him he was instructed to “abide in all things strictly by the customs hitherto followed at the public divine service, and not to make any innovations, and how you graciously assured me that you would favor me in this matter with Your High Protection.”11 He goes on to explain that it had always been the prerogative of the cantor to choose the hymns that surrounded the sermon in Sunday vespers (a point never contended in the deliberations), and how those choices were governed by the Sunday Gospel reading and the list of hymns in the Dresdener Gesangbuch. (A revised and expanded edition of that book appeared in 1725 and served as the main hymnal in Leipzig during the years Bach was cantor.) Bach continued:

it was always left solely to me and my predecessors in the Cantorate to determine, in accordance with the gospels and the Dresdener Gesangbuch based on the same, as seemed appropriate to the season and the circumstances, and, as the honorable ministry can attest, no conflict ever arose about this.12

After advancing other arguments in his favor, not the least of which was mention of the disruptive length of the new hymns being introduced, Bach concludes with “the humble request that you will protect me in respect to the old practices concerning the hymns and their ordering.”13

[14] To this September 20, 1728 protest there is no extant reply. However, about a year and a half later, on February 16, 1730, the consistory (not the council!) instructed Superintendant Deyling that with respect to introducing new hymns “such an arbitrary procedure is not to be tolerated.” Further the cantor shall see to it that matters are “regulated accordingly, and new hymns, hitherto not customary, shall not be used in public divine services without his, or if need be our [emphasis mine], previous knowledge and approbation.14 After rearing its head in 1728 the issue apparently did not go away and may have been the tip of an iceberg whose constituted creeping influences of both Pietism and the Enlightenment. That the Consistory responded as late as 1730 indicates both a wider (and more profoundly serious?) controversy than one might imagine and is a sign of how certain matters of order found resonance in all the governing bodies of Leipzig.

[15] How can one understand this prolonged controversy? Bach could count himself as part of a multigenerational family of musicians, many of whom were cantors. He obviously knew the structures and tools that came along with the vocation of cantor: an established lectionary system, hymns associated with Sundays and Feast Days, standardized collections of motets, and in larger churches the expectation for newly-composed music, just to name a few. These were matters that locally shaped the content of call documents explicating the office of cantor, his own included.

[16] The function and place of hymns in a cantor’s professional life denote more than having a well-rounded acquaintance with many hymns or a skill at pleasing the tastes of the congregants. In central Germany hymns served much like appointed lessons from Scripture in that they musically delivered the specific Gospel insights for a particular day or time of the church’s year. The de tempore (according to the time) hymn was understood to be a partner with the Gospel reading, a front line exposition and application of the read Gospel, cast into this role by years of experience and the wisdom of the church. Lists of these hymns appeared in the common hymnbooks, and these Hauptlieder, as they were also known, functioned as melodic and theological germs that drove the other musical components of a Sunday or festival service. So, for example, Bach’s second cycle of cantatas in Leipzig (1724-25) evolved from his creative treatments of the week’s de tempore hymn.

[17] At issue here, of course, was more than insuring the continuance of the Hauptlied in vespers, where it appeared near the beginning of the service.15 Rather, Bach was taking a stand against the introduction of hymns merely suited to the whims of the preacher in order to champion those appointed hymns that carried and strengthened the fundamental messages of the day, even if the sermon text was not the day’s Gospel but instead the Epistle, as was the case at Sunday vespers in the Leipzig churches.

[18] Gaudlitz’ encroachment upon the responsibility Bach thought his struck right at the heart of Lutheran understandings of the cantorate–understandings that were shared essentially by his predecessors at St. Thomas, from Kuhnau, Schelle, and given shape by others such as Johann Walter, Luther’s musical friend and helper. For, whether or not he was able to lob Luther’s understanding of music’s role into the fray caused in both Consistory and Council, Bach instinctively knew that Lutheran cantors are to value hymns as a medium of proclamation, equal to preaching itself. Further, even as pastors required special skills to shape sermons that were biblically sound and faithful to traditional expositions of the appointed Gospels, so cantors worth their title require experience with both textual and musical expression as well as a sense of how a particular hymn could serve the overall liturgical needs of the day. He was confident about his abilities in this regard, but more than that, Bach had no doubt that the management of these matters constituted a crucial, tangible aspect of his vocation as cantor. In Bach’s mind, if hymn choices are part of the ministry of directing the Gospel for the up building of the people, albeit in a musical way, then no one can do that better than an experienced cantor, functioning in a truly ministerial mode.

[19] On the surface it looks like Bach was acting out with volatile pettiness, jealous of every bit of attention possible. It may be submitted, however, that he was instead reacting to perceived threats to his very sense of vocation. Reviewing the quarrels that accompanied Bach while in Leipzig Williams comments:

If Bach’s un-docile responses to criticism and to the machinations of those around him appear aggressive, truculent or at least self-protective, a positive interpretation would be that all the abuse he perceived — however irascible or simply impatient he was be nature — got in the way of his composition, his creative duty as he saw it.16

[20] To fully appreciate this evaluation one might substitute the word “vocation” for Williams’ “duty.” For Lutherans “vocation” is a theological word, deeply rooted in the operations of the Gospel. Neither objectively demonstrable nor ordered in a hierarchy of some sort, vocations (Lat. vocatio, Germ. Beruf), the Apology to the Augsburg Confession advances, “are individualized… and vary according to time and place.”17 The Lutheran interest in vocation, of course, proceeds from an aversion to monastic orders as pathway to higher status. Love and the forgiveness of sins, on the other hand, are at the core of Christian living, and mean that no rule or law can be set up as norm for one’s action and that “freedom is carried over into God’s fresh creative work in and through human beings.”18 Devotion to God’s love is devotion to one’s calling (which, it will be recalled, is not always easily perceived), and that calling “is always dedicated to the well-being of one’s neighbor.”19 If there is one characteristic that dominates the ethical soul of a Lutheran, therefore, it is the steady focus upon one’s neighbor, knowing oneself to be the means by which God is caring for the other.

[21] It could be argued that Gaudlitz had the neighbor in mind when he began to choose hymns unrelated to the canons Bach defended. Yet for Bach it seems that the matter of hymn choice was part of a larger vocation, his vocation, which the actions of Gaudlitz threatened to dismantle. His calling, anchored in the hymn, was that of serving his neighbor in faith through freshly created music and through the larger church musical operation to which it belonged so that others might be nurtured and edified. That he saw himself in such a role is demonstrable from his output of music (also in the many so-called secular works and the theoretical products such as Art of the Fugue) and from his dedications and inscriptions such as that from the Orgelbüchlein.

[22] To be fair, Williams implies that Bach’s sense of duty had to do with composition itself. It is no secret that Bach aimed for perfection, not only in composition where he “conceived ways of presenting unity in diversity,”20 but also in performance as reflected in the elaborate system of fines levied upon choristers who made mistakes in performance. One cannot claim him as the patron saint of those who refuse to color outside the lines, however, nor can one lift him up as model to be emulated in the widely acclaimed dutiful Christian pursuit of good craftsmanship. Regarding the latter, Fred Gaiser has concluded that Luther’s supposed homage to the “Christian shoemaker” who devotes his life to making good shoes is apocryphal at best.21 God may be interested in good shoes, he says, but vocation is not about production.

[23] So it is with Bach. When it comes to perfection Bach is not after perfection as a negotiable chip in the game of life. Rather, for him the issue is a relentless pursuit of the “uncanny secrets” of harmony, as Wolff describes it,22 a mission rooted in a centuries old understanding of music. As formulated by Anicius Boethius in the early sixth century, the meaning of music emerges from the threefold interaction of the music of the heavens (the mathematical relationships of the planets, etc.), the music of the human body, and the music sung and played. His views, honed from one generation to the next, prevailed right into the eighteenth century. For Bach, learning the secrets of counterpoint meant access to the secrets of the universe; he approached his compositional challenges with confidence that “the constant motion of the heavens is thus analogous to a well-constructed piece of double counterpoint,” as David Yearsley opines.23 Bach’s goal was to discover unity in the vast diversity of the universe, musical and otherwise, and thereby, however tentatively, uncover the glory of God.

[24] When from this perspective the perceived shortsightedness of others led to disturbances in the equilibrium Bach expected in the daily exercise of his vocation, he reacted strongly, all the more so since such disturbances robbed him of time and energy meant to be invested in his larger quest for musical perfection.

[25] Musical perfection in this context is not to be equated with good craftsmanship, though certainly he had high standards for himself and for others. Nor was he trying to fulfill every letter of his contract with the Leipzig City Council; even that arrangement was subject to other obligations. He rather sought to fulfill his own sense of vocation, a kind of sacred trust, which meant that every aspect and output of his life must somehow expand God’s glory and assist the neighbor. In that way he acted ethically: he pursued faithfulness to his calling as he perceived it.

[26] In an age when individuals are encouraged to find fulfillment in their work or when vocation is transformed into (a particular) job, Bach’s deep understanding of what’s primary in his life refreshes. Keeping a clear head about one’s gifts and then using them for the benefit of the other trumps the messiness of daily interactions and proves at the same time that such messiness is an unexpurgatable given of the Christian life.

1. dem höchsten Gott allein zu Ehren/ dem Nächsten, draus sich zu belehren as recorded in Johann Sebastian Bach, Orgelbüchlein, ed. Robert Clark and John David Peterson (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 7.

2. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (Leipzig: Hoffmeister and Kühnel, 1802). A translation, “On Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life, Genius, and Works,” appears as Part VI of The New Bach Reader, A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, ed. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, rev. Christoph Wolff (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 417-482. Pertinent information is presented in Chapter 8, “Bach’s Character,” pp. 459-462. Hereafter this volume is referred to as NBR.

3. Christoph Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 96.

4. Peter Williams, The Life of Bach (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 178-79.

5. Ibid, 178.

6. Werner Elert, The Christian Ethos, trans. Carl J. Schindler (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 14.

7. Quoted in Williams, 177.

8. Forkel, “On Johann . . .,” 439.

9. Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach, trans. John Hargraves (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), 139.

10. Item 137, “The Consistory’s instructions to Dr. Salomon Deyling,” NBR, p. 137.

11. Item 138, “Bach’s protest to the council,” NBR, 138.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Item 149, “The consistory’s letter to Dr. Deyling,” NBR, 143-44.

15. Wolff, Johann . . ., 259.

16. Williams, 178.

17. Elert, 132. The quote contained in Schindler’s translation is attributed to the Apology, XXVII, 4. That reference is likely incorrect. However, in section 49 of article XXVII one can read: “Thus, it is not for us to imitate the call of David to rule or the call of Abraham to sacrifice his son. Callings are personal, just as matters of business themselves vary with times and persons; but the example of obedience is universal.” See The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 285.

18. Gustaf Wingren, The Christian’s Calling, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957) 160.

19. Ibid, 9.

20. Geck, 645.

21. Frederich J. Gaiser, “Editorial Perspective: What Luther Didn’t Say about Vocation,” Word and World, XXV.4 (Fall 2005) 2.

22. Wolff, Johann . . ., 469.

23. David Yearsley, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 20.

Mark Bangert

Mark Bangert is the John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Worship and Church Music, emeritus at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. At present he is the St. Luke Bach Choir Artistic Director and Scholar in Residence.