On September 2019, my wife and I attended a Sunday service at the famous Thomaskirche in Leipzig. As expected of a church whose fame is largely owed to its most celebrated choir director, the great Johann Sebastian Bach, the service was shot through with beautiful choral music.
I am a longtime admirer of this 17th century composer who gave us great musical masterpieces like the Christmas Oratorio, St Matthew’s Passion and hundreds of cantatas, both sacred and secular, having published a number of scholarly essays on his oeuvre, especially the theology that undergirds it.
But for the purposes of this brief article, I wish to simply describe the rigorous requirements to which a choir director in the Lutheran church of the late Baroque period was subjected, and reflect on the challenges this presents to the church (especially the evangelical church) today.
Bach’s position as Thomaskantor can be seen as the rough equivalent of the full-time Christian minister or lay person in the modern church who is responsible for organising the worship and music.
Before Bach was appointed to the post, he was required to go through a rigorous process of examinations and interviews.
St Thomas Church engaged external examiners to evaluate Bach’s theological competence. They included Johann Schmid, professor of theology at the University of Leipzig and Salomon Deyling, the pastor of the neighbouring Nikolaikirche, who also taught theology at the city’s university. Their assessments were then reviewed by the Superintendent of the Church in Leipzig.
After sitting for the examination, Bach had to submit a written assent to the teachings contained in the Book of Concord. This is to ensure that the applicant was not only knowledgeable in the creed of the Lutheran Church, but that he was also willing to live by the truths it professes.
On 13 May 1723, Deyling, representing the examiners and the Superintendent, wrote to the Consistory stating their approval of the applicant, once they have conferred and were satisfied with Bach’s grasp of the essence of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Bach was then appointed as the music director of the Church.
As Thomaskantor, Bach was not only required to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of Lutheran dogmas. He was also expected to be steeped in the Scriptures and in the seminal writings of the Lutheran theologians of his day.
Scholars researching Bach’s library have found evidence not only of the erudition of the great composer, but also the theological tomes that have influenced and energised his oeuvre of sacred music.
The first and most important book that has attracted the interest of scholars is of course the Bible, in this case, the Calov Bible. The Calov Bible got its name from the 17th century Wittenberg theologian Abraham Calovius who compiled and included commentaries by Martin Luther, and his own commentary together with the German translations of the Old and New Testaments – in three volumes.
Bach’s copy of the Calov Bible, which was donated to the Concordia Seminary Library in St Louis, Missouri, in October 1938, by Leonard Reichle, has been carefully examined by Bach scholars.
It contains the composer’s signature on the title page and hundreds of underlined passages and marginalia written in his own hand (verified by handwriting analysis and chemical analysis of the ink). This showed that Bach was a meticulous student of Scripture, who returned to it again and again as he worked on his sacred cantatas.
Bach’s attention to Scripture and how the Lutheran tradition has interpreted it is further made evident in the scribbles found at the margins alongside Genesis 3:7, the text on original sin. The Calov Bible includes an abbreviated version of Luther’s remarks on this particular verse. Scholars found that Bach had carefully penned the missing words in the margins of his copy of the Bible.
This showed that Bach was familiar not just with the Book of Concord, but also with the writings of the Reformer, including his commentaries on Scripture. Scholars have found two complete editions of Luther’s Works – one in Latin and one in German – in the library of the famous Thomaskantor. Bach also had in his possession separate editions of Luther’s Table Talks and exposition of the Psalms.
There was also an impressive collection of the dogmatic and polemic works of Lutheran theologians in Bach’s library, including the works of Abraham Calovius, Martin Chenmitz, Nikolaus Stinger, and August Pfeiffer. Bach also possessed a large collection of the commentaries by Lutheran theologians and exegetes like Johannes Olearius and the German legal scholar and logician August Friedrich Müller.
If a man’s library can serve as the basis for judgement, then Bach’s library discloses his prodigious learning and his deep devotion to the Lutheran tradition that had shaped his life and work.
In addition, Bach, for many years, collaborated with Erdmann Neumeister, arguably the most prolific and influential theologian of his time. The author of more than 200 theological books, Neumeister was also credited (by scholars such as Friedrich Mend) as ‘the first creator of the cantata’.
The theologian Gottfried Tilgner, a contemporary of Neumeister, describes him as ‘the man who, without contradiction, deserves the fame of being the first among us Germans who brought church music to a higher standing by introducing the sacred cantata and bringing it to its present perfection.’ Bach, the musical genius, worked closely with this great theologian to produce some of the most beautiful cantatas (especially BWV 18, 24, 28, 59, 61) in the late Baroque period.
In what way does all this pose a challenge to the modern church?
Contemporary evangelical Christianity has rightly placed much emphasis on the Church’s worship and the music that brings that worship to expression. Bach’s challenge to the modern church is to recognise that the theology that undergirds the worship of the church, especially the hymns and songs it sings, is of paramount importance and should never be neglected or compromised.
Bach challenges modern evangelical Christianity to be weary of the kitschification of Christian music, and the trivialisation of worship caused by the erosion of the theological and spiritual language of the Church.
The great Thomaskantor teaches us that doctrine and experience, theology and spirituality belong together and must never be put asunder.
Finally, Bach insists that the planning and organisation of Christian worship (including the selection of the music and songs) must not be placed in the hands of people with only a cursory knowledge of the Bible and the traditions of the Church. Rather, it must be the responsibility of people who are steeped in the biblical, theological, liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Church.
This does not mean necessarily that only ordained ministers can shape and direct the worship of the church (Bach himself was not an ordained minister). But it does mean that only a select few, with the requisite qualifications and maturity, can be given this awesome responsibility.
Bach almost always signed off his work with ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (for the glory of God), words which served as a constant reminder to him of the purpose of his compositions. Bach knew that his most brilliant sacred cantatas would not bring glory to God if they were not written for that sole purpose in mind.