July 3, 2023


Bach Was No Liberal Humanist: a review of Bach Against Modernity by Michael Marissen (Valerie Stivers, June 29, 2023, Compact)

Marissen's title chapter identifies "the 'modern' in 'modernity'" to mean "exalting reason above revelation," "exalting human autonomy and achievement," "exalting religious tolerance," "exalting cosmopolitanism," and "exalting social and political progressiveness." The scholar takes these points one by one and dismantles them, via careful consideration of original sources. In the harsh world of eighteenth-century Lutheranism, human beings were believed to have been entirely corrupted by the fall. Without the grace of God, we are hopeless and irredeemable; our accomplishments, accordingly, are all by God's grace. Bach, Marissen argues, showed every sign of being a conservative Lutheran who sincerely adhered to this world view, both personally and in his music. Few creeds could be more antithetical to the tenets of contemporary humanism.

Bach served as the director of church music in Leipzig from 1723 until his death, a position from which he composed religious music for the exhortation and edification of parishioners. He was aware of Enlightenment-style thinking that elevated reason, and railed against it in his vocal compositions. Marissen makes a survey of all appearances of the word "reason" in Bach's texts, and quotes them, including "reason--the blind leader--seduces," "reason does not help; only God's spirit can teach us through his word" and the wonderful, "Shut up, just shut up, tottery reason!" Marissen dryly notes "I do not see or hear anything in Bach's musical settings to suggest that these vocal compositions subvert their anti-Enlightenment messages at the same time as they enunciate them." There is also, he says, no sign that Bach privately disagreed with the material. One of the primary sources of insight into the composer's private reflections comes from notations and small corrections he made on his personal study Bible. Marissen analyzes these in some detail to demonstrate the pre-modern, anti-Enlightenment trend of Bach's thought.

Another aspect of the debate comes in a distinction Marissen believes is false between Bach's "sacred" and "secular" music, beloved of academics trying to prove that religion wasn't terribly important to Bach. Marissen contends that while the composer wrote liturgical music, called sacred (for use in church), and non-liturgical music, called secular (for use elsewhere), the distinction as we make it wouldn't have occurred to him. People of his time would have understood all "serious-minded" music as intended to honor God. Marissen analyzes the composer's practice of noting "J.J." ("Jesu Juva," or "Jesus help!") And "S.D.G." ("Soli deo gloria," "To God Alone Be Glory!") on his compositions, including the "secular" ones, to indicate that this was so. In Chapter 10, he offers a detailed analysis of the "secular" Brandenburg Concertos, demonstrating that their musical ideas were based in Christian scripture and that they contained theological content that would have been apparent to audiences of the time.

The idea that Bach was like us, Marissen believes, can be attributed to a kind of wishful thinking found in scholars and laypeople alike: a belief that "Bach's music is so staggeringly great" that it must have a greatness of meaning--in our own terms. The academic work that supports these conclusions, he argues, is full of oversight and error. One scholar dismisses the contents of Bach's personal library as "quasi-shelf-warmers," presumably because the books were religious and thus uninteresting. Marissen counters that they were popular books of the time and there is every reason to suppose Bach read them. Other scholars have focused on proving that Bach understood time in a linear (modern) fashion as opposed to a cyclical (pre-modern one). A look at Bach's (boring!) library, Marissen notes, would unearth a 2,000-page volume on time and eternity (your average pre-modern reader apparently had a leg up on us), penned by the Lutheran theologian Martin Geier, demonstrating that "linear notions of passing time, often held now to be 'modern,' also run deeply through premodern, biblically based thought." Many scholars also, in Marissen's account, appear to be unfamiliar with the basic religious concepts present in Bach's music or underlying his thought, and thus apt to misinterpret Bach's notations in his Bible.

Many of today's Bach aficionados have, Marissen admits, chosen to disregard the religious elements of his work, taking what they can "use," be it sheer aesthetic appreciation or the feelings of comfort, joy, and hope that prevail for religious and non-religious listeners alike. (He adds that the phenomenon of why the composer continues to be so beloved despite this misunderstanding is worthy of special study but goes beyond the scope of his work.) Marissen writes that his decades of experience in Bach studies "have led me to conclude that a great many music lovers do not, strictly speaking, value Bach for the things he may, strictly speaking, be about."

It was the rejection of the Enlightenment/Age of Reason that saved us from Modernity. 

Posted by at July 3, 2023 8:14 AM