• Michaela Selway

The Influence of the Church in Baroque Music: A Study on Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach thought the sole purpose of music was to glorify God [1]. His beliefs were influenced by his desire for well-regulated church music and resulted in the controversy over whether the compositional techniques he used to portray the glorification of God actually tainted the message and caused the music to become vague [2]. Studying texts written by and about Bach creates an understanding of how religion influenced his musical style and thought. This particularly reveals how his beliefs on the purpose of music shaped his expectation for his music, and how these expectations influenced his use of compositional techniques.

Johann Sebastian Bach

The context of the sixteenth century, namely the Reformation, played a large role in defining Bach’s musical style, and also his purpose for composing. As an employee of the church, many of his cantatas were in the style of Lutheran liturgies with the purpose of putting to music Biblical readings that recognised the importance of specific days, seasons and celebrations in the Lutheran calendar. Indeed, Bach saw music as a defining facet of religion. Bach saw music ‘as constituting a religious reality, that the more perfectly the task of composition … the more God is immanent’ [3]. In an annotation beside 2 Chronicles 5:13, Bach wrote that ‘where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present’ [4]. Thus, Bach’s music became a vehicle for projecting Biblical ideas. One notable example is forgiveness, which is one of the most prevalent themes in his cantatas. Through these works, he portrayed the message that forgiveness cannot be obtained through good deeds, but rather through faith in the Lord. Considering his purpose for composing, Bach believed that vocal compositions were more effective in glorifying God and spreading the message of the Gospel. He would encourage the composer and the performer to pay strict attention to what was being sung in order for the piece to have its desired result [5]. In fact, Butt infers that Bach saw music as being just as important as the sermon. This is because the vocal composition is reliant on Scripture and is poetic and rhetorical, the same as any sermon.


This background knowledge helps us to understand his musical thought, especially in terms of well-regulated church music. Bach found that, due to the importance of music in religion, the musicians he worked with did not possess the skill to perform his music to the standard he desired. He stated his worries in his letter to the Leipzig Town Council in 1730 where he explained the degradation of musical skill amongst his students. He was experiencing the loss of talented musicians due to them finishing school, and those who were replacing them were not yet at the same skill level or had ‘no ability whatsoever’ [6]. Therefore, the standard of the ensemble was in decline. This not only had a negative effect on the ensemble, but on the composer as well. Birnbaum claimed that those not properly educated to the rule of music ‘spoil[ed] the principal melody’ by playing it improperly and that those listening ran the possibility of attributing this ‘to an error of the composer’ [7]. Furthermore, Boyd notes a performance in which Bach was ‘unwilling to trust his orchestral violinists with the upward scale to a top e” ’ [8]. This infers that he did not believe the musicians had the talent he thought necessary to perform this music properly, agreeing with the theory of Bach’s belief in well-regulated church music [9]. He was so deeply grounded in his belief of the well-regulated church that when writing this letter, he accused the other elders around him of not addressing this problem properly. With the beneficia determining who was accepted into the school, all the powers were taken from Bach to ‘bring the music into a better state’ [10].

Sheet music for Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.

This assumption about the purpose of music generated controversy about a specific aspect of Bach’s musical style. Butt describes this aspect as ‘blatant mixing of various musical styles and forms’ [11]. The predecessor to Bach, Johann Kuhnau, saw a clear division between sacred and secular music. He held the opinion that Bach did not see this division, and was suspicious of Bach combining features of both sacred and secular into his arias and recitatives [12]. Butt claimed that Bach trod a delicate line between incorporating dramatic elements from secular music in his church music simply to emphasize a message. Some of these elements include overused chromaticism (using notes outside of the key) and ornamentation, which some critics thought darkened his compositions. Schiebe believed that chromaticism tainted the melody of the piece by making it turgid and confused. He claimed that this resulted in Bach taking ‘away the … beauty of harmony and cover[ing] the melody throughout’ [13]. He implied that Bach diluted the melody, and thus main message of the song, by the addition of complicated yet pointless notes. As a result, he effectively removed the purpose of the piece. In contrast, Birnbaum saw these devices as a ‘living expression of the delicate inner emotional agitation of the melody’ [14]. This art is necessary as nature is turgid and confused; it is not always beautiful. He claimed that ‘the nature of music demands this’ in order to properly represent nature. We can then understand Bach’s choice in using chromaticism and ornamentation, as he used it to portray his message. This message was often a story from scripture that required a dramatic portrayal. These devices aided in the portrayal of this message by improving its condition, helping it become clearer and creating a beautiful appearance in which it could be understood, felt and appreciated. They gave the message a voice in which to portray itself.


Bach was a product of his time. He lived through the turbulent societal changes that came about due to the Reformation and at a time when music was being experimented with. These influences manifested in the way he composed and what he wrote about. Though he continued the age-old tradition that believed that music was a vehicle to glorify God, he also experimented with elements of music traditionally not found in the church, such as chromaticism and ornamentation. Though deemed as controversial as it combined features of sacred and secular music, Bach found these features necessary to convey emotion through his music and thus accurately represent life and the gospel of Christ.


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Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Identity Formation were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


References for the musical periods (podcast)

Medieval/Gothic Period Music

Gregorian chant, "Deum verum" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK5AohCMX0U


Renaissance

Palestrina, "Missa Papae Marcelli" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRfF7W4El60

William Byrd, "Mass for Five Voices" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZSB0WTyIrg


Baroque

Johann Sebastian Bach - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JQm5aSjX6g

Vivaldi, "Four Seasons" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRxofEmo3HA

Handel, "Messiah" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71NCzuDNUcg

Purcell, "Rejoice in the Lord always" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkh6WMcV_ic


Classical

Mozart, "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCi2u265wxQ

Joseph Haydn, "Sonata in F Major" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jyfu30U2E9k

Beethoven, "Moonlight Sonata" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Tr0otuiQuU


Romantic

Debussy, "Clair de Lune" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvFH_6DNRCY

Arnold Schönberg, "String Quartet No. 3" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_0W5MIQrT0&t=34s

Gershwin, "Rhapsody In Blue" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynEOo28lsbc

Stravinsky, "The Firebird" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHmk7yccvws


Bibliography

[1] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[2] David, H. T., Mendel, A. & Wolff, C., eds., The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach In Letters and Documents. New York, 1998.

[3] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[4] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[5] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[6] David, H. T., Mendel, A. & Wolff, C., eds., The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach In Letters and Documents. New York, 1998.

[7] Steglich, R., ed., Sechs Partiten. München-Duisburg, 1970.

[8] Boyd, M, Bach, Oxford University Press, 2006.

[9] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[10] David, H. T., Mendel, A. & Wolff, C., eds., The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach In Letters and Documents. New York, 1998.

[11] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[12] Butt, J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[13] David, H. T., Mendel, A. & Wolff, C., eds., The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach In Letters and Documents. New York, 1998.

[14] Steglich, R., ed., Sechs Partiten. München-Duisburg, 1970.

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