What Catholics Owe Bach–and What Bach Owes the Catholic Tradition
J. S. Bach is claimed by Protestants in general and Lutherans in particular as their man, certainly the most important creative artist given to humanity by the tradition of the Reformation, and one whose importance transcends both the German-national and Lutheran-sectarian traditions from which he sprung. Martin Luther is the only other creative artist of the Reformation whose human accomplishments—namely, his crafting of the modern German language in his translation of the Bible, and his establishment of the fundamentals of vernacular, metric hymnody as we know it throughout what is left of Christendom today—can rival those of Bach, whose contributions to the art of music make the man’s enormous body of work a self-sufficient textbook of harmony, polyphony, text-setting, and instrumental technique.
On one level, the Protestants are right to claim Bach as one of their own, like the deist Handel, or the Puritan Milton. And we Catholics have plenty of our own first-rank artists to appreciate: Dante, Chaucer, Palestrina, Haydn, Mozart, Hopkins, Messiaen. We don’t really NEED Bach, do we?
Well, no—not like we need oxygen, food, shelter, or grace. But if we acknowledge that we need beauty, and only an inadequate anthropology would fail to do so, then we have good reason to pay attention to Bach. Artistic sectarianism might come naturally to human beings: but the Catholic Church is definitely NOT a sect, which means section, something partial, something possessing jurisdiction over only some of part of humanity, or only over some areas of human life. All of truth, goodness, and beauty are of interest to the Catholic Christian, whether or not its discoverers, practitioners, or makers have been fully incorporated into Christ’s Body.
And for great artists outside the communion of the Church, one could find many much farther outside than Bach. He was a Christian artist par excellence, one who gave his life in demanding and often ill-paid service to the Christian church as he understood it rather than to dukes and princes, one who had the habit of inscribing his musical works with the formula Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory”. While composers such as Handel, Monteverdi, Mozart, and Haydn are known more for the works they composed for the court, the concert hall, or the opera house, the fact is that the majority of Bach’s enormous musical body of work—the sacred cantatas, many of the organ works, the 2 great Passions—was composed for church services alone; it is only in the last century that these works have become staples of secular orchestras and choirs.
Inasmuch as he consciously celebrated Nicene orthodoxy, in his choice of sacred texts and in such intricate devices as symbolic Trinitarian compositional motifs, and defended such orthodoxy against the rationalist-Enlightenment tendencies already loose in the German-speaking intellectual world of the early 18th century, Bach rendered an artistic service to the Christian faith that is absolute. 20th century American theologian Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006), who converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, argues for such an understanding of Bach’s works in chapter 4 of his book Bach Among the Theologians. And if Nicene Christology was important to Bach as a central component of his Lutheran faith, there can only have been such orthodoxy to affirm and dramatize in music because of the Catholic Church's affirmation and preservation of it in the 1400 years prior to his life.
And while critical opinion is divided as to which of Bach’s single compositions is his greatest, the two finalists, the B-Minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion, both have their roots in Catholic liturgy. The B-Minor Mass is something of a Catholic curiosity for the Lutheran Bach, for it is a massive musical setting of the complete text of the Latin “Ordinary” of the Roman liturgy, the Kyrie-Gloria-Credo-Sanctus-Agnus Dei formula of the Catholic Missal that had been abbreviated by Luther, but which was confirmed in the Missal of St Pius V (1570) and preserved without change in the significantly re-shaped Missal of Pope Paul VI (1969). There is some speculation that Bach wrote this Catholic Mass setting for a Saxon King who had converted upon his marriage to a Polish princess; his setting of the Ordinary may also have been a purely musical gesture, in which Bach sought to try his hand at the form of composition in which the great 15th-and 16th-century composers he studied and admired had made their entire careers.
The Catholic roots of Bach’s Passions are less obvious; as a compositional genre, the vernacular musical dramatization of the events of Good Friday, with a mixture of biblical texts and non-scriptural devotional poetry, presented with a full orchestra, choir, and squad of operatic soloists, is a Protestant innovation. Bach’s artistic and liturgical roots were planted firmly in the soil of 17th century Lutherandom when he composed his two great Passions, the St John and the even longer St Matthew.
But the tradition of singing the Passion on Good Friday is actually an ancient practice of the Catholic liturgy. Modern Catholics are used to hearing it read, but in the centuries-old prescription of the Roman rite, the entire biblical text of the Lord’s trial, torture, and crucifixion, taken verbatim from John’s gospel, is sung by clergy at the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Hosts”: by a deacon, who chants the narration, and a priest, who chants the words of all the “characters”, from the Jewish priests, to Pilate, Peter, the crowds, and the Lord. The fundamentals of this musical-liturgical tradition—the voice of the deacon singing the text in a repetitive Psalm-tone in the middle register, the priest singing Christ’s words in a lower baritone—are still discernible in Bach’s Passions, in which the part of the “Evangelist” is always a male tenor, and “Jesus” is sung by a bass soloist.
Any present-day Catholic FSSP parish with a deacon available to assist the priest will sing the Passion on Good Friday, which is a powerful spiritual AND aesthetic experience, as well as a window upon a deep Catholic musical-liturgical tradition down to which the tips of Bach’s Lutheran roots extend.
The Arizona Bach Festival will present the complete St John Passion in concert on Saturday, January 14 at Central United Methodist Church, 1875 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix. The pre-concert lecture begins at 6:30 pm, with performance at 7:30. Buy tickets here.