Bach & God

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Michael Marissen
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Bach & God, a new collection of essays by musicologist Michael Marissen, Johann Sebastian Bach’s relationship to Lutheranism gets the careful, historical attention it deserves. Most attempts to address the “religiosity” of Bach’s music make one of two errors: either the author erases Bach’s compositional skill by arguing that the composer was merely dictating music directly from heaven (we could call this the “Fifth Evangelist error”), or the author denies Bach’s relationship to 18th century Lutheranism altogether by insisting that the composer’s true passion was for the “secular” music he composed, thus introducing anachronistic theories of art that Bach would not have understood in his context. Marissen opts for a third way by simply asking if we learn more about Bach as a composer if we take his religious context seriously. The answer is yes, and through Bach & God’s seven essays, a multivalent and luminous image of J. S. Bach as a “musical-religious interpreter” appears (13).

Marissen’s book is divided into four parts, and while the essays were individually published across three decades, Bach & God mostly feels like a cohesive whole. In part 1, Marissen argues that Bach was not simply “giving musical expression to assigned texts,” but that Bach was using his music to interpret scripture in order to express Lutheran theology (12). In parts 2 and 3, Marissen leaps from arguing for the importance of Lutheranism in Bach’s music to demonstrating the effect of Lutheranism’s perceived “anti-Judaism” on Bach’s cantatas and Passion settings. Finally, in part 4, Marissen offers a counter-interpretation of Bach’s Musical Offering, which is generally considered a “secular” work that exemplified the Enlightenment outlook. Under this new reading, the Offering becomes the exemplary peak of Bach’s religious interpretation of music.

As the essays move between musical criticism and Reformation history, Marissen’s erudition shows no signs of strain. The amount of scholarly knowledge on display in Bach & God is truly remarkable. As the reader enters each new section of the book, a different side of Bach’s musical and theological perspective comes into view. These sides of the composer are both historically rich and compelling.

In the essay “The Theological Character of Bach’s Musical Offering,” Marissen examines the purely instrumental work Musical Offering, which Bach wrote in 1747 in honor of Frederick II (“the Great”) of Prussia. As mentioned above, Bach’s instrumental output is commonly associated with his supposedly “secular” works; however, Marissen’s excellent analysis argues that Bach’s Musical Offering is the result of a mind wholly entranced by the Lutheran tradition, not bifurcated against it and the “secular” world of music. While Bach was not enraptured by the Enlightenment philosophy of his day, Marissen shows that Frederick II was. Thus Bach’s Offering takes on a subversive quality of a quasi-political character. Bach, a church composer, delivered an instrumental piece of music, rife with theological allusions, to Frederick, a head-of-state, who detested music that “smells of church” (207). Speaking truth to power, indeed. This essay is critically lush and vastly entertaining.

In contrast, the history that Marissen unearths in the second and third parts of the book is not as easy to digest. In these sections, Marissen criticizes the Lutheran tradition for its perceived anti-Judaism, and his argument for Bach’s complicity in that culture proffers the reader a pill that some may not be eager to swallow. While Bach’s larger religious works are normally criticized for anti-Judaism, it is in the church cantatas where Marissen finds the most problematic elements. In the first essay of part 2, Bach’s cantata no. 46, which is about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, is excoriated for using anti-Jewish polemic as a warning for “unbelievers” to return to their faith (114). In the second essay of part 2, “Bach’s Cantatas and ‘the Jews’ in the Gospel of John,” Marissen moves his criticisms away from Lutheranism and directly to the gospel of John. During this argument, Marissen’s work cracks under the weight of its ambition. The essay attempts to bring historical and textual debates from first-century Judaism, Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric, and the theological sources that were in Bach’s library to bear on the texts of three cantatas. Marissen argues that each text has problematic tendencies that come from the “preexisting anti-Jewish position” of the author of the gospel of John (141), and claims that by setting them to music, Bach endorses the mindset of the author (147). The historical claims that Marissen makes about first-century Judaism in this essay are still hotly debated in the field of biblical criticism and history, which makes Marissen’s confidence in his conclusions seem far more interpretive than concrete.

As a result, Marissen’s analysis of the cantatas never yields examples of musical interpretation that endorse or enhance his conclusions about the theology of text as persuasively as in other parts of the book. By introducing multiple, scriptural hermeneutics, Marissen is unable to argue how Bach’s music may interpret the anti-Judaism of the first-century gospel over against his own historical context of Reformation conflicts between Protestants and Catholics during the eighteenth century. To complicate the hermeneutical task further, in the next part of the book, the essays conclude that in St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s music may actively work to de-emphasize anti-Jewish elements in the texts from which they are drawn. The reader never gets a clear picture of how Bach’s music as a whole may or may not endorse the gospel of John’s supposed “anti-Judaism.”

Michael Marissen’s Bach & God is an absolute necessity for scholars in the fields of musicology, church history, comparative religion, and theology. I would also enthusiastically encourage professional musicians who perform Bach’s works regularly to use the book as a guide for ethical performances of the contentious works in Bach’s oeuvre. It is clear that in the face of the history behind this music, dialogue is an absolute must. Bach & God makes a compelling argument that the meaning of a text and its compositional setting is too important to ignore.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Isaac Collins is a graduate student in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Marissen is Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music at Swarthmore College, where he taught from 1989 to 2014. He has also been a visiting professor on the graduate faculties at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos(Princeton, 1995), Lutheranism, anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion (Oxford, 1998), An Introduction to Bach Studies (co-author Daniel Melamed; Oxford, 1998), Bach's Oratorios (Oxford, 2008), Tainted Glory in Handel's Messiah (Yale, 2014), and essays inLutheran Quarterly, Harvard Theological Review, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times.


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