Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker has written a fascinating piece on Bach’s theology. He says that while much research of the past tried to look at Bach in purely secular terms, today’s scholarship is attempting to unpack the musical impact of his Lutheranism.
Ross reviews several recent books on the subject, including one that tries to read into Bach’s music elements of anti-semitism, as if that is what Lutheranism is all about. (Despite Luther’s senile ravings at the end of his life, Lutheran theology at the very least removed the stigma that Jews are to be blamed as Christ-killers–what the book in question is looking for in Bach’s Passions–since Lutheran theology sees Christ’s death as the result of all human sin, making possible their redemption.) In reading the review of the books, which touches on the struggles and spiritual dynamism reflected in Bach’s music, I was struck by how little outsiders know about the distinctive, unique elements of Lutheran spirituality, such as the contrast between Cross and Glory, and the spiritual desolation known as Anfechtung. These would be highly relevant to Bach’s music, accounting for some of what these scholars otherwise struggle to explain.
But I love Ross’s close readings of Bach’s music, particularly, St. John’s Passion, in which he shows the Biblical and theological meaning of the musical structures the composer employs. I love this quotation of one the authors: “Marissen identifies himself as an agnostic, but adds that in the vicinity of Bach’s music he will never be a “comfortable agnostic.” I love that so much of this research draws on the copy of Bach’s annotated Bible held by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, which Ross discusses. And I love the overall question asked by this article and by the books themselves: How is it that music based on such archaic theological ideas can connect so profoundly with people in our time? (I would answer that Bach is evidence that Lutheranism itself, properly understood, can connect profoundly with people in our time.)