The Vision of the Divine in the Music of J.S. Bach - a Cultural Analysis of the Late Baroque in Europe
Abstract: J. S. Bach’s music is his own religion. It does not matter where it is performed, because it turns every room into a church. His chords build actual cathedrals, and his compositions stream devotion to God and the Divine. Bach is the theologian among classical composers. He examined fundamental questions about life and death, human creation, and the Creator. Without a doubt, it takes a lifetime to be able to interpret and perform Bach’s music, understand it, emotionally experience it, envision the divine and heaven, and to understand life, death, good, and evil as his music presents it.
Johan Sebastian Bach’s music was composed in the era of the late Baroque in Europe. His musical compositions represent the mystery of the human mind, creation of perfection, a vision of the divine, and a depiction of heaven. In this time period music, art, paintings, and architecture were deeply connected and inspired by Catholicism. Baroque, or the era of “many ornaments,” was focused in absolute devotion to and worship of God. Scenes of the Holy Bible were painted, sculptures were made, and cathedrals were built. These endeavors influenced Bach’s music. His art offers a discussion about life and death, filled with light as opposed to darkness. His Well- Tempered Clavier compositions of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues are aural representations of the Holy Bible. Furthermore, his Toccata and Fugue in key of D minor, which was composed for organ, represents through its cathedral sound, the creation of the universe. Every chord has a hidden message; it builds an actual cathedral out of sound.
Thesis statement: Johan Sebastian Bach’s music is his own religion, no matter where it is performed, because it turns every room into a holy place. His chords build cathedrals, and his compositions stream devotion to God and the Divine. Bach is the theologian among the composers. He examines the fundamental questions about life and death, human creation, and the Creator. Without a doubt, it takes a lifetime to be able to interpret and perform Bach’s music, understand it, emotionally experience it, envision the divine and heaven, and understand life, death, good, and evil as his music presents it.
The Baroque period in Europe was an era of the “many ornaments.” Paintings, sculptures, and architecture were made in very dramatic style with a lot of embellishments whenever possible. The Baroque period started in Italy in the sixteenth century and spread throughout Europe. The Catholic Church strongly supported the creation of paintings, building cathedrals, and especially religious scenes and representations of the Holy Bible. It was strongly encouraged to glorify God and the monarchy, and this is very noticeable in the paintings made in this era. Extravagant ornaments, unreal lights, strong dramatic emotional depictions, and nothing that represented everyday human life were depicted in the art of the day. Late Baroque slowly progressed into the Rococo style that started in France and is characterized by the abandonment of the grandeur of early Baroque. It is important to recognize that this style is reflected in paintings, sculpture, literature, and music. In Johan Sebastian Bach’s music, ornamentation is most evident.
Churches and cathedrals were also intensely ornate. One of the most famous sculptors and architects of the period was Bernini. Among his many works, “St. Theresa in Ecstasy,” stands out most. It was created for the Cornaro Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Although some erotic elements can be seen in his work, he was a very religious man too, just like J.S. Bach.”
He employed massive domes, colossal colonnades, and powerful light effects to create a strong influence over commoners going to church. This characterized architecture in the Baroque era. Using this technique of illuminating the light through the painted windows brought a mystical atmosphere in cathedrals and churches. “The basic characteristics of this style may be blamed on the process of observation - not forgetting the necessary limitation to essentials - and the first thing we note is that its spaces, actual or implicit, are flowing and fluid. They accompany the human presence, but not as a rigid network, or Mannerist fashion, with any threat of dramatic tension.” (Alfonso)
The new characteristics and ornaments of the Baroque era were adapted throughout Europe including Germany where Johan Sebastian Bach was born and raised. Endless avenues and plazas, fountains rich in decoration, and cathedrals and churches were built across Germany. “Between Swabia and Saxony in central Europe, the very individual styles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Baroque and Rococo reach a special synthesis. Here repeatedly, in secular and religious buildings, the spatial animation and architectural unity of international Baroque come together with the basically French taste for extravagant rocaille embellishments, with the surviving Gothic traditions and with vast Italianate decorative projects.” (Alfonso)
In music, the Baroque era had its impacts too. Composers where widely using more ornamentation in their works. New music forms where born during the Baroque era such as sonatas, cantatas, symphonies, and oratories. “Ground bass” was also widely used and modified throughout the Baroque era. “Ground bass” is used as a foundation of a composition to practically build on and develop the chords and the leading melody of the voices, which is a very basic description of the great importance of the “ground bass.” Compositions by George Fredric Handel and Johan Sebastian Bach are probably the best representation of the musical characteristics of the Baroque era, an after effect of the Renaissance, although down the road art historians realized that it does have his own characteristics. The paintings of the baroque era, for example, are very rich in color with heavy shades and lights, natural forms and colors, great dramatic motives, and religious and secular absolutism. Most trending themes in the baroque era were paintings where stories from the Bible, religious themes in general, allegories, and depiction of Saints were presented.
There is not much known about Bach’s private life. It seems that he is so far away from today, but his music keeps him close to the twenty-first century humanity. He examines life and death, but death in a circle of light with no darkness. Albert Schweitzer, who wrote a great deal about Bach’s musical works, dedicated his life to study and understand the genius composer’s mind, and was himself a virtuoso organist. Schweitzer called Bach “the musical father of the Lutheran Church,” who piously produced chorales “aiming simply at illustrating the central idea of the dogma contained in the words.” (Schweitzer, Vol.1)
Johan Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in 1750 at the age of 65. He was one of the greatest German composers that humanity has known. He lived during the late Baroque era in Europe. Bach’s family produced 53 musicians in seven generations. Bach’s father, Johan Ambrosias Bach, taught him to play different instruments at a very early age. His older brother, Johan Christophe Bach, taught him how to play harpsichord and clavichord, which proved to be a very important influence as can be seen in Bach’s compositions called “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Throughout his lifetime Bach composed three hundred cantatas, although only two hundred of them survive. They included big openings, recitative parts representing weekly readings from the Holy Bible, and were to be performed by solo singers or duets. Schweitzer studied not only Bach’s music, but what was inside the man’s mind as well. He wrote about the cantatas: “How can Bach help it if churches are often so built today that no chorus and orchestra can be placed in them, or only in such a way that the chorus sings into the backs of the audience? The great point is that Bach, like every lofty religious mind, belongs not to the church but to religious humanity, and that any room becomes a church in which his sacred works are performed and listened to with devotion.” (Schweitzer, Vol.1) This describes the divinity in Bach’s music so well, and that this divinity is experienced everywhere the works are played, not only in churches. Bach’s vocal compositions sound like angels from heaven singing. This another example of the actual representation of heaven depicted in sound while glorifying God at the same time.
Brandenburg Concertos, Mass in key of B, and St. Matthew and St. John Passions are large choral-orchestral works. Additionally, Bach composed The Goldberg Variations, vocal works for worshiping God; the Well-Tempered Clavier, including 24 Preludes and Fugues; and the Two- and Three-part Inventions. Bach also composed Organ works such as Toccatas and Fugues. His work continued in Weimar, where he worked for the prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, and from 1723 to his death when he held very important music posts such as Director of Music and Cantor at St. Thomas’ School and Church in Leipzig. At this time his most famous works include violin sonatas, partitas, and the six-cello suites. Besides these posts, Bach also held many other positions across Germany such as educator, composer, and Kapellmeister.
His compositions not only focused on glorifying God, but strove to present God ‘s voice. Technically he developed counterpoint, which in Latin means “point against point,” where voices are deployed against each other with independent rhythm and contour.
During his lifetime, Bach received the honor of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus the III. He also became a virtuoso organist and Konzertmeister. When he started to work in the city of Munchausen, however, his experience was not as fulfilling or pleasant. After that time, his work in the city of Weimar was a turning point of his composing career. Regarding his new era of compositions, Bach was significantly influenced by works of Vivaldi, because of the specific techniques that the Italian maestro was using for colossal, dramatic openings in his musical works. This became very important knowledge later in Bach’s career because he was able to depict through using massive sounds, a musical picture of the creation of the world in order to praise and glorify God.
Especially in his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the listener can experience the book of Genesis from the Holy Bible unfolding itself in front of their eyes and ears. If Dante’s visions of the divine were musical compositions they would sound like Bach’s music. Bach searched endlessly for the divine God and heaven throughout sound and strove to depict it in his music. He was able to bring the sounds of heaven to his audience here on Earth. Toccata and fugue in D on Earth. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor builds cathedrals in front of the eyes and ears of the listener. The majestic chords develop as the piece progresses and the extremely dynamic movement of the passages fills the cathedral with sound from above. The creation of the world by its Creator unfolds in the first part of the Toccata, portrayed through a simple start where the left and right hands plays exactly the same music line, and then it develops in more complicated harmony. The culmination of this musical work climbs the walls of the cathedral, which is probably the best way to describe the composition. In the middle part of the work come mellow chords that paint a great depiction of Paradise, and afterward the music reaches its higher realms. Such momentous episodes were described by Felix Mendelsohn, another magnificent composer and organist, as "It sounded like the church was going to collapse. What an awesome cantor Bach was!" Toccata and Fugue in D Minor deserves to be called apocalyptic and a colossal work of art that represents fully Bach’s vision of the divine, and his idea of the apocalypse and the Book of Revelations translated into an enlightening and unveiling of the soul.
According to Jaroslav Pelikan, a professor from Yale University, the political situation in Europe at this particular time appears to have greatly influenced Bach. Pelikan states in his writing that Europe was physically and emotionally exhausted from a 30-year long war, followed by the plague that came right after, “Thus all four horsemen of the Apocalypse had been riding roughshod over the countryside of central and eastern Europe.” (Pelikan) He also pointed out in his book, Bach Among the Theologians, that according to Bach, “the highest activity of the human spirit was the praise of God.” (Pelikan) Bach was a musician on the outside, but a deep theologian on the inside. After his death 80 volumes of theology books were found among his possessions, proof that he was an extremely devoted Lutheran and theologian.
“To penetrate into Bach's inner life” (Pelikan), is a hard thing to do because one does not know if personal pain and suffering influenced his music works. Bach had many children from two wives, Anna Magdalena and Maria Barbara. Bach’s personal life was filled with pain because about ten of his children died in infancy. Bach said once “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” (Pelkan) Definitely it would be a presumption to say the personal pain of losing both parents at a very early age, his first wife, and about ten of his children was reflected in his music. Did he find in God and the life-long search for divinity a healing power for his wounded soul? He was an extremely modest and religious man. He also struggled with acceptance of many church rules.
Much of his music has not survived, although what has been found still makes a case for him as the greatest composer of all time. Rodger Fry, English painter and critic, once said: “Bach almost persuades me to be Christian.” Bach strongly believed that music was given to humans to praise the Lord, and to enlighten one’s soul. He also did not see music to be used for gaining personal popularity or accumulating great wealth. Music for Bach was for giving and receiving blessings. His musical creations’ central agenda was to praise the Lord, to depict his own vision of the divine, and to share it with others. His lifelong devotion to God is an example to be followed by others. His musical works act as a mediator between the material world and the spiritual world, and can be called a sacred art. His music opens the realm of divine perfection where the listener is inside. After his death 80 volumes of theology books were found among his lives striving to perform his music correctly and precisely.