- Bach and God by Michael Marissen
Michael Marissen is Professor Emeritus of Music at Swarthmore College. One of his teachers was Eric Chafe who discussed J. S. Bach’s Cantata 21 (Tears into Wine, 2015) in a lengthy tome of six [End Page 465] hundred pages. The detail in that book concerns the theological theme that produced the title, but the underlying theme is that Bach’s music requires both a theological/liturgical and a musical understanding. In far fewer words, Marissen argues the same underlying theme, that Bach’s music cannot be understood as aesthetic musical pleasure in which words can be ignored, nor can the importance of words be emphasized to make the notes trivial ornaments. Rather, the music interprets the text.
Marissen’s book, however, unlike Chafe’s, is devoted to more than one work. Its detail centers in part on The Musical Offering as homage to God and not “abstract” chamber music or homage to Frederick the Great (7, chapter 7), but this book is primarily about anti-Judaism which here means not mean disagreement, but contempt.
Bach, like all of us, had his blind spots. His period, like all periods, had its systems of injustice. The church, though sojourner, participates in and sometimes supports these principalities and powers, denying its own message which is partly why it confesses its unknown sins. Bach was not exempt from these sins. That is the detail Marissen examines. He points out that Bach sinned in against Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Calvinists; and he reflected the anti-Judaism of his time and place. He comes off better than Luther (113), and his St. John Passion comes off better than Handel’s Messiah. (Marissen devoted whole books to those two works [Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion, 1998; Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah, 2014]). But Bach is not exempt, at least not in Marissen’s view. In a long footnote (68) he acknowledges those who disagree with him.
Marissen divided his book into four parts with seven chapters, each an edited version of an earlier article. Part I discusses basic Lutheranism with two chapters on the musically theological and historically informed readings of Bach’s librettos. Part II takes up anti-Judaism with a chapter on Bach’s Cantata 46 about the destruction of Jerusalem (amazing musical exegesis, but Bach at his “grimmest,” ) and one on Bach’s cantatas, the Jews, and the Gospel of John. Part III continues anti-Judaism with two chapters on Bach’s Passion settings. Part IV discusses religious expression in chamber music. Its chapter on the Musical Offering has affinities to Marissen’s [End Page 466] compelling insights in The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, 1995.
Although Marissen may press some ambiguities to their breaking point, he notes that Bach’s St. John Passion indicates a greater concern for Christians and their sin than for anti-Judaism (155–157) and that other texts in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion work against Matthew 25:27, “His blood be on us and on our children” (158–59 and 179ff.). What Bach thought, however, whether he even agreed with his librettos (75, n. 26, and 123), or what Marissen believes are not the chief concerns here. (Marissen comes from a strict Dutch Calvinist background and views himself as an agnostic.) This is a careful study, in part a detailed biblical word study, laying out the anti-Judaic perspective of which Bach was a part. For providing us that data we need to be grateful.