Mystic Transcendence: J. S. Bach

“Bach’s incomparably forceful expression, his urge to pile up structures of unheard-of dimensions in densest polyphonic weaving and a final unification, are all typical of the closing Baroque in his country. And more so is his mystic absorption in things transcending reason. Through the often feeble, pompous, redundant words of contemporary Protestant poetry, he looked into the last, unutterable depths of religious awareness. He gave expression to religious wisdom at the eleventh hour, when the rationalism of the dawning Enlightenment was blocking its way.”1

The German city of Leipzig was a thriving center both of commerce, with its trade fairs that drew thousands, and of learning, with its renowned university.  Bach’s duties as the new kantor included the two largest churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas.  On his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, propelled by dissatisfaction with the lack of a distinctive style in German religious music, Bach launched a bold program: to replace the Lutheran church’s traditional 16th-century gospel motets with works offering “a richness of ideas, forms, and sonorities that went well beyond established conventions.”2  Over the next three decades, he composed nearly 300 cantatas, one for every Sunday and feast day of the ecclesiastical year.

Bach was hired to be kantor, Kapellmeister, and music director of Leipzig’s 4 main churches, but his use of expressive techniques went far beyond his Leipzig contract, which mandated that “Church compositions must not be operatic in style, but rather must incite the listeners to devotion.”3 By underpinning text with breathtakingly interpretive music, Bach established new compositionl standards for the cantata genre.

Leipzig audiences had not had their own opera house since 1720. Bach traveled often to Dresden to hear opera, which fertilized his prolific imagination and technical sophistication.  Ultimately, he would surpass even his cantata work with the large-scale St. Matthew Passion (1727) and the splendid Magnificat (1735).

Leipzig’s tradition of secular musical organizations (collegia musica) was fostered by its university students and professional musicians.  Bach assumed the directorship of Leipzig’s collegium musicum in 1729.  For their concerts, Bach adapted his and others’ music and composed new works.  The performances, held at the centrally located Zimmerman coffee house, often featured distinguished visiting artists.  Bach staged the weekly performances, composed and rehearsed new works, served as conductor for a wealth of talented musicians, and performed as a virtuoso keyboardist.  He loved these activities so much that the collegium musicum became central to his life.  Perhaps the title of a cantata composed during this time indicates a source for some of his phenomenal energy.  The Coffee Cantata, a tribute to Bach’s favorite coffee house, humorously addresses coffee addiction.  His inspiration, though, was a profound faith in and thorough understanding of Lutheran doctrine.

Coming as he did from a family dynasty of musicians, Bach viewed himself as a craftsman.  He did not have a university degree, but his court music experience, study of music theorists, and keyboard virtuosity put him in good standing at the university.  He was exposed to academic interests through his students, a vibrant influence that was reflected in Bach’s evolution as a composer, but he had never been a regional musician. In his college-aged years, he had designed his own rigorous program of study, seeking out the most famous and proficient German, Italian, and French composers of his day.  For example, he walked 250 miles to Lübeck to spend a month with Dieterich Buxtehude, the most famous organist in Germany.  Buxtehude anticipated a new ideal of the autonomous composer and exemplified a universal musician. His balance of theory and practice, extraordinary power of imagination, and imaginative settings of vocal church music deeply impressed Bach.

During Bach’s Leipzig years, Bach deliberately bridged the gap that had grown between secular and sacred music, wrestling with old and new forms in a way more typical of the Romantics.  The next musical generation, including his own sons, was in diametric opposition and turned from religion toward reason.  Decades after Bach’s death, the young Mozart discovered and assimilated his music, as would Haydn, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, who launched a huge public performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion  in 1829, changing the history of music forever.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Our Musical Heritage: A Short History of Music, Curt Sachs, Prentice-Hall, N.J., 1955.
  2. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.
  3. Bach and the High Baroque, Robert Greenberg, The Teaching Company, Virginia, 1998.