J.S. Bach: His Faith and Its Effect on Text Setting

November 2, 2009 / By: Rebecca Bartelt

The problem of this study was to discover if and how J.S. Bach’s religious theology is represented in the setting of his choral texts. The thesis problem evolves from and is based on the author’s edification by the way Bach brings to life Lutheran theology in his music. The sub-problems of this thesis focus on: what Bach’s theology actually was; if Bach chose the texts for his cantatas; and if Bach set the texts of Cantata BWV 105 and BWV 78 as it related to his theology.

Investigation of sub-problem one—what Bach’s theology was—indicated that Bach was a strong Orthodox Lutheran, with a touch of the emotionalism of Pietism. Research into sub-problem two—if Bach chose the texts for his cantatas—did not reveal a clear answer. It may be that the pastor at the cathedral in Leipzig chose or gave Bach a choice. It may be that Bach was free to choose a text for the appointed Sunday’s Scripture readings. Analyzing Cantatas BWV 105 and 78 revealed some compositional features that highlighted Orthodox theology, but this author feels that they were not convincing.

The results of the research suggest that although Bach had a strong Orthodox Lutheran faith and some choice in choosing the text for his cantatas, there is evidence that he often simply used standard Baroque techniques such as word painting. He did, however, sometimes uniquely insert chorale melodies into a cantata to call to mind an Orthodox text to the listener. To complicate the matter, Bach sometimes used the same music for both sacred and secular texts. Yet, Bach clearly composed all his music—sacred and secular to honor God. This seeming contradiction makes coming to a conclusion difficult. It seems to this author that Bach did, at times, bring out Orthodox theology in the text of his cantatas, but in general he used Baroque techniques such as word painting to emphasize parts of the text that most Baroque composers would have also highlighted. It is reasonable to conclude that for Bach, all of life including both sacred and secular composition should be performed and viewed as works to honor God