Theological Symbolism in the Organ Works of J.S. Bach

David R. Maxwell

Martin Luther and Music

bbbbLuther is best known for his theological activity. However, he also made important contributions to church music. He believed that music is a gift from God. Throughout his life he understood its powers and used it to spread the Gospel.

bbbbLuther's education developed his musical skills. The schools of his time taught basic theory and composition as part of their standard curriculum. His experience in various chiors and in playing the lute and the flute gave him practical application of his knowledge. Perhaps the best testimony to his musical abilities is the collection of thirty-seven hymns in his writings. Most scholars consider Luther to be the composer or arranger of these melodies.

bbbbLuther's understanding of music extended beyond theoretical knowledge and technical proficiency. He believed that music could influence the spirit. So important was music for Luther that he ranked it second only to theology in importance, declaring that the devil "takes flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology."

bbbbLuther's insistence on musical education underscores his high view of music. He said that children should study music in school, and he proclaimed, "A school master must be able to sing, or I will not look at him; nor should one admit young men to the ministry unless they have practiced and studied music at school.

bbbbLuther's respect for the power of music has Scriptural support. He cited David's playing which drove away the spirit troubling King Saul and Elisha's summoning of a minstrel (2 Kings 3: 15) who stirred him to prophesy. Luther said, "It is the function of music to arouse the sad, sluggish, and dull spirit."

bbbbConsequently, music held an important place in the worship service for Luther. It prepared the hearts of the people to receive God's Word. The church musician, therefore, played an important role in the proclamation of the Gospel. The pursuit of his craft was an act of devotion in which he strove to produce the best music possible in the service of his Lord. As will be seen, Bach saw his service to the church very much in this light.

Bach and Theology

bbbbBach was raised in the Lutheran church and inculcated with Lutheran doctrine. In fact, the primary emphasis of his education was theological. He remained Lutheran his entire life; nevertheless, there are scholars who have doubted the sincerity of his faith. They cite a decreased production of religious works as evidence that he lost his interest in the church around 1730, if, indeed, he ever had any.

bbbbThe idea that Bach's faith was not sincere casts doubt on any investigation of theological symbolism in his music. If Bach did not honestly believe the teachings of his church, he would have had no motive to symbolize those teachings in his music. Fortunately, there is evidence that this was not the case.

bbbbThe idea that Bach's faith was not sincere casts doubt on any investigation of theological symbolism in his music. If Bach did not honestly believe the teachings of his church, he would have had no motive to symbolize those teachings in his music. Fortunately, there is evidence that this was not the case.

bbbbBach's library at the time of his death is testimony to the seriousness with which he took Lutheran theology. It contained eighteen volumes of Luther's works. Bach also owned such works as Pfeiffer's Anti-Calvin and Klinge's Warning against Desertion of the Lutheran Religion.

bbbbOf particular interest is Bach's Bible commentary, edited by the theologian Abraham Calov. It contains the Biblical text as well as commentary from Luther. Bach's notations in this work testify to his diligent study of the Scriptures. He found and corrected mistakes which Calov had not mentioned in his list of errata, as Leaver observes:

These mistakes were discovered by Bach as he actually used the volumes, and to do so he would have had to compare the printed text with a Bible and an edition of Luther's works.

bbbbThe Calov Bible also contains evidence of Bach's commitment to his calling as a church musician. At 2 Thessalonians 3:12, Bach underlined the following words of Luther:

Lord, I accept my calling and do what You have commanded, and will in all my work surely do what You will have done; only help me to govern my home, help me to regulate my affairs, etc.

bbbbPerhaps the most moving testimony to the sincerity of Bach's faith is his last musical work. Instead of trying to finish his masterpiece, the "Art of the Fugue," on his deathbed he composed the chorale prelude, Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit ("And now I step before Thy throne").

bbbbBach faith certainly influenced his music. He agreed with Luther that all music is a gift from God, a tool to make the listener more receptive to His Word, and second only to theology. Having been raised in Lutheran schools, Bach would naturally have formed such views. Bach himself wrote, "Where there is devotional music, God with His grace is always present."

bbbbBach's view of music can perhaps best be summarized by his own comments next to passages in 1 Chronicles and Psalms in the Calov Bible. Bach underlined that musicians are to "express the Word of God in a spiritual songs and psalms, sing them in the temple, and at the same time to play with instruments." In the Psalms, Bach underlined commentary which points out that two prophets served King David by playing musical instruments as part of their official duties. Bach saw himself in such an office. He proclaimed God's Word with his music, and he did so with the most beautiful music he was able to compose.

Theological Symbolism in Selected Organ Works

bbbbBach never left a record explaining his use of musical symbols. With this omission, he made possible many different interpretations of his work. It must be emphasized that none of these can be considered definitive since only Bach knew what he meant by any given figure. Nevertheless, various interpretations are valuable since they allow people to consider his music on different levels, musical and extramusical. Bach's music has been the subject of much more thought than it would have been had he answered all the questions himself. It is in this spirit that the following interpretations of a few of Bach's organ works are offered.

bbbbThe Bible and the Book of Concord are useful sources in arriving at Bach's intent with his use of symbolism. As shown above, Bach studied both very carefully. The third and most obvious source, when present, is the text of the composition itself.

bbbbAnother consideration must be addressed prior to a discussion of symbolism: the categorization of different kinds of symbols. In order to simplify matters, symbols will be classified as pictorial or abstract. A pictorial symbol imitates some idea presented in the text associated with the piece. For instance, the descending and ascending scales in the Orgelbuchlein setting of "Vom Himmel kam der Engel schaar" ("From Heaven Came a Host of Angels") are pictorial equivalents to the coming and going of the angels. An abstract symbol has no pictorial intent. Instead, it employs intellectual devices such as the number of times a motive (i.e., a short theme) is repeated, the number of flats or sharps in keys, the number found in intervals (e.g., C to G is a fifth), or the musical form of a piece.

bbbbCounterpoint, the combination of two or more melodies, can also be symbolically used. A canon (which involves one voice strictly imitating another, as in "Are You Sleeping, Brother John?") can depict obedience since one voice "obeys" another. For instance, in the Orgelbuchlein settings of "O Lamm Gottes" ("O Lamb of God") and "Christ du Lamm Gottes" ("Christ Thou Lamb of God"), Bach used a canon to symbolize Christ's obedience to the Father's will. The symbolism lies in the relationship between the voices, i.e., one voice following another, rather than a direct relationship between the notes and the text. The "St. Anne" Fugue is perhaps the best known example of abstract symbolism. The three fugues, and key of E-flat (with three flats), in the "St. Anne" symbolize the Trinity. Obviously, symbolism which is pictorial is more perceptible to the listener than that which is abstract. With the latter, as with fine details in the ceiling frescoes of Baroque churches, Bach may have intended to address a Being far greater than anyone in church! These observations invite close scrutiny of selected organ pieces.

Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, BWV 680 ("We All Believe in One True God")

bbbbThis piece is in the Clavierubung III, a collection which contains chorale preludes based on the six chief parts of Luther's Large and Small Catechisms. "Wir glauben..." corresponds to Luther's explanation of the Apostles' Creed although the text associated with it is actually derived from the Nicene Creed.

bbbbLuther considered both creeds to have tripartite structures in accordance with their discussions of the Trinity. When he wrote the hymn on which Bach's "Wir glaube..." is based, he divided it into three stanzas, one for each Person of the Trinity. The medieval text on which Luther based his hymn treated the whole Nicene Creed in one stanza. The trinitarian emphasis of the hymn can further be seen from the fact that in its earliest source, Johann Walther's hymnal of 1524, it was classified as a hymn for Trinity Sunday. According to Leaver, Luther's division of the Apostles' Creed into three articles was a new way of thinking about the structure of that creed:

Before Luther's time it was customary to divide the Creed into twelve articles. The Reformer swept this division aside in favour of a more simple, Trinitarian formula.

bbbbIn accordance with Luther's interpretation of the creeds, Bach set "Wir glauben..." as a trinitarian fugue. The fugue is written in three voices on the manuals, symbolizing the three Persons of the Trinity. This device is an example of abstract symbolism similar to the "St. Anne" fugue described above.

bbbbThere is also a repeating pedal part which never carries the subject of the fugue. This pedal figure, which moves both in triads and stepwise, can symbolize both the Trinity and a gradual increase of faith. Schweitzer claims that it expresses "absolute confidence" of the believer. Since the Creed is a statement of faith, Schweitzer's interpretation is certainly appropriate.

bbbbHowever, more meaning can be gleaned from this work by considering its relationship to the hymn text. The complete melody is not presented in "Wir glauben..." It is the only large setting in the Clavierubung III which does not present the complete melody, perhaps because of the hymn's unusual length. Bach was, nevertheless, sensitive to it, leaving traces of it throughout the piece. Nearly "all the contrapuntal material can be shown to derive from the chorale."

bbbbThe most obvious derivative of the melody is the fugue subject itself, which is based on the first line of the hymn. The continual repetition of the opening theme "gives an impression of strength and of many voices entering to sing 'Wir glauben...'."

bbbbA subtle appearance of the melody occurs in the bass part (pedals). It originates in the phrases "der Erden" ("the Earth") and "Er sorget fur uns" ("He cares for us") in the original hymn. The A sections are obviously similar. Section B in the pedal motive preserves from the hymn tune four descending notes in a half-step, whole-step, half-step pattern in which the first note has the longest duration. The C sections are roughly similar in shape. These phrases are so short that it is difficult to tell whether the similarity is intentional or accidental. Nevertheless, Williams' examples of text relationships show that Bach did use the hymn as a basis for motives in this piece. It is possible that the ascending pedal part symbolizes God's creation ("der Erden") offering up its praise to the Almighty, while the descending section symbolizes God showering His creation with grace and care ("er sorget fur uns").

bbbbThere is another possible interpretation of the bass motive. The first stanza of the hymn concerns God the Creator. As has been shown, the three stanzas of the hymn deal with the three Persons of the Trinity and their functions. There are six statements of the bass motive in the pedals which refer to the six days of creation. The fact that the motive itself is six bars long further suggests that Bach was emphasizing the number six. Therefore, the pedal motive can be strongly associated with the first article of the Apostles' Creed. Luther discussed this article in his Small Catechism as follows:

bbbb"I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth."
bbbbWhat does this mean?
bbbbAnswer: I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses...; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger, and preserves me from all evil...

Bach used the pedal motive to summarize Luther's explanation of the first article of the Apostles' Creed. The two actions of God described in Luther's explanation above are the creation of the world, which Bach signified with a reference to "der Erden" ("the Earth"), and the sustaining of life, which Bach signified with a reference to "er sorget fur uns" ("He cares for us").

bbbbTherefore, Bach has presented a multi-layered interpretation of the Apostles' Creed, especially the first article. The three-voice fugue symbolizes the Trinity, the subject of the Creed. The repetition of the fugue subject, which emphasizes the word "Wir," stresses that the Creed is a confession of faith. At the same time, the repeating pedal motive recalls Luther's explanation that God has created us and still sustains us. It also expresses "absolute confidence" in God through its bold step-wise motion which can also suggest the Trinity. This peace comes to an end after exactly one hundred measures. Since ten is the number of completion (e.g., the Ten Commandments and the thousand-year reign in Revelation), perhaps Bach is using one hundred (ten times ten) to recall the refrain in the first chapter of Genesis, "and God saw that it was good."

Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot', BWV 678 ("These Are the Holy Ten Commands")

bbbbThis piece is another work in the Clavierubung III. It corresponds to Luther's discussion of the Ten Commandments in his Large and Small Catechisms. The hymn in this piece is presented as a canon at the octave, symbolizing man following God's will.

bbbbMan also is depicted as not following God's Law. Schweitzer states that each part "goes its own way, without rhythm, without plan, without theme, without regard for the other [parts]. This musical disorder depicts the moral state of the world before the law." Even after God's Law is given at the entrance of the hymn, there is still the suggestion that man is not obeying because there are "grief motives" throughout the piece.

bbbbSchweitzer has identified two particular ones which Bach used in many pieces. He states,

Bach has a dual expression for grief. To depict lamentations of a noble kind he employs a sequence of notes tied in pairs; torturing grief is represented by a chromatic motive of five or six notes.

According to Schweitzer, the sigh motive is found in "O Lamm Gottes" ("O Lamb of God"), and the despairing grief motive is found in the Orgelbuchlein settings of "Das alte Jahr vergangen ist" ("The Old Year Now Has Passed Away") and "O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross" ("O Man Bewail Thy Grievous Fall").

bbbbThe use of chromaticism to express grief has a long history, as Lawry writes:

[It] occurs in the sixteenth century madrigals, in pieces by Schuetz and in the chorale preludes of the early Bachs as well as in many of J.S. Bach's compositions.

The sign and chromatic grief motives appear simultaneously in "Dies sin die heil'gen zehn Gebot'." This sadness is balanced by a motive which expresses joy. It leaps about in a way that outlines chords thereby creating harmonies. This musical juxtaposition of joy and sorrow invites examination of Lutheran theology concerning the Ten Commandments. The hymn itself has twelve stanzas. Stanza eleven reads:

bbbbGod these commandments gave therein
bbbbTo show thee, child of man, thy sin
bbbbAnd make thee also well perceive
bbbbHow man unto God should live.
bbbbHave mercy, Lord!

By exposing sin, the Law causes grief, but by showing man how to live a God-pleasing life, the Law points the way to joy. The double-edged nature of the Law is also reflected in Luther's Small Catechism. In the conclusion to the Ten Commandments, Luther states,

God threatens to punish all who transgress these commandments. We should therefore fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments. On the other hand, he promises grace and every blessing to all who keep them. We should therefore love him, trust in him, and cheerfully do what he has commanded.

bbbbAs the piece develops, it poses some interesting questions. The entrance of the hymn has a definite uplifting effect on the grief motives. The chromatic one disappears entirely. Further, the joy motive returns and the sighs are transformed from chromatic to diatonic intervals. This process is repeated consistently throughout the piece. The chromatic grief motive is present only in the absence of the hymn tune. Clearly, the mood becomes more joyful whenever the hymn enters, yet the sigh motive, depicting noble grief, remains even in the midst of the joy.

bbbbBach appears to be stressing the Christian's delight in the Law. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies the Christian, his sinful nature decreases and he delights increasingly in the Law of God. Nevertheless, Bach lets the sigh motive remain when the hymn enters as a reminder that the sinful nature clings to man until he dies. The fact he chose the sigh motive for this purpose implies that the grief caused by the Law (i.e., sorrow for sins) is noble. There is no despair because Christ has paid the penalty for sin.

Dies sin die heil'gen zehn Gebot', BWV 679 ("These Are the Holy Ten Commands")

bbbbThe smaller setting of "Dies Sind..." employs simple number symbolism by representing the Ten Commandments with ten statements of the main theme derived from the hymn. This piece appears to focus entirely on the Christian's delight in the Law. According to Lutheran doctrine, the regenerate nature obeys the Law spontaneously as if there were "no command, threat, or reward." This piece is light and playful with no hint of condemnation.

Ein' fest Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 720 ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God")

bbbbLuther's hymn on which this piece is based is known as "The Battle Hymn of the Reformation." It depicts the Christian's struggle against the devil, inspiring confidence in God while portraying the hardships of a Christian, as demonstrated in the last half of the fourth stanza:

bbbbAnd take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife,
bbbbThough these all be gone, Our vict'ry has been won'
bbbbThe Kingdom ours remaineth.

bbbbBach's setting triumphantly and joyfully overcomes the struggle. The main indication of his focus on victory is the key of the piece, D Major, which is for him a key of victory. As has been shown, the association of emotions with particular keys or modes was made by the ancient Greeks, the church fathers, and Luther. Both the mood and the key of the piece suggest that he considered the line, "Our vict'ry has been won/The Kingdom ours remaineth" representative of the overall emotional content of the hymn.

bbbbOne strange aspect of Bach's setting is that the first line of the hymn tune is stated three times instead of twice. It is difficult to find a theological reason for this except perhaps that Bach was referring to the Trinity. Such a reference is always appropriate in sacred music; however, there is no explicit trinitarian reference in the text of the hymn.

bbbbAnother matter of interest is the motive: Which occurs in measures seven through eleven. This motive appears to symbolize the devil stamping up and down since it is derived from the portion of the hymn which corresponds to the text "der alt bose Feind" ("the old angry foe"). The hymn tune is well hidden at this point because its notes do not consistently occur in the same octave. It is also interwoven with another part of the hymn which corresponds to the text "Ein'fest Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"). The following measures (4-7) show the two portions of the cantus interwoven. The circled notes correspond to the text "Ein'fest Burg ist unser Gott," and the squared notes correspond to "der alt bose Feind."

bbbbEven though Bach chose to symbolize the angry foe, he maintained the joyful character of the piece. This fact is explained by Schweitzer's observation that when Bach composed a piece with a text, he set the "characteristic emotional content" of the text as a whole rather than setting it line by line. Furthermore, according to the text of the hymn, there is no reason that a reference to the devil should interrupt the joyful mood. The last half of stanza three declares:

bbbbThis world's prince may still
bbbbScowl fierce as he will,
bbbbHe can harm us none,
bbbbHe's judged; the deed is done;
bbbbOne little word can fell him.

bbbbThe above discussion of the "stamping" motive assumes that Bach had the first stanza in mind. This assumption presents a problem. The first stanza reads:

bbbbA mighty fortress is our God,
bbbbA trusty shield and weapon;
bbbbHe helps us free from ev'ry need
bbbbThat hath us now o'ertaken.
bbbbThe old evil foe
bbbbNow means deadly woe;
bbbbDeep guile and great might
bbbbAre his dread arms in flight;
bbbbOn earth is not his equal.

The problem is that "On earth is not his equal" is not a satisfactory ending for a piece emphasizing the victory of God. Perhaps for this reason, Bach stated the last line of the hymn twice. The first time, it is in a two-voice texture, and it is accompanied by restless motive in the bass: This statement may refer to the line, "On earth is not his equal" since the bass has the same stamping quality as the "angry foe" motive.

bbbbThe second statement is in a triumphant four-voice texture which is more suited to the first line of the fourth stanza, "The Kingdom ours remaineth"-a line which seems to sum up the mood of the piece. The hymn tune is stated in an inner voice. Perhaps this interior presentation refers to the kingdom of God inside believers. Bach held the last note of the hymn, which corresponds to the word "(blei)ben" ("remaineth"), for four measures. The long duration of this note may be a picture of that word. It is interesting that the peace does not end with a chord. Instead, all the voices end on the last note of the hymn. Perhaps this depicts the idea stated at the end of the fourth stanza: that although a Christian lose all else, God's kingdom remains his.

bbbbAs has been shown, Bach's organ music has many levels. Though its power and beauty are commonly known, as more people become aware of his use of symbolism, Bach's achievement will appear even greater. Many composers have written beautiful music and used pictorialism. However, is there anyone other than Bach who has used symbolism in such a systematic and encompassing ways? His universe continues to enrich us.


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