Bach’s stature as the greatest composer of the Lutheran church has long since been beyond debate. Indeed, it is not infrequently suggested that, next to Luther himself, Bach may well be the most important Lutheran in history. Even so, I think it is quite possible that we might, if anything, actually be underestimating the importance of Martin Luther in the life and artistic development of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Some twenty years ago the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom developed a provocative theory of poetic influence, which he published under the title The Anxiety of Influence.Citation: 3Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). Bloom’s central thesis, enunciated at the outset of his book, is this: “Strong poets make … history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.” He continues, “[S]trong poets … wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.”Citation: 4Ibid., p. 5.
Although Bloom speaks only of lyric poets, his thesis clearly applies to great (or in Bloom’s preferred term “strong”) creative artists of any medium. For example, in the sphere of music, we are all aware of the giant shadow, and the attendant “anxiety of influence,” that Beethoven cast on virtually all the composers of the nineteenth century who followed him and the similar, quite suffocating, influence that Richard Wagner exerted on his contemporaries and followers. Beethoven himself admitted to having to struggle with the overwhelming influence of both Mozart and Haydn. As for Mozart, he demonstrably did not reach full artistic maturity until he had seriously studied and absorbed the music of J. S. Bach.
Now, Bloom calls attention to a notable exception to his theory of influence. He writes, “The greatest poet in our language is excluded from the argument … Shakespeare belongs to the giant age before the flood, before the anxiety of influence became central to poetic consciousness.”Citation: 5Ibid., p. 11. It seems to me that in an important sense J. S. Bach, like Shakespeare, belonged to “the giant age before the flood” in the history of music. In the same sense that one could assert, admittedly with some hyperbole, that there were “no great poets” before Shakespeare, it is possible to argue that there were “no great composers” before Bach. It is true that Bach has the reputation of being the “culmination of an era.” In the famous words of Albert Schweitzer, “Bach is thus a terminal point. Nothing comes from him, everything merely leads up to him.”Citation: 6Albert Schweitzer, J.S. Bach, trans. Ernest Newman (New York: Macmillan, repr., 1964), 1:3. In a far more profound sense, however, Bach was in fact the beginning of an era. He was, upon reflection, the first great composer—at least in modern times, that is, the era that continues still and is in fact ours. In the beginning was Bach, the ultimate source of all modern “anxiety of influence” in the art of music. This means that, unlike all his great and famous successors, Bach had no great musical precursor with whom to wrestle. Whoever was there—Buxtehude, Vivaldi—he merely “swallowed up.”
In this connection Harold Bloom cites an example of what he calls “Goethe’s … appalling self confidence.”Citation: 7Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 52. The immortal poet once wrote, “Do not all the achievements of a poet’s predecessors and contemporaries rightfully belong to him? Why should he shrink from picking flowers where he finds them? Only by making the riches of the others our own do we bring anything great into being.”Citation: 8Ibid., p. 52. Bach, it seems to me, did not suffer from the “anxiety of influence” any more than did Goethe. He, too, felt free to “pick the flowers where he found them.” In the list of composers whom Bach (as reported by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel) had “heard and studied” in his youth, we find the names of Froberger, Kerl, Pachelbel, Fischer, Strunck, “some old and good Frenchmen,” Buxtehude, Reincken, Bruhns, and Bohm.Citation: 9C. P. E. Bach’s comment, made in reply to an inquiry from the early Bach biographer Johann Nicol aus Forkel, is printed in David and Mendel, The Bach Reader, p. 2 78. A respectable list, but there are clearly no giants among them: no Beethovens, Mozarts, Wagners—or J. S. Bachs—again, because for all intents and purposes, at least in Bach’s world, none had existed. (Of course, there were brilliant musicians, even musicians of genius, before Bach: Josquin des Prez, Claudio Monteverdi, to mention only two. But it is doubtful that Bach knew their music, or perhaps even their names. It is not even certain whether he was aware of the music, or the name, of his greatest German predecessor: Heinrich Schütz.) What is even more striking, however, is that the name of the composer who surely had the greatest influence of all on the formation of Bach’s mature style, the one to whom he was clearly most indebted, is missing entirely from his son’s list of acknowledgments: Antonio Vivaldi.
As far as his art was concerned, Bach did not so much have formidable individual precursors to confront as prevailing idioms, conventions, and traditions to study, assimilate, and transcend. But any serious artist, especially an artist of genius, must have a worthy model against whom he can measure and challenge himself. Surely the only mortal who could be described as having served, in the deepest sense, as a model and inspiration for Johann Sebastian Bach—someone worthy of his emulation, stimulating his creative imagination, and serving indeed as an inspiration (inspiring both admiration and awe)—was Martin Luther.
There can be little doubt that Bach revered Martin Luther, strongly identified with him, recognized him as a supremely towering figure, as a truly “great man,” and venerated him almost to the point of obsession. One telling symptom of this reverence is to be found in Bach’s personal library. Dominating Bach’s library were the writings of Luther, which Bach possessed several times over, including at least two extensive (and expensive) collected editions. Robin A. Leaver reports, “There were twenty-one fat folio volumes devoted to the writings of Martin Luther in Bach’s library. If one then adds the quarto volume of Luther’s Hauß Postilla and the octavo volume of Johannes Muller’s Lutherus Defensus, which were also in his library, then something of the high regard Bach had for the great German reformer and his writings can be clearly seen.”Citation: 10Robin A. Leaver, “Bach and Luther,” Bach: The Quarterly Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute 9/3 (July 1978), p. 11-12.
Particularly intriguing is the seven-volume edition of Luther’s Schriften, which Bach purchased from a dealer at a book auction in 1742. Bach seems to have paid the considerable price of ten Thalers for this deluxe edition of Luther’s works. (Bach’s annual income at Leipzig was around seven hundred Thalers, or some sixty Thalers per month.) But Bach actually paid more than ten Thalers. The price on the receipt has been changed, no doubt from something considerably higher: perhaps double or even triple the putative price (see the illustration below).
One can only agree with Leaver’s explanation for the alteration of the price of the volumes, namely, that Bach may have been “reluctant to reveal to his wife how much he paid for them.”Citation: 11Robin A. Leaver, Bach’s Theological Library: A Critical Bibliography (Beiträge zur theologischen Bachforschung, 1; Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hänssler-Verlag, 1983), p. 14. The document reads:
These German and magnificent Writings of the late D.[octor] M.[artin] Luther (that came from the library of the great Wittenberg theologian D.[octor] Abrah:[am] Calovius, which he probably used to compile his great Teütsche Bibel; and also, after his death, passed into the hands of the equally great theologian D.[octor] J.[ohann] F.[riedrich] Mayer) [I] have acquired for 10 thl. anno 1742. mense Septembris.
Joh. Sebast. Bach.Citation: 12Ibid ., p. 42. Incidentally, this document evidently contains the only surviving written reference to Martin Luther in Bach’s hand.
Receipt by J. S. Bach for the purchase of a Luther edition, 1742
Bach’s profound veneration of Luther is not difficult to understand. First of all, it obviously built upon the respect and reverence naturally flowing to the founder of the composer’s religious confession. But there were other sources nurturing Bach’s personal identification with the reformer: for example, the almost familial bond deriving from their common national-indeed, regional-heritage. Like Luther, Bach was a native Thuringian. Moreover, Bach was born and spent the first ten years of his life in Eisenach, that is, in the shadow of the Wartburg, where Luther, after his defiant stand at the Diet of Worms, had taken refuge and translated the New Testament into German and therewith had determined the precise form in which the Holy Word—itself at the core of the new dispensation—would be proclaimed to the German nation.
There is another element, as well, coloring the nature of Bach’s personal relationship with Luther, one having to do, once again, with the extraordinarily gifted creative individual’s need for a credible model, a “great man” worthy of and capable of inspiring emulation. In his classic essay, Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud allows himself a lengthy digression in order to speculate on what, exactly, is a “great man.”Citation: 13Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Random House, 1939), p. 136-40. After discounting such attributes as beauty, physical strength, military heroism, and worldly success in general, he adds: “We should certainly not apply the term to a master of chess or to a virtuoso on a musical instrument, and not necessarily to a distinguished artist or a man of science. In such a case we should be content to say he is a great writer, painter, mathematician, or physicist, a pioneeer in this field or that, but we should pause before pronouncing him a great man. When we declare, for instance, Goethe, Leonardo da Vinci, and Beethoven to be great men, then something else must move us to do so beyond the admiration of their grandiose creations.”Citation: 14Ibid., p. 138. After further such teasing, Freud finally concludes: “It is the longing for the father [emphasis added] that lives in each of us from his childhood days, for the same father whom the hero of legend boasts of having overcome. And now it begins to dawn on us that all the features with which we furnish the great man are traits of the father …. The decisiveness of thought, the strength of will, the forcefulness of his deeds, belong to the picture of the father; above all other things, however, the self-reliance and independence of the great man, his divine [sic] conviction of doing the right thing, which may pass into ruthlessness. He must be admired, he may be trusted, but one cannot help also being afraid of him.”Citation: 15Ibid., p. 140.
One need not be a doctrinaire Freudian, I think, to find that this insight rings true. And it is hardly necessary to argue that these attributes of the great man, which Freud, of course, proceeds to apply to Moses, apply just as well to Martin Luther. As far as the present discussion is concerned, it is important to remember that Bach had no father. He was an orphan: his mother died when he was just nine years old and his father nine months thereafter—a month short of Bach’s tenth birthday. Bach, then, experienced the catastrophic deprivation of his parents, and this calamity understandably put the boy on his guard, engendering in him, we may be sure, an attitude of “basic distrust” against an unreliable, even treacherous world. Under such circumstances, it is readily apparent why Bach would have been drawn to religion, especially to the Lutheran religion with its message of personal faith and salvation, one moreover, which would have provided him with the ideal image of the admirable, inspiring, awe-inspiring, longed-for father.
There was yet a further, perhaps decisive reason, why Bach would have been drawn to the person and doctrine of Martin Luther, and that is the uniquely important place Luther accorded to music. Luther put it most succinctly in his Table Talk (at least one copy of which Bach owned) when he said, “Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine skillful people.”Citation: 16Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise (St. Louis: Concordia House, 1988), p. 34.
It is important to recognize that Luther’s enthusiasm for music embraced both its least pretentious and most sophisticated manifestations—from the simple folk-like tunes to be sung by the congregation to the most elaborate polyphonic settings. Nowhere, perhaps, is Luther’s admiration for the highest musical art expressed more eloquently and lyrically than in this passage recorded in the Table Talk: “How strange and wonderful it is that one voice sings a simple unpretentious tune … while three, four, or five other voices are also sung; these voices play and sway in joyful exuberance around the tune and with ever-varying art and tuneful sound wondrously adorn and beautify it, and in a celestial roundelay meet in friendly caress and lovely embrace; so that anyone, having a little understanding, must be moved and greatly wonder, and come to the conclusion that there is nothing rarer in the whole world than a song adorned by so many voices.”Citation: 17Ibid., p. 21. For all its enthusiasm and poetic exuberance this passage could serve as a technically precise description of a typical polyphonic chorale setting, such as one encounters in a church cantata by J. S. Bach, for example, in the opening chorus of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, or even, if one adds the instruments, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.
The implications of such statements for Bach’s self understanding—and Bach almost certainly knew them—are abundantly clear: Martin Luther, quite literally, has done nothing less than justified (even glorified) Bach’s existence as a musician and indeed defined his earthly mission.