J. S. Bach and Pietism

Mühlhausen and Bach's Goal of a "Well-regulated Church Music"

by Don O Franklin

After describing Bach's trip to Lübeck and his apprenticeship with Buxtehude, we now turn our attention to his tenure as organist in Mühlhausen. In traveling the few miles between Amstadt and Mühlhausen, Bach moved from a small provincial town, where he was a parish organist, to an Imperial Free City, where he held the city's most prestigious musical post. As Organist at Divi Blasii, one of the two primary Lutheran churches in the city, he was responsible for playing the organ at five services each week. In addition, he was expected, on an occasional basis, to write music for the Sunday service, and to compose a cantata for the annual service commemorating the election of a new Town Council. In short, Bach's new position was one that he could have retained for the remainder of his life. However, because of his inability to achieve his goal of a "well-regulated church music," as he stated in the letter of resignation he submitted on June 25, 1708, he stayed in the post for only 11 months.

As the only document we have in which Bach sets forth his goals as a church musician, the letter deserves to be cited at length. In the following passage, quoted from The Bach Reader, Bach refers not only to a "well-regulated church music," but also to the "hindrance" that deterred him from accomplishing his goal.

Even though I should always have liked to work toward the goal, namely, a well-regulated church music, to the Glory of God and in conformance with your wishes, and would, according to my small means, have helped out as much as possible with the church music that is growing up in almost every township, and often better than the harmony that is fashioned here, and therefore have acquired far and wide, not without cost, a good store of church compositions ... yet it has not been possible to accomplish all this without hindrance, and there are, at present, hardly any signs that in the future a change may take place (although it would rejoice the souls belonging to this very Church);...

Now, God has brought it to pass that an unexpected change should offer itself to me, in which I see the possibility of . . . the achievement of my goal of a wellregulated church music without further vexation, since I have received the gracious admission of His Serene Highness of Saxe-Weimar into his Court Capelle and Chamber Music.

Philipp Spitta, Bach's late nineteenth-century biographer, interpreted "hindrance" to mean the pietistic movement, and in particular the pietistic practices of J. A. Frohne, the pastor of the church where Bach was organist. "Well-regulated church music" he understood to refer to a body of works that reflected orthodox teachings and that was written to be performed on the primary liturgical occasions of the church year. According to Spitta, Frohne did not support Bach in accomplishing his goals because, as a pietist, Frohne would have been unsympathetic to any church music except simple devotional songs. Bach therefore had no choice but to align himself with the pastor of a neighboring church, G. C. Eilmar, who held a strictly orthodox viewpoint and was well known for his attacks on both Pietism and Frohne. Spitta concludes that Bach eventually found his position as organist at Frohne's church untenable and was forced to seek employment elsewhere.

Until recently, this interpretation has prevailed in the Bach literature. But the renewed interest in Bach and theology that has emerged in recent years has given rise to a reevaluation of Spitta 's conclusions and a reassessment of the two Mühlhausen pastors.

Frohne and Eilmar

Frohne, pastor of the Divi Blasii Church, was Superintendent of Mühlhausen (an office equivalent to that of today 's Bishop or Conference Superintendent). According to contemporary accounts he was a peaceful and diplomatic man who was wellrespected as the leader of his flock. As a student of Spener, Frohne worked for reform within the established church. And, as Arndt and the reformers who came after him had advocated, he turned to Luther to provide the basis for a "Reformation within the Reformation." One of his first acts as Superintendent was to reinstitute confirmation, a practice no longer followed in Mühlhausen. His decision was in keeping with Luther's teaching, as well as with the reform movement's emphasis on religious education.

As a pietist, Frohne took a moderate position. In 1696, in a disputation over a publication by Johann Petersen, he lauded the author for his piety and diligence, even though he condemned the chiliastic nature of Petersen's writings. (Petersen, whom we have encountered several times in this series, was a controversial figure in the early pietist movement in Germany. Several of his most popular works spoke of a millennium on earth with Christ as ruler.) In a second disputation, this one on the spiritual nature of the priesthood, Frohne criticized the Franciscan Edmund Baumann for his misreading of Luther. From his writings, we have no evidence that Frohne opposed the traditional forms of church music, or that he was unsympathetic to Bach's goal.

Eilmar, the pastor of the other main church, St. Mary's, was Archdeacon of Mühlhausen. In this position, he exchanged pulpits every other week with the Superintendent, preaching alternately at St. Mary's and Divi Blasii. Thirteen years younger than Frohne, he was by nature strong-willed and impetuous. Where Frohne was irenic, Eilmar was confrontational. His writings frequently criticized pietistic practice. In his 1701 publication, "Golden Gems of the Lutheran Church," Eilmar criticized the Pietists, along with several other groups, for not strictly adhering to the orthodox interpretation of the Augsburg Confession.

Although their theological differences may have been exacerbated by their differing ages and temperaments, it is clear that Frohne and Eilmar did not agree on one central point: to what extent the Lutheran church of the day had remained true to the teachings of its founder, Martin Luther. Particularly at issue was the role of dogma and whether it had come to play too prominent a part in the life of the church. If Frohne, in his attacks on Catholicism, referred to the dogmatic excesses of pre-Reformation Rome as comparable to those of late Lutheran orthodoxy, it is hardly surprising that Eilmar, a strong advocate of orthodoxy, launched a vigorous counterattack. And if Eilmar, as he does in "Golden Gems," refers to the Pietists as sanctimonious and self-righteous, Frohne undoubtedly felt he had just cause to disagree sharply with his fellow pastor . At one point the controversy became so heated that a ban was issued forbidding further written or verbal exchanges between the two men. Seen in this light, Bach's use of "hindrance" clearly refers not to Pietism but to the controversy between the two clergymen and its affect on his working conditions as a church musician.

Cantatas Sacred and Civil

Despite this highly-charged atmosphere, Bach managed to accumulate "a good store of church compositions," as he notes in the passage cited above. By church compositions he means church cantatas, of which he wrote his first in Mühlhausen. The best known of these, "Christ lay in Death's Dark Bonds" (Christ lag in Todesbanden), was performed on Easter Sunday in 1707 when Bach auditioned for the town council. Based on Martin Luther's hymn of the same title, it comprises seven movements, each a setting of one of the hymn's verses. The cantata progresses from "death's dark prison" to Easter's "great high feast" by way of the "fierce and dreadful strife" between Christ and the devil, one of Luther's favorite themes. Bach takes a conventional approach to the text, modeling the work on the late seventeenth-century cantatas of Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. In setting the hymn melody in each of the voices, he often accompanies it with strings . In the verse in which Christ battles and overcomes Satan, Bach combines voices with instruments, ending triumphantly with "O Death, where is now thy sting?"

More popular in style is Bach's cantata for the service celebrating the election of a new town council in 1708, Cantata 71, "God is my Sovereign" (Gott ist mein Konig). Comparable to the large-scale works performed at Buxtehude's Abendmusiken, it is scored for several groups of instruments and voices, contrasting and combining them to glorious effect.

In contrast to the Easter cantata, its text includes not only hymn verses, but also Old Testament passages from Psalm 74, II Samuel, and the Book of Moses. In setting Psalm 74, verse 19 to music ("Do not hand the life of your turtledoves to your enemies"), Bach's use of instrumental color and the simple declamation of the text would have delighted his audience. As in the Lübeck Abendmusiken dedicated to Leopold I, the cantata made its obligatory reference to the new Holy Roman Emperor and patron of the city, Joseph I. The cantata likely was performed again on the Sunday immediately following the town council service.

Martin Petzoldt, in the newly published study cited below, suggests that the performances of these two cantatas and three additional ones believed to have been performed in Mülhausen (along with another that may have been lost) would have been arranged to take place on the Sundays when Eilmar was preaching at the Divi Blasii Church. He bases his argument on the fact that the autograph score for Cantata 131, "From the depths I call to thee," carries the inscription: "composed at the request of G. C. Eilmar." Bach abruptly resigned his position, Petzoldt concludes, when he no longer was able to continue performing cantatas on a regular basis. If this indeed were the case, it would mean that Bach's inability to realize his goal must be seen in relative terms. In addition, it would mean that Frohne never preached at a service for which Bach composed a cantata, unlikely in light of the fact that Frohne was Superintendent and pastor of the church where Bach was organist.

Before accepting Petzoldt's argument, I propose that we consider Bach's use of a "well-regulated church music" from a broader theological perspective, beginning with a look at a cantata he composed but did not perform in Mülhausen.

God's Time Is the Best: Cantata as Antithesis

Cantata 106, "God's Time is the Best" (Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit) is regarded by many as Bach's first masterwork. Believed to be written for the funeral of Bach's uncle, a resident of Erfurt - one of the small Thuringian towns that we described in the first part of this series - the cantata is also known as the "Actus Tragicus." (The title is found on the earliest surviving copy of the work, which dates from the late eighteenth century; the autograph is lost.) The major portion of its text, as Renate Steiger has pointed out, is taken from a devotional book compiled by Johannes Olearius, Bach's Superintendent in Arnstadt In the portion of the book entitled "Prayers for a Blessed and Holy End," we find the following series of Old and New Testament texts: "Set ready thy house, for thou shalt not continue living," (Isaiah 38: 1); "It is the ancient law; thou shalt perish," (Ecclesiastes 14: 17); and "Yes, come Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22, 20), followed by Christ's words on the cross, "Into thy hands I now commit my spirit" (Luke 23:43) and a stanza of Luther's hymn based on the Song of Simeon, "In joy and peace I depart this life." Bach uses the texts in the same order in which they are given by Olearius.

An extensive "musicotheological" description of Bach's cantata can be found in a recent study by Eric Chafe. He describes the work as an "antithesis cantata," that is, one in which contrasting sections of text and music are woven together in a cohesive and symmetrical structure. Bach's text juxtaposes the Old and New Testaments, the Law and the Gospel, and the Flesh and the Spirit. In each case, the juxtapositions can be traced to Luther, who believed that both Old and New Testaments "preached Christ" and that the law and Gospel, while different from one another, were an "opposition in unity," to use Paul Althaus' term. Chafe goes on to point out how the theological and musical symmetry "provides a sense of reconciliation at a higher level." This reconciliation can be seen not only in Luther's theology of the cross by which Christ "intercedes for us and sacrifices himself in order to reconcile us to God" (Althaus), but also by Luther's doctrine of justification through faith by which a Christian is at the same time a righteous person and a sinner.

If we think of the cantata as a metaphor for the entire Mühlhausen period, could not Bach's goal of a "well-regulated church music" also have been intended to refer to a "reconciliation at a higher level?"

A "Well-Regulated Church Music"

At the end of the previous article, I suggested that Bach may have expected to find in Mühlhausen the same harmonious relationship between pietists and orthodox that he had found - for the first time in his life - in Lübeck. There he had also observed Buxtehude composing chorale cantatas and ceremonial works in a traditional style in conjunction with devotional songs and other pieces with pietistic themes. If Bach conceived his goal in the broad sense that I describe above, he then was seeking to create a church music that not only reflected the liturgical progression of the church year, but also encompassed both pietistic and orthodox viewpoints. In other words, it was a repertory of works infusing old forms with new life and combining traditional Lutheran doctrines with the personal piety portrayed by the following titles in Bach's library by the reformer Heinrich Millier: "Spiritual Quickening" and "Flames of God's Love." Seen from this perspective, Bach's goal was to reconcile the "old" and the "new" within the Lutheran church of his day.

Although Bach began his tenure in Mühlhausen by composing a chorale cantata (Cantata 4) and later wrote a ceremonial work (Cantata 71), he soon discovered that, because of the "hindrance" he cited in his letter, he would not be able to compile a repertory of church music as theologically wide-ranging as Buxtehude's. Unable to accommodate the opposing viewpoints of the two pastors, Bach could not realize a "reconciliation at a higher lever" and resigned to accept a position in nearby Weimar.

In leaving the Imperial Free City, Bach moved to a provincial court, where the Duke, even though not a pietist, led his entire establishment in daily devotion and worship. To what extent Bach was able to achieve his goal, here and in later stages of his career as a church musician, is a topic that we will continue to explore in further installments in this series.


Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schulz, Fortress Press, 1966.

Chafe, Eric, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach, University of California Press, 1991.

David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel, editors, The Bach Reader. The Life of Johann Bach in Letters and Docwnents, Rev. ed., W. W. Norton, 1966.

Petzoldt, Martin, Bachstiitten aufsuchen (In Search of Bach's Cities), Verlag Kunst und Touristik, Leipzig, 1992. Spitta, Philipp, Johann Sebastian Bach, Translated by Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, London, Novello, 1889, 2 vols. [Reprint, New York, Dover Publications, 1951]

Steiger, Renate, "Actus Tragicus und ars moriendi: Bach's Textvorlage fur die Kantate 'Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' (BWV106)," Musik und Kirche 1989 (59), 11-23.

Compact disc recordings of Cantatas 4 and 71 can be found in Volumes 1 and 18 of Bach's Kantatenwerk, issued by Teldec. Cantata 106 is recorded in Vol. 26 of the same series, and on Koch 3-7164-2H 1.