J. S. Bach and Pietism

"For the Glory of God and my Neighbor's Instruction": Bach in Weimar

by Don O Franklin

Up to this point in our study, we have traced Bach's encounters with pietism from his early childhood in Ohrdruf to his first position of importance, namely, that of organist in Mühlhausen. In the process of retracing Bach's steps, we have uncovered evidence indicating that he did not reject pietism out of hand, as earlier studies have concluded, but, rather, that he accepted, and often sought out, positions in places where it flourished. The evidence has come to light in a wide variety of sources: historical studies of German cities and provinces; biographical sketches of superintendents and pastors, as well as city and court officials; new research on the historical, social, and theological contexts of pietism; and, finally, the music itself. Rarely is the evidence explicit; often it is fragmentary. Taken together, however, it conveys a new image of Bach.

The "old" image of the composer, established in the late nineteenth century by Philipp Spitta, was one-dimensional. It showed a strictly orthodox musician hostile to pietism and avoiding all contacts with its practitioners. The new image, gradually emerging in the course of this study, is multidimensional. It reveals a composer and church musician receptive, on the one hand, to orthodox doctrine and liturgical practice and, on the other, to the more personal and practical goals of pietism. As was pointed out earlier in the series, both pietism and orthodoxy were found within the Lutheran church of the time; both trace their roots directly to Luther.

The outlines of the "new" image began to take shape in the four previous articles. There we saw Bach active as a church musician in settings where pietism prevailed, or where it existed alongside of orthodoxy. Lüneburg, a Lutheran city, was the scene of August Francke's conversion in 1687 and was still a center of pietism when Bach was a chorister there in the early 1700s. Lübeck, which Bach visited a few years later, was a city where religious toleration was protected by the Holy Roman Emperor. Here he studied briefly with Dieterich Buxtehude and became acquainted not only with Buxtehude's liturgical compositions, but also with his vocal pieces performed at the famous Abendmusiken, many of which were set to explicitly pietistic texts.

Soon thereafter, Bach applied for and received a position similar to Buxtehude's in Mühlhausen, another German city under the protection of the Emperor. After a few months, however, he resigned. The reason was not pietism, as Spitta and later scholars have maintained, but the intense theological controversy raging between the city's two primary pastors, one pietist and the other orthodox. It was this conflict, I proposed, that prevented Bach from achieving what he described later in his letter of resignation as: "a well-regulated church music to the Glory of God and in conformance with your [the Mühlhausen council's] wishes." I further suggested that "wellregulated church music" could be read in this context to signify a repertory of works that encompassed both pietistic and orthodox view points or, in the words of the Lutheran reformers, that "infused old forms with new life."

In the articles that follow, this image of Bach comes into clearer focus. In the present installment, we look at his activities as organist and composer in a pious and devout Lutheran court, ruled by a descendent of Ernst the Pious. In the article to follow, we will observe Bach as Capellmeister in Cothen, the seat of a duke who was a Protestant but not a Lutheran. Finally, we will focus on Bach's cantorship in Leipzig. We will find that, on his arrival there in 1723, it was no longer the exclusively orthodox and antipietistic city that had expelled August Francke some thirty years earlier. We turn first to Weimar.

Organist in Weimar

Throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Weimar retained close ties with Gotha, its neighbor to the west. Both were Protestant principalities founded in 1640 by two brothers of noble blood, Ernst the Pious and Wilhelm Albert. Gotha was the seat of Ernst, whose educational reforms, cited in the second part of this series, were influential in Bach's early training. Among Ernst's advisors was a reformminded person, Johannes Francke, the father of August Francke. August later carried out many of the same reforms but on a larger scale, in Halle. Although Ernst was not a pietist, he placed great emphasis at his court on a pious and. devout life. And, because of his concern for the social and religious welfare of his subjects, he was closely linked to the reform movement. When Johannes Arndt, the author of True Christianity, was accused of heresy by orthodox theologians, it was a member of the Gotha court, Solomon Glassius, who defended him.

Nearby Weimar was the seat of Wilhelm Albert. Although he did not embrace the reform movement with as much fervor as his brother, Wilhelm's court also was known for its piety and for, what some would call, its Puritan austerity. Furthermore, he was known as a patron of church music, and his Hofkapelle (the group of singers and instrumentalists who performed at the chapel) numbered as many as 21. His descendents carried on the devout religious practices and strong church music tradition begun under his rule. The musical establishment of Wilhelm Ernst, Bach's employer, included a choir of about 12 singers, a small group of strings, and woodwinds, as well as a Capellmeister, a Vice-Capellmeister, and an organist. The duke's motto was "Alles mit Gott," "I will do all things with God" and, like his great uncle Ernst the Pious, he placed an emphasis on religious education and on the rite of confirmation, which he reinstituted in 1699. Also like his uncle (and August Francke after him), he founded a home for orphans and set up training centers for teachers and pastors. In accepting a position in Weimar, then, Bach chose a Lutheran court that had been tempered by the reform movement.

For the first six years of his appointment as organist in Weimar (1708-1714 ), Bach played the organ at the services in the Chapel, taught organ and composition students – including Johann Ernst, the nephew of the duke, and composed a wide variety of pieces for the organ. Although he later wrote occasional organ works, including Clavier-Übung III, a printed collection that included chorale settings based on the Lutheran catechism, the majority of his music for this instrument dates from Weimar. Many of Bach's early organ works were modeled after Buxtehude. For example, the well-known Passacaglia in C minor, composed as a series of variations over a ground bass, closely resembles the ciaconna, or groundbass pieces, of his Lübeck teacher.

Occupying a special place among the Weimar organ works is a collection of chorale preludes called the Orgelbüchlein, or Little Organ Book. Like most of Bach's collections, it has a pedagogical purpose - in this case, theological as well as musical. On the title page of Bach's manuscript, he describes its musical function as an "introduction to the various ways of setting a chorale" and as instruction "in the use of the pedal." He then adds the following inscription: "Dem Höchsten Gott allein zu Ehren, Dem Nechsten, draus sich zu belehren," which can be translated as "For the glory of God and my neighbor's instruction." The inscription is, in essence, identical with the motto used to signal the purpose of Francke's pietistic institutions in Halle: "God's glory and neighbor's good." (The implications of this motto for Francke and for Swedish pietism in America were eloquently spelled out by Zenos Hawkinson in the last issue of Pietisten.)

When described in these terms, can we consider the Little Organ Book as an example of a "well-regulated church music?" Both the inscription and the musical nature of the collection suggest that we can. On the one hand, the volume is organized according to the liturgical calendar. The 45 completed chorale preludes (of 164 planned) were written for the primary feasts of the church year, including Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, as well as pieces for Advent and Lent. (The well-known "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross," "O Man, bemoan thy grievous sin," is an example of the latter.) On the other hand, Bach's settings are short and concise. Further-more, the chorale melody is usually placed in the soprano, where it is accompanied by motives that often depict, in a musicalpictorial fashion, images found in the text. This im-mediate accessibility of text and melody is in accordance with the goals of the reformed movement Remarkably, all but a few of the 45 settings still belong to the body of Protestant hymns now in use, and the Little Organ Book continues to be central to the repertory of today's church organist.

Despite the fact that Bach compiled a collection of organ pieces during his first six years in Weimar, he was not able, during that same period, to compose a comparable group of church cantatas. That opportunity came only after he had been offered a position in Halle.

An Offer from Halle

Like Lübeck and Mühlhausen, Halle, in the early eighteenth century, comprised a broad spectrum of Protestants. Unlike the other two cities, however, Halle was not under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, but of the Prussian kings. It had achieved its special status in large part because of the policies of the Elector Frederick Wilhelm and his son, Frederick Wilhelm I, the soldier-king and father of Frederick the Great. As their forefathers before them had done, they declared their allegiance to the Reformed, not the Lutheran, Church. (The Reformed Church, with close ties to Calvinism, should not be confused with the reform movement within Lutheranism. We will discuss the basic differences between the German Reformed and Lutheran churches at length in the next article.)

Frederick Wilhelm I, who ascended to the Prussian throne in 1713 and visited Halle the same year as did Bach, is reported to have said, " I was born and raised in the Reformed religion and I shall live and die in it But I love the Lutherans, too, and I would rather go to their churches than to ours." By Lutherans, he meant, according to Ernest Stoeffler, the Halle-Francke type. And it was in large part because of the King's support that Halle, under August Francke, became the center of the pietistic movement in the early eighteenth century. When I recently attended a conference held at the newly-founded Institute for Pietistic Research in Halle, I was struck with the vastness of Franke's enterprise and the large number of institutions that comprised what is called the Franckesche Stiftung. It includes not only an orphanage, a seminary, and a theological library, but also several other types of schools - one for the sons of the middle class, where the instruction was in German, and one for the children of nobility, where all classes were taught in Latin. The Stiftung also included the Canstein press, which printed and distributed Bibles throughout all of Europe. A complete renovation of the entire complex has recently been initiated by the German government and private foundations, and the restoration of the original building, the orphanage, is scheduled to be completed next year.

Although less visible than the pietists, the Reformed church in Halle also played an important role in the religious life of the city. The Cathedral, or Dom, originally Catholic, was eventually given to the Reformed Church to provide a place of worship for the Huguenots who were fleeing persecution in France. It also is currently being restored and is administered jointly by the German and French Reformed churches. Interestingly, it houses the tombs of several Swedish nobles who fought with King Gustavus Adolphus in the battle of Lützen, at which the Swedes were defeated and Gustavus was killed.

Bach auditioned for the position of organist at St. Mary's Church in Halle in December of 1713. The primary attraction undoubtedly was the position itself. Not only did it offer a larger salary and a larger organ than Weimar, but it also provided the opportunity to compose and perform cantatas. Indeed, part of Bach's audition in December of 1713 involved the performance of a newly-composed cantata, unfortunately not known to us today. However, after his difficulties in Mühlhausen, Bach hardly would have applied for the position if he had wanted to avoid pietism, especially when the Franckesche Stiftung was located only a few hundred yards from St Mary's Church. Nor would he likely have considered Halle if the hostility between the pietists and orthodox in Halle had not ended in 1692, shortly after Francke's arrival. That year, the King issued an edict that forbade public criticism of pietism, and, as a result, the orthodox pastors who campaigned against Francke were forced to be silent or to leave the city.

In sum, Halle may have attracted Bach not only because it offered the chance to compile a new repertory of church music, but also because it provided a theological environment compatible with his goal of a "well-regulated church music" as defined above. After Bach was offered the position, however, he decided to remain in Weimar. The reason for his change of mind was his appointment as concertmaster at Weimar, with responsibilities for composing one cantata each month for performance at the court Chapel.

Appointment as "Concertmaster"

In contrast to his Mühlhausen compositions, Bach's Weimar cantatas take their texts from printed librettos, rather than directly from the scriptures. Written in madrigal style, the cantata texts alternate freely-rhymed verse for the recitatives with strict verse for the arias. Interspersed between the madrigal verses are occasional scripture passages and chorale texts. As early as 1704, Erdmann Neumeister, the father of the "new" German cantata , published cycles of cantata texts . In the course of the eighteenth century, several of these cycles were set to music in their entirety by composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner. Called "sermon" cantatas, they elaborated, in the manner of a preacher, the gospel of the day.

Although early in Neumeister's career, he was sympathetic to the reform movement, later, as pastor in Hamburg, he became an ardent antipietist. The texts of the 20 or so Weimar cantatas known to us today (several more may be lost) include only two written by him. Bach set one of these, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," "Come, Saviour of the Gentiles," written for the First Sunday of Advent The text of its first aria illustrates Neumeister's emphasis on traditional orthodox doctrine : "Come, Jesus, come to this thy church now, And fill with blessing the new year! Advance thy name in rank and honor, Uphold thou ev'ry wholesome doctrine, the pulpit and altar bless!" The text of the cantata's second aria cites the presence of the indwelling spirit, an important component of Luther's justification by faith: "Open wide, my heart and spirit, Jesus comes and draws within. Though I soon be earth and ashes, Me he will yet not disdain, That his joy he find in me, And that I become his dwelling. Oh, how blessed shall I be."

Thirteen of the 20 cantatas Bach composed in Weimar are set to texts by Salomo Franck . Court poet in Weimar, Franck had close links to Heinrich Muller and the reform movement. Franck's cantata texts, in direct contrast to those of Neumeister, are written in a language that is mystical , fervent , and at times passionate and even ecstatic. Remini scent of the writings of the medieval mystical poets, they frequently draw on metaphors, such as the union between Christ and his bride. (The same metaphor served as the theme of Buxtehude's first Abendmusiken and of a later tract by the pietist Jan Wilhelm Petersen.)

Like Neumeister, Franck wrote cycles of cantata texts. But, unlike Neumeister, his texts focus on the depravity of the human condition and the joyful reunion of the soul with Jesus. The following text from Cantata 152, "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn," "Walk on the road to faith," is written as a dialogue between the Soul and Jesus.

Soul: "How shall I, 0 lover of souls, now embrace thee"

Jesus: "Thou must all abandon and thyself deny thee!"

Soul: "How shall I perceive then the eternal light?"

Jesus: "Perceive me with faith and yield not unto spite!"

Soul: "Come teach me, 0 Savior, of earth to be scornful!"

Jesus: "Come, spirit, through sadness to gladness walk joyful!"

Soul: "Ah, draw me, Beloved, I'll follow thee hence!"

Jesus: "I'll give thee the crown midst grief and offense!"

Franck's text reflects the "longing for Jesus" theme that is characteristic of pietistic verse. Bach's setting of the dialogue allows each word to be understood clearly.

The text for Cantata 21, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis," "I had so much distress and woe within my bosom," also is believed to have been written by Franck . Its first aria reads as follows: "Sighing, crying , sorrow, need, Anxious yearning, fear and death, Gnaw at this my anguished heart, I am filled with grieving, hurt." In an aria that follows, the text takes this theme one step further: "Streams of salty tears are welling, Floods are rushing ever forth. Storm and waters overwhelm me, And this sorrow-laden sea Would my life and spirit weaken . . . There peer in the jaws of hell." Later in the cantata, we again find a text written in dialogue form:

Soul: "Come, my Jesus, with refreshment."

Jesus: "Yes, I'm coming with refreshment."

Soul: "And delight in thine appearing."

Jesus: "For thee in my grace appearing."

Soul: "Ah, Jesus, now sweeten my spirit and bosom!"

Jesus: "Give way, all ye troubles, and vanish, thou sorrow!"

As Helene Werthemann has pointed out, the text of this cantata is closely modeled on two sources: a text by Johannes Rist, whom we cited earlier in connection with Buxtehude's devotional songs, and a choral verse of Paul Gerhardt. The latter is based on a prayer by Johannes Arndt, whom Spener regarded as the "patriarch" of pietism.

Taken as a whole, Bach's Weimar cantatas, like the Little Organ Book , can be seen to conform to our definition of a "well-regulated church music." On the one hand, they are composed according to the lectionary, or church calendar, the basis of orthodox worship; on the other hand , their texts frequently convey pietistic themes such as the uniting of the soul with Jesus.

From 1714 to 1716, except during the mourning period for Prince Johann Ernst who died in the summer of 1715, Bach continued to compose cantatas on a regular basis. But in December of 1716, he stopped abruptly. Had Bach, once aga in, found himself in the midst of a political-religious controversy? Or, did he fiercely resent that the Duke had first contacted Georg Philipp Telemann, not Bach, when Samuel Drese, the Capellmeister died? Whatever the reason - and we will consider both in the next installment - Bach resigned his position a few months later to accept an appointment as Capellmeister in Cöthen. At the Reformed Court, he would no longer would be required to compose or perform church music.


Blume, Fredrich. Protestant Church Music: A History, W.W. Norton, New York, 1974.

Stoeffler, F. Ernest. German Pietism during the Eighteenth Century, EJ. Brill, Leiden, 1973.

Terry , Charles Sanford. Bach: A Biography, London, Oxford University Press, 1928 [Reprint, 1940].

Werthemann, Helene. "'Zurn Text der Bach-Kantate 21, 'Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis,' "Bach-Jahrbuch 1965 (51), 135- 143.

Compact disc recordings of Cantatas 21, 61, and 152, can be found in volumes 6, 16, and 37 of Bach's Kantatenwerk, issued by Teldec. Cantatas 21 and 152 are available on Harmonia mundi HMC 901328 and Koch 3-7164-2H1, the Orgelbüchlein on Harmonia mundi 901215.16 and Ricercar 032013, and the Passacaglia in C minor on Ricercar 026006.