Bach’s Career as a Church Musician: Early Years

by Don O Franklin

My purpose, in this series of articles, is to examine Bach’s relationship to Pietism in light of the new research that has been carried out in theological circles over the past two decades. Many church historians, including Peter Erb, Ernest Stoeffler, and Dale Brown, no longer describe Pietism as a separatist movement that sprang to life at the end of the seventeenth century and quickly spread throughout northern Europe, eventually reaching America. Rather, they argue, it needs to be seen as the outgrowth of a reform movement that began shortly after the Reformation and continued well into the nineteenth century. In response to this more comprehensive — some call it revisionist — view of Pietism, music historians have begun to reevaluate and reinterpret the movement’s influence on church music. In the case of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), a reappraisal is important not only because of his stature as a composer, but also because he was active as a church musician during the period in which Pietism reached its peak in Germany.

The question of the Pietist movement’s influence on Bach and his music was first raised by scholars at the turn of the century. In a two-volume study of the composer, which appeared in 1873 and 1880, Philipp Spitta claimed that Bach’s music reflected only orthodox teachings. Albert Schweitzer, on the other hand, asserted that “Bach’s real religion was not orthodox Lutheranism, but mysticism.” Writing in 1907, Schweitzer pointed out that, though Bach’s works “exhibit visible traces of Pietism,” in his “innermost essence, he belongs to the history of German mysticism.” In the century that followed, Spitta’s view prevailed. Scholars after Spitta readily recognized the pietistic themes in Bach’s music, but they did not as easily accept that Bach would have been drawn to a reform movement that relegated music to a minor role. In drawing this conclusion, however, they confused the Reformed Church (Calvinism) with the reformed movement within Lutheranism. (We will adress the distinction between the two in more detail when we discuss Bach’s years at the Calvinistic court in Cöthen.) Though it is indeed true that Calvin allowed only the singing of the psalms in his services, forbidding the performance of all instrumental music, the Lutheran reformers, in contrast, awarded music a place of prominence in the worship service and in the life of the community. Spener, in particular, recognized its importance in both public and private worship. Like Luther before him, he cited the power of music, especially when combined with poetry, to “move the soul.”

With this in mind, then, our task in this series is to consider anew the question of Bach’s relationship to Pietism, primarily within the context of Lutheranism. In Part One, our survey of Bach’s theological library revealed that he was well-acquainted with the writings of the pietistic fathers and that, in compiling the text of the St. Matthew Passion, he drew on the sermons of Heinrich Müller, one of the reformers. Beginning with Part Two we address another issue: Where and in what context Bach encountered Pietism. We focus, in turn, on each stage of Bach’s life.

Schoolboy in Eisenach and Ohrdruf

We begin our account in Eisenach, the city of Bach’s birth, located in Thuringia, a relatively remote and rural province of Germany. Because of the way Germany was divided after World War II, this province was relegated to the southwest corner of the former East Germany, bordered on one side by the Federal Republic of Germany and on the other side by Czechoslovakia. Today, it is in the east central portion of a newly-unified country. However removed it has been from the mainstream of German history, Thuringia has been known as a Protestant stronghold since the time of “Ernest the Pious” in the seventeenth century. Renowned for his piety as well as his social and educational concerns, Duke Ernest attracted leading reformers to the province, including the father of August Francke. In 1663, when August was three years old, Franke moved his family from Lübeck, in northern Germany, to Gotha, a city in Thuringia. The home of the Duke’s educational and social reforms, Gotha later became a center of Pietism.

In traveling through this area, as I have done on research trips over the last decade, one is struck even today by its deeply Protestant roots and its strong musical traditions. Overlooking Eisenach, for example, is the Wartburg Castle, a building now 900 years old. It was here that Luther, who like Bach was a native of the city, came for refuge when he was banned by the Edict of Worms in 1521. And it was here that he accomplished his remarkable feat of translating the Greek text of the Bible into German in only 11 weeks. Because the entire region, including Eisenach, has been relatively untouched by World Wars I and II, the modern visitor can still see, in their original state, the two small rooms where Luther was forced to live during that period. In addition, the area’s churches remain well-preserved, and many of its church organs date from the late seventeenth century.

Bach began his schooling in Eisenach. He attended the Latin school there for two years until he was orphaned at the age of ten and went to live with his older brother in Ohrdurf. Although only a village, Ohrdruf’s elementary school, or Lyceum, boasted a highly-educated faculty and a classical education. For example, its cantor and Bach’s teacher of theology and music, Elias Herder, had studied at the University of Jena. The Lyceum’s curriculum, like the one in Eisenach, was the product of the so-called “school-reforms” that had grown out of the Reformation. In Thuringia, these reforms had been carried out by Duke Ernest with the assistance of Andreas Reyher, a Gotha educator and administrator. They affected all levels of society. Any commoner educated there, it was said, received a better education than a member of the upper classes in other parts of Germany.

According to Reyher, a child’s education should be grounded in Luther’s catechism and the fear of God and, in addition, should include “reading, writing, singing, and counting.” Consequently, a large part of Bach’s school day was devoted to studying the catechism, as well as Latin and Greek. As part of his religious instruction, Bach read Leonard Hutter’s Compendium iocorum theologicorum, a small book on Lutheran dogmatics. Published in 1610, it remained a classic text for generations. Hutter’s purpose was to establish a theology solidly based on scripture rather than dogma. And like many of the early Lutherans, he believed the scriptures were verbally inspired. Another volume studied by Bach and his classmates was the Orbis pictus of Johann Comenius, published in 1658. Comenius was a mystic and humanist. In his many textbooks used as encyclopedias and language manuals, Comenius presented a view of the world in which the the presence of a Creator could be seen in all aspects of life, including nature and art. This view found favor in a Germany devasted by the terror and destruction of the Thirty-years War (1618-1648), and it was particularly well-received by the Pietists, including Spener and Francke. Francke, for example, included Comenius’ Orbis, the volume read by Bach, as part of the teaching materials used at Halle.

When Bach arrived in Ohrdruf in 1695, Spener’s Pia Desideria had been in print for 20 years. A landmark publication in the history of Pietism, its aims are clearly spelled out in its title: “Pious Desires, or Heartfelt Wishes for a God-pleasing reform of the true Evangelical Church, together with several simple Christian proposals toward this end.” Spener’s call for reform was directed to the pastors and congregations in the German provinces where the Reformation had taken hold. In only a few areas, such as Württemberg and Mecklenberg, did the Lutheran church wholeheartedly embrace Pietism. In the remaining provinces, the response varied from city to city and, within a single city, from congregation to congregation.

A report written in 1695 by Johann Wilhelm Petersen (cited in Johann Wallmann’s Der Pietismus) listed seven provinces and 25 major cities in Germany where followers of the movement could be found. While Pietism harmoniously coexisted alongside Orthodoxy in many of these cities, its presence in others provoked hostility and conflict. The latter appears to have been the case in Ohrdruf, too small a city to be included in Petersen’s list, but one in which the pietistic movement had many followers. According to Christoph Kiesewetter, principal of the school Bach attended, the conflict between the two groups in Ohrdruf was particularly intense, and even vehement in the closing decade of the century — precisely the period of Bach’s five-year stay there. Bach’s earliest contacts with Pietism likely occured under these strained circumstances. (Kiesewetter’s account is cited in Leo Schrade’s Bach: The Conflict between the Sacred and Secular.)

Choral Scholar in Lüneburg

In 1700 at age 15, Bach left his brother’s house for Lüneburg, in northern Germany, where he received a choral scholarship to study at one of two schools affiliated with St. Michael’s Church. In contrast to the “Riding Academy,” a school for young gentlemen, the school Bach attended had been founded to provide a classical education to the children of commoners. Typical of such schools, the younger students provided the treble parts of the church choir. Elias Herder (the cantor mentioned above) had recruited Bach to sing in the choir “because of the excellent quality of his soprano voice,” something Herder said he heard frequently in young musicians from Thuringia. Johann Christoph, undoubtedly realizing that his younger brother needed to expand his musical horizons, may also have had a hand in this move. Bach’s education at the choir school included intensive training in theology, as well as music. As in Ohrdruf, religious instruction was based on Hutter’s Compendium.

Lüneburg was known as a center of Pietism. It one of the 25 cities listed by Petersen and it was also a place where many pietisic works were published. In addition, its Superintendent in the early 1600s was Johannes Arndt, author of True Christianity, one of the books found in Bach’s library. (The title of Superintendent is comparable to today’s Conference Superintendent or Bishop.) At the end of the century, the Superintendent was Carl Sandhagen, who, like Spener, had studied theology at the reformed university in Alsace. In the mid-1680s, August Francke, on his father’s recommendation, went to Lüneburg, seeking guidance and instruction in the interpretation of the scriptures from Sandhagen. It was there in 1687 that Francke’s “conversion experience” took place, an event that proved to be a turning point in his life and in the entire pietistic movement. Because Pietistm was practiced openly and peacefully in Lüneburg, any encounter Bach had with the movement there would have taken place within the established church.

Organist in Arnstadt

Bach’s stay in Lüneburg lasted only two years, presumably until his voice broke and he no longer could sing in the choir. (In the eighteenth century, male puberty came to an end much later than today because of less protein in the diet.) Now 17 years old, Bach returned to his native Thuringia as a young professional. After serving briefly as a violinist in the court orchestra in Weimar, in August of 1703 he accepted a position as church organist in Arnstadt, a small town near Eisenach and Ohrdruf. Its Superintendent was Johann Olearius, who authored a volume of scriptural commentaries later owned by Bach. As organist, Bach was responsible for playing at the church’s main services, including improvising a prelude before each chorale sung by the congregation. Also taking part in the services was a group of singers from the local Gymnasium, or high school, whom he was expected to train. However, Bach frequently came into conflict with the young men, some of whom were his own age. Not only did he consider them undisciplined and rowdy, but he often insulted them with derogatory remarks about their musical abilities. On one such occasion in the summer of 1705, he was called before the church council and reprimanded for his behavior. Although Bach agreed to continue working with the students, he did so only after he formally complained that the church did not have a proper Director of Music.

It was only a few months later that Bach requested permission from the council to make a trip to Lübeck, in northern Germany, to study with Dieterich Buxtehude, one of the best known composers and organists of the day. According to the obituary written by Bach’s son, the purpose of the trip was to hear Buxtehude play the organ. The obituary goes on to say that Bach traveled the 280-mile distance between the two cities on foot. Planning to be away for four weeks, he left Arnstadt with the permission of his superiors in early October of 1705 but did not return until four months later. When questioned about his extended (and unapproved) absence, Bach replied only that he “gained an understanding of one problem and another connected with his art.”

In Part III we will discuss the nature of the “art,” which is to say the music, that kept Bach in Lübeck longer than expected. We will consider its implication — both musical and theolog-ical — for the later stages of his career as a church musician.


Schrade, Leo, “Bach: The Conflict between the Sacred and the Secular,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1946, 151-94. [Reprint, New York, Merlin Press, 1955]

Schweitzer, Albert, J.S. Bach, translated by E. Newman, Macmillan, 1911.

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]

Wallmann, Johannes, Der Pietismus (Pietism), Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1990.

Don Franklin is Professor of Music at Pittsburgh University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

See all articles by Don O Franklin