J. S. Bach and Pietism

Bach's Career as Church Musician: Apprenticeship with Buxtehude

by Don O Franklin

Third in a series

In the previous article we described Bach's encounters with Pietism in his early years, beginning with his childhood in Ohrdruf and continuing until his appointment, at the age of eighteen, as organist in Amstadt in his native Thuringia. We left off our account when Bach took a leave from his position to travel to Lübeck in northern Germany. On returning home after four months - instead of the four weeks that had been granted him - he stated that he had remained in Lübeck in order to "gain an understanding of one problem and another connected with his art." Although the avowed purpose of his trip was to hear Buxtehude play the organ, it is clear that Bach arranged his visit to coincide with the annual perfonnance of the city's Abendmusiken, a series of concerts perfonned during Advent. There he heard a new style of music, one that, as we will see, had far reaching musical and theological implications for his career as a church musician.

Lübeck's Abendmusiken

Though Lübeck was included in Johann Petersen's list of cities where the movement was active (Petersen's 1695 report is cited in Part II of this series), it was not, in contrast to Lüneburg, renowned as a center of Pietism. Unlike many Protestant cities in late seventeenth-century Germany, it encompassed both a Catholic minority and a broad spectrum of Lutheran practices. At one end of the spectrum was the author of the report mentioned above, who led a pietistic group in the city during the 1670s and whose position today we would describe as charismatic. At the other end of the spectrum was August Pfeiffer, Lübeck's Superintendent from 1689-1698, known for his anti-pietistic views and his bitter conflict with Spener. A more moderate position was represented by a large number of merchants, including the Mayor, Herr von Born, who was an admirer of Spener. This was also the position of Heinrich Müller, a native and a frequent visitor to the city. (Müller was a member of the Rostock refonned school of theologians. His writings and those of Pfeiffer are found in Bach's library.)

This lack of a unified theological stance within Lutheranism may be in part the result of Lübeck's status as an Imperial Free City. Owing allegiance only to the Holy Roman Emperor, whose seat was in Vienna, in reality Lübeck functioned as a small independent state, ruled by a small number of patrician families. Like the other free cities of Germany, it was known not only for its economic prosperity, but also for its religious toleration - a place where, by statute, Lutherans, Catholics, and Reformed were free to observe their own practices without fear of persecution.

At the time of Bach's visit in 1705, Lübeck was famous for its Abendmusiken. Renowned throughout Germany, this series of concerts often took the fonn of a multipart oratorio, one act of which was presented after the sermon at each of the Sunday vesper services in Advent. The performers included several soloists, an orchestra of strings and winds, and a small choir. The highly expressive and theatrical quality of Buxtehude's music for these occasions undoubtedly was new to Bach. He would have been previously acquainted only with the composer's cantatas and organ works, both composed in more traditional musical styles. On December 1st and 2nd of 1705, an extraordinary set of Abendmusiken was presented to commemorate the death of Emperor Leopold I, and to celebrate the accession of his successor, Joseph I. The church was decorated in a lavish fashion, and two newly-composed works by Buxtehude were perfonned by a double choir, two brass ensembles, two wind ensembles, and 25 unison violins. No wonder, then, that Bach extended his stay in order to experience firsthand the latest music by the north Gennan master.

Buxtehude's use of Pietistic Themes

In compiling his texts for the annual concerts, Buxtehude drew heavily on pietistic themes. For example, "The Wedding of the Lamb," his first Abendmusiken in 1678, portrays the union of Christ and the Soul, a subject commonly found in pietistic literature. According to the title page of the booklet that accompanied the perfonnance, the work's intent was to provide "Inner consolation of the Soul and Sweetest Joy to the Pious and Those who Heartily Long for the Future of their Bridegroom of the Soul." As described by Kerala Snyder in her study, Dieterich Buxtehude, the text is an embellished version of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, using a mixture of biblical passages, familiar hymn texts, and newly-composed poetry. The same theme can be found in a theological tract published a few years later by Johann Petersen, the pietist we cited above. The Abendmusiken in 1683 and 1684 were based on similar themes: "Heavenly Joy of the Spirit on Earth over the Incarnation and Birth of Our Dearest Saviour Jesus Christ"; and "The Most Frightful and Most Joyful: Namely, the End of Time and Beginning of Eternity." As Snyder points out, "Such language must have enjoyed wide acceptance in Lübeck for Buxtehude to have used it so prominently in a production whose financing depended on contributions from the business community."

None of Buxtehude's scores for the Abendmusiken survives. But from all accounts, the music was in keeping with the goals of the refonned movement. Whether for soloist or chorus, the major portion of the music was set in a manner that allowed the text to be easily understood by the listener. The first Gennan chorales were composed in the same basic style, that is, with one syllable of text set to one note of music. And, according to some church historians, the role they played in the Refonnation was equal, if not greater, to that of the spoken and written word. It is not surprising, then, that in calling for a "second refonnation" 150 years later, refonners such as Spener sought once again to restore the primary importance of the text to sacred music.

The words can also be heard clearly in Buxtehude's many devotional songs. Here, he set several verses of the text to the same music, and the regular rhythm and phrase structure of the melody make it easily singable. The texts, like those for the Abendmusiken, frequently expressed pietistic sentiments. Furthennore, they were often written by poets closely affiliated with the pietistic movement, such as Johannes Rist, a pastor who was serving a church in nearby Hamburg, and Heinrich MUiier, the Rostock theologian. The following lines by Müller, set to music by Buxtehude, describe the love of Jesus, a common theme of the devotional songs: "How lovely and good it tastes, how intoxicated and full I am! ... How my Jesus has refreshed me and pressed me to his breast." (The poem was included in Müller's collection, Spiritual Music of the Soul.)

Although we cannot conclude on the basis of the music described above that Buxtehude was a pietist, it is clear that he belonged to the circle of those "who sought to deepen their religious experience beyond that of traditional piety (Martin Geck, Die Voklamusik Dietrich Buxtehudes und der frühe Pietismus [Buxtehude's Vocal Music and Early Pietism.])" Geck continues, "This experience, together with the musical ideal of the Pietist sacred song provides the source of the lyricism in Buxtehude's vocal music and the best key to an understanding of his music."

The "Swedish Connection"

If we want to look for a more direct connection between Buxtehude and Pietism, we need to move further north to Stockholm, where Queen Ulrika Eleanora was known to be an ardent supporter of Spener and the German reform movement. Between 1688 and 1691, the Queen corresponded with Spener about a variety of topics, including the feasibility of appointing Christian Scriver, author of the popular Soul's Treasury, as pastor to the Swedish court. (Scriver, al the time, was a pastor in Quedlinburg, another of the cities on Petersen's list.) And in 1689, when it became known that Spener's position in Dresden was no longer tenable, he was offered the pastorate of the German church in Stockholm - a church that was known to have pietist sympathies and to be closely affiliated with the Swedish court. Instead of going to Stockholm, however, he went to Berlin to be pastor of the St. Nikolas Church.

Ulrika was also well acquainted with Buxtehude. Of Danish birth, but like Buxtehude of German ancestry, she had known the organist from his early days as a church musician in Helsingør, Denmark. On the occasion of her marriage to King Carl XI of Sweden, she invited Buxtehude to compose an ode for the wedding. The text of the ode (we no longer have the music) celebrates the fact that "the nordic lions are friends once again!" The poem goes on to say that "there has been enough fighting with cannon balls and swords; now victory will be achieved with greetings and kisses. If one fights only with such weapons, blessing and life will burst out abundantly." The last stanzas of the ode take the form of a prayer for continued peace between the two countries: Almighty, hear my fervent prayer, which comes from my love of country.... The nordic lions must rejoice! Bless this most powerful couple, build and strengthen them year after year, that, as a result of their recent vows a blessed kingdom may be built!"

In the same year, Buxtehude began on a regular basis to send copies of his vocal music to Gustav Düben, music director of the Swedish royal court and organist of the church that had invited Spener to be its pastor. The pietistic tenor of Buxtehude's music found an enthusiastic reception in Stockholm, and it is believed that his music was performed at both the court and the German church. His compositions include an entire cycle of cantatas dedicated to Düben. The work, known as the "Membra cycle," was set to a Latin text. It is a series of meditations on the sufferings of Christ and is Pietistic in tone. Although we do not know the religious stance of Düben, we know that his son, who met with Buxtehude during a study trip to Germany in 1692, was a fervent advocate of Pietism. We also know that this pietistic era at the Swedish court was short-lived. In 1726 the government adopted an ordinance outlawing conventicles, a ban that was not lifted for almost a century.

Women and Pietism, An Aside

The Queen's patronage of Spener and Buxtehude raises an issue that has not yet received adequate attention in the history of Pietism - the role of women. Ulrika not only surrounded herself with noblewomen who shared her interest in Pietism, many of whom such as Johanna Eleanora de la Gardie, were musicians and poets; she also arranged for their works to be read and performed at the Swedish court. It is noteworthy that another woman of royal rank, Electress Christiane of Saxony, wife of the Elector who appointed Spener chaplain to the Dresden court in 1686, also was a supporter of the pietistic movement. When Spener was removed from his position there after attacking the court's intemperance and moral laxity, the Electress tried in vain to have him reinstated. (An account of Spener's controversial role as preacher at the Saxon court is given in Stein's biography of the reformer, published by Covenant Press.)

Another prominent Pietist in the late seventeenth century was Anna Maria Van Schurman, the subject of a recent article by Joyce Irwin in Church History. Born into a Reformed family in Germany and highly trained in philosophy and science, Schurman began her career by writing a scholarly dissertation in which she considered the question of "whether the study of letters is fitting to a Christian woman." Irwin describes the argument as follows: "In contrast to the English Puritan ideal of the same time, her primary reason for educating girls is not to make them better wives and mothers. Should this be their lot, their learnings would indeed be beneficial toward'teaching and directing the family,' but the main goal should be the 'glory of God and the salvation of one's soul'." Disillusioned with the conuption of the Church, Schurman later began to place more emphasis in her writing on "enlightenment by the Spirit," and to argue, as did Spener, for the necessity of a new Reformation. "The orthodox scholasticism in which grace builds on nature," Irwin writes, "was replaced in Anna Maria's later life by a Pietism demanding the regeneration of corrupt nature."

The Musical and Theological Significance of Bach's Visit

Returning to Bach's stay in Lübeck, his brief musical apprenti ceship there was to play an influential role in his career as a church musician for years to come. Although Buxtehude's influence on Bach's vocal music would not be realized until two years later when Bach wrote his first cantatas, his effect on Bach's organ playing appears to have been immediate. After returning to Arnstadt, Bach's parishioners complained about the "newkfangled" sounds coming forth from the organ, particularly in the chorale preludes he improvised which preceded the congregation's singing of the chorale melody - without organ accompaniment. Clearly influenced by the style (and tuning) of the music he had heard in Lübeck, Bach's improvisations left his parishioners unsure of what melody to sing or when to begin. Moreover, the copies of Buxtehude's organ works that Bach took back with him to Arnstadt served as models for his own compositions.

The theological significance of Bach's visit to Lübeck is more difficult to access. Although it may not have been his first encounter with the writings of pietists such as Petersen, Rist, and Millier, it may have been the first time he heard their texts set to music by a master composer. And, more importantly, the Abendmusiken may have provided Bach with his first opportunity to hear music based on a pietistic text performed within a traditional Lutheran context. Could Pietism, as a result, have become for Bach "an idea which involved his own religious and artistic feelings, quite apart from all its outward implications?" as Leo Schrade contends in the essay cited earlier in this series. Furthermore, Bach may have taken note of the relatively peaceful coexistence of Pietism and Orthodoxy in Lübeck, at least in comparison to what he had experienced in Ohrdruf. If so, could this have been one of his reasons for leaving Arnstadt to move to Muhlhausen, another Imperial Free City with a reformed tradition and where his pastor was known to be a follower of Spener?

We address these questions and related issues in the next part of this series, beginning with the crisis that caused Bach to resign his position in Muhlhausen shortly after he arrived there.


Geck, Martin, Die Vokalmusik Dietrich Buxtehud es und der fruhe Pietismus (Buxtehude's Vocal Music and Early Pietism), Blirenreiter, 1965.

Irwin, Joyce, "Anna Maria Van Schurman: From Feminism to Pietism," Church History, 1977, 48-62.

Snyder, Kerala J., Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck, Stein, K. James, Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch, Covenant Press, 1986.

Compact disc recordings of Buxtehude's works include "Baroque Organ and Choral Music for Christmas," Hungaroton HCD 12883 and 12997 and "German Baroque Cantatas," Ricercar RIC 046023.