They say that although the angels play Mozart en famille, God himself will listen only to Bach. Perhaps the jest is true, and the Creator enjoys hearing His genius reflected in the transcendent order of Bach's counterpoint, His mystery in the meditative organ preludes, His majesty in the great choral works. For who has not been profoundly stirred by "the exhilaration of (Bach's) full-throated praise of God"? Like the trenches, this music brings even unbelievers to their knees.
As for the faithful, they are often moved to explain the ecstasy in highly personal writings--the most famous by Albert Schweitzer--that strive to capture in prose the religious meaning of Bach's work. To them now is added the voice of Jaroslav Pelikan, the distinguished Yale "historian of the development of Christine doctrine." His book grew out of lectures which, during the Bach tercentenary, were expanded into a "systematic study of the relations between Bach and the theology of the first half of the 18th Century."
In Part 1 of the book, Prof. Pelikan summons his rich knowledge of Reformation history and theology to relate Bach's belief system, his professional career and his musical works (particularly the sacred cantatas) to the phenomenon of Enlightenment Rationalism and to the controversy between Orthodox and Pietist Lutheranism. Like "most of (his) theological and clerical contemporaries (who) would not be classified as either consistent Pietists or thorough Rationalists or unambiguously Orthodox," Bach is found to sit squarely in the middle--an Orthodox Trinitarian with Pietistic sensibilities and an occasional nod in the direction of Rationalism.
Part 2 turns to a consideration of Bach's larger works. In the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, Pelikan traces "themes and variations" both musical (the passion chorales) and theological (an excellent discussion of the suffering/triumphant Redeemer); the monumental Latin Mass in B Minor is proposed as an example of "Evangelical Catholicity" which affirms the "continuity of the church" by renewing its patristic-medieval heritage through a "rediscovery of the Gospel."
But how much of this theologizing was intentional? With so little documentary evidence available, it is difficult, as Pelikan notes, "to penetrate into Bach's inner life" and find the answer to that fundamental question. While it is probably safe to "conclude that according to (Bach), the highest activity of the human spirit was the praise of God," a believer with expressive powers is not necessarily a theologian.
However, despite the title of this book and its dedicatory allusion to the "Fifth Evangelist," it is not clear whether Pelikan himself is arguing for Bach's place among the theologians. Since he apparently accepts revisionist questioning of the extent of Bach's religious fervor (sacred music as just a job of work), he might as well be arguing for Bach's place among the devout.
More accurately, Pelikan describes his book as the product of "visits by a historical theologian among the Bach scholars." He quotes them often, combining their insights with his own analysis of Bach's sacred texts "as a case study in the methodological problem of how to handle the liturgical and biblical setting of Christian thought." The methodology, however, is somewhat undermined when Pelikan notes that the Air from Bach's third orchestral suite "evokes in many of its listeners a response that can only be characterized as 'devotional,' " and questions whether a tune becomes "more authentically 'devotional' when someone adds a set of religious words to it."
Here is the fundamental, perhaps unavoidable, weakness of the book. Bach was first and foremost a musician; his "theology" would have to be expressed in that language alone. Pelikan feels, for example, that Bach's Catechism Preludes "manage by their sonority to convey the quality of Luther's faith in Christ." But, for the most part, he cannot show us how.
To do so, one ought at least to have extensive knowledge of Baroque musical rhetoric and also, perhaps, the more ancient devices of numerological symbolism. But Pelikan qualifies the "possible influences of numerology and other theories" by quoting the obituary, which notes that "Bach did not . . . occupy himself with deep theoretical speculations on music, but was all the stronger in the practice of the art"--a qualification that might also be applied to theological speculations.
Indeed, it is difficult to accept Bach's B-Minor Mass as an intentional essay in "Evangelical Catholicity," when it was assembled principally to woo a powerful patron--as was the "Musical Offering," which Pelikan sees as evidence of "Bach's affinities with Enlightenment Rationalism." Frederick the Great might well have been amused by Bach's complex treatment of his tune, but Enlightenment aesthetics did not find fashionable the contrapuntal and mathematical intricacies of these summatonal, reactionary exercises.