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Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy
by markus rathey
yale, 256 pages, $35


s the cantor of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for composing music for Sunday services, which produced reams of choral music, mostly cantatas. Because of this, it would be difficult to find a composer who wrote more sacred music. Like Victoria and Bruckner, Bach’s works stem from his own devotion. But more than any other composer, Bach uses complex music to articulate theology.

Readers who enjoy Bach’s music and want to understand this interplay between music and theology better will be grateful for Markus Rathey’s new book. Rathey has taught at Yale for many years and collaborated with great interpreters of Bach, including Masaaki Suzuki. Like Suzuki, he has an appreciation for Bach’s faith and has formally studied theology as well as musicology.

Many introductions to religious literature and music presume that the reader is skeptical and secular. An implicit apology must be made for the author’s faith, an assurance that, yes, this is religious but it can be understood and appreciated by people who are not religious (everyone who is normal and cultured). Faith is embarrassing, and it needs be sent away like a bothersome child.

Rathey makes no such apologies. He explains Bach’s theology no differently than his musical ideas, showing how the two must be understood together. His book offers a musical, historical, and theological analysis of Bach’s major vocal works: the Magnificat; the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Oratorios; the St. John and St. Matthew Passions; and the B minor Mass. These are the program notes you have always wanted.

As Rathey’s subtitle suggests, these works are dramas set in a liturgical context. The oratorios were integrated into Lutheran worship services, bracketed by prayers and readings from Scripture. Bach frequently borrowed movements from his own secular music and integrated them into an oratorio, which was seen as a form of dramatic music, a kind of theological opera. Thus a love duet between Hercules and Virtue from a secular cantata becomes a meditation on the love between God and the soul in the Christmas Oratorio. Rathey shows how Bach repeatedly used love duets to describe mystical union throughout his vocal works. The gospel of John sees the passion as the ultimate revelation of the Son’s glory, while Matthew focuses more on Jesus’s human suffering. Bach reflects these emphases in his settings. Hence the St. Matthew Passion begins with a dialogue between Christ the bridegroom and his bride. The music interprets Christ’s suffering as a love story.

The B minor Mass stands as Bach’s magnum opus, one of the last works he finished. Bach wrote it in part as an application for a post in the court of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden, a testament to his accomplishment as a composer. He revised many movements from previous works and carefully arranged the parts so that their symmetry underscores important textual and musical aspects (such as putting the Crucifixus as the center movement of the Credo). Rathey helps the amateur listener appreciate details he might otherwise miss. Those who seek to take the next step in their enjoyment of Bach’s genius would do well to turn to him.

This review first appeared in the May 2016 edition of First Things.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

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