In his recent Bach & God, Michael Marissen argues that the great composer was a sincere believer and that faith animated his work far more than most scholars have assumed. Reviewing this and other books on the subject, Alex Ross pays special attention to the ways Bach depicted Jews:
The book that perhaps reveals more of Bach than any other can be found at the Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis. By chance, that organization came into possession of Bach’s copy of [the theologian] Abraham Calov’s three-volume edition of the Bible, which contains Luther’s translation alongside commentaries by Luther and Calov. Bach made notes in it and, in 1733, signed his name on the title page of each volume. The marginalia establish the fervor of his belief: no Sunday Christian could have made such acute observations. Bach singles out passages describing music as a vessel of divinity: in one note, he observes that music was “especially ordered by God’s spirit through David,” and in another he writes, “With devotional music, God is always present in His grace.” . . .
[When it comes to Jews, the] most troubling of [Bach’s sacred] cantatas is “Schauet doch und sehet” (“Behold and see”), which he composed [in 1723]. It meditates on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In Lutheran culture, Marissen says, the fall of Jerusalem was thought to represent “God’s punishment of old Jerusalem for its sin of rejecting Jesus.” Calov quotes Luther to the effect that contemporary Jews are “children of whoredom” who must “perish eternally.” Unfortunately, it’s clear that Bach paid attention to such passages. . . .
Anti-Jewish rancor is carried over into the text of “Schauet doch.” . . . Bach’s music for [the passage treating the Jews’ punishment] is queasily unstable, with dominant-seventh and diminished-seventh chords preventing the music from settling in one key area. . . . It is a musical picture of wandering and banishment. Yet, Marissen concludes, this cantata is a poor vehicle for righteous anger against Jews. The aching dissonances of its opening lamentation and the peculiar instrumental elaborations in the closing chorale leave a mood of overhanging gloom, as if casting doubt on the notion that contemporary Christian sinners can escape the fate meted out to the Jews.
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