Bach Against Modernity
By Michael Marissen
Oxford University Press, 200 pages, $34.95

In a scene in the 2022 movie Tár, a Juilliard student declares to his professor: “As a BIPOC pan-gender person, I would say Bach’s misogynistic life makes it impossible” to play or conduct the German composer—in part because of the 20 children he obliged his two wives to bear. It is a caricature of woke excess: There has been no serious attempt to cancel Bach for living in the era before birth control. The response from the professor, the film’s protagonist, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), is a caricature of power: She launches into a semi-coherent rant, insulting the student and extolling Bach’s greatness. At one point, the two sit together on a piano bench while Blanchett tries to demonstrate the value of Bach, playing the opening of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and crooning that “there’s a humility in Bach, he’s not pretending he’s certain about anything. Because he knows it’s always the question that involves the listener, and never the answer.” The film is clever, and her arrogance only sharpens the knife. The viewer feels the despair of a closed system—both sides are right on their own terms, and both are loathsome.

An alternative, more hopeful view can be found in the musicologist Michael Marissen’s new book, Bach Against Modernity. In Marissen’s telling, Tár’s misty portrayal of Bach as a great liberal humanist is wrong. Her characterization sounds okay—questioning is one of our toothless pablum virtues—but it’s hardly true of Bach. Marissen, a professor emeritus at Swarthmore, takes issue with a dominant trend in Bach scholarship to present the composer as “one fantastic modern liberal” and instead portrays him as a premodern religious person whose beliefs, by our standards, were extreme. Not only did Bach have answers, he had biblical certainties. In this sense, to portray his music as “questioning” is absurd. Marissen’s joyfully rigorous, often funny critique is a lesson in scholarship and in lost opportunities—to understand Bach’s music, first and foremost, but also to grapple with the genuinely illiberal aspects of the composer’s work.

Bach Against Modernity is a collection of essays previously published elsewhere and written well before the release of Tár. It started as what must have been a considerable academic broadside. In 2017 Marissen was asked to deliver a keynote address at a symposium at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled “Bach in the Age of Modernism, Postmodernism, and Globalization.” Bach lived from 1685 to 1750, during the early Enlightenment, and, as the conference title indicates, contemporary scholarship has claimed him for our era. Either he is an early adopter of a scientific and empiricist worldview, as the mathematical sound of his music suggests, or an early aesthete, as its beauty does, or a genius-auteur, because anyone whose work is so great must be one of those. These are all ways of saying that he had values similar to ours.

This approach, Marissen says, displays “broad problems of inattentiveness to historical considerations” and contains “contextually improbable anachronisms” attributable, in some cases, to Bach scholars’ lack of familiarity with “the Lutheran historical background and foreground” of Bach’s life. Marissen suggests that Bach scholarship should pay less attention to the postmodern theory used to prove some of these points, and “more attention to the substantive Bach repertory and the primary sources that are directly associated with Bach.”

Marissen’s title chapter identifies “the ‘modern’ in ‘modernity’” to mean “exalting reason above revelation,” “exalting human autonomy and achievement,” “exalting religious tolerance,” “exalting cosmopolitanism,” and “exalting social and political progressiveness.” The scholar takes these points one by one and dismantles them, via careful consideration of original sources. In the harsh world of 18th-century Lutheranism, human beings were believed to have been entirely corrupted by the Fall. Without the grace of God, we are hopeless and irredeemable; our accomplishments, accordingly, are all by God’s grace. Bach, Marissen argues, showed every sign of being a conservative Lutheran who sincerely adhered to this worldview, both personally and in his music. Few creeds could be more antithetical to the tenets of contemporary humanism.

Bach served as the director of church music in Leipzig from 1723 until his death, a position from which he composed religious music for the exhortation and edification of parishioners. He was aware of Enlightenment-style thinking that elevated reason and railed against it in his vocal compositions. Marissen makes a survey of all appearances of the word “reason” in Bach’s texts, and quotes them, including “reason—the blind leader—seduces,” “reason does not help; only God’s spirit can teach us through his word” and the wonderful, “Shut up, just shut up, tottery reason!” Marissen dryly notes, “I do not see or hear anything in Bach’s musical settings to suggest that these vocal compositions subvert their anti-Enlightenment messages at the same time as they enunciate them.” There is also, he says, no sign that Bach privately disagreed with the material. One of the primary sources of insight into the composer’s private reflections comes from notations and small corrections he made on his personal study Bible. Marissen analyzes these in some detail to demonstrate the premodern, anti-Enlightenment trend of Bach’s thought.

Another aspect of the debate comes in a distinction Marissen believes is false between Bach’s “sacred” and “secular” music, beloved of academics trying to prove that religion wasn’t terribly important to Bach. Marissen contends that while the composer wrote liturgical music, called sacred (for use in church), and non-liturgical music, called secular (for use elsewhere), the distinction as we make it wouldn’t have occurred to him. People of his time would have understood all “serious-minded” music as intended to honor God. Marissen analyzes the composer’s practice of noting “J.J.” (“Jesu Juva,” or “Jesus help!”) And “S.D.G.” (“Soli deo gloria,” “To God Alone Be Glory!”) on his compositions, including the “secular” ones, to indicate that this was so. In Chapter 10, he offers a detailed analysis of the “secular” Brandenburg Concertos, demonstrating that their musical ideas were based in Christian scripture and that they contained theological content that would have been apparent to audiences of the time.

The idea that Bach was like us, Marissen believes, can be attributed to a kind of wishful thinking found among scholars and laypeople alike: a belief that “Bach’s music is so staggeringly great” that it must have a greatness of meaning—in our own terms. The academic work that supports these conclusions, he argues, is full of oversight and error. One scholar dismisses the contents of Bach’s personal library as “quasi-shelf-warmers,” presumably because the books were religious and thus uninteresting. Marissen counters that they were popular books of the time and there is every reason to suppose Bach read them. Other scholars have focused on proving that Bach understood time in a linear (modern) fashion as opposed to a cyclical (premodern one). A look at Bach’s (boring!) library, Marissen notes, would unearth a 2,000-page volume on time and eternity (your average premodern reader apparently had a leg up on us), penned by the Lutheran theologian Martin Geier, demonstrating that “linear notions of passing time, often held now to be ‘modern,’ also run deeply through premodern, biblically based thought.” Many scholars also, in Marissen’s account, appear to be unfamiliar with the basic religious concepts present in Bach’s music or underlying his thought, and thus are apt to misinterpret Bach’s notations in his Bible.

Many of today’s Bach aficionados have, Marissen admits, chosen to disregard the religious elements of his work, taking what they can “use,” be it sheer aesthetic appreciation or the feelings of comfort, joy, and hope that prevail for religious and nonreligious listeners alike. (He adds that the phenomenon of why the composer continues to be so beloved despite this misunderstanding is worthy of special study but goes beyond the scope of his work.) Marissen writes that his decades of experience in Bach studies “have led me to conclude that a great many music lovers do not, strictly speaking, value Bach for the things he may, strictly speaking, be about.”

Does it matter? For me, a religious (Catholic) but neophyte Bach-listener, awareness of the music’s Lutheran worldview has been enormously enriching, despite the elements of this worldview that are hostile and alienating to me. Knowing what to look for, I can sometimes hear the relentlessness of the divine order in the music’s superstructure, and feel the tension between its power and the futile activities of the fallen humanity whose cares the composer illuminates. To know that the music takes a negative view of human activity explains the strains of bitter mockery one sometimes hears. Elsewhere, the essential futility of our endeavors deepens the music’s tragedy and enhances its compassion. To grasp the emotional subtleties without the religious framework seems more difficult at the very least. And to be unaware of the intricacy of the theology, and the impressiveness of its musical expression, also seems like a loss.

“Marissen makes no suggestion that Bach should be canceled for any of this.”

There’s another sense in which honesty and historical accuracy about Bach and his music can be said to be relevant to contemporary culture-war discussions. The allegations in Tár about Bach’s misogyny are silly, but that’s not to say there’s nothing cancelable in the composer’s biography, by present-day standards. Marissen has written previously on the anti-Semitism on view in some of his compositions, and he devotes a section of the book to evidence of anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic sentiment. He argues that the mainstream Bach establishment has been loath to admit the historical truth of these dimensions of the music, posing various counterarguments including what he calls the “obvious falsehood” that “Bach’s music does not lend itself to insulting particular groups of people.” Lyrics about “the murderousness of the Pope and the Muslim” quite plainly impugn groups of people, he counters, and were understood to do so in Bach’s time. Marissen’s prior work on this subject has been controversial; an essay he wrote on anti-Judaism in Bach intended to accompany “a major label’s new recording of Bach’s St. John Passion” was suppressed, he tells us in the book’s introduction. (His previous work identifying anti-Semitic messaging in Handel’s Messiah in the earlier 2000s drew both support and widespread criticism.)

Marissen makes no suggestion that Bach should be canceled for any of this. Instead, his painstaking work hints at a better world in which the standoff between Lydia Tár and her student could have gone differently. Instead of an impasse, perhaps the two parties might have had a conversation. Bach is great, but not because of inherent, transcendent awesomeness the student just failed to see. Aspects of the worldview revealed in Bach’s music are threatening to our way of life and worldview, and would be unpopular if audiences understood them, and they aren’t, in every circumstance, for everyone. An argument for continuing to listen to him that grounds his greatness in the particulars of his historical and cultural milieu would be more convincing, because it would open up genuine, if difficult, dialogue with alien values. If I am aided in these conclusions by my “tottery reason,” as a non-Lutheran, I don’t think that’s so bad.