Reviewed Elsewhere: Eric Chafe, J. S. Bach's Johannine Theology: The St John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725.

Lars Fischer's picture

Eric Chafe. J. S. Bach's Johannine Theology: The St John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xii + 608 pp. $87.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-977334-3.

Eric T. Chafe is a veteran musicologist and his research into the choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach has inspired a generation of researchers to re-examine Bach's cantatas and Passions in terms of their liturgical and theological setting. In this extensive work Chafe sets out to bring the music and theology of Bach's John Passion together. He admits from the outset that the result will not be 'an easy read, but one that will, hopefully, bring the rewards of sustained involvement, especially for those who are prepared to get to know the works themselves, preferably consulting the scores wherever possible' (p. 21).

Johann Sebastian Bach's Johannine Theology further develops analytical models first outlined in Chafe's seminal Analyzing Bach Cantatas (New York, 2000). In effect, Chafe considers what theologians would call the Sitz im Leben of Bach's sacred choral works, asking questions such as: how did Bach's choral works fit into the overall theological themes set out by the programme of Bible readings set for each Sunday of the church's year? How did his church music complement contemporary Lutheran theological and liturgical practice? In what ways can Bach's music be said to follow a specific hermeneutic? Can his music be said to follow a purposeful interpretation of the Scriptures akin to that of the scholastic four senses of Scripture—literal, allegorical, tropological, and eschatological?

In search of answers, Chafe, in line with most other musico-theological scholars of Bach, draws on the writings of the composer's theological contemporaries. Chafe uses the writings of German Lutheran commentators of the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries extensively. Many of these important primary sources are made available for the first time to a non-German-speaking readership, which will, no doubt, stimulate further valuable research in the period. Both these Lutheran source texts and the biblical narrative of the evangelist St John become the 'theological lens' through which Chafe views the theology of the John Passion.

As in his previous studies on the John Passion, Chafe treats the Passion both as a theological statement and a 'symbolic' work of art. He believes that Bach purposefully set out to communicate specific theological beliefs through music, much in the same way that a painting of the Passion may be said to have the capacity to set out a theological message artistically. ...

Chafe does not explicitly suggest that Bach was a Pietist; however, he does centre much of his later analysis of Bach's John Passion on Francke's theology, which developed contemporaneously with Bach's own. ...

He neither draws on the Bible commentary by the orthodox Lutheran commentator Abraham Calov, which Bach both owned and annotated, nor does he utilize on the work of Johann Olearius, which also formed part of Bach's collection of theological works. ...

Chafe's magnum opus offers a wealth of leads and new insights, and his extensive reference to Pietist theological and Baroque allegorical or musicological primary sources will inspire an abundance of new scholarship on the John Passion. In the same way in which his previous two contributions to the debate sparked much debate, and inspired a generation of scholars to engage with his hypotheses, so this work, too, will lead to a significantly increased understanding of Bach, his theology, and his music. As the author himself suggests, this book may not be an easy, nor a comfortable, read; but it is certainly a thought-provoking and rewarding one.

Andreas Loewe. Music and Letters 99, 3 (2018), 479–481.