J. S. Bach’s Material and Spiritual Treasures

In the process of writing a book about Johann Sebastian Bach, occasionally someone would ask me if anything remains to be written about the famous German composer. Yet despite the great amount of scholarly works about Bach, there is an important aspect that is still relatively little explored: Bach’s extensive theological library and his personal copy of the hefty three-volume Calov Bible Commentary which he signed in 1733. These texts would have informed both Bach’s understanding of theology and the Lutheran context in which he lived and worked. In this monograph, I explore how a single theological concept – ‘treasures in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 6.19-21) – is interpreted in the books Bach owned and expressed in the texts he set to music.

J. S. Bach’s Material and Spiritual Treasures: A Theological Perspective navigates through the various dichotomies of ‘treasures’ rendered in these texts and presents a narrative that is guided by relevant aspects of Bach’s life and music. Bach’s ‘material treasures’ refer essentially to his financial situation; his ‘spiritual treasures’ encompass theological concepts in the texts of his church music, his own engagement with the Bible, and his hypothetical spiritual priorities. ‘A theological perspective’ implies that although this study is prompted by theological notions in the libretti of Bach’s music, it extends to a wider perspective that relies predominantly on the writings of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century German Protestant theologians.

The biblical antithesis of treasures on earth and in heaven is stark: spiritual, eternal treasures are deemed the highest good while material, earthly treasures are in contrast temporal, fleeting, worthless, and can even be destructive. Such notions have motivated Christians throughout his­tory to actions such as taking sacred vows of poverty or giving faithfully to churches and charities. The ironies are intriguing; in Bach’s world one could find many prosperous Lutherans, while the topic has a transcend­ent quality for Christian believers in all places and times. And whereas the Bible teaches specific lessons about ‘treasures’, tensions related to money are common to all of humanity, wherever one may be on the scale of mate­rial lack or abundance, and whatever system of belief informs one’s values and priorities.

During the same year I started to work in this research area, I participated in three humanitarian projects that involved teaching music to children in poverty-stricken communities in Morocco, India, and Madagascar. Spending time with people who were embracing joy through music-making in the midst of heart-breaking human suffering and material scarcity moved me and provoked a deeper level of curiosity about both practical and faith-based approaches to social welfare. Each time I returned to my modest but privileged life in Europe, I was struck anew by how even I—as a freelance musician with an unstable salary—was surrounded by material abundance which I often took for granted.

My final work on the manuscript took place during months of confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. As economies were shut down, concerts cancelled, and church doors closed, the situation sparked collective and personal reflection as many people around the world were forced to trade some of their habitual luxuries for simpler ways of life. Throughout these and other experiences, the research and writing of this book contributed intriguing material to my personal reflection on related matters. While it specifically considers Bach and his context, I wonder if perhaps some readers will, like me, find themselves personally inspired, challenged, perplexed, or even offended by the Lutheran ideas surrounding money that were promoted in his religious setting.

This guest post was written by Noelle M. Heber, a violinist and musicologist. She holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Utrecht University (The Netherlands).

J. S. Bach’s Material and Spiritual Treasures
by Noelle M. Heber
9781783275717, Hardcover, £39 or $58.50

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