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Bach & God.

Bach & God. By Michael Marissen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. [xxi, 257 p. ISBN 9780190606954 (hardcover), $35, ISBN 9780190606978 (e-book), varies.] Tables, works cited, indices.

In Bach & God, Michael Marissen collects seven of his essays published since 1995 (most originally appeared between 2000 and 2007) in lightly edited and updated versions (see pp. xix-xx). The collection is important simply for the fact that it makes Marissen's various writings on Johann Sebastian Bach and theology easily accessible in a single volume (most were originally published either in theology journals or in volumes of collected essays). While every person interested in Bach's music or in theological understandings of musical works should read Bach &f God, every scholar in any field (and graduate students in particular) should read the volume's preface, which presents a biographical apology of sorts that outlines Marissen's scholarly life and development in relation to the study of Bach and theology, as well as the place of these particular essays therein. This apology provides a personal and nuanced example of ways in which scholars' own lives intersect, or do not intersect, with their research.

But what about this title? Marissen begins his introduction by admitting "Bach or God may strike some readers as a rather outre book title" (p. 1). Marissen explains that he submitted to the wisdom of his editors at Oxford University Press in accepting Bach & God over his original title, Essaying Bach and Religion, or the more descriptive but clumsy title, Bach's Music and the Religious Content of Bach's Music (p. 2). Marissen further clarifies that he is not primarily concerned with Bach's life or beliefs in relation to Christianity (in particular, Lutheranism), but rather with the ways Bach's music communicates, and interprets, theological ideas.

Since Bach & God is composed of Marissen's previously published essays, it is not designed to be comprehensive or systematic. While the essays do cohere and complement each other, each can also easily be read independently. As Marissen notes, "The collection shares the goal of exploring the religious character of 'the music itself' in Bach, but each chapter is also meant to be able to work as a standalone essay" (p. 5). Marissen's introduction clearly and succinctly characterizes his approach to Bach's music throughout the book while also providing an orientation to each essay and to how they interrelate.

Chapters 1 and 2 present case studies of ways Lutheran theological meaning is conveyed textually and musically in Bach's church cantatas. The next four chapters, and thus the majority of the book, address themes of anti-Judaism in Bach's church music, a topic Marissen has explored significantly over the past two decades. Taken up with Marissen's characteristic care, rigor, and historical grounding, chapters 3 and 4 discuss expressions of Lutheran and biblical anti-Judaism in the cantatas, while chapters 5 and 6 address anti-Judaism not being taken up in the Johannespassion (St. John Passion) and Matthauspassion (St. Matthew Passion). In his final chapter, Marissen presents a theological understanding of Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering), exploring ways that Bach communicates meaning in his instrumental music.

For some of the individual chapters of Bach & God (especially in part I), and even the book as a whole, I might describe Marissen's approach as presenting his discovery of "a bunch of really cool stuff." But Marissen's goal here is not to follow through with comprehensive studies; rather, through a preponderance of evidence, he aims to suggest larger patterns that can inform our understanding and further study of Bach's music. While providing new insights into Bach's church cantatas, Passions, and Musikalisches Opfer, Marissen also engages a vast literature across the fields of musicology (and Bach studies in particular), Judaic studies, historical theology, contemporary theology, and biblical, liturgical, and cultural studies. He brings years of reading and research to bear on his own fresh understandings of Bach's music. In so doing, Marissen achieves his stated goal for Bach & God: "The topic of Bach and his Lutheranism's God is nuanced and intricate, and I have sought to explore it in its far-ranging complexity" (p. xvii).

Marissen's writing throughout the volume is clear and his points well argued, with counterarguments fairly presented and considered. Also of interest in Bach 6f God Are Marissen's varied writing styles. The chapters include case studies with brief representative examples (chapters 1 and 2), carefully reasoned analyses in a more standard scholarly article format (chapters 3-5), and exploratory, investigative essays that read more like mysteries that only gradually reveal their solutions (chapters 6 and 7). Such a variety of writing styles points to an additional value of Bach & God; while the book's content is itself compelling, the manner in which Marissen presents it only adds to the volume's import. I conclude, therefore, with a brief reflection on the nature of musicological writing in light of Marissen's approach in Bach & God.

I believe that those of us writing in the field of musicology face significant challenges in finding our own voices in our scholarship. While professors and mentors guide us in discovering our niche within the vast landscape of topics and methodologies, we receive little training in, or encouragement for, actually communicating in individual styles. As a result, much of our writing is formulaic, cold, and (dare I say) not that interesting as writing. (I am first of all accusing myself in this statement. Why don't I sound like myself when I write?) We have made great strides in recent decades in expanding the range of topics and methodologies in our work, and also in acknowledging the role and perspective of the researcher in the process of scholarship. But so much of this fascinating research is being published in formal and formulaic ways that hinder personal expression. Some of the most enlightening and enjoyable reading in musicological scholarship comes from scholars who share their research and ideas in their own voices. Susan McClary and Richard Taruskin come immediately to mind as exemplary in this regard.

Michael Marissen is just such a voice in the field of Bach studies: a prominent scholar doing excellent and innovative research, who writes in an interesting, engaging, and personal style. His Bach 6? God is not only an important contribution to the field of Bach and theology, but also an example for, and inspiration to, all of us as musicologists. In Bach & God, we hear Michael Marissen himself speaking. We find here a model, and will do well to listen.


Trinity Christian College
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Author:Peters, Mark
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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