Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Bach’s Calov Bible and his Quest for the Title of Royal Court Composer

Mary Dalton Greer

(New York, USA)

Bach’s annotations in his Calov Bible, taken in combination with unusual markings in the autograph score of the Missa and the wording of Bach’s petition to Frederick Augustus, the prospective Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, in which he requests a title in his Court Capelle, shed light on several unanswered questions relating to the B-minor Mass. First, why did Bach compose the Missa and submit his petition to the elector in 1733? Second, why did he resubmit his request to be named court composer some time before September 29, 1736? Third, why did Bach go on to complete the Mass when, due to its great length, it was not suitable for performance in either a Protestant or a Roman Catholic service? I believe that two passages in the Old Testament, both of which concern the role of music in worship and which Bach singled out as especially noteworthy in his copy of the Calov Bible, provide important clues to these and other of his endeavors in the mid 1730s.

Alongside Second Chronicles 5: 12-13, which describes the dedication of the Temple of Solomon, and reads:

v. 12. And all the Levites, among them Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their children and tribesmen, clothed in fine linen, sang with cymbals, lyres, and harps and stood east of the altar, and with them were a hundred and twenty priests who blew aloud with trumpets.

v. 13. And it was [among the musicians] as if it were one who trumpeted and sang, as if one was hearing one voice praising and giving thanks to the Lord. And when the voice arose from the trumpets, cymbals, and other string players and from the (actual, i.e. by voice) praising of the Lord that He is good and that His mercy endures forever (Psalm CXXVI. 1. following) the house of the Lord was filled with a cloud.

Bach writes, “NB with a devotional music God is at all times present with His grace.” Beside the summary of First Chronicles 25, which describes the appointment of the families of musicians who were to serve in the Temple, Bach comments, “NB This chapter is the true foundation of all church music pleasing to God.”

Striking correspondences between these two passages and glosses by Martin Luther, Abraham Calov and Johannes Olearius, another Lutheran theologian represented in Bach’s library, point to the following conclusions. First, Bach identified strongly with King David’s Capellmeister Asaph who, like Bach, was a composer and performer and a leading member of a large musical family. Second, beginning around 1733, Bach demonstrates a heightened awareness of the larger concept of “The Church” which comprised all the faithful, Jews and gentiles alike, throughout all time. Third, he regarded the sacred music he composed beginning in the mid 1730s as following in a tradition that extended back as far as King David. Finally, Bach conceived of the Missa not only as a demonstration of his compositional prowess which, he hoped, would lead to a royal title and bolster his position vis-à-vis the Leipzig authorities, but also as an offering to the Lord, presented in humility in hopes of being received with grace in the hereafter.

Last updated on 24 June 2007