Belfast, 2-4 November 2007


Cultural Transfer, Cultural Competition, and Religious Diversity in Leipzig during the Baroque Era

Tanya Kevorkian

(Millersville University, USA)

Bach’s B Minor Mass inspires us to inquire about the extent of contact in Leipzig between Lutherans and other religious groups in the Baroque era.  This paper examines two themes:  the presence of religious minorities in Leipzig, and cultural transfer.  Looking at all of the minorities represented in the city, including Calvinists, Jews, and others as well as Roman Catholics, helps flesh out the confessional context in which Bach lived. Scholars such as George Stauffer have successfully revised the old view of Leipzig as a backwater, and have established that the city was a center of trade, manufacture, and cultural dynamism.  Building on such work, as well as on recent theories of cultural transfer in the early modern period, this paper utilizes archival material such as consistory records and a Leipzig city council census of minority religious groups to bring new specificity and nuance to the question of how individuals in Leipzig during the high Baroque interacted with a variety of cultural influences.  The broad range of interactions and influences in and beyond music, which included everyday life, sculpture, and artisanal life as well as music, and often extended beyond what the clergy and secular authorities formally approved, help make J.S. Bach's composition of a mass very understandable.

Leipzig was unusual among the major German trade centers in having no resident religious minorities from the end of the 16th century to about 1700.  While members of many religious groups visited during the trade fairs, they were not allowed to stay.  Calvinists were ejected after a massacre in the 1590’s; Jews had been expelled in the later middle ages; and there was no Catholic community by 1600.  Saxony as a whole was also dominated almost completely by Lutherans, more so than any other major territory was by one religious group.  The conversion of August the Strong and, more broadly, his absolutist goal of breaking local governments’ and clerics’ control over religious policy, led to the emergence of small groups of Calvinists, Jews, and Catholics around and after 1700.

Leipzig became more culturally and intellectually diverse beginning in the 1680’s in other ways as well, in a process often fraught with conflict.  Secular cultural offerings increased in the form of coffee houses, the opera, and pleasure gardens; Pietists battled the Orthodox establishment beginning in 1688, and developed a small community; and Cartesian and other Enlightened philosophies arrived. 

Beyond these developments, there was a wide range of cultural contact and transfer, which occurred with far less conflict.  During the trade fairs, Leipzig became among the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.  Throughout the year, residents read widely, beyond texts prescribed by the Lutheran clergy.  Many people returned to the city after visiting lands near and far, and they surely related stories and brought with them items from their travels.  Cultural transfer was especially extensive in the arts, with sculptors, dancing masters, language masters, painters, musicians, and their works passing through or settling down.  Many German musicians, including Bach, complained of the technical demands placed on them by the influence of French, Italian, and other styles, but also boasted of their skills in those styles.  Not least, the Latin language, and liturgical settings of the Magnificat, the Kyrie, and the Gloria had never ceased being part of the church repertoire in Leipzig.  In this context, Bach’s composition of a mass seems not at all surprising.

Last updated on 24 June 2007