My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach

(Paperback - Jan 2000)
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In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was also a devout Lutheran with a broad knowledge of Scripture and theology. Given Bach's combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological depth, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian faith. With the passage of time, however, many of the essential keys to understanding Bach's music have been lost. My Only Comfort uniquely reconnects modern listeners with Bach's music, enabling them to listen to Bach with renewed understanding and appreciation. After an introduction to Bach, his theological knowledge, his musical language, and the various genres of sacred music in his output, Calvin Stapert leads readers through specific works by Bach that express, interpret, and vivify some of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. For each work discussed, Stapert provides relevant quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism (a novel and provocative approach to the study of Bach), a literal translation of the text set beside the German original, and textual and musical commentary meant to contribute to a more perceptive and devotional listening to the work.


  • SKU: 9780802844729
  • SKU10: 0802844723
  • Title: My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach
  • Series: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies
  • Qty Remaining Online: 141
  • Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
  • Date Published: Jan 2000
  • Pages: 259
  • Weight lbs: 0.93
  • Dimensions: 9.23" L x 6.28" W x 0.75" H
  • Features: Table of Contents, Index, Glossary, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Academic;
  • Category: MUSIC
  • Subject: Genres & Styles - Classical


"Bach's religious works are far more than musical gems adorning religious services. This is the premise of Calvin Stapert's My Only Comfort, which explores the theology of Bach's works through a meditative reflection on parts of the Heidelberg catechism. Stapert examines three motifs (death, deliverance and discipleship) in the music and text of several cantatas, several passages of the Mass in B Minor, and the Christmas Oratorio The use of scriptural and catechetical reflection may actually help us hear these cantatas as they were meant to be heard. Stapert's discussion of several compositions, notably the Mass in B Minor, shows how text, music and theology combine in a theologically and musically profound way With remarkable craft and genius, Bach transposed the essential language of faith into music. Readers of [this] splendid [book] will listen to that music with renewed appreciation." — Christian Century

"The noted humorist Garrison Keillor once said that Johann Sebastian Bach was a great musician because he was a Lutheran. The great liberal theologian James L. Adams, who disliked Luther, advanced the notion that Bach’s music was, in fact, a fifth Gospel. Calvin Stapert here shows how both of those views are almost valid. He skillfully leads readers through the thicket of contentious commentary on Bach’s biography, musicology, faith, and legacy, then offers a fresh, Reformational interpretation of the biblical-theological themes that lie at the core of Bach’s work. Without understanding these, he argues, neither the inner structure of the music nor the enduring significance of its evangelical intent can be grasped. Through Stapert’s book we gain a view of Bach as an artful, spiritual mentor for us all." — Max L. Stackhouse

"Amid all the noise of Bach-Year 2000, this is an especially marvelous and welcome contribution. Integrating theological and musical insights is rare enough in writing on Bach. Rarer still is what Calvin Stapert additionally brings to the subject—wisdom." — Michael Marissen

"Here is a remarkable book. Calvin Stapert, a Calvinist, gives a clear and responsible introduction to Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran, from a theological and musical standpoint. He then sets a Calvinist document, the Heidelberg Catechism, in dialogue with Bach’s music. The result pushes beyond either Calvin or Luther to a faithful catholic breadth. This is a book for anyone who wants to get at the essence of J. S. Bach." — Paul Westermeyer


from the Preface (pages xi-xv)

In the history of Western music, J. S. Bach is unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled, in mastery of technique and profundity of thought. He was a devout Lutheran whose knowledge of Scripture and theology was so broad and deep that the eminent historian of theology Jaroslav Pelikan wrote a book entitled Bach Among the Theologians. Given Bach’s combination of musical prowess, personal devotion, and theological understanding, it is not surprising that his music stands unexcelled among artistic expressions of the Christian faith. At the center of his musical output stand some two hundred cantatas along with four monumental works—theChristmas Oratorio, the two Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John, and the Mass in B Minor. The four large works have long been heard fairly regularly in concert and have also been quite readily available in recorded form. The same cannot be said for the cantatas. But at least with regard to recordings, the situation is changing. Although Bach’s cantatas are still not as easily found in recorded form as, say, Beethoven’s symphonies or Mozart’s operas, they are not difficult to obtain. The complete cantatas have been recorded twice, once on the Hänssler label with Helmut Rilling conducting, and once on Teldec with the conducting duties divided between Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. Two more projects to record them all are in progress—Ton Koopman’s performances are being issued by Erato and Masaaki Suzuki’s by BIS. In addition, fine recordings of individual cantatas have been made, and continue to be made, by conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe, Monica Huggett, Joshua Rifkin, Jeffrey Thomas, and others.

I mention the increased availability of the cantatas on recordings because I think that, given current options, they can best be listened to that way. Normally the best way to listen to music is in live performance. The best way to listen to Bach’s cantatas, Passions, and oratorios would be in the kind of liturgical setting for which they were written. But it is a rare church today that has both the musical resources and the desire to perform these works. Those few that do seldom provide the liturgical and theological context within which their full meaning can come through. Concert performances are, of course, much further removed from the proper context. Their trappings—tickets, performers on display on stage, applause, and the like—are obstacles that can mightily hinder an understanding of these works. Which is not to say that I frown on such performances. Far from it. I would like to see more of Bach’s vocal works programmed more regularly because, whatever the obstacles, something is gained in live performance. But even though I admit that something is gained when we listen to any music performed on the spot by live musicians, I still think that the best substitute today for hearing Bach’s vocal works in their proper liturgical surroundings is listening to them on recordings as aids to personal devotions, provided the listener takes the time to read the relevant Scripture passages and to obtain some guidance in understanding the texts and the way the music illumines and interprets them. The goal of this book is to provide some background and guidance for the thoughtful listener who wants to use these works devotionally. After an introduction that supplies some background about Bach, his theological knowledge, his musical language, and the various genres of sacred music in his output, the main part of the book provides guidance through specific works that express, interpret, and vivify some of the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. The principal doctrine expressed by a given work is made clear by quotations from that simple, yet rich, exposition of the Christian faith, the Heidelberg Catechism.

Anyone who is familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will already have caught my reference to it in both the title and subtitle of this book. The title comes from the Catechism’s first question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The subtitle comes from the answer to the second question: “What must I know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer outlines the threefold division of the Catechism.

Three things:
first, how great my sins and misery are;
second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;
third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

When I was learning the Catechism as a boy, we were given two alliterative sets of words to help us remember the three main divisions—sin, salvation, and service; guilt, grace, and gratitude. My subtitle provides a third alliterative trio—death, deliverance, and discipleship—which says pretty much the same thing as the other two but whose third word, discipleship, fits particularly well with a pervasive theme in Bach’s works.

I do not know whether Bach knew the Heidelberg Catechism, the most widely used catechism to come out of the Calvinist tradition. I know of no evidence that points to his acquaintance with it. His staunch adherence to orthodox Lutheran teaching is well known, and given the time and place in which he lived, he probably harbored some strong anti-Calvinist feelings. Indeed, one of the books he owned had the titleAnti-Calvinismus, which ends by saying, “We have shown that the ‘reformed’ doctrine overthrows the foundation of belief and therefore deserves to be condemned” (quoted from Herz, “Bach’s Religion,” 131). It was written by August Pfeiffer (1640-1698), who served as an archdeacon at the St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig from 1681 to 1689, a generation before Bach went to work there. Bach also owned two other volumes by Pfeiffer, Evangelische Christen-Schule and Antimelancholicus, and he combined the titles of his three books by Pfeiffer into a cryptic inscription for the title page of the little clavier book he put together in 1722 for his second wife, Anna Magdalena: “Ante (sic) Calvinismus und Christenschule item Anti Melancholicus von D. Pfeifern.”

So why use the Heidelberg Catechism as the framework for a book on Bach? I wanted to write a small book that would serve as an introductory guide to Bach’s text-related works, especially for listeners who would like to use them devotionally. I wanted to discuss specific works rather than make generalizations about the works as a whole, and I wanted to select and organize those works according to some theological basis. The Heidelberg Catechism is the theological compendium I know best. It was the basis for my theological instruction as a boy, and I have heard it preached all my life. But over the years I have also spent a good amount of time listening to Bach’s musical “sermons.” And, far from experiencing dissonance between Calvinist preaching based on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Lutheran preaching of Bach, I found them very much in accord. The preaching I heard in the Calvinist churches I attended and the music of Bach I listened to at home still seem to me to be very much in harmony.

I am not suggesting that the reason for the harmony I perceive is that there are no important differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, nor am I suggesting that behind a Lutheran facade there lurked a Calvinist Bach. I do not intend my approach to Bach via the Heidelberg Catechism to make any particular historical or theological point; but if the harmony I hear between the two is real, I think it can be explained in two ways.

First, although the Heidelberg Catechism is a thoroughly Calvinist document, it is not narrowly so. From its inception there was a certain ecumenicity about it. To be sure, it arose because Frederick III of the Palatinate felt “the need for a new catechism to replace those of Luther and Brenz” (Klooster, 822). But it was mainly differences concerning the Lord’s Supper that gave rise to that need. So while the Heidelberg Catechism is clearly a Calvinist document in “distancing itself from the ubiquity doctrine of Lutheranism and from other Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the sacraments,” in every other way it “reflects the rich, ripe fruit of the entire Reformation.”

The Heidelberg Catechism expresses much that was common to all branches of the Reformation. Members of the team project had first-hand acquaintance with Luther, Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, and Théodore de Bèze, as well as numerous earlier catechisms. Its authors have been likened to bees flitting from flower to flower to gather honey. (Klooster, 823)

Second, I am convinced that what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” is a reality, and it is not as negligible and watered-down as the adjective “mere” might suggest. What unites the various branches of the Christian faith is far more extensive and runs far more deeply than the history of our divisions, quarrels, and animosities would indicate. Furthermore, that unity cuts across the boundaries of time and place. Eric Chafe, for example, found that Father Raymond Brown’s commentary on the Gospel of John could illuminate Bach’s St. John Passion. If a Bible commentary by a twentieth-century Catholic can illuminate the work of an eighteenth-century Lutheran, why not as well a catechism by two sixteenth-century Calvinists? Lewis made the point that it “is at [the Church’s] centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine” (Mere Christianity, viii). Therefore, throughout the many years that I have been listening to Bach, I have not been surprised to find that his music, so deeply imbued with Lutheran theology and spirit, resonates so harmoniously with the Calvinist theology and spirit of the Heidelberg Catechism that has instructed and nourished me from my youth.

For each work discussed, I have provided relevant quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism. When the work in question is a cantata, I have also provided the Epistle and Gospel lessons (in translation from the New International Version) that were read in the service for which the cantata was written. This gives the reader immediate access to the Scripture lessons on which both the sermon and the cantata for the day were based. Then follows the complete text of the work in its original German along with a very literal line-by-line translation. Finally there is commentary, both textual and musical, that I hope will contribute to a more perceptive and devotional listening to the work.


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