People and Genres

25 Johann Sebastian Bach

In this chapter you will

  • explore the religious background of one of the most famous composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach, and its relevance to understanding his music
  • be introduced to the Baroque era of music
  • begin to explore the musical genre of the “Passion” (focused on the suffering of Jesus) and its theological and historical background

J. S. Bach: The Composer, His Time, and His Faith

Creating music can be a way of expressing one’s faith, and the setting of biblical (as well as other) texts to music can be a theological undertaking in a number of different respects. One’s own theology and that of one’s community will influence decisions about what texts to set and what musical accompaniment is appropriate. The act of setting the text to music may, in turn, lead to new theological insights. Viewed from the standpoint of a later time, these musical settings may provide important information about the history of religious thought and practice.

We can see all of the above in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most famous musicians of the Baroque period. Most people know the term baroque as one that designates a specific period in history spanning most of the seventeenth century and part of the eighteenth century as well. What fewer know is that the term baroque has as its primary meaning a style of art, music, and architecture that was judged to be overly ornate. If anyone reading this associates music from the Baroque era with the peaceful and/or somber, they may be astonished to learn that the label baroque in fact characterizes it as “flashy” or “gaudy.” The ornateness may have become so familiar to our eyes and ears that we no longer perceive it as it was initially. Yet if we listen to music from the Renaissance era alongside music from the Baroque, we will, on the one hand, recognize some of the same musical forms (many associated with particular dances) while, on the other hand, the ornateness and complexity of the Baroque will likely stand out by comparison.

This is not the place for exploring in much detail the many key developments that converged in this era, whether the impact of the Protestant Reformation on European churches and their music or new ways of notating music in written form. However, by looking at the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach, we have an opportunity to learn some of the most crucial aspects of this era’s religious and musical life and the intersection of the two. It can help us get a sense of historical perspective when we consider that Bach’s life is only somewhat closer to the time of the Reformation than to the time in which you are reading this. Martin Luther was born a little over two hundred years before Bach’s birth. Bach’s death was 270 years prior to when these words are being written. Bach’s own historical moment was the era known as the Enlightenment. There are debates about where Bach stood in relation to major streams of thought in that time, such as Pietism and rationalism.[1] One might approach the intersection of music and religion in the life of J. S. Bach in many ways. We could begin with the Reformation and seek to trace its influences. We could investigate what is known about church music in Lutheranism in this era, when Bach worked as a church musician in a Lutheran context. We could jump straight to Bach’s music itself and study the texts he set and the music he crafted for them. We could look at Bach’s impact on the church and music subsequent to his time. All of these approaches are important, and how we begin often shapes our perception and influences our results.

One tangible object that belonged to the composer himself provides us with important insight into his perspective, his compositional practice, and his engagement with both the Bible and the thinking and issues of his era. I am referring to Bach’s own copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible plus commentary, which includes Bach’s annotations. This video from the WFMT radio station gives you a glimpse inside.

An overview of Bach’s life and work in Christianity Today says, “Nearly three-fourths of his 1,000 compositions were written for use in worship.”[2] On this point we may compare and contrast Bach with George Frideric Handel. They were exact contemporaries, and Handel is the focus of a separate chapter in this book. Bach wrote music for use in churches, while Handel wrote music for entertainment. Bach provides evidence that the Protestant Reformation was indeed understood as a reform rather than a radical break with earlier Christianity. The words he set to music adapt and paraphrase not only biblical text or Lutheran hymns but also earlier Latin sacred music. In Bach’s religious music, as in other works influenced by Pietism, we find far more frequent use of Jesus and Savior than we do in earlier music, which preferred Christ and Lord.[3] Bach’s cantata 77 is a setting of Luther’s chorale about the Ten Commandments, which concludes with a distinctively Lutheran emphasis on the role of the commandments in making people aware of their sinfulness and the futility of human action and effort.[4] Such things may perhaps be understood on their own, but their significance is certainly clearer in light of their historical and theological context. If we were to delve further into Bach’s music, we would see both the influence of movements such as Pietism and differences between what Pietism characteristically emphasized and Bach’s works. Alas, here we can barely scratch the surface of this subject.

Reflecting on the fact that Bach wrote his sacred works to be part of worship in churches should lead us to ponder how very different the world of music was in that era—and indeed throughout most of history. Church was one of the few places in European societies where the vast majority of people could expect to encounter music. There were no recordings. While many people undoubtedly sang and made music in a variety of ways in their homes and communities, to create music featuring large numbers of voices, an organ, and/or numerous other instruments required organization, practice, a large venue, and much else. Even in a church context, this could be expensive to realize. The only other major venue for large-scale musical ensemble performances was in the context of theater or concert halls, which either charged admission or were funded by wealthy sponsors. And of course, we haven’t even mentioned the question of compensation for those who composed the music that would be performed.


One of the types of sacred music that Bach is particularly associated with is known as the Passion. The Latin term Passio, from which we get the term Passion, focuses not on love (the modern sense of the English word) but on suffering. Even before Bach and others created extended musical works with this title, the “Passion play” was a popular element in medieval European cultures, in which the story of Jesus’s suffering was acted out. Yet musical treatments of the Passion were not a common element prior to Bach. Bach’s Passions came about thanks to the funding provided in the will of a wealthy woman named Maria Rosina Koppy for works of this sort to be written and performed in Good Friday services in Leipzig. Good Friday is the Friday before Easter and is focused on commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus, hence the theme of Bach’s compositions created for use on that specific day of the Christian calendar.

The cross is central in many ways to Christian thought and thus also Christian worship, and not only on this particular holy day. One cannot explore the musical treatment of the stories of Jesus’s crucifixion in a meaningful way without close attention to the theological interpretation of Jesus’s death as salvific. That is often something that the musical setting highlights, but even before that, it is the reason why these stories are set to music and made a focus of religious devotion in the first place.

Bach’s Passions are labeled “according to John” and “according to Matthew,” reflecting the biblical text drawn on in the libretto. Neither is simply a setting of the biblical text without addition. Yet even with the additions and the further layer of interpretation provided by the librettos, the distinctive characteristics of those two Gospels come through to at least some extent. The specific Gospels after which the pieces are named are thus one important part of the explanation for the musical differences between the two works, even though at times Bach borrows from other Gospels than the one named in the title of the piece. The result is that we have two “Gospels,” or at least “Passions,” that are both as much “according to Bach” as anyone else and deserve to be considered in their own right in terms of their theological outlook and meaning. Just as Matthew’s voice in his written Gospel is given due attention even though he drew on Mark (and indeed knowing that helps us understand Matthew’s Gospel better), so too with Bach’s Passions.

In chapter 26, we will look further into Bach’s Passions as well as beyond them to other composers, including those who have explored the story through film scores that feature in crucifixion scenes in movies about the life and death of Jesus. For now, simply listen to these two Passions by J. S. Bach, listening for differences and paying attention to the text to the extent that you can (if the fact that it is in German is a hurdle, never fear, for many English translations are available). Reflect on what each conveys and how it does so. Perhaps read the text of each of these Gospels’ Passion Narratives while listening to the respective musical works. Or better still, follow along in the libretto (with English translation) while listening to get a sense of the meaning that German listeners experience more directly.

In some musical works with words, the meaning of the text and conveying it clearly are secondary to the musical experience. In works like these, the text is just as important, and the music and text work together to convey meaning. For those who can read music even a little, amazing resources are available to dig deeper into Bach’s works and his own compositional process. Manuscripts of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions that were made under Bach’s own direction (with at least some parts written by Bach himself) can be viewed online. Some of them, especially when compared with one another, give us insight into the extent to which Bach’s works were not fixed once and for all but changed over time. Although trying to discern motives for the alterations involves some speculation, the effort to do so is helpful in thinking about the meaning of music of this sort. There are YouTube videos that allow you to see such manuscripts while listening and others that provide commentary and explanation about what we learn from the manuscripts. Even a little of a video like this one can give you a sense of the complexity of the music Bach wrote, even if you cannot read the music.[5]

On the other hand, today you’re most likely to hear Bach’s works, including his sacred works, in a concert hall performed by professional musicians. Much can be learned by not only listening to but watching such performances. However you decide to do so, listen to the works and reflect on what they communicate to you and how the setting (performance hall vs. church) may change that experience and the meaning of the music to listeners. Here are a couple of performances from among the many available to choose from.[6]

There are more depths to each than the brief treatment here, or a single listen, will do justice to. Hopefully this chapter provides a helpful starting point.

For Further Reading

Breyfogle, Todd. “Redemption and Human Freedom in the Bach ‘Passions.’” New Blackfriars 84, nos. 989/990 (2003): 335–45.

Chafe, Eric. Analyzing Bach Cantatas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Franklin, Don O. “The Libretto of Bach’s John Passion and the ‘Doctrine of Reconciliation’: An Historical Perspective.” Proceedings of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences 143 (1995): 179–203.

Gaines, James R. Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Hendrickson, Peter A., Bradley C. Jenson, and Randi H. Lundell. Luther and Bach on the Magnificat. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.

Leaver, Robin A. Bach Studies: Liturgy, Hymnology, and Theology. Abingdon: Routledge, 2021.

Loewe, Andreas. Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion BWV 245: A Theological Commentary. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2014.

———. “Sermons in Sound: The Theology of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions.” Paper presented at the Society for the Study of Theology Conference, University of Manchester, April 2010.

Marissen, Michael. Bach and God. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

———. Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion: With an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Melamed, Daniel R. “Listening to Scripture in J. S. Bach’s Passions.” Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Accessed September 7, 2022.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Bach among the Theologians. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1986.

Rathey, Markus. “Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions: Recent Publications and Trends in Current Scholarship.” Bach 43, no. 1 (2012): 65–83.

———. “Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ from 1725: A Liturgical Interpretation.” Colloquium 4 (2007): 123–39.

Ross, Alex. “Bach’s Holy Dread.” New Yorker December 26, 2016.

Steinitz, Paul. Bach’s Passions. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.

Wright, Alexandra. “What Have the Bach Passions Ever Done for Jewish-Christian Relations?” European Judaism 53, no. 1 (2020): 105–19.


  1. Victor Lederer, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look (New York: Continuum, 2008), 11–13.
  2. “Johann Sebastian Bach: ‘The Fifth Evangelist,’” Christianity Today, accessed September 14, 2022,
  3. Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach among the Theologians (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1986), 65.
  4. Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 161–64.
  5. Performance at the Jesuitenkirche-Universitätskirche in Vienna, Austria, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Licensed to YouTube by WMG on behalf of Teldec.
  6. The first performance is by the Netherlands Bach Society, conducted by Jos van Veldhoven, and was recorded for the project All of Bach on April 16 and 19, 2014, at the Grote Kerk, Naarden, the Netherlands. The second performance is by the Bach Collegium Japan Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, recorded on March 15, 2020, at the Kölner Philharmonie in Cologne, Germany, and shared by Bach Collegium Japan to their own YouTube channel.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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