As a composer of liturgical music during much of his career, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) engaged a tradition of musical settings of scripture that was central to the Lutheran confession. Bach spent much of his life in positions that required the performance of liturgical music. He met this obligation largely through the composition of original works tailored to the liturgical and musical requirements of his employment. His output includes vocal concertos (loosely called “cantatas” today) for the weekly liturgy, scriptural oratorios including settings of the Passion narrative, and motets that drew on a legacy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in addition to musical settings of liturgical texts that draw on scripture. His career as a composer of Lutheran church music coincided with a significant change in the kinds of text that were set to music and in the role that biblical texts played in musical settings for the liturgy.

Earliest Vocal Concertos and Weimar Cantatas.

Bach’s most concentrated engagement with scripture came in the composition of vocal concertos, sacred vocal/instrumental works of the kind generally referred to as “cantatas” in modern times. These works served both as occasional music and as the principal musical adornment of the Lutheran worship service. Bach’s earliest vocal concertos—those that date from before about 1713—are in the mold of music of the seventeenth century. Biblical texts, particularly Psalm verses, form the essence of these works. “Der Herr denket an uns” (“The Lord has been mindful of us”) BWV 196 is a setting of consecutive verses from Psalm 115; “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” (“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”) BWV 131 (from 1707) sets Psalm 130, with two of its verses paired with German hymn stanzas; “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (“For you, O Lord, I long,” lit.) BWV 150 (whose attribution is not secure) alternates verses selected from Psalm 25 with newly written poetry; “Gott ist mein König” (“God is my king”) BWV 71 (1708, for a town council inauguration service) draws on Psalm 74 and supplements it with other topical scriptural selections; and “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“God’s time is the best time”) BWV 106 consists mostly of an assembly of biblical dicta on the topic of mortality of the kind found in contemporary devotional books. These works can be read as settings of scripture supplemented occasionally with hymn stanzas and free poetry. The precise dates and purposes of most of these early works are not known, and most are generic enough that they may well have served multiple functions.

These works treat their biblical prose in a characteristic way, breaking the text into small units; each unit receives its own musical treatment, changing performing forces, tempo, musical meter, and character. For example, the opening vocal movement of “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” BWV 106 sets the opening textual phrase in straightforward and foursquare declamation. Bach switches to a lively triple meter for “In ihm leben, weben und sind wir, solange er will” (“In him we live and move and have our being, as long as he wills”), then to a much slower tempo and more expressive harmonies for “In ihm sterben wir zur rechten Zeit, wenn er will” (“In him we die at the proper time, when he wills”). Particularly important here is the musical contrast that Bach draws between the second and third phrases, emphasizing their parallelism and their opposite characters. This technique of composition results in chains of musical sections each meant to project the meaning and affect of a short segment of text. The musical character of the entire setting thus tracks the progress of the biblical texts at the level of the movement and (in large-scale structure) of the work overall.

Pieces in this vein are a legacy of the late seventeenth century and of the works of predecessors on whose works Bach modeled his own. Bach’s earliest sustained composition of more modern pieces came with (or just before) his appointment as Concertmeister (musical leader) at the court of Weimar in 1714, where he had been employed since 1708 as an organist. By 1714, the textual and musical horizons of German church music had shifted radically and yielded works very different from Bach’s earliest surviving sacred vocal concertos. Bach’s first cantatas of the new kind were composed mostly for the court of Weimar starting around 1713. Many of these works use only new (free) poetry and chorales, avoiding scriptural texts altogether. Even so, the texts of these cantatas refer constantly to scripture. For example, every movement of “Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe” (“Ah, I see now that I go to the wedding”) for the twentieth Sunday after Trinity makes reference to wedding imagery in response to the Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 22:1–14, which relates the parable of the wedding feast.

There is a tendency in the modern interpretation of Bach’s cantatas to ascribe features like this cantata’s responsiveness to scripture to the composer, but it should be noted that these aspects stem not from Bach but from the construction of the cantata’s libretto by Salomo Frank, a Weimar court official and poet. Bach’s contribution lies in the musical realization of Frank’s text. There may well be theological and exegetical contributions to the cantata’s meaning that stem from Bach’s musical setting (see below for some examples), but Bach is not known to have written any church cantata texts, and we should be cautious about ascribing every aspect of a cantata to him.

Among movements in Bach’s Weimar-era cantatas that do set biblical words literally, most are recitatives that present scriptural prose in stylized speech–like declamation. These movements have minimal accompaniment and tend to present their text without repetition (in contrast to aria-like settings, which frequently repeat text). Four such recitative movements (BWV 18/2, 61/4, 172/2, and 182/3) are for bass voice, conventionally understood to represent the vox Christi and setting words of Jesus (either quoted in a Gospel or as found in a psalm, Isaiah, or the book of Revelation and figuratively ascribed). The recitative BWV 12/3, whose words are not direct speech, sets a classic dictum (or Spruch) from Acts on the topic of the human condition. Exceptionally, BWV 132/1 opens with words of Isaiah and casts them as the first half of a characteristic piece of aria poetry; Bach treats these words musically as though they were free verse, composing an aria that exceptionally uses scriptural prose as its opening textual unit.

One telling work from this period is “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen” (“I had much trouble in my heart,” lit.) BWV 21, thought to have undergone several revisions and expansions. At its core is a collection of Psalm verses on the topic of the disquiet of the soul that formed the structural basis of the earliest layer of the work. The Psalm verses are each treated in the older manner of Bach’s earliest cantatas, text phrase by text phrase, tying this work’s text and its musical treatment to the legacy of the seventeenth century. To this material Bach (and a librettist) eventually added modern recitative and aria poetry and a doxology from Revelation. The latest layer of the work thus represents a modern cantata constructed from an older scripturally dominated vocal concerto and from modern poetic texts and thus encapsulates the large changes that librettos and musical settings underwent in the 1710s.

Leipzig Cantatas.

The bulk of Bach’s church cantatas were composed between 1723 and 1750, when Bach was Cantor of the St. Thomas School and City Music Director in Leipzig; most of his composing took place during the first years of his employment. He is reported to have composed five annual cycles, three of which survive mostly complete, one of which is known in fragmentary form, and one of which (if it ever existed) is lost. Like Bach’s Weimar-era cantatas, these works were the principal concerted music (that is, combining voices and musically independent instruments) of the main worship service. They were part of the central portion of the weekly and festival liturgy that included the reading of the Epistle, a Gospel-related hymn, the reading of the day’s Gospel, the cantata, the Credo, and the sermon (typically focused on the Gospel). The cantata was thus heard close to the Gospel and the Epistle for the day and to its explication in a sermon, and this helps explain the prominent role that Gospel quotation and allusion play in the texts of cantatas.

Scriptural texts typically appear in Bach’s Leipzig cantatas a verse or two at time, selected (much in the way individual hymn stanzas were) for their pithy encapsulation of particular theological topics. Many of the quoted lines are from the Gospel reading for the day; verses from Psalms of praise also appear frequently, particularly on high feasts celebrated with festive music involving trumpets and drums or horns in addition to the usual string and woodwind instruments. Many first-person words of Jesus appear as well, along with Hebrew Testament texts interpreted as though in the voice of Jesus. The majority of biblical texts are heard as the first vocal movement in a multi-movement cantata. Scriptural texts occur as internal movements as well, sometimes as the first movement of the second half of a two-part cantata designed to straddle the sermon. The prominent place of these biblical texts, particularly the many that open cantatas, confirms the understanding of these cantata librettos and their settings as primarily connected to the scriptural readings for the day and to their theological topics.

Solo settings.

The various kinds of biblical texts that appear in cantata texts prompt several different kinds of settings from Bach, and vocal scoring (solo vs. choral) is perhaps the most prominent distinguishing feature. Settings of scriptural texts for solo voice are dominated by first-person words of Jesus. These are typically presented in concerted movements dominated by instruments; many behave like arias in their musical organization but are essentially never called “aria” by Bach, who reserved the term for its eighteenth-century sense of a setting of a short poem. Examples of this solo type include “Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch” (“Verily, verily I say to you,” lit.) BWV 86/1 and “Es ist euch gut, dass ich hingehe” (“It is good for you that I go away,” lit.) BWV 108/1, both relating addresses by Jesus drawn from the respective days’ Gospel readings.

All of these concerted solo settings are for the bass voice, the conventional representation of the vox Christi in early-eighteenth-century music. (This convention can also be heard in Bach’s settings of the Passion narrative, discussed below.) When the quoted Gospel text includes introductory words, as in “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe und sprach” (“Jesus gathered the twelve to him and said,” lit.) BWV 22/1, the narrative words in the voice of the Evangelist are delivered by a tenor voice; this also follows a convention observed by Bach in his Passion settings and other scriptural narrative works. The direct words of Jesus that follow (“Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” [“See, we are going up to Jerusalem”]) are once again assigned to the bass vocal range. Some other solo scriptural settings for the bass voice, like “Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?” (“What shall I make of you, Ephraim,” lit.) BWV 89/1 (Hos 11:8), are probably best understood more generally to invoke the voice of God.

Nonetheless, the strength of the association between a low male voice and Jesus is such that a text like “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” (“See, I will send many fishermen,” lit.) BWV 88/1, from Lamentations 16, was probably heard in the eighteenth century as if in the voice of Jesus precisely because it is delivered by a bass singer; this reading is strengthened by the presentation by the same bass singer later in the cantata of Gospel words spoken by Jesus (drawn from the Gospel for the fifth Sunday after Trinity, Luke 5:1–11). This association thus contributes to a Christian reading of the Hebrew Testament text that opens the work.

The opening movement of “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” BWV 88 also illustrates the principal reason Bach and other composers turned to aria-like settings of this sort of text in the first place. In this movement Bach draws on conventional musical topics associated with the sea (in the first half, “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden … ” [“See, I will send many fishermen”]) and with the hunt (in the second, “Und darnach will ich viel Jäger aussenden … ” [“And afterward I will send for many hunters”]). The important element here is not so much the pictorial representation of these topics in notes but rather the music’s evocation of affects (that is, human emotional states); Bach presents conventional musical emblems of quiet and calm in the first portion, and music of agitation in the second. The composition of affective music is in line with the principal goal of early-eighteenth-century composition: to move the affections of the listener. The concerted style allows Bach to impart affective characters to the two halves of this text and particularly to emphasize the contrast between them. In fact this musical style allowed the projection of an affective character onto this biblical text altogether; on its face it is largely descriptive and pictorial but emotionally neutral. The emotionally evocative delivery of the biblical text, followed by poetic arias with similar aims of moving the listener, represents a principal tool of scriptural interpretation available to the librettist and composer of this kind of work.

In contrast, solo cantata movements that set scriptural text as recitatives, in imitation of declamatory speech, are much less affectively oriented; they tend to be neutral in their presentation of biblical words. Compare, for example, the two cantatas that each begin with words from John 16, “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun” (“They will banish you,” lit.) BWV 183/1 presents these words in recitative; the instrumental accompaniment does heighten the delivery compared to simpler accompaniment just by harmonic instruments, but not to the extent of Bach’s concerted setting at the start of BWV 44. There an expressive duet is followed by a four-voice choral setting that makes a strong affective turn at the word “aber” (“but”). In this setting of the same scriptural passage, the moving of the affections and the presentation of contrasting affects (for the purpose of making a strong affective shift) is the goal, realized in a concerted setting rather than a more neutral recitative. This has the further consequence of invoking the troubling theological ideas that are part of the Lutheran understanding of this passage, a matter further from the surface in the more neutral recitative in BWV 183.

Full-ensemble settings.

A large number of Bach’s church cantatas begin with a fully scored (choral) movement presenting a biblical text. By the conventions of eighteenth-century composition, the opening movement of a multi-movement cantata typically makes use of all the vocal and instrumental forces that will appear in the work. (They are heard together again at the end as well.) This contributes to a tendency on Bach’s part to make the opening scriptural movement in these pieces the weightiest in its cantata. The fundamental goal of the projection of affect applies to most of the more fully scored concerted settings of biblical texts in Bach’s cantatas as well as to the solo settings.

The musical model for most of these pieces—solo and choral—is the early-eighteenth-century concerto. Concertos, like contemporary arias, are based on a block of instrumental material (called a ritornello, or “little thing that returns”) presented at the beginning and end of the movement and within it. This instrumental material frames the vocal presentation of text and articulates its various sections and their repetitions and is most often the source of the melodic material to which the text is sung. Solo arias most often close with an instrumental presentation of the ritornello, as at the opening; in choral movements, the final presentation is frequently made with voices layered over the instrumental material for a full-ensemble close to the movement.

The ensemble vocal writing in these movements is sometimes in block declamation of the text by all the voices together (homophony) and sometimes in staggered entrances of four vocal lines meant to be heard as independent melodic lines (polyphony). Most often the voices deployed in this way sing in imitation of each other, a texture analogous to an instrumental fugue but actually more closely related to sixteenth-century vocal music. In Bach’s performances these choral textures were typically sung by just four voices, in contrast to usual modern presentations by large choral ensembles. The nature of the vocal writing (and usually the contrast of biblical text vs. free poetry) distinguishes choral numbers from solo ones even though the former are sung simply by the combined solo voices acting as the chorus.

As in the solo settings of biblical texts, the fundamental characteristics of these choral movements derive from the instrumental ritornello Bach designs for them: the ritornello defines the musical topic and affect of the movement. So, for example, cantatas that open with a psalm verse of praise are typically cast as celebratory music, often using horns or trumpets and drums for high feasts to evoke the appropriate affect: for example, “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” (“Bring to the Lord the honor of his name,” lit.) BWV 148/1, a setting of Psalm 29:2, or “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” (“God the Lord is sun and shield,” lit.) BWV 79/1, which treats Psalm 84:12. The turn in the early eighteenth century to ritornello form settings addressed fundamental problems: how to integrate vocal and instrumental musical styles and how to draw on the affective possibilities of instrumental music. Celebratory trumpets-and-drums music represents a particularly vivid example of the solution, integrating ceremonial instruments into the musical fabric and integrating voices as well.

Ritornello form concerted choral settings could also support scriptural texts of very different character, for example, the lamenting “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei” (“Look and see if there is any sorrow”) BWV 46/1 based on Lamentations 1:12, or the introspective “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!” (“I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief, ” lit.) BWV 109/1, a setting of Mark 9:24. The style also supports more elaborate and theologically interpretive settings; a good example is “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” (“You shall love the Lord your God”) BWV 77/1, which combines a setting of Luke 10:27 with an instrumental presentation of Martin Luther’s hymn “Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot” (“These are the holy Ten Commandments”) based on the Ten Commandments cited in the Gospel text. Bach’s combination of one scriptural text with a hymn that refers to another musically points out a relationship between Hebrew and New Testament texts, a theological topic that was presumably central to the cantata text’s design and meanings.

Although most of the choral biblical settings in Bach’s cantatas are affectively charged, there is a small but musically significant group of scriptural settings that does not rely on the evocation of affect or on ritornello form. These are settings of abstract or doctrinal texts, such as “Wer an ihn gläubet, der wird nicht gerichtet” (“Those who believe in him are not condemned”) BWV 68/5, which presents John 3:18. This movement is less concerned with the projection of affect than with the clear presentation of the text’s antithesis (“Wer an ihn gläubet / wer aber nicht gläubet” [“Those who believe / but those who do not believe”]). Movements of this sort have no independent material in the instruments; rather, instruments simply double vocal lines that contain the entire musical substance of the movement. In this kind of piece the voices sing in polyphonic imitation of each other, and the affect is neutral. This kind of movement (heard also in BWV 64/1, 108/4, 144/1, and 179/1) draws on the legacy of the motet, particularly the sixteenth-century style of Palestrina and his contemporaries. This musical style was understood to be historical and to be suited to the affect-neutral presentation of scriptural texts. Its appearance in a cantata was meant to be heard as a special gesture that acknowledged the particular character of the scriptural text it set (and, in a related phenomenon, the oldest layer of Lutheran chorales, for which Bach also employed the style). Many movements of this kind double the voices with cornetto and trombones, emblems of old-fashioned motet style.

One group of Bach cantatas from his time in Leipzig, those that make up most of his second annual cycle composed there, does not make direct use of biblical texts. The texts of these works are based entirely on German hymns appropriate to a Sunday or feast. Their texts retain the opening and closing stanzas of the chosen hymn (always set musically using the associated tune) but convert the inner stanzas into new poetry designed to be set as recitatives and arias in the Neumeister model. Scriptural texts are not part of these cantatas, which are musical analogues to the so-called hymn sermons sometimes preached in the early eighteenth century. But of course many hymns, particularly from the earliest layer of the Reformation repertory, are themselves paraphrases of psalms. A work like “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (“Out of the depths I cry to you”) BWV 38 sets outer stanzas and inner paraphrased verses of the hymn “Aus der Tiefen” (“Out of the depths”), Martin Luther’s metrical strophic version of Psalm 130. Every movement of the cantata refers to verses of the original Psalm and thus represents a scriptural setting once removed.

The deep and multifaceted integration of scripture into Bach’s cantatas is illustrated by “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe” (“There is nothing healthy in my body,” lit.) BWV 25, composed for the fourteenth Sunday after Trinity in 1723. The Gospel reading for the day was Luke 17:11–19, which relates Jesus’s healing of 10 lepers. The opening text of the cantata is Psalm 38:4, in which the Psalmist declares his body to be unhealthy, with a clear connection to the topic of the Gospel heard just before in the liturgy. The first part of the cantata libretto takes up illness and healing in their literal and metaphorical meanings, making a series of references in arias and recitatives to the topic of the Gospel reading, for example, in the call “O Jesu, lieber Meister” (“O Jesus, dear master,” lit.), which echoes an exclamation quoted in the scriptural passage. The second half of the cantata turns to the praise of God related in the Gospel passage, describing and then enacting that praise musically.

The cantata’s first movement is particularly rich and demonstrates the depth of musical interpretation of scripture that was possible. Overall the movement is a ritornello form, with an uncharacteristically tuneless but unmistakably mournful opening instrumental passage reflecting the lamenting tone of the movement’s Psalm verse; this passage reappears at structurally important moments throughout the movement. Bach also uses this material as background for vocal lines that draw on motet style with their imitative texture. The reference to motet style, integrated into a concerted texture, points musically to the scriptural origin of the text. Bach sets the first half of the text, “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe vor deinem Dräuen” (“There is nothing healthy in my body because of your threats,” lit.), with a musical line that is imitated by each of the voices. Then, following the usual practice in motets, he moves to the next phrase, “und ist kein Friede in meinen Gebeinen vor meiner Sünde” (“and there is no peace in my bones because of my sin,” lit.), also setting it in imitation among the voices but inventing a new musical subject for it. He also supports this part of the text with a quick-moving bass line as an emblem of disquiet. (This is one of several ways in which Bach lends affective color to a neutral text and neutral musical style in the voices in this movement.) Then he combines the two text phrases and their musical ideas, demonstrating that the two musical subjects can be presented simultaneously but also making manifest the parallelism in the Psalm verse and pointing up the connections among divine wrath, sin, and physical health referred to in the text.

And on top of this is another layer: the phrase-by-phrase instrumental presentation of a hymn by recorders and trombones throughout the movement. The melody they play is “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” (“I yearn, heartfelt”), and the text that was probably called to mind by Bach’s listeners was Johann Heermann’s “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder” (“Ah, Lord, [do not punish] me, a poor sinner”), which was sung to this tune. (This melody is also present in the instrumental bass line of the first movement’s instrumental ritornello, and the hymn’s final doxological stanza is used as the last movement of the cantata.) The second stanza of this hymn begins “Heil du mich, lieber Herre / denn ich bin krank und schwach” (“Heal me, dear Lord / for I am sick and weak”), a reference to the scriptural theme of healing in the Gospel reading. This hymn and probably this verse were called to an informed listener’s mind and were meant to be considered simultaneously with the Psalm text on the same theme. And Heermann’s hymn is itself a poetic paraphrase and expansion of Psalm 6, “Herr, sei mir gnädig, denn ich bin schwach; heile mich, Herr, denn meine Gebeine sind erschrocken” (“Lord, be merciful to me, for I am weak; heal me, for my bones are terrified”), on a topic closely related to the Gospel reading and to the Psalm verse with which it is heard. The entire movement is thus saturated in scripture, and its meanings to the contemporary listener were guided largely by the music’s handling of biblical passages and references. The musical techniques available to Bach allowed him to present these materials simultaneously and to invoke the hymn’s text and scriptural origin by its wordless instrumental presentation.


New Testament text is at the center of Bach’s two surviving settings of the Passion narrative, composed for the Good Friday Vespers service in Leipzig. The kind of composition represented by these works, with recitative-like presentation of Gospel narrative enhanced by commentary in the form of hymn stanzas and free poetry, is also found in his Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 and Ascension Oratorio BWV 11.

The concerted Passion, first introduced to the Leipzig liturgy only a few years before Bach’s arrival in 1723, took the place of a simpler musical presentation of the Crucifixion narrative with an intoned (chanted) narration, chanted words of direct speech by interlocutors, and sometimes choral settings of words of groups. In Bach’s St. John Passion BWV 245 (first version 1724, with several revisions through 1749), St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1727, with a principal revised version in 1736 and performances through the early 1740s), and lost St. Mark Passion BWV 247 (1731 and later reperformances), Gospel narrative is presented principally by a tenor singing the words of the Evangelist in speech-like settings closely comparable to the recitative found in opera and cantatas. Direct speech of characters in the narrative (Jesus, Peter, Pilate, and so on) is presented similarly by other singers; words of groups are presented in concerted choral numbers by the combined voices.

This narrative is framed, articulated, and commented on by the insertion of individual hymn stanzas drawn largely from Passion chorales and of newly written poetry designed to be set as arias and instrumentally accompanied recitatives, just as in Bach’s church cantatas. The insertions comment theologically on the narrative and highlight particular moments and incidents, all with the aim of encouraging contemplation and affective response. Chorale stanzas often echo scripture; for example, in the St. Matthew Passion the disciples’ question “Herr, bin ich’s?” (“Lord, is it I?”) is followed immediately by a hymn stanza that begins “Ich bin’s, ich sollte büssen” (“It is I, I should atone”). New poetic arias do the same; in the St. John Passion the narrative passage “Simon Petrus aber folgete Jesu nach und ein ander Jünger” (“Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus”) is followed by an aria that begins “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (“I will follow you likewise with joyful steps”) that draws in the listener (by the first-person pronoun), echoes the concept of “following” mentioned in the narrative, and adds an affective element by the invocation of “joy” both textually and in the character of Bach’s musical setting.

The vividness of Bach’s musical settings, especially the choral settings of the words of crowds and groups, has encouraged a way of performing and listening to this music in modern times that departs from its likely reception in Bach’s time. The use of much larger vocal and instrumental forces now (an inheritance from the works’ revival in the early nineteenth century) and the interpretation of the music as dramatic rather than narrative, with the depiction of characters by individual performers (compared with the multiple duties carried out by singers in Bach’s time), has heightened potentially troubling aspects of the work’s text and music, particularly in its representation of Jewish participants in the narrative. The scriptural portions of the works and Bach’s musical settings (especially in the St. John Passion, with its Johannine ascription of much of the action to Jewish participants) have thus been particularly implicated in debates over the music’s meanings in Bach’s time and now and over its potential to offend.

Bach also performed at least one other scriptural oratorio Passion several times in his career, a St. Mark setting attributed to Reinhard Keiser. He also was familiar with a related kind of musical Passion setting whose entire text was poetic, including paraphrases of Gospel narrative. This kind of poetic Passion oratorio was particularly favored in the first half of the eighteenth century, and in fact the newly written poetry of Bach’s own St. John and St. Matthew settings draws on the most famous text of the kind by the Hamburg theologian Barthold Heinrich Brockes. The popularity of this kind of text points to a move away from the liturgical presentation of scripture and toward the poetic and musical interpretation of it through the medium of free poetry. Bach did not compose a Passion setting of this type, but his narrative work that comes closest to the type is the Easter Oratorio BWV 249, which presents poetic paraphrases of words of New Testament characters but no literal scriptural text.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 is also of the narrative scriptural type. Throughout its six parts designed for performances spread over the 12 days of the Christmas observance, a tenor presents narration drawn partly from Luke and partly from Matthew in recitative-like delivery. Direct speech of individuals and of groups is presented in solo and ensemble numbers. Commentary is presented in the form of framing and interpolated chorales and free poetry set as poetic choruses, recitatives, and arias. In this work, in contrast to the Passion settings, narration is kept to a minimum and commentary, with its interpretive and affective aspects, dominates. Scripture here is treated more as a starting point for extensive reflection than as the narrative core of the work. The Ascension Oratorio BWV 11 has a balance of scripture and commentary more like that of the Passions, with a substantial component of Gospel narration.

Motets and Liturgical Works.

In several respects Bach’s own motets follow in the inherited tradition from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Motets, in contrast to vocal concertos, used only voices with supporting basso continuo but no independent instruments; instruments’ roles were limited to the optional doubling of vocal lines. Motets traditionally drew on chorales, biblical dicta, or a combination of the two. “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (“The spirit helps us in our weakness”) BWV 226 sets a scriptural text phrase by phrase; “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” (“Praise the Lord, all you nations”) BWV 230 (of questionable attribution and origin) does the same. “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn” (“I will not let you go, unless you bless me”) BWV Anh. 159, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Do not fear, for I am with you”) BWV 228, and “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesus, my joy”) BWV 227 combine biblical texts and chorales in various ways. “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a new song”) BWV 225 does the same, with additional free poetry as well.

Some of Bach’s liturgical works use scriptural texts. Perhaps most prominent is his Magnificat BWV 243 and 243a, part of his repertory of settings of this text used throughout the church year. Bach’s composition treats each verse as an independent movement, allowing for the strong projection of affect in response to the changing topics taken up in the text. It draws on ritornello forms (both in aria-like solo settings and in choral numbers) and on choral pieces that refer to motet style; there are no recitatives. Bach’s various settings of the Sanctus from the Mass Ordinary also draw, of course, on biblical words.

Bach and the Bible.

The particular Bibles that Bach and his librettists drew on cannot be established with certainty, but his texts generally follow Martin Luther’s German translation in its final form of 1545 as it was known (largely with updated spellings) in the early eighteenth century. Church cantata texts will sometimes make small changes in scriptural texts, particularly so that the grammar of dicta makes sense in isolation. Additional variants appear in Bach’s autograph scores, in original performing parts, and in other sources, many without evident theological significance or intent. The readings of particular Bibles sometimes influenced Bach’s settings; for example, the St. John Passion BWV 245 originally lacked John 19:38B because some Luther texts did not include it.

Very few books from J. S. Bach’s library survive, but among them are two Bibles. One is the three-volume Bible and commentary by Abraham Calov (Wittenberg, 1681–1682) preserved in the library of the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. The volumes contain a few annotations and corrections in Bach’s hand as well as underlining strongly suspected of being his as well. Scholars have examined these passages for insight into Bach’s theological leanings, perhaps with more confidence in the possibilities of this method than might be warranted. In 2011 a second Bach Bible was identified: an early-seventeenth-century version with copperplate illustrations by Matthäus Merian in a 1704 reprint from Frankfurt am Main.

The characterization of J. S. Bach as the “fifth Evangelist,” an epithet that goes back at least to the start of the twentieth century, probably reveals more about the modern reception of Bach than about the composer himself or about his music as it was heard in its own time. The label is symptomatic of a tendency to regard Bach as an independent interpreter of scripture rather than as a musician realizing contemporary theology in musical terms. Bach’s career-long engagement with the Bible is probably best viewed less as an expression of personal belief than as a reflection of the centrality of scripture to the confession he served.



  • Boyd, Malcolm. Bach. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. A reliable and readable short life-and-works treatment.
  • Chafe, Eric. Analyzing Bach Cantatas. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Technical studies arguing for Bach’s realization of eighteenth-century theological concepts by musical means in his cantatas.
  • Dürr, Alfred, and Richard D. P. Jones, trans. The Cantatas of J. S. Bach. With Their Librettos in German-English Parallel Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. A work-by-work discussion of Bach’s cantatas based on expert scholarship, with complete texts and excellent English translations.
  • Leaver, Robin A. J. S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 1985. Facsimiles of Bach’s marginal comments in a printed Bible and a study of their significance.
  • Marissen, Michael. Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion. With an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A brief study introducing the problem of anti-Jewish sentiment in Bach’s work.
  • Marissen, Michael. Bach’s Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Texts and literal translations of the texts of Bach’s oratorios, with insightful commentary.
  • Melamed, Daniel R. J. S. Bach and the German Motet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Studies of Bach’s motet and use of motet style, with an emphasis on the relation to seventeenth-century repertory.
  • Melamed, Daniel R. Hearing Bach’s Passions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Essays on Bach’s Passion repertory.
  • Melamed, Daniel R., and Michael Marissen. An Introduction to Bach Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A guide to reference and research materials and to literature on Bach.
  • Meyer, Ulrich. Biblical Quotation and Allusion in the Cantata Libretti of Johann Sebastian Bach. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1997. Meticulous tabulation of the relationship of Bach’s cantata texts to Luther’s translation of scripture.
  • Schmieder, Wolfgang, Alfred Dürr, Yoshitake Kobayashi, and Kirsten Beiβwenger. BWV. Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis. Kleine Ausgabe. Wiesbaden, Germany: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1998. A revised version of a standard catalog (BWV) of Bach’s works.

Daniel R. Melamed