The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Easter is a perfect time to ask: How religious was Johann Sebastian Bach? | March 31, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

This Sunday is Easter 2018.

It seems a perfect time ask: How religious was the great Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (below)?

It also seems a perfect time to listen to Bach.

After all, has any composer written more Easter music or greater Easter music than Bach did in his passions, oratorios and cantatas?

According to the new book “Bach and God” by Michael Marissen, Bach — who was composing prolifically in the early days of the Protestant Reformation and Lutheranism — was far more religious than many Bach specialists, especially modern ones, have believed.

Here is a long and highly informative book review from The New York Times:

And while you are reading the book review, you can listen to Bach’s “Easter Oratorio,” BWV 249. Here it is in a YouTube video that features the Bach specialist and scholar John Eliot Gardiner conducting singers and instrumentals — for soloists plus the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — in a wonderful period-instrument performance, with historically informed performance practices.


  1. Maybe Easter Sunday isn’t the right time for this (but maybe it is)?

    The NYTimes has a fascinating article up on a child prodigy of classical music gone wrong: someone who got higher marks on the violin from Julliard than Itzak Perlman and who abandoned his promising career and ended up making boats.

    A great read and fascinating stuff:


    Comment by fflambeau — March 31, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

  2. Thank you — I just listened to the whole Oratorio that you posted while doing other business! I took the Extension class on the Bach cantatas and what struck me was how passionate, ecstatic, sensuous, and even voluptuous Bach becomes in his lyrics.


    Comment by Ron MCrea — March 31, 2018 @ 9:42 am

  3. Bach, and Christianity as a whole, very much believed in the composition and performance of music to glorify god. The same is true in Judaism.

    I am a Buddhist and it is something that I miss most about Western religions. Aside from a few gongs and drums (probably trappings from Chinese religions that predated Buddhism) there is no music in Buddhism. Tibetan ceremonies have a kind of horn instrument and drums but not much else. I am not sure of the Muslim religion: I think they have a tradition of singing but I am not sure.

    Surely one of the greatest features of the western religions is their emphasis on music in rites and to glorify god. Bach is but one example. As noted above, there are many others.

    Interesting that a few Western composers (Alan Hovhaness who was Armenian American is the most notable) was able to take from all these different worlds. I think that is one of the reasons why Western “gate keepers” do not much like him: he’s too much for them. It is only fitting then, that Hovhaness, used all of the traditions available to him in his creative music. See for instance the Hovhaness music that Carl Sagan chose (Vishnu Symphony) to open his Cosmos Series.

    Here’s a great recording of that directed by Hovhaness himself:


    Comment by fflambeau — March 31, 2018 @ 4:35 am

  4. Whether or not Bach was a conservative or a progressive us likely up for debate and more scholarship. There is no question, I think, that he was moved to write a great deal of religious music by his deep beliefs.

    But he was not alone. Think of the more recent Mahler (of a different faith) and his Resurrection Symphony or of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and his Stabat Mater (he was also of a different faith). A contemporary who has written a good deal of religious music, and is now the most performed living composer, is of course Arvo Pärt . See his Passio.

    Of course, there was that exact contemporary of Bach’s, a German living in the city of London named George Friedrich Handel: the man whom Beethoven called “god”.

    Bach was not alone in being inspired by biblical events.


    Comment by fflambeau — March 31, 2018 @ 2:19 am

    • I neglected a favorite: William Byrd’s Mass for 4 Voices. Although it is not particularly an Easter song per se, it is a mass and that will do: Byrd is a neglected master of the High Renaissance.

      Here’s a nice recording of it by the King’s Singers:


      Comment by fflambeau — March 31, 2018 @ 3:52 am

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