Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption im 19. Jahrhundert

Das Bach-Bild Philipp Spittas: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption im 19. Jahrhundert

Goerge B. Stauffer

By Wolfgang Sandberger. (Beihefte zum Archiv fur Musikwissenschaft, 39.) Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997. [323 p. ISBN 3-515-07008-7.]

It is clear that Bach scholarship is far from finished with Philipp Spitta. Much of the work chronology he proposed in his monumental biography Johann Sebastian Bach (1873-80) has been overturned, and his view of Bach as the “fifth evangelist” has been rejected. Nevertheless, Spitta continues to cast a long shadow over Bach research: no recent writer has attempted to draw Bach’s life on such a grand scale, and reports of new discoveries or new hypotheses still cite Spitta’s findings as a point of departure. For better or worse, Spitta is the bedrock to which modern Bach scholarship remains firmly anchored.

By any measure, Spitta’s accomplishments are impressive indeed. In addition to the famous Bach biography, he edited Dietrich Buxtehude: Orgelwerke (1876-77) for Denkmaler deutscher Tonkunst (which he helped to found), Heinrich Schlitz: Samtliche Werke (1885-94), and Friedrich II von Preussen: Musikalische Werke (1889). He was also cofounder (with Friedrich Chrysander and Guido Adler) of the Vierteljahrsschrift fur Musikwissenschaft and a major force behind the Leipzig Bach-Verein, established in 1875 for the express purpose of bringing Bach’s cantatas to performance. As professor of music history at Berlin University and director of the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, Spitta trained the next generation of German scholars, including Max Friedlaender, Max Seiffert, Peter Wagner, and Johannes Wolf. Spitta was able to convince his fellow Germans that the study of early music, especially Teutonic music, was a “national obligation,” and his reliance on archival documents and use of watermarks and handwriting analysis in his own musicological work set the stage for the neopositivist investigations of the twentieth century.

In spite of this, relatively little has been written on Spitta’s life. There is Hugo Riemann’s essay “Philipp Spitta und seine Bach-Biographie,” published in Musikalische Ruckblicke (1900) and now badly outdated; Christoph Wolff’s entry on Spitta in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980) and Heinrich Spitta’s in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1949-86); and the Brahms-Spitta correspondence (in Johannes Brahms: Briefwechsel, vol. 16 [Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, 1907-22]). Of more recent vintage is Ulrike Schilling’s Philipp Spitta: Leben und Wirken im Spiegel seiner Briefwechsel (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1994; reviewed in Notes 52 [1996]: 817-18 by the present writer), which includes an inventory of Spitta’s estate and a bibliography of his printed works. Now comes Wolfgang Sandberger’s most welcome addition to Spitta studies.

Sandberger’s work originated as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Hamburg, where it was written under the direction of Handel scholar Hans Joachim Marx. The volume focuses on four broad aspects of Spitta and his Bach biography: Spitta’s life and work, the historical context of the Bach biography, Bach research in the service of the Protestant church-music restoration movement, and central aspects of Spitta’s Bach portrait.

In part 1, Sandberger surveys Spitta’s upbringing with an eye to how it later influenced the Bach biography. Spitta was born into a family of theologians. His father, Carl Johann Spitta, was a minister and the author of Psalter und Harfe, a collection of spiritual poetry; his brother, Friedrich Spitta, was a well-known New Testament scholar, liturgist, and hymnologist. Although Philipp Spitta became a professor of music history, Sandberger shows that he never relinquished his theological roots, which surfaced in the Bach biography in his determination to show that Bach was the greatest Protestant church composer in German history. Spitta consequently downplayed Bach’s secular musicmaking as Kapellmeister in Cothen and collegium musicum director in Leipzig. The Cothen years, in particular, appear in Johann Sebastian Bach as a sort of artistic detour between the two great periods of cantata writing, Weimar and Leipzig – this in spite of the fact that Bach later stated that the Cothen tenure was the happiest time of his life.

In part 2, Sandberger paints the context in which Spitta wrote his Bach biography. Spitta relied on the objective evaluation of archival documents and manuscript materials to a greater extent than any previous music historian, and certainly more than the earlier Bach biographers Johann Nicolaus Forkel, C. L. Hilgenfeld, and Carl Hermann Bitter. Still, Spitta was clearly a child of his time in wanting to demonstrate – just as Hermann Grimm had in Michelangelo (1860-63) – his subject’s rise as man as well as artist. For Spitta, this meant stressing Bach’s humble roots (his making the pilgrimage to Buxtehude in Lubeck “on foot,” for example) in order to accent the later triumphs (such as the visit with Frederick the Great in 1747). As Sandberger points out, it is remarkable how deeply entrenched Spitta’s agenda of presenting Bach as struggling cultural hero remains today.

Part 3, with its detailed description of Spitta’s involvement with the movement to restore Protestant church music, is perhaps the most important section of Sandberger’s study. Spitta presented Bach as Germany’s greatest church composer and strongly believed that his cantatas could form the basis for a historical restoration of Protestant liturgical music. Spitta felt that the cantatas were not concert fare but rather religions “Kunstwerke hochster Art” – a blend of religion, liturgy, music, and art parallel to Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. This stood in direct contrast to Carl von Winterfeld’s championing of Renaissance a cappella style – and the works of Johannes Eccard, in particular – as the Protestant church ideal. Spitta promoted his cause by backing the performances and practical editions of the Bach-Verein, actively supporting new liturgical music (Brahms’s opus 74, two church motets, is dedicated to Spitta), and portraying Bach, in his biography, as a composer whose greatest artistic triumphs were in the realm of church music. The last may have led Spitta to misread the source materials and proclaim the chorale cantatas as the climactic accomplishment of Bach’s Leipzig years, when in fact they were a one-year undertaking carried out at the beginning of Bach’s kantorship (1724-25), as demonstrated in the 1950s by the new Bach chronology.

In part 4, Sandberger explores specific aspects of Spitta’s Bach portrait. Among the subjects covered are: Bach as the culmination of a family dynasty, the idea that Bach blossomed as an organist at a relatively late age, Bach as romantic artist par excellence, the dilemma of Bach’s reliance on parody technique, and the vexing issues presented by the B-Minor Mass. Although many of these topics have been treated elsewhere in recent years in specialized studies, the discussion here makes for very good reading.

Sandberger’s study helps us understand Philipp Spitta and the views he brought to his Bach biography. Today, Spitta’s picture of Bach the “fifth evangelist” has been offset by the more secular view of Bach the disgruntled church composer who turned to other endeavors during the last two decades of his life. No doubt this, too, will yield eventually to a different portrayal, one that accords with the zeitgeist of the twenty-first century. Yet the perpetuation of Spitta’s vision is striking: the church cantatas open the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (as series 1), and they are listed first in the Schmieder catalog (BWV 1-200) and the Bach Compendium (letter A). The Bach-Jahrbuch, though edited by college professors, is still published by the Evangelische Verlagsanstalt. In Germany especially, but also in the United States, the links between Bach and the Lutheran church remain strong, and the cantatas continue to be viewed as the foundation of the Bach repertory. It is this heritage, addressed by Sandberger, that remains with us today.

GEORGE B. STAUFFER Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY

COPYRIGHT 1999 Music Library Association, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning