Bach and the Middle Ages
By E. Frederick Flindell
Bach Journal, Vol. 36:2 (2005)
Introduction: Are there discernible historical roots or clearly perceived analogies that explicitly relate Bach’s music to the Middle Ages? As many readers have surely had occasion to note, there are references, aphorisms and even essays alluding to, addressing, and affirming this distant chronological link. Many appear as vaguely conceived presentiments, expressive of a recurrent historical study and curiosity. And, to be sure, if one considers and thinks about these intuitive assertions, one is naturally tempted (at least from the musicologist’s point of view) to ask if there is palpable evidence corroborating the often sweeping literary remarks, particularly those that have appeared for well-nigh two and a half centuries. Is there some rationale, left unexplained, or hidden musical affinity—perhaps all too evident—which has simply escaped general attention?
What lies behind these ascriptions? Are they simply imaginative “verbal” gestures—really just conjecture and subjective assumption? Should we direct our attention to these generalizations—these unproven enlargements—written (to use Georg Knepler’s words) in the spirit of a “fatalistic world view adorned with a mystical and superstitious trimming”? Or can it be that they draw upon an imaginary but nevertheless pertinent insight? Is it possible that behind the apothegms and turgid expositions one may find some significant fact or revealing correlation?
At least one distinguished musicologist, Heinrich Besseler, clearly thought so. He even put forward an intriguing working hypothesis, which he had derived from earlier observations of Perotin’s unified and rhythmic style. He felt there were identifiable musical traits in the Middle Ages that could, upon interpretation, reveal much that has remained quite unexplainable in Bach’s work. This seemed to me to be a most curious and promising thought. And we should add that there have been and still are other colleagues and scholars who have taken pains to formulate theories of a medieval nexus with Bach. One recalls Friedrich Blume’s retrospective studies, which encouraged, indeed underlined, the general notion of Bach’s medieval heritage.
Quite apart from these developments there have been men of genius who have affirmed Bach’s relation to the Middle Ages. Carl Maria von Weber, for example, provided some detailed information delineating his conviction that Bach had created a Gothic cathedral of art.
But for the community of present-day scholars there remain a number of crucial problems. Which of all the many medieval musical developments and attainments do these commentators have in mind? This is, of course, a decisive factor in any prospective inquiry. And it is here where we might ask two preliminary questions: What was Bach’s presumed relationship per se to the Middle Ages and in which medieval period did this fall?