Bach was quintessentially Jewish. And in seeking to break free from these laws, Beethoven was the true Christian. Might the gulf between Bach and Beethoven mirror that between Judaism and Christianity?by Norman Podhoretz / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
I once shocked a devout Lutheran friend by telling him that Johann Sebastian Bach was really Jewish. I knew perfectly well, of course, that Bach had been a Lutheran-indeed, the greatest glory of that Christian denomination- and I was mainly being provocative. Then I added that, compared with Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven was the true Christian. Here again I knew that Beethoven, although a Catholic and capable of composing the Missa Solemnis, had not been so deep a believer as Bach. Yet I was being at least half-serious in assigning Bach to Judaism and Beethoven to Christianity.
A similar thought must have occurred to whoever originally described Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as the Old Testament of keyboard music, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas as the New. So far as I know, this analogy has never provoked surprise or outrage; the very fact that it stuck suggests that my own more outlandish extrapolation of it has some basis in a widely shared intuition about the two composers.
Still, I will concede that “outlandish” is the right word to describe my position. For a start, Lutheranism may be at a further remove from Judaism than any other Christian denomination. From a theological point of view they are almost polar opposites.
Judaism puts its stress not on belief or faith, but on action-what Christians call “works.” To be an Orthodox Jew means to dedicate one’s life to following the Law or (in Hebrew) the Torah as handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Torah consists of a written text (the Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament) as interpreted in enormous detail by what was originally an oral tradition. After the 4th century it was set down in writing as well, and became known as the Talmud.
Perhaps the best secular analogy to the relation between the Bible and the Talmud is the one between the American constitution and the entire corpus of Supreme Court decisions, including all the dissents from those decisions. But whereas the compendium of Supreme Court rulings does not include the congressional debates preceding them, the Talmud does reproduce the exegetical arguments among the rabbis, leading up to their final decisions.
Taken together, all this falls under the rubric of the Halachah, a Hebrew word meaning “the way,” but understood to refer to the statutes and rabbinical rulings which govern the behaviour of an observant Jew. From the minute he rises in the morning until he goes to bed at night, just about every action he is likely to perform falls under the aegis of these laws.
What seems most strange about Judaism to many Christians is how small a role faith plays in this religious scheme. At Mount Sinai, on agreeing to abide by the Law, the ancient Hebrews said, “We will do and we will hear,” which was interpreted to mean that action came before belief, and that belief (even if absent) would come and grow through such action. Thus theology never played the kind of role for Jews that it did for Christians and Muslims. There was only a handful of Jewish theologians who busied themselves with faith, but of commentators performing exegeses on the Law there was-and is-no end.
It goes without saying that observant Jews believe in and love God as the creator of the world and as the giver of the Law whose “yoke” they take upon themselves as a blessing and a joy. It is also true that the greatest of all Jewish theologians, Maimonides (who lived in the middle ages), laid down 13 principles in which Jews are supposed to believe. Nevertheless, Judaism is a religion of “works” rather than faith. Good Jews are good by virtue of the commandments they follow, not the theological niceties they accept.
I heard an anecdote illustrating the force of this ethos from an Israeli friend who had become an atheist in his teens and whose father was Orthodox. One day, while having an intense argument about the existence of God, my friend’s father looked at his watch and said to his son: “Well, God may or may not exist, but it’s time for the evening prayers.”
A devout Christian could never say that. And of all the Christian denominations, Lutheranism is perhaps least well-equipped to understand such a perspective. For it is precisely through faith and not through works that, according to Luther, salvation must be sought. Bach’s cantatas-many of them settings of hymns by Luther himself-are pervaded by this doctrine.
As if this were not enough to refute my thesis about Bach, there is the anti-Semitism-no softer term will do-with which Martin Luther came to be infected. So fierce was his hatred of Jews that some have even seen him as the ultimate source of Nazi anti-Semitism. Bach did not, so far as I am aware, share this attitude. Yet in the St John Passion, his setting of the Fourth Gospel, he omitted many passages but not the nasty outbursts which disfigure this most anti-Jewish book of the New Testament.
So how can I suggest that Bach was really Jewish? There is no evidence that Bach himself or any of his ancestors was Jewish; I do not for a moment entertain any such fantasy. What am I talking about, then? The answer lies in the nature of Bach’s music and the fundamental principle it embodies, which is strict adherence to the established rules of the art in his day. So law-abiding was Bach-so joyously did he shoulder the “yoke” of the musical laws which had been handed down to him-that he fell out of fashion as other composers came along, including some of his own sons. The music critic Samuel Lipman once described the rebellion against their father by his two most talented offspring-Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach-as tantamount to saying: “Let’s just listen to the pretty tunes now.”
Pretty tunes abounded in their father’s huge output. To cite just one example, the aria Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion is arguably the most beautiful melody in the history of western music. Yet it was embedded in so traditional a composition that for a very long time no one could bother to listen to it. Moreover, not even the fact that the St Matthew Passion as a whole may be the greatest single piece of music ever written could save it from oblivion. It was lost for almost a century until Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered it. Mendelssohn was a Protestant, but he descended from a Jewish family (his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was an eminent Jewish scholar), and he remained attached to his roots. I have always wondered whether it was the connection he maintained with Judaism that opened Mendelssohn’s ears to the greatness of the St Matthew Passion-whose words were the words of the New Testament but whose music, in its strict fidelity to the laws governing the art, was the music of the Old.
The same applies to such strictly secular works of Bach as the preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the sonatas and partitas for violin, the pieces for solo cello, and so on. Incidentally, his last work, the unfinished and mysteriously sublime Art of the Fugue-a final exploration of the most strictly orthodox of traditional musical forms-suffered an even worse fate than the St Matthew Passion. The only extant manuscript was found by one of his sons after Bach’s death, wrapped around a fish.
But to explain why I think all these works are also “Jewish,” I must introduce another concept central to biblical Judaism. The rabbis of the Talmud managed through ingenious hermeneutical digging to extract from certain obscure phrases in the Bible a belief in an afterlife. This is why the resurrection of the dead came to be affirmed in the Jewish liturgy and why it ended up as one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of the Faith. But in the Bible itself, no such belief is clearly visible. Biblical Judaism concerns itself with life in this world; it prescribes a way of living such a life which will ensure that it be both long and prosperous. If you choose to live in accordance with God’s commandments, you will be rewarded with “length of days” and much prosperity-not in heaven, but here on earth.
That this promise was-and is-honoured at least as often in the breach as in the observance did not escape the notice of the ancient Hebrews. Many biblical passages and an entire book-the Book of Job-are audacious enough to call God to account, demanding an explanation of why the virtuous so often suffer and the wicked so commonly prosper. The explanation usually consists of a variation on “You are incapable of understanding,” yet pious Jews have generally accepted this as sufficient. They have continued to believe that in some sense beyond the powers of the human mind to grasp, God does keep His promise.
I would argue that encapsulated in the music of Bach is what may be the most convincing demonstration ever offered of this biblical proposition: far more convincing than the voice from the whirlwind in the Book of Job. Bach’s music does not sweep away the doubts raised by God’s promise in the Bible. Instead, it shows that remaining within the finite limits of the Law is the way to infinite riches.
Without seeking for novelty or new forms, Bach was able to pour forth an endless succession of pieces whose reach was as deep as the human mind has ever plunged, as wide as the human heart has ever extended, as high as the human spirit has ever soared. Everything within the universe of human experience is there. And just as every human being born into this world is simultaneously the same as all others of the species and also a unique individual, so almost every one of Bach’s pieces is at once free of innovation and also entirely new and original.
Within the confines of the law, Bach uncovered so much complexity, so broad a range of emotion, that the performer of his music can scarcely capture it all or the listener take it all in. But capture it the performer can-and the attentive ear is quite capable of hearing it. In that respect it is like the Law of the Bible itself, which, we are told, is within the grasp of everyone.
In Deuteronomy, the identification between the Law and life is made explicit: “…I have set before thee life and death…: therefore choose life.” But the life we are here enjoined to choose is life on this earth, and we are to choose it by obeying the Law. To make this choice is to escape the curse of death-a living death, not the condition of mortality to which all, saints and sinners alike, are inescapably subject.
This was the bone which stuck in the throat of Saul of Tarsus, a Jew like Jesus himself, who on the road to Damascus had a vision of Christ crucified which transformed him into the man who became St Paul. It is (is it not?) fairly obvious from the Gospels that Jesus and his disciples had no intention of founding a new religion. They differed from their fellow Jews chiefly in their conviction that Jesus was the Messiah who, upon being resurrected, would eject the Romans from the occupied Holy Land and restore the Davidic dynasty and the rule of God. Far from rebelling against the Law, they dreamed of conditions that would make for a more perfect observance of it than had been possible under the Romans. For had not Jesus himself said: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law… I am not come to destroy but to fulfill…”
To St Paul, however, the advent of Jesus had effected a cosmic revolution. Whereas the other earliest Christians continued to obey the Law of Judaism, St Paul proclaimed that it had been abrogated. When he cried out, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” the only answer Judaism returned was, in effect: “No one can rescue you from death, but if you live according to the commandments, you will enjoy all the life there is to live.”
Yet this, said St Paul, was impossible for him. Despite his best efforts, he could not obey the commandments because, although the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak and corrupt by its very nature as an inheritance of the original sin of disobedience committed by Adam and Eve.
The answer St Paul needed was the answer he understood Jesus (whom he had never known personally) to have given: by the grace of God, manifested in the sacrifice of his only son, the old Law was no longer binding, and the foremost among its abrogated components was its very foundation: death itself. Mortality had been conquered and abolished: “Death is swallowed up in victory,” he wrote. “O death, where is thy sting?” With mortality thus vanquished, eternal life was established-not as the reward of fulfilling the commandments (which was beyond the corrupted human creature anyway), but as a loving gift to those who believed in Christ: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The technical term for hostility to law is antinomianism. There has been much controversy among theologians over how antinomian St Paul was. Yet I cannot imagine how a disinterested reader of his Epistles could fail to see that a strong strain of antinomianism runs through them. Nor is it easy to miss the link between this attitude to the Law and the ambition to transcend the mortal limits of the human condition.
Which brings me to Beethoven. In his classic work, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, JWN Sullivan writes: “Of Beethoven’s religious beliefs we know very little, except that they were not orthodox.” Fair enough. But not even Sullivan could deny that Beethoven was some kind of believing Christian; and no one who has listened to the Missa Solemnis could doubt it. In characterising Beethoven as Christian, however, I am not talking about his specific beliefs or his day-to-day conduct. As in the case of Bach, it is the nature of his music that I have in mind.
To Sullivan, on the other hand, the “spiritual development” reflected in Beethoven’s music has nothing to do with Christianity. Rather, this development grows out of Beethoven’s heroic struggle with the Fate that he had “seized by the throat.” It culminates in his achievement of a state beyond struggle-one in which he arrives at an unearthly peace with suffering as an essential component of life. Sullivan even seems to think that to conceive of Beethoven’s music in religious terms is to limit it: “The man who has sincerely accepted a religious scheme in which all the major problems of life are provided with solutions is likely to go through life without ever experiencing the direct impact of those problems. That is, in fact, the weakness of Bach as compared with Beethoven.”
Sullivan was a mathematician with a great love of music. While not influenced by the vulgar materialism of some of his colleagues, he was enough of a secularist-and sufficiently ignorant of religion-to write the above sentence. How then could he have been expected to know that in denigrating “Bach as compared with Beethoven,” he was echoing ancient Christian denigrations of Judaism which went back to St Paul? (When he says that Bach, “who may be likened to Beethoven for the seriousness and maturity of his mind, lost himself at the end in the arid labyrinths of pure technique,” I catch an echo of the charge that Judaism is merely and exclusively legalistic.)
Sullivan’s praise of Beethoven-for him, the greatest artist who ever lived-is based less on the composer’s heroic struggle against Fate (the same Fate that robbed him of his hearing) than on his refusal to remain bound by the laws of the musical tradition he had inherited. Beethoven’s earliest work was, in the main, traditional, but beginning with his third symphony, the Eroica, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the restrictions to which earlier composers had submitted.
Sullivan interprets this refusal as the supreme example of the old-fashioned conception of the artist as the Romantic rebel, shaking his fist at the heavens and asserting the value of his own individuality: “So much of what Beethoven expresses is unique” and his last quartets were “different in kind from any other music that he or anybody else ever wrote.” In the school of Romantic thought, by which Sullivan was influenced, no higher praise could be sung.
By contrast, my (almost serious) theory is that this uniqueness testified to an antinomian streak in Beethoven analogous to, and ultimately stemming from, Pauline Christianity. Sullivan, borrowing a line from Wordsworth, declares that Beethoven was “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” and that in embarking on those seas, Beethoven achieved “superhuman knowledge” and a “superhuman life.” In other words, Beethoven’s aim was to transcend the human condition as defined by the mortality which to St Paul was inseparable from the Law.
In using the term “superhuman,” Sullivan is also saying that Beethoven realised this aim in his last works, especially the string quartets and most particularly the one in C sharp minor. I do not agree-although I do not challenge the view that Beethoven was a giant among composers. My own knowledge of music comes strictly through the ear-I neither play any instrument nor read scores-but I am an addicted listener. As such, I have tried at least a hundred (or is it a thousand?) times to discern what Sullivan hears in Beethoven’s last quartets and piano sonatas. In vain. I must confess to the heresy of hearing in Schubert’s string quintet in C major more of the quality Sullivan finds in Beethoven’s string quartet in C sharp minor.
More heretically yet, as against his last quartets and sonatas, I even prefer the works of Beethoven’s middle period (the Seventh symphony, the harp string quartet, the Missa Solemnis, and the first three movements of the Ninth symphony), in which he has not yet-at least not entirely-devoted himself to overcoming the limitations of the laws of music and thereby “the body of this death.”
Might it be the Jew in me who resists the products of this quintessentially Christian ambition, as it may have been the atavistic Jew in Mendelssohn whose ears were opened to Bach’s St Matthew Passion-a work which, notwithstanding that its libretto is mostly drawn from one of the most sacred of all Christian texts, I cannot help finding quintessentially Jewish?
Let me give the last word to Thomas Mann. In Doctor Faustus there is a scene in which Kretzschmar, a lecturer on music, informs his students that Beethoven’s contemporaries doubted he could write a successful fugue. To silence these doubts, Beethoven wrote the Grosse Fuge, which puzzled his contemporaries, but which by Kretzschmar’s time had come to be seen as one of his most miraculous compositions.
To Kretzschmar himself, however, the issue was more complex. Mann writes: “He would be bold… perhaps even stick his foot in it, by declaring that in such a treatment of the fugue one could see hatred and violation, a thoroughly unaccommodating and problematical relationship with the artform, a reflection of the relationship, or lack thereof, between the great man and one still greater… Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Emboldened by Kretzschmar, I will stick my foot in even deeper. I will speculate that the idea Mann puts into Kretzschmar’s mouth about Beethoven’s attitude towards Bach may have some bearing on “the relationship, or lack thereof” between Christianity and Judaism in (let us hope) days gone by.