Ben Shute: Sei Solo: Symbolum?

The Theology of J. S. Bach’s solo violin works
Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon
ISBN 978-1-4982-3941-7
xxvii+267pp, $28.00

This is not the first monograph to employ a variety of disciplines to delve beneath the surface of a group of surviving compositions by Bach in the hope of finding a hidden key to their understanding and interpretation: nor will it be the last. But what is unusual about Benjamin Shute is that he does not go overboard for the one-and-only solution, instead adopting a multi-faceted approach to unearthing the composer’s intentions.

For those who are not persuaded that the key to Sei Solo  is to be found exclusively in just symbolic numbers, or key sequences, or symbolic references, or Biblical typology, studies that acknowledge the complexity of Bach’s mind, the diversity of his accomplishments and the range of Biblical, social and cultural influences under which he was formed as a person stand a greater chance of winning my sympathy, and this is certainly one of them.

Benjamin Shute is a violinist and musicologist who has lived with and performed the Sei Solo  on both modern and period instruments. He has a range of academic studies to his credit and knows the Bach oeuvre inside out – he clearly knows the keyboard works and the cantatas as well as he knows the instrumental music. But, more significantly for the task he has set himself, he has done a substantial amount to penetrate Bach’s intellectual and theological mindset. While we know tantalizingly little about Bach’s personal beliefs, we know a good deal about that generation’s commonplace assumptions about symbolic language and Lutheran typology – two areas in which their basic assumptions are notably different from our own. But more specifically, we also know how Bach marked and underlined his prized copy of Calov’s Die deutsche Bibel. In these important areas where few musicians are totally at home, Shute seems surefooted. This is a good omen for a study that is complex, detailed and seems to me to reach pretty plausible insights.

His thesis in brief is ‘that the nativity of Christ is represented in the first sonata in G minor while the juxtaposed D minor partita and C major sonata are the locus of passion-resurrection imagery.’ He acknowledges that there have been both numerological and emotion-based interpretations in these areas, but none relying on firm musicological bases. These he begins to lay out, undergirding his research with a sketch of the shift from thinking of music as en expression of the divine wisdom, an essentially Aristotelian absolute, towards music as a more subjective expression of human feeling, revealing the drama and rhetoric of the ‘seconda prattica.’ In Germany these two traditions – ratio and sensus – remained side by side until the 18th century, and the struggle to balance the two is evident in Bach’s work. So stand-alone instrumental music has a theological proclamation in its conviction that the compositional complexity of contrapuntal music reveals the inherent order of the cosmos, while texted music has a more obvious emotive power to communicate the particularity of the Word. It is the activity of the Holy Spirit that animates both the composer’s mind and the hearers’ ears to receive the divine breath of life.

In instrumental music such as the Sei Solo, therefore, we can expect the structure and the relationships of keys for example to carry a symbolic or allegorical significance, without being tied to particular texts. Music does not need a religious or theological text to be a witness to the divine nature of music. Just as Luther saw Josquin’s music as a microcosm of grace superseding law, so Bach and his Lutheran forebears understood a whole complex world of sound and notation as embodying the divine harmony of the Trinity: the relationship of key to key, note to note within the traditional solmization overlay a rich and symbolic theological language.

One obvious model for Bach’s Sei Solo  was Heinrich Ignaz Biber’s set of 15 sonatas for violin and continuo, where each is preceded by an engraving of one of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. The set ends with a monumental Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin ‘that is the most striking precursor of Bach’s Ciaccona’.

In the Lutheran tradition, Bach’s predecessor as Kantor at St Thomas’, Johann Kuhnau, had composed a set of Biblical sonatas for keyboard. Kuhnau and Bach had met in 1716 to examine a new organ in Halle, and his six sonatas of 1700 had been reprinted in 1710. Many of Bach’s works are in sets of six: the Brandenburg concertos, the Sonatas for Violoncello solo, the Schübler Chorale Preludes, the French Suites, the Trio Sonatas for organ as well as the Sei Solo. The number six reflects the Biblical six days of creation, and came to be viewed as a complete number. But there is no superficial evidence for an obvious programmatic plan behind Sei Solo, as there is in the Biber and Kuhnau. Is there any evidence of a hidden schema? To discover one is the underlying purpose of Shute’s study.

First he examines the chiastic structure of the Ciaccona, and notes its parallels in the Actus Tragicus  and the Credo of the B minor whose central movement, the Crucifixus, has a one sharp (cross) key signature. He only briefly refers to the central chiastic structure of the Johannespassion, though he notices Chafe’s J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology, an important study. He sees a likely antecedent in the Ciaccona in the wedding cantata composed by Johann Christoph Bach and preserved by Johann Sebastian in the Altbachisches Archiv, which has a virtuoso violin part over the repeated bass. and sets a text studded with references to The Song of Songs, where the lovesick bride longs for her groom – a theme that occurs frequently in the cantatas and in the opening of the Matthäuspassion. From this he moves to consider the descent-ascent pattern, related key structures and concludes that the Ciaccona and the C major sonata that follows it represent a strong crucifixion-resurrection motif. I recount this chapter in some detail, as it gives an insight into Shute’s detailed working on a number of interlinked fronts.

The following chapter analyses the musical reversal of the descent theme in the D minor Ciaccona in the C major fuga, and speculates on the links with the two chorales, An Wasserflüssen Babylon  and Komm, heiliger Geist, both discernable in the subject Mattheson set for the audition in Hamburg where Bach gave such an impressive display. Shute links this to the theme of exile and restoration in Israel’s history as a type of Christ’s dying and rising, which accomplishes the restoration of the fallen human race, showing how Luther and his successors used Psalm 137 – An Wasserflüssen Babylon  – as a type of longing for our restoration in Christ to our heavenly home. This is the context in which Shute comments on Bach’s words ‘al riverso’, written just before he presents the subject and countersubject of the fugue exclusively in inversion. ‘The exile theme, with its possible secondary association with the passion, is turned emphatically upside-down as the very material that had previous formed an unequivocal descent . . . . is turned on its head to create a similarly unequivocal, glorious ascent.’ (p.57)

I find his detailed musical analysis, his knowledge of the wider context of Lutheran theology, and his ability to relate musical structures to the broad sweep of Christian theology very compelling. Of course, there are occasional slips: the wonderful aria at the end of the Matthäuspassion  “Mache dich” that signals the way in which the dead Christ is wrapped in the warmth of our embrace is accompanied by the warm, rich tones of oboes da caccia, not oboes d’amore. But such slips are very rare, and the wealth of references to musical, theological and historical sources – there are 87 substantial footnotes to this chapter alone – gives me confidence in his modest judgements.

The Chapter ‘A Broader Theological Schema in the Sei Solo? looks at the whole collection, and explores the key sequence in relation to among other things, the stringing of the violin, the hexachord and the fulfillment of the work of creation, commenting on the emerging associations of both keys and rhythms. Chapter 5 examines number correlations in the Partitas, and the final chapter is entitled ‘A Hermeneutic Overview of the Sei Solo’. Appendix A examines Helga Thoene’s Premise of Symbolism in the Sei Solo, and Appendix B looks at two further case studies: the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 – does a lost violin concerto with similar references to a chiastic structure and its Christ-on-the-cross references lie behind the various versions of this material? and then the Adagio in the first Brandenburg, BWV 1046 – do the blank staves for the horns in this movement hint at some hidden theological comment on the strange break harmonically exactly one third of the way through the movement. This reflection introduces novel possibilities: do wind instruments carry overtones of ‘spirit’?

Throughout this detailed and imaginative monograph, Shute provides not only tables displaying chiastic structures and key sequences but a wealth of musical examples: Appendix B alone has 15. This makes it possible to follow the detailed musical arguments without always having to go to the volumes of the NBA. Is the same true for the non-theologically trained reader, who puzzles over the unfamiliar world of Johannine theology or Lutheran exegetical typology? I think so, as although theologically literate, I am not a specialist in Lutheran exegesis. I found the book demanding to read, but raising interesting questions – not all of which I had considered before even in works which I regularly study and perform like the Johannespassion, the B minor Mass or some of the cantatas. The footnotes are full of cross references, the bibliography very thorough and up-to-date and the indices excellent.

So I commend it to anyone who wants to experience a testing, but rewarding series of arguments, and above all to those who know less about Bach as a highly intellectual, organized and reflective Lutheran of his time than they would like.

David Stancliffe