Metaphors for Listening in Johann Sebastian Bach's Germany

Change log
Seow, Mark 

Bach studies has traditionally sought to decipher the theological meanings of Bach’s music. The role of the analyst has left performers with little agency: their job, ostensibly, has been to recognise and make audible the theological meanings that Bach’s musical notation encodes. Within this paradigm, listeners have potentially even less to contribute. They merely detect what has already been detected.

This project seeks to explore how Bach’s music functioned beyond such modes of exegesis. I propose a historically oriented approach to Bach’s sacred cantatas that understands musical listening and performance as ways in which faith was embodied and cultivated by believers. This thesis examines three metaphors that circulated in devotional writings of early modern Lutheran Germany to reconstruct and reimagine congregational listening experiences of a Bach cantata. I employ historical metaphor as a framework through which listeners felt music to work tangibly on and in their bodies during a cantata performance, as well as how they used music to fashion themselves into better Christians.

Each of the three chapters is dedicated to a metaphor prevalent in early modern Lutheran Germany. The first chapter looks at the metaphor of music as liquid. I establish flow as a concept central to how early modern Lutherans understood music to come from God, move between performers, reach a listener, and affect change in a listener’s body. The second chapter is dedicated to the metaphor of farming. Lutherans were taught to cultivate their hearts as if farmland, and good listening was the process of bringing God’s Word-seed to fruition. I explore congregational listening as something that shifted between different aspects of the metaphor: aural attention could constitute forms of agricultural labour, growth, and propagation. The third chapter explores the status of music as different kinds of wind. I show how Lutherans experienced church music as an aerated mixture which included the breeze of the Holy Spirit. Musical analyses in each chapter test out these modes of listening.

As a whole, this thesis calls for historical listening to be understood as something multiple, embodied, and imaginative. It seeks to understand listening as a much broader set of acts that stretch beyond the temporal limits and spatial context of a specific musical performance.

Varwig, Bettina
18th-century Germany, cantata, Early modern history, Johann Sebastian Bach, listening, Lutheranism, metaphor, music
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (2118732)
AHRC DTP; Isaac Newton Trust