Bach: Luther’s Musical Prophet?

How to Cite

Lloyd, R. (2007). Bach: Luther’s Musical Prophet?. Current Musicology, (83).


It is impossible to read much theological analysis of Bach without encountering Martin Luther. The reformer’s name is ubiquitous: he is given both as source and as ultimate authority for the theological ideas supposedly expressed in Bach’s music. Most would agree that Luther provides a vital context for interpreting Bach’s sacred music.Perhaps it is unsurprising that musicologists have turned to Luther when interpreting Bach. Despite many critiques of the hermeneutic method-such as that of Carolyn Abbate (2004)-musicologists still search out meaning in music by investigating a suitable “horizon of expectations” within which to situate music’s meaning and affect historically. My own view is that hermeneutics is inescapable to most of us brought up within the musicological tradition; I tend to agree with Karol Berger’s assertion, contra Abbate, that “we cannot help it: we are hermeneutic creatures through and through”. Abbate argues for the privileging of the experience of performed music over its hermeneutic interpretation; Berger counters that, while aesthetic experience is indeed an important and under-appreciated part of academic study, the hermeneutic and the experiential cannot be so neatly separated. I side with Berger on this point: whether because of training, conditioning, or instinctive response, many-perhaps most-listeners to Bach’s music seem to want to contextualize and understand theirresponses by studying what Bach himself might have thought about his music’s purpose and origin.