On June 19, 2010, I conducted a telephone interview with David Berger, Director of Library Services at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. This is a transcript of much of our conversation.
Dault: During my visit to Concordia Seminary, I picked up a copy of the Lever book on Bach and scripture, and one of the things that I noticed was that it seems that Bach's signature on this Bible creates a mystique about this particular Bible commentary, the Calov Bible commentary [J.S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary].
But it also seems like this Calov Bible commentary has helped to add to the discussion about Bach himself - in terms of his faith, in terms of his relationship to the church. Am I correct in that assessment?
Berger: Well that, I think, is one of the factors that has made the [Calov] Bible of interest to a lot of people. Stephen Crist from Emory was here, for example, a number of years ago and he was doing an article for a festschrift, and he wanted to have access to all the books that we had that were in Bach's library, including the Calov.
Some of the notations, annotations, and markings in the Bible relate to the use of music and worship, of course, and a lot of them relate to death.
Bach's first wife died young and quite a number of his children died in childhood, so he was well acquainted with death, and some of his cantatas, of course, have funeral texts, obviously, or text related to death. A good example would be Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, which is cantata 106.
But I think the Calov shows that he actually used the Bible and, of course, this probably wasn't his only Bible. That's the other thing, this is actually a commentary, as you know.
Berger: It's not, and I suspect - of course, nobody knows this, that he might have had just an actual Bible without the commentary. If he didn't get this until his - it's a date on the title page, 1733.
Some people hypothesize that he might have put that date in there when he reorganized his library around that time, and others say that this is when he got it. He put his name in, he put the date in, and if that is the case, it's hard to believe that he did not have access to a Bible until he was almost 50 years old.
But obviously he did use this one and wrote a few notations in it that relate to music, and use of music and worship, and that's of course, one of the interests.
Dault: Now, when I was speaking to Mr. Buettner, he said that this was of particular interest to Lutherans because, of course, Bach was a Lutheran. From the Lever book, I'm gathering that there has been some contestation about Bach's relationship, both to the church that he served, but also his relationship to the Lutheran church, generally.
And by that, I would want to ask, was Bach always popular as a musician in the Lutheran church? Or, as it seems to me, was there really a resurgence of interest in Bach with, for example, the Detroit Chorus, the Chicago Chorus, and the Northern Ohio Chorus as they began to really recapture and revivify interest in Bach?
I guess that's the historical piece that I want to know, was Bach always of interest to the Lutheran church and to the church more generally, or was his mystique sort of recreated by the interest of these chorales?
Berger: Well, Felix Mendelssohn is often credited with the Bach revival in the earlier part of the 19th century when he put on a first performance of the Saint Matthew Passion since Bach's death. That was probably 70 years or more after Bach's death. I'm trying to remember when it was, but at the earliest, maybe 1820 something. So that would have been over 70 years after Bach's death.
Now, his sons were also composers. I think at least three, maybe four of the sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christian, and I think there was another one too. But the old man was kind of just forgotten because his musical style was considered somewhat old fashioned in his day.
Bach, in his lifetime, was more of a workaday church musician. I think he was very aware of his talent. He was a feisty guy and apparently, on occasion got into spats with his superiors.
He had a method of composition that apparently was not as valued during his day as it is now.
I think you're right about some of these choral societies that grew up in the middle and later 19th century and found that music was great stuff, like Mass in B Minor.
The cantatas, however, I think took much longer. It really wasn't until the 20th century, and probably the middle of the 20th century, that the cantata literature began to be more performed and recorded.
The major works like the Saint John Passion, the B Minor Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio, I think generally had a little more popularity in terms of performance. The cantata literature took longer. Of course, with modern recording, several complete cycles had been done by various groups.
Dault: To sort of follow up on that, you mentioned a few minutes ago that the notations in the Calov commentary are often about music or the use of music.
I haven't had a chance to look closely at the Lever book with regard to this question, but in your own study of these volumes, do Bach's notations point towards content, or do they point towards the justification of music or a certain style of music? What do his comments point towards?
Berger: I'm just looking at here, for example, in Chronicles - by the way, do you happen to have the book?
Dault: I have it right here.
Berger: There are several errors in the book, and some of them are more or less - I think it was edited in a hurry to get it out in 1985, which was a Bach year. If you go to the Chronicles section - let's see where that is here. On page 95 it says, "1st Chronicles 28:21," see at the top of the page?
Dault: I do.
Berger: That really should be 1st Chronicles 29:21, so that's an error right there. You see right below on the page image it says, "30th chapter." So right above it is the end of the 29th chapter.
Dault: I see, yes.
Berger: See, what he says there, the translation of his notation is, "Splendid proof that besides other arrangements of the service of worship, music too was instituted by the spirit of God through David."
On the previous page, with a plate from Chronicles 1, page 93, there as well you see the translation of his notation is, "This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music."
He's referring to the instruments used in the service here in the temple, or the synagogue I guess it is. So he has a number of notations that specifically deal with justifying the use of music in the church service.
Then on page 97 there's another one where the translation of his note is, "Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present."
Dault: I think part of the question that I want to ask you is since he is, as you say, "Justifying the use of music within worship," who would the opponent have been? The first that springs to my mind would be, for example, the Anabaptists and others who would say, "No music, no instrumentation."
Berger: I don't think that was the issue. The issue was, how much support should music have from the people who are in charge of the church? [Bach] was always dealing with this issue - and in those days, of course, there was always a connection between the local political authority and the church as well.
The town fathers were very involved because they all belonged to the same church. They were all very involved in creating policies for the church and how much the church organist and musician should be paid, and all of that.
So part of, I think, of Bach's perspective here is that he's looking at the scripture as a place to show that music should be supported. It's an important part of the worship service. So I don't really think there is any sense of opposition, the kind you were just talking about.
When he got to Leipzig, he had to teach Latin in the school and all that kind of stuff. He had a lot of stuff to do and he wanted more time to focus on the worship.
He had continual problems, like he couldn't get enough good singers. He had to depend on boys for all the treble parts. If you want a really good production, you have to pay some people to do this. And that still happens today in churches. If you really want quality music, like anything else, you may have to pay for it.
So he had that issue before him quite a bit. Not just his salary, but just the general support of music in the church and all that that involves, instrumentalists and keeping the organ in good repair, and maybe having to pay for vocalists as well as instrumentalists at times, if you want to do a major work.
Dault: This is part of what astonishes me, given the mystique about Bach in the present day. It's hard to imagine that he had to struggle for these things during his lifetime. And this is just fascinating to me.
Berger: That's true though. That is the case.
Dault: Talk about a prophet never being honored in his own country, or even in his own century.
Berger: As I said, his musical style, while he was very - he was really famed as an organist. He apparently was a real - kind of the Virgil Fox of his day. And he knew a lot about organ construction and building, so I think he was respected, it's just that I think he had very high standards and he was convinced that not all the people around him were willing to support the kind of standards he had for church music.
Dault: I'd like to go in a slightly different direction for a moment and sort of ask a philosophical question. As the Lever book says, when this three-volume set was discovered, the person to whom it was shown recognized what the owner of it had not recognized: this little signature down in the corner of the page, "J. S. Bach."
I'm interested in for you to comment on this, as an archivist. At that moment when the signature is appended to the page, the book becomes differentiated from all other books, and this becomes not just important in its own right because it's an ancient Calov commentary, but now it becomes especially important because it's Bach's Calov commentary.
I'd like you to reflect, if you could, in your years of experience with ancient books, about this phenomenon when something that is not part of the kiss of print, if you will, is then added to a book later that changes the book from the others that would be in its same imprint.
Berger: Well, it becomes an artifact. It's not any longer just a source of the information or the knowledge that the author of the book intended because you know most of what's in that book is basically Luther's commentary on the scriptures. Calov actually mined the works of Luther for that, although he supplied some of his own comments as well.
We have other things in the library, for example, that were owned by early patriarchs of our synod. C.F.W. Walther, who was one of the main founders of the Missouri Synod, we have quite a number of his books here in the library. And of course, the fact that they had his signature in them and occasionally his markings and comments, for our heritage, that makes that book more important because it tells us whether he used the book or not and how he used it. Yes, it does make it more interesting.
Actually, our archives across the street are probably more - they have more of that kind of material, where they've tried to reassemble the library of one of the main figures in the church.
A good example would be Walter A. Maier, the first Lutheran Hour speaker. They have an office over there that actually does contain his library, or a good part of it, on the shelves. They become artifacts rather than just books for use.
Dault: That's exactly the sort of direction that I want to go with this. In your experience, can you think of cases where - for example, you mentioned the books that belonged to some of the patriarchs of the Missouri Synod - is there ever a case where some of those marginal notations then begin to affect or reshape the theology or the theological understanding of the church?
In other words, perhaps the patriarch - Walter Maier or whomever - may never have written about a certain subject, but then when a marginal note is discovered that then becomes important, because it is something that Walter Maier or one of these other gentlemen wrote. That then begins to shape the Lutheran self-understanding as it moves forward theologically.
Berger: Well, I suppose that's possible. I could not really cite any chapter and verse regarding that. To get away from the church, a secular author who is really well known for this would have been Coleridge.
Part of the complete works of Coleridge that were put out - I can't remember what press put them out back in the '80s. Several of the volumes were devoted just to his annotations of books that were in his library. He apparently did a lot of annotating. And of course then, you learn more about what the person thought about other authors or about certain philosophies.
I think that certainly is the case, but in terms of specifically what we're talking about here, I don't know that anybody has done that kind of speed work.
We do have a book, kind of a standard Lutheran work called Baier's Compendium. We do have Walther's copy and it's heavily annotated. I don't know that anybody has ever gone through it carefully, in terms of the content; what kind of notations did Walther make next to the Baier's text. But it's there for somebody to do.
Let me look it up for you. The full name of the author is Johann Wilhelm Baier. There we are: Compendium Theologiae Historici. Compendium of Historical Theology from the 1600s. There are many, many editions of it, and as I say, we have a copy that Walther used and it's heavily annotated.
It's one of those things you say, "Couldn't this be a subject for a doctoral dissertation some day?" It probably could be if it's substantive enough and there's a lot of revelation of the way Walther thought of some of these things. Maybe it's worth checking out.
Being the kind of church we are, it probably wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. It would be of scholarly interest, but probably wouldn't have a great deal of impact on anything of historical significance in the church, I don't think.
Dault: Thank you. Now to sort of move in just one more direction, your title is Chief Archivist? Head Librarian?
Berger: No, I'm Director of Library Services at the seminary. We don't really - our church archives happen to be on the campus here, but that's a separate building across the street and it has separate personnel. We have a very good relationship, but we're two different entities. I'm not an archivist, we're just a library.
Dault: Okay, but you do have an extensive rare books collection there on the library premises, and so you yourself have been involved with it for some time...
Berger: Yes. They actually have a collection across the street too, which because of just the nature of their library, they can't make much of it because they're not really a library. But people give them books and some of them are like that, like the kind we've been talking about. They were owned by somebody who was an important figure in the history of the synod, or, they say, "Okay, we'll take it," and then it sits on the shelf there and that's it. Archives are different from libraries that way. Archives are mainly for preservation and occasional research, whereas libraries are for use.
Dault: Yes. So, speaking as a librarian working with these rare books for a number of years, if I can ask, personally, what is your favorite aspect of working with rare books? What is your favorite aspect of working with volumes like the ones we've been talking about?
Berger: Well, I guess you always hope to find something unexpected. It doesn't happen very often. We have a very rich collection mainly because of gifts over the years, so there is always a chance for finding something new.
I'll give you a really good example of the kind of thing that intrigues me to no end. We were able to purchase, through the generosity of a local donor, a biographical work from the late 1500s that was done in 1590. The original owner had blank pages put in. It's a book of biographical sketches of men of letters, of the 16th century. It includes theologians, historians, even mathematicians and musicians.
On these blank pages, this fellow went around Germany, mainly Germany, in the 1590s and as late as the early 1600s, and got inscriptions and signatures from his contemporaries who had some connection with these people in that book.
There are all kinds of writings in it. There are poems, there are brief inscriptions, there are drawings - like coats of arms - and these things are all signed and dated. They are all written in Latin, Greek, Hebrew - not in German, mind you - and even some Middle Eastern languages.
These are guys who showed off their education and scholarship by writing in languages that were other than their native tongue. To me, there's an example of an extremely fascinating book.
Some of the names are recognizable. [composer Orlando de] Lassus was in there, [Meister] Eckhart, David Chyträus, who was an early reformer contemporary of Luther. These are the kinds of things that you don't run across very often, and that one of course, we purchased.
I'd like to say, occasionally in using a book, someone will say, "Did you know that so and so's signature is in here?" We have one - I should be able to quote this off the top of my head. It's one of the reformed - I can't think of his name now, but it's an inscription from the 16th century, a theologian.
Dault: You mean someone of prominence, like Zwingli or Bullinger?
Berger: Yes. That's it Bullinger. I think it is Bullinger. It just doesn't happen very often.
Dault: It sounds like in that book that you mentioned, we aren't just talking like five or six pages. It sounds like it's a substantial part of the book.
Berger: It has at least 240 inscriptions
Dault: Oh goodness gracious, that's fantastic.
Berger: Yes, and we have a paleography course here every couple of years, and I've been trying to interest one of these students in the course to take a look at it. Wouldn't this be a great subject for a doctoral dissertation? None of this has ever been transcribed, none of it has ever been translated, and who knows what's in there. There might be some interesting historical facts about people that are only to be found there. I don't know because I don't read all those languages. I certainly don't read the handwriting from that time.
Dault: I think that you've hit on something, but finding a student who has a facility with that range of languages, they might just have to specialize in one or two of the types of writing there, but yes, I think that that's the type of thing.
One of the reasons why I'm recording this is - I don't know if you've seen it, but I run a blog that deals with these sorts of graphical and material questions about scripture. One of my hopes is that from these conversations with you and others like you, we can generate some interest in exactly what you're talking about, this sort of interest for students who would come and realize that these sorts of resources are there at your seminary and begin to utilize them in that fashion. So that's my hope.
I think, at this point, most of the questions that I had coming into this conversation have been answered, and I can't even begin to thank you for your time. I really do appreciate your generosity in just telling me what you know.
I hope that we'll have the chance in the future to speak again, or that the next time that I'm in Saint Louis I'll have a chance to meet you face-to-face.
Berger: Okay, sure. We're around.
Dault: Okay, thanks very much.
Berger: Bye now.
END OF TRANSCRIPT