The practice of piety in song

by Christian Bunners

A conversation with Christian Brunners

As part of the filming for the documentary, God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good, we interviewed scholar Christian Brunners at the Nikolai Church in Berlin, Germany, a historic church served by Philipp Jakob Spener, Paul Gerhardt, and Johann Crüger. Interview by Tim Frakes, translated by Dustin L. Smith. May 2015.

Could you tell us about your ministry and research?

My name is Christian Bunners. I studied theology and music, then worked as a pastor in a church and for the past several decades of my career have been teaching at a theological seminary. From my youth on, I have made music and experienced how strongly sacred music and hymns can help bring the Gospel to a congregation and appeal to them quite personally.

How did Pietism influence church music?

There are two tendencies in the relationship between Pietism and music. Pietism was partially critical towards “art music” in the church, because the congregation itself was not involved, and because the texts quite often weren’t understood due to the artistic complexity of the composition. On the other hand, Pietism, with its so-called “culture of emotions/feelings,” did a great deal to enrich music.

I am a proponent, for instance, of the theory that Johann Sebastian Bach was influenced by Pietism — not the Pietism of Spener, where believers met in small groups. Bach was too soundly anchored in the dominant, orthodox church, but emotionally he incorporated a great deal from the Pietist understanding of music, and many of the passages he set to music in his cantatas and oratorios were written by earlier or contemporary Pietists.

The heavily liturgical service with “art music” simply wasn’t in tune with the beliefs of the leading Pietists. They appreciated that the congregation should also take part in the service by singing songs, but this “art music” was too far removed, too high above the congregation. It was performed by professional singers and instrumentalists, while the Pietists desperately wanted to make sure the common person, the simple man and the simple woman, would be able to participate in the musical activities of the service and this was most easily accomplished through hymn singing. With that in mind, we can only conditionally claim that Bach absorbed and incorporated some Pietistic influences. One could “maybe” say he built a bridge between orthodox church music and new concerns and practices espoused by the Pietists.

How would you describe the difference between Orthodox piety and that of the Pietists?

I would characterize Orthodox piety as a “piety of acceptance.” Agreeing with what was preached in the churches and what was laid out in the confessional texts and catechisms of the Lutheran and reformed churches. Orthodox pastors expected their congregations to adhere to these texts, of course a personal conviction could go along with this, but the main conception was that there was one doctrine stemming from the Bible and Lutheran tradition, and the individual Christian simply integrates himself into this system and accepts it with their heart and mind.

The Pietist conception, on the other hand, especially as espoused by Johann Arndt (who is now, especially in American scholarship, considered a father of Pietism) brought personal experience and conviction to the forefront of the pious, Christian life. Soon after the publication of Arndt’s famous devotional book True Christianity, there began to be some tension with the orthodox theologians who thought it involved to much subjectivity and was too dependent on personal experience and conviction, so much so that they were afraid the “greater truths” espoused by Lutheran doctrine might fall by the wayside.

Did the Pietist understanding of music influence other composers?

Especially because we are in the Nikolai Church, I have to mention Johann Crüger, who absorbed Arndt’s piety, a piousness that highlighted emotional events as well, and incorporated this into his songs.

To name a composer who was more active in composing classical “art music” than Crüger (who was mostly a song and hymn-writer for choir and instrumental accompaniment) I would say that Dieterich Buxtehude incorporated several aspects of Pietism into his works. Furthermore, Johann Friedrich Fasch, who composed a number of cantatas, has recently been the subject of a dissertation proving that he was influenced by Pietism. And, as I mentioned before, I am of the opinion that Bach (Johann Sebastian, that is) also incorporated pietistic impulses into his works.

This can be seen, for instance, in the St. Matthew Passion where the free verse text, for example, can partially be traced back to a theologian from Rostock named Heinrich Müller, who has been called an early Pietist, and was well admired by later Pietists. When one thinks of an aria like “Aus Liebe wird mein Heiland sterben” from the St. Matthew Passion, both the text and Bach’s composition line up quite strongly with Pietist “musical piety.”

I especially want to mention a specific hymnbook, the so-called Freylinghausen Hymnal of 1704. It went through several editions before it was supplemented by a second volume, full of additional songs. This hymnal, which was created in Halle and we know was directly inspired by Halle Pietism, was very widely distributed. Students from Halle later travelled to and worked as pastors in Scandinavia and North America bringing the Freylinghausen hymnal with them.

One important Pietist, who went to Pennsylvania from Germany was Johann Conrad Beissel. He was a composer and lyricist, and was probably the first person to have any kind of music printed in North America. He is a direct “bridge” between Germany and North America, this Johann Conrad Beissel.

What is the legacy of this musical history, and how does it influence contemporary Christian music?

First, I would say the involvement of the congregation and ensuring that the congregation understands the music that is being performed, presented, or newly composed. This congregational involvement is a Pietist concern that should play a role in today’s religious landscape. Next, and this is an “inheritance” which Pietism brought or helped bring to modern musical development, is the fact that individual expression plays an important role in music. You can trace this historically from the earliest Pietists through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and see how it is incorporated into the Romantic conception of music, which highlighted the longing and striving of the individual to express himself through music.

The contemporary composers of today have vastly differing opinions on this issue. Many would say that personal expression is irrelevant; it’s all about creating a form, which can exist completely independently from the personal beliefs or feelings of the musicians. This is a large, complex topic.

How do Paul Gerhardt’s compositions reflect some of these themes?

Paul Gerhardt is an example of this early Pietist devoutness being expressed through art. An early Gerhardt biographer wrote that Gerhardt always carried Arndt’s prayer book with him, which certainly highlights their connection. We also know that Gerhardt set Arndt’s prayers to music.

In Paul Gerhardt, the earliest “Pietist” piety connected with the Orthodox “piety of acceptance” and he formed a bridge between Orthodox liturgical musical on the one hand and the subjectivity of Pietism on the other, indeed, as it was called at that time the “song of encouragement” or devotional song. Despite this synthesis, his compositions often lean to one side or the other, but especially the ones that remain well known today show quite strongly the Pietist influences on his poetic language and expression.

“Warum sollte ich mich denn grämen” (Why should I grieve?), “Befiel du deine Wege” (Command thy ways), “Fröhlich soll mein Herz springen” (My heart should jump for joy), “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” (How should I receive you?) — in these songs we can see both the religious doctrine of his time and also the personal piety that has been incorporated into the expression of these biblical teachings.

Songbooks were quite important for the musical history of the Early Modern period, and one particular songbook must be mentioned here. It is anchored in this church and made up of songs sung here, many of which were first heard here (that is to say those set to music by Crüger) and it’s called Praxis Pietatis Melica. It was first written in 1640 and then, in 1647, it was published under this name and continued to sell in countless editions deep into the eighteenth century. “Praxis Pietatis Melica” translates roughly to “the practice of piety in song.”

Most of Paul Gerhardt’s songs were first printed here and they, along with many other new songs, were then included in other songbooks and spread quickly, eventually being incorporated into well-known sacred compositions. For example, J.S. Bach’s famous setting of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (O Sacred Head, Now Wounded) is based on the original, printed in 1656 in Crüger’s songbook: Praxis Pietatis Melica. That’s just one of many songs I could name. Since the songbook started right here in the Nikolai Church, it simply had to be mentioned.