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Bach’s Bible reveals insights into composer’s thoughts

Two volumes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s personal Bible—complete with hand-written notations in the margins—is on display in the Lehigh University Art Galleries this month as part of an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bach Choir Festival of Bethlehem.

The exhibition, which runs through July 29, traces the choir’s founders, participants and colorful history through more than 700 photographs, collages and documents, including one that lists the more than 5,000 musicians and voices of the choir since 1898—each representing another thread in the fabric of the local Bethlehem Bach community.

Lehigh’s art galleries curator Ricardo Viera, professor of art and architecture, negotiated with Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to get two of the three volumes of Bach’s personal Bible on loan for the first month of the exhibition. Both volumes contain handwritten notations, underlining and corrections completed by the composer, which have been confirmed through both handwriting and ink analysis.

“It is an extraordinary opportunity to see these rare documents,” says the Rev. Dr. Howard Cox, retired professor of the Old Testament at Moravian Seminary and author of the quintessential scholarly book on the topic, The Calov Bible of Johann Sebastian Bach, which was published in 1985 by UME Research Press in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“What is most striking to me is that Bach never made these notations thinking they would be examined centuries later,” Cox says. “Everything he wrote in here was for himself, not the public. This was his private Bible, and his writings illustrate that. It’s very genuine as to what his interests and opinions were.”

And Bach, he notes, clearly knew his Bible very well. Cox points to corrections Bach found, and the comments he wrote in the margins to rectify the errors.

“They’re all consistent with the subject matter of his cantatas, passions and motets,” he observes. “It’s quite amazing.”

An improbable journey

A former member of the Bach Choir in the early 1970s, Cox was invited to view the Bach Bible by Alfred Mann, a professor of music at Rutgers University who was editor of The American Choral Review and choir conductor at the time.

“I didn’t even know the Bible existed,” says Cox, “but I was fascinated.”

Cox examined three volumes of microfilm copies over a period of 10 years, which culminated in the publication of his book on the topic. Working with archivists from the Bach Library in Leipzig, Germany, he coordinated the handwriting and ink analysis and furthered his research with Ellis Finger, then a professor of German language and literature at Lafayette, and now director of the college’s Williams Center for the Arts.

“I asked him to do a translation, and I have copies of all the scholarly analysis and translations Ellis did,” Cox says.

The painstaking process took place over several months in 1985, says Finger, who has been a member of the Bach Choir since 1980, and who has helped to chronicle the journey of the Bible over the course of several centuries.

The first mention of the Bible’s existence was in the accounting of the composer’s personal possessions, taken in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1750, Finger says. When his estate was divided among heirs, the Bible disappeared and did not resurface until sometime in the mid-20th century, when it was discovered in the home of German immigrants in Frankenmuth, Mich.

Historians believe that the Bible went from family members into the used book trade at the port of Philadelphia, where it was purchased by a family of German immigrants on its way to Michigan. The Bible eventually found its way to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where it remains as an invaluable resource to Bach scholars from all over the world.

“The improbable journey of this document,” Finger says, “is a splendid example of the intricate strands of cultural migration that helped extend the musical riches of an ancestral homeland to the spiritual and artistic foundations of burgeoning communities in the New World.”

A historical overview

The existence of the Bach Bible came to Viera’s attention when he read an essay about it that was composed by Finger and included in the Bach Choir Centennial Festival booklet.

“Ricardo saw the value that this could bring to the exhibit, and he went after it,” says Finger. “Fortunately, the (Concordia) Seminary agreed to loan it through the length of the festival.”

The process of securing the volumes of the Bach Bible for a one-month stay at Lehigh involved significant negotiation, says Viera, who worked in consultation with Bach Choir archivist Paul Larson in curating the exhibit.

Although the Bach Bible is expected to attract the most curiosity and interest, other artifacts may compete for the public’s attention. There are performance scores, programs, faded photographs, letters and newspaper clippings, in addition to a continuously running
video of archival sound and images.

The video was created by Steve Lichak, senior media production specialist in Lehigh’s Digital Media Studios, and will be available for purchase.

“We’ve taken more than 100 years of Bach’s music—some of it original work that was never heard before—and combined that with news accounts, personal photos, artifacts, and films to create this 15-minute documentary,” Lichak says. “We did a number of interviews as well, and added these testimonials to these scratchy old vinyl recordings from the 1930s. It’s a great historical overview of the composer and his work, as well as the choir.”

The Lehigh University Art Galleries/Museum Operation will present “The Bach Choir of Bethlehem: A Visual History” at the Zoellner Arts Center main gallery, 420 East Packer Avenue on the Lehigh campus, through July 29. An opening reception will be 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 3. The Rev. Dr. Howard Cox will deliver a lecture on the Bach Bible at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 19 in the Lower Gallery at Zoellner. It will be followed by a 2 p.m. lecture by Bach Choir archivist Paul Larson.

Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Sundays from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. The gallery is free and open to the public. Hours are extended to 8 p.m. on May 4, 5, 11 and 12.

Festival music performances with guest artists from dance, film, jazz, theater and musicology are scheduled for May 3-6 and 10-12. For ticket information, visit www.bach.org.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, May 01, 2007

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