Lessing, Goeze, Sturm and Bach – dispute on religious tolerance

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – People and Places

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), lithographic print by Eduard Schulz (1822). (Source: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Inventar-Nr. A 12382)With his “Hamburgian dramaturgy” Lessing, who was on friendly terms with C. P. E. Bach since the 1740’s in Berlin, may have made an entry in the cultural history of Hamburg. But Lessing’s stay in Hamburg only lasted three years, from 1767 to 1770, and it can hardly be said to have been accompanied by professional success. A German national theatre that he had wanted to establish in the city was forced to close after three years, and a publishing enterprise he had founded together with Johann Christoph Bode was facing financial ruin. It appears as bitter irony that, in order to accept a position as a librarian from Duke Carl of Braunschweig in Wolfenbüttel, he had to sell his own library  to settle his debts. But his friendship with C. P. E. Bach, whom he will have met again at Reimarus’, was not affected by this, and they remained very close.

Also when Lessing already lived in Wolfenbüttel he met Bach during his intermittent visits to Hamburg. Due to Reimarus, or, to be precise, his father, Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768), who was a theologist and philologist, a dispute arose between Lessing and the main vicar of Hamburg, Johann Melchior Goeze (1717–1786), who also was Bach’s highest superior. In 1774 Lessing had published a paper by Reimarus the older – for safety reasons under the title Fragments by an Unnamed Author – which the older Reimarus had not dared publish during his lifetime. In it he doubts in the qualification of the Bible as the sole and exclusive source of revelation, thus affronting the orthodox theologian, who polemicised intolerantly, appealing to the authorities to intervene. When the dispute threatened to escalate after Lessing had retaliated with an Anti-Goeze polemic, Carl of Braunschweig prohibited him any future theological publication. Eventually Lessing postponed the issue of religious tolerance to his last great drama, Nathan the Wise

Less known than the famous Goeze dispute is C. P. E. Bach’s indirect response to it in the form of two collections, each containing Thirty Spiritual Songs by Christoph Christian Sturm (Wq 197/198) in 1780/81, as the religious views regarding the world and nature held by the popular vicar Christoph Christian Sturm (1740–1786) were close to those held by Reimarus, albeit on the level of religious sentiment. The Sturm Songs can be considered Bach’s musical anti-Goeze.

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