Erdmann Neumeister and His Pious Orthodoxy

Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) hated Pietism but his music was full of vigorous piety and lively devotion

“Born at Uechteritz, Germany, from a schoolmaster and organist, Neumeister studied theology and poetry at the University of Leipzig. One of the main subjects of discussion around that time was the recent visit of the popular lecturer August Hermann Francke and his subsequent expulsion from Saxony due to the disputes he generated.”

 

Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) hated Pietism but his music was full of vigorous piety and lively devotion. The difference was in the premises. He (as Luther had done before him) sang about a triune God who works in history and draws us to him through the objective, external Word and sacraments. Many Pietists doubted the Trinity and the historicity of Jesus, despised institutions, and encouraged inner devotion and a meticulous introspection that Luther would have called “navel-gazing.”

Neumeister’s Life

Born at Uechteritz, Germany, from a schoolmaster and organist, Neumeister studied theology and poetry at the University of Leipzig. One of the main subjects of discussion around that time was the recent visit of the popular lecturer August Hermann Francke and his subsequent expulsion from Saxony due to the disputes he generated.

Francke, a disciple of Philipp Jakob Spener, had become, like his teacher, one of the greatest exponents of a tendency known as Pietism. As most Pietists, Francke belittled ordinary church attendance with its mixture of fervent and indifferent members. He believed Luther’s reformation had not gone far enough, and sought to go further by emphasizing personal experience and heart-felt devotion. In the ensuing debates between Orthodox and Pietists, Neumeister sided with the Orthodox, and maintained that position for the rest of his life.

After graduating in 1695 with a thesis on German poets, Neumeister remained at the university for some time as lecturer in poetry. Two years later, he accepted a call as assistant pastor at Bibra, about 100 south of Leipzig, where he soon became senior pastor and assistant superintendent of the district. It was around this time that he began writing cantata texts for the chapel of Duke Johann Georg of Saxe-Weissenfels. He might also have come into contact with young Johann Sebastian Bach, who had connections with the ducal family.

Duke Johann George was impressed with Neumeister’s cantatas, which were innovative for their inclusion of operatic recitatives and arias. In 1704, he invited the pastor to Weissenfels as court preacher and tutor for his first daughter Fredericka. The girl, however, died in 1706, as did two other children of the duke. Two more had died in previous years, leaving the duke and his wife childless for some time.

Left without a pupil, Erdmann was invited by the Duke’s sister, Anna Maria, as senior preacher at her court in Zary, Poland, where he stayed until 1715. At that point, he accepted the calling to pastor St. James’s Church at Hamburg, where he continued to preach and write until his death.

Neumeister was in Hamburg when Bach applied for a position as organist at St. James. Ultimately, the position was given to a man who gave a large donation to the church. Neumeister commented with outrage that the church would reject even “one of the angels of Bethlehem … who played divinely,”[1] if that angel could not produce enough money.

Ultimately, Bach composed music for at least five of Neumeister’s libretti, and the two men continued to share a Lutheran understanding of piety as natural fruit of the proclamation of the gospel.

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