J.S. Bach’s Religious Music in Contemporary European Art Cinema: Western Art Music or ‘Film Music’?

This post is written by Dr. Douglas Knight.

Historiographic accounts of J.S. Bach’s reception have often overlooked European art cinema’s significance as a twentieth and twenty-first-century ‘receptor’ of his music, particularly with regard to those works written for the Lutheran church. Films by post-war modernist directors, such as Pasolini and Tarkovsky, were foundational in making extensive use of Bach’s religious and concert music. More contemporary auteurs of the past twenty years, including Haneke and Dumont, for example, have also actively paid homage to this previous late-twentieth-century generation by using Bach’s religious music in similar ways. I would maintain that collectively their films demand to be considered in a broader historical context, specifically the traditions of revivalist stagings of Bach’s Passiontide works and earlier twentieth-century composers’ modernist orchestrations, such as those by Schoenberg. I would argue that Bach’s church music in European art cinema since the 1960s is an extension of a particular line of modern Bach reception.

That these refunctionings of Bach’s music now occur in the secular, mass-participatory media of film, inevitably changes the music’s meanings, certainly as compared with original historical and religious meanings. Does Bach’s religious music of the eighteenth century now function epistemologically as ‘Western art music’ as it often has done in concert halls, or, instead, as ‘film music’ to be listened to cinematically? The formal role of the music and its poetics may instead come to be prioritised audiovisually over attempts at pietistic observance. Yet, as scholars such as John Butt and Lawrence Dreyfus have demonstrated, much of Bach’s church music ultimately stems from secular operatic influence. To this end, I would argue that European art cinema’s use of Bach’s religious music reveals the dialectical tension between liturgical religious practice and secular artistic expression that is at the heart of this programmatic music to an unprecedented degree. I would encourage network participants, and scholars of both film and art music traditions, to consider this scene of diegetic performance in Dumont’s film, Hadewijch (2009), as illustrative of these critical issues.


Applegate, Celia. 2005. Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Butt, John. 2010. Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Caruana, John. 2014. “Bruno Dumont’s Cinema: Nihilism and the Disintegration of Christian Imagery.” in Camil Ungureanu and Costica Bradatan (eds.), Religion in Contemporary European Cinema: The Postsecular Constellation, 110-125. New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, Laurence. 1996. Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Marissen, Michael. 1993. “Religious Aims in Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin-Singakademie Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.” The Musical Quarterly, 77, no. 4: 718-26.

—. 2016. Bach & God. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Douglas Knight is a researcher and organist in North London. He has recently completed a PhD in musicology from Royal Holloway, University of London: “Post-War European Art Cinema and Classical Music”.