Saturday, October 18, 2008

Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750

When describing the foundations of Western music, some music scholars refer to the three B’s—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—while others would simply say, there was Bach… and then everyone else. Bach was a prolific composer, brilliant organist and an inventive musical genius. His ability to act both as a conservator and innovator of music is what places him at the top of the list of musical giants. In his works, he excelled at traditional forms of music while expanding and transforming the forms to new heights, achieving “summa”—highest realised potential—in nearly every style of music known in Bach’s day.

When Mozart first encountered Bach’s music, he was “entranced” by it. According to Harold Schronberg, Mozart studied Bach’s compositions, “arranged some music, and was strongly influenced by Bachian counterpoint.” Beethoven and Brahms were also influenced by Bach. Brahms said, “Study Bach: there you will find everything.” Mozart said about Bach’s music, “Now there is music from which a man can learn something.” After hearing a performance of Bach’s music, Richard Wagner described it as “the most stupendous miracle in all music.” German poet, Goethe, described Bach’s music “as though eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have happened in God’s bosom shortly before He created the world.” Robert Schuman writes, “Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numbskulls.”

With such praise, it is surprising to discover that this musical giant was a humble and gracious man who devoted his life and talents to the glory of God. Over three quarters of his (astonishing) one thousand compositions consisted of music composed for worship in the church. Many scholars balk at the notion that Bach’s perceived Christianity had anything to do with his music; J.S. Bach, however, states plainly that “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Soli Deo Gloria—To God Alone be the Glory. The letters S.D.G. were inscribed on many of Bach’s compositions; he meant this Latin phrase as a testimony to those who would perform his music and to generations to come, that this music was for God’s glory, not Bach’s. He strove to live by Paul’s words: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Even on much of Bach’s “secular” compositions, we find inscribed the letters J.J., for Jesu, Juva (Jesus, help) or I.N.J., which stands for In Nomine Jesu (In the name of Jesus).

The life, music and legacy of J.S. Bach is a reminder to all Christians to use the gifts and talents God has given us for the Glory of God and the building up of His Church. For Bach, there was no dichotomy between secular and sacred. Whatever he did, for whatever purpose, he did for his Heavenly Father. To God Alone be the Glory.


Mike Wilkins said...

Thanks for this entry, Jer. And long live the love of Bach's miraculous music. SDG, indeed!

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Hey Mike,

I need to thank YOU for introducing me to Bach---that is, Bach the Christian---during one of your Sunday NightLife "Famous Christians of the Week" talks... Ahh, so many moons ago. I still have my stack of neon blue and hot pink handouts from those evenings. I hope you still do those little blurbs. I am certain I am only one of many eager learners who lapped it up!


Barbara said...

It is a remarkable thing to hear my children in one breath sing Hillsongs Kids, the next Holy, Holy, Holy, and the next humming along with Bach or Handel. I love when I see them developing a love and respect for all types of music and beginning to look for the heart behind the music rather than merely the "catchiness" of the tune.

p.s. love your new avatar! See you Saturday.

Anonymous said...

Your claim about his intentions when he wrote SDG is not proven. You are assuming he thought his music was great; and it could just be that he wrote it to prove he was a convinced protestant.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Bach lived in a time when being a "convinced protestant" was becoming increasingly out-of-fashion; I don't think it was his intention to "fake" it. Most musicologists and historians do not doubt the sincerity of Bach's Christian beliefs. Three quarters of his work is religious, which suggests his interest in matters of faith was not incidental or "fake". Granted, no one can ever truly know (with absolute certainty) the motives of men's hearts... All we have to go on is what the person did and what they said. Based on that, I have no doubt about Bach's Christianity.

Thanks for stopping by.