Monday, November 24, 2008

Bach and Luther: Theology in Music

Johann Sebastian Bach is noted as the forefather of all Western music; without Bach, we wouldn’t have Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms. He lived in Germany from 1685-1750 during what has now become known as the Baroque period. Ironically, some musicologists suggest that without Martin Luther, the great German Reformer of the previous century, there would have been no Bach. The musical formations of Bach’s day grew out of the theological reformations of Luther’s day. It is not hard to see the connections between these two great men of God.

Bach’s family was incredibly musical; his family lineage shows seven generations of professional musicians. In some parts of Germany, the name “Bach” was synonymous with the word “musician”. But Bach’s family members were also faithful followers of Jesus Christ and they adhered to the reformed faith. Fleeing religious persecution, Bach’s family migrated to the region of Thuringia, a stronghold of reformed faith and a bastion of brilliant ecclesiastic music. This is where Bach grew up and attended school. This is also the region where Martin Luther spent his youth. Both Bach and Luther attended the same Latin School in Eisenach, albeit 200 years apart. Bach also spent his days in the shadows of Wartburg Castle, perched high above Eisenach, where in the previous century, Luther hid from his enemies and where he translated the Greek New Testament into German. These tangible reminders of Luther’s reformation must have left indelible impressions on the young Bach, but more powerful perhaps, was the influence of Luther’s view of church music.

Luther writes, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise… I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology, there is no art that could be put on the same level with music…” For Luther, music was an incredibly inspiring and powerful gift from God; however, it was not simply ‘music for music’s sake’. Luther believed that music aided and enhanced the Christian’s worship of the Great and Mighty Creator. “God has cheered our heart and minds through his dear Son, whom he gave us to redeem us from sin, death and the devil. He who believes this cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so others also may come to hear it. And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe…”

Luther sought to apply his ideas about music and worship to actual church music; as a result, he was a prolific hymn writer. Luther’s hymns proved to be a great spiritual and musical inspiration to Bach throughout his life. He perused Luther’s hymns for comfort, theological instruction and for lyrics to articulate his own devotion to God. Bach adapted many of Luther’s hymns when composing his copious cantatas---he wrote over 200 cantatas! Bach was most influenced by Luther’s determination to incorporate music into the life of the church; this is why most of Bach’s church music was designed to be “accessible” to the congregations and why he incorporated vernacular chorales and familiar hymns into his cantatas.

Most notably, the mantra of the Reformation, “Sola Deo Gloria”, served as the basis of Bach’s conception of music; Bach writes, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” For all the spiritual and theological benefits the Christian Church has reaped from God’s working through Martin Luther and the Reformation, we can thank God for the musical legacy of the Reformation as well. As we thank God for Luther, let us also thank God for Bach.

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