A life of faith portrayed in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach
The following article comes from our collection of the Kingdom Digest, a monthly magazine which was published by First Covenant Church in Irving, Texas for many decades.
The church was founded by Pastor John Lovell in 1935. Both the church and the magazine no longer exist. This particular piece was published in the July 1996 edition. The mention of “hippies” in the article betrays its likely origination in the late 1960s or early ’70s.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685 and died July 28, 1750. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest and most prolific composers of all time. His works span the gamut from students of Music Theory 101 to beyond-Ph.D.-level in both complexity and sonorous beauty.
His musical compositions demonstrate mathematical precision and one can delight in the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic counterpoint from a master of the technique.
For those who have never had the opportunity to experience Bach, go online and try any of the Brandenburg Concertos and/or the pieces mentioned in this tribute to Mr. Bach.
For one, here is the Brandenburg Concerto #3.
For a short example of counterpoint, here is JSB’s “Invention 8 in F Major.” (Just click on the Play button in the middle of this musical score.
(Above: opening measures of Bach’s “Invention 8 in F Major.” Clickable video image.)
By Stewart Custer
The apostle Paul commends the Thessalonian believers for their “work of faith” and that particular phrase characterizes the ministry of Johann Sebastian Bach. His was a work of faith. For many musicians, faith is a facade to be worn for special occasions, but Bach had an “unfeigned faith” that governed his whole life.
The Bach family were devout Lutherans. Bach’s great-great-grandfather first came to Eisenach from Hungary, where, as a Lutheran, he had experienced persecution by the Roman Catholics. The Bach family multiplied in Eisenach, generation after generation of skilled musicians, and faithful they were to their faith.
Faith is a gift of God, a token of God’s grace. We see God’s providential grace in Bach’s life even in the death of his parents. When he was nine, he lost his mother. When he was ten, he lost his father. Very early in life he became acquainted with death.
His father having been the town musician, he probably would have reared his son in a secular music profession, but instead Bach had to live with an older brother who “happened” to be a church organist.
Young Bach learned the organ and studied at school with a godly teacher, from whom he learned what real service for God could be. This young teacher taught Bach both his Bible and his music, and he stirred within Bach the desire to do something in the sanctuary. From his childhood he was devoted to the service to God.
All of Bach’s music was written to the glory of God. His music touches the hearts of all who can understand music. Hippies, professional musicians, and laity — all appreciate at least some of Bach’s music.
The professionals, of course, realize what Bach accomplished. He reached a capstone of music by his work. He was the end of an age, unappreciated by his time — people thought he was out of date. Nowadays the most modern musician recognizes that Bach is still ahead of us, and there is always more that we can learn from him.
In a sense Bach brought to consummation all the past ages of music and became the fountainhead of all modern music. His achievement is deeply rooted in his faith in God. It has been said that the person who is of faith has an advantage over the unbeliever, even where the gifts are identical, and for Bach, the gifts were certainly unusual.
By the age of 23 he was reputed to be the greatest organist the world had ever seen. He went on to become unquestionably the greatest composer of organ music that the world has ever seen. And in the hearts of many he remains the greatest musician the world has ever seen. In his own field of church music he has no rivals.
A peerless musician, Bach was also an outstanding Christian. He studied the Bible. He learned Luther’s shorter catechism and became a devout, orthodox Lutheran. His worst enemies had to admit that all his life he was an absolutely orthodox believer, a serene, devout, untroubled Christian. And during his life he faced some rather bitter occasions.
Following the death of his wife we find that he inscribed into his son’s music book this chorale of an old Lutheran hymn: “If you but suffer God to guide you and hope in Him through all your ways He’ll give you strength whate’er betide you and bear you through the evil days. Trust God and His all-loving hand and build your faith on more than sand.”
Bach also had the difficult task of burying ten of his children. He lived seemingly in the midst of death, living as he did in the shadow of the plagues of the Thirty Years’ War. Never once did his faith waver.
In the face of all sadness and tragedy, his faith was absolutely serene. And one of the little poems he wrote was dedicated to those who sleep in the Lord: “Oh child of man, you die not death, though bone and blood themselves lack breath. You know that your Redeemer lives who wakes you and salvation gives. Lord Jesus Christ, thy word is sure, but make my faith in thee secure. Thine is the kingdom, the power, and thine the glory evermore.”
Bach’s faith was manifested in his music. As he composed, he would inscribe the letters SDG — Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone the glory — at the end of the piece.
At the beginning of his pieces he often wrote the letters INJ — in nomine Jesu, in the name of Jesus. And on the margins could be found in difficult passages, where he found the harmonizations taxing, JJ, the JJ standing for Jesu jura — Jesus, help me.
When Bach died, his library consisted of 83 volumes, every one of them a book on theology. He had Luther’s works, Luther’s commentary on the Psalms, and a famous work by Stenger on the Foundations of the Augsburg Confession.
He had Spencer’s famous book against Roman Catholicism, Zeal Against Popery. His life was devoted to music, but above all, it was devoted to his faith. Bach was not a great musician who happened to be a Christian. Bach was instead a devout, born-again Christian living to the glory of God who also happened to be the world’s greatest musician.
Bach taught his students how, in music, to interpret the words of the hymns through the melody. The music was not the most important thing — the message was, and the melody had to teach the message.
Bach accomplished this with tremendous insight in the St. Matthew Passion, for example. Every time the voice of the Lord Jesus occurs in the St. Matthew Passion, it is surrounded by a halo of stringed instruments which provides accompaniment.
All through the piece this is striking every time the Lord’s voice occurs but one — upon the cross when He cries, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” The halo is gone. Bach knew exactly how to underscore the drama and the pathos and the power of the passage he was setting to music.
Bach’s theology carried over naturally into his teaching. Bach intended to glorify God in the simplest of musical offerings. He wrote a little organ book which was to teach others how to play the organ. In the dedication he wrote, “To honor God, the most high, and to train my neighbor too thereby.”
Bach was a very humble man. Considering his gifts, it would have been so easy to act arrogant and proud, but this he did not do. On one occasion when he played with his usual skill, someone came up to gush over the superb musicianship that he had just manifested.
Bach replied humbly that it was nothing — all you had to do was hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument did all the rest. Any piano and organ students will appreciate that!
Bach’s was a life of faith in the face of hardship, sacrifice, and bereavement. When he came to his deathbed, his sight had failed him. The doctor had performed operations upon his eyes, hoping to restore the sight. The operations had failed.
And now Bach, racked with pain from the failed operations, knew he was at the end of his life. There, too, he had an unerring sense of what was appropriate in music, and as he lay on his deathbed, he dictated to his son-in-law arrangements of the old chorales.
One of the last ones that he dictated was this: “Before thy throne, my God, I stand. All that I am is in Thy hand. Turn to me now Thy approving face, nor from me now withhold Thy grace.”