Brief Biography of Johann Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach, widely regarded as the greatest of all composers of music for Christian worship, was born in 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany, into a family of distinguished musicians. In 1708, shortly after marrying Maria Barbara Bach, he became court organist to the Duke of Weimar, where he wrote his principal compositions for the organ. In 1717 he became music director (Kapellmeister) to Prince Leopold of Coethen. In 1720, his wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wuelcken, for whom he composed a famous set of keyboard pieces. From 1723 until his death in 1750 he was at Leipzig, where he taught, conducted, sang, played, and composed. He had 20 children, of whom nine survived him, four of whom are also remembered as composers.
In addition to his secular music, Bach wrote a considerable amount of music for worship. He drew on the German tradition of hymn-tunes, and arranged many of them as cantatas, with elaborate choir settings for most stanzas, and a plain four-part setting for the final stanza, to be sung by the congregation with the choir. Normally each stanza is unique, using the melody traditional for that hymn, but with variations, particularly in the harmony, that reinforce the meaning of the words of that stanza. He wrote altogether about two hundred cantatas, including at least two for each Sunday and holy day in the Lutheran church year (matching the subject of the cantata with that of the Scripture readings prescribed for that day). Two of the better known are “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in the bonds of death”), based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther; and “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, all my gladness).
It is an ancient custom that during Holy Week the Gospel readings shall be from the accounts of the Passion (=suffering and death) of Our Lord, and that, where possible, these accounts shall be read, not by a single reader, but with the speeches of different persons read by different readers (and the crowd by the choir or the the congregation). This may be said, or chanted to a simple tune. Bach wrote, for the St. Matthew Passion, and again for the St. John Passion, an elaborate musical setting, with the Gospel narrative sung by a soloist, with the dialog by other singers, and commentary by the choir in the form of hymns and more elaborate pieces. He also wrote a setting for the traditional Latin Liturgy, his famous B Minor Mass. The Liturgy (or Order for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the Administration of Holy Communion, Commonly Called the Mass) is divided into the Ordinary (the parts that are the same every time) and the Propers (the parts that vary from day to day, such as the Bible readings). The choral parts of the Ordinary include the KYRIE (“Lord, have mercy” or “Hear us, O gracious Lord”), the GLORIA (“Glory to God in the highest,” based on Luke 2:14), the CREDO (“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”), the SANCTUS-BENEDICTUS (“Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, based on Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9), and the AGNUS DEI (“O Lamb of God,” based on John 1:29). Bach wrote choir settings for these (in case anyone is wondering why a devout Lutheran would write choir settings for a Mass, I point out that the language of the Liturgy is ancient, and contains nothing not taught by Lutheran and Methodist and Presbyterian churches), and his work is not simply a matter of supplying pleasant-sounding melody and chords. For example, in the Creed, there occurs the line, “And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” In Bach’s setting of this line, there are two melodies sung by the choir simultaneously. One is a traditional plainchant melody, most frequently sung by Roman Catholics. The other is a Lutheran chorale melody. The two melodies are interwoven, and they harmonize perfectly. Bach was not just a musician. He was a Christian, and a preacher of the Gospel.
For the Glory of God
Millions of people have heard of J. S. Bach. There are many Bach Societies, Bach Festivals, even entire orchestras and choruses dedicated to performing his works. Thousands of concerts and hundreds of CDs present his matchless music. Yet in his day, Bach was virtually unknown as a composer, at least outside of the German towns where he quietly lived and worked.
J. S. Bach was never attracted to stardom, fame, or fortune. This unquestionable genius was refreshingly modest and unassuming. He told a student, “Just practice diligently, and it will go very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine.” Once, when an acquaintance praised Bach’s wonderful skill as an organist, Bach demonstrated his characteristic humility and wit by replying, “There is nothing very wonderful about it; you have only to hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument does the rest.”
Bach said, “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” Music was given to glorify God in heaven and to edify men and women on earth. It wasn’t to make lots of money, or to feed the musician’s ego, or to be famous. Music was about blessing the Lord and blessing others.
Bach’s own life was in complete accord with his beliefs. Though he possessed a musical genius found perhaps once in a century, he chose to live an obscure life as a church musician. Only once in his 65 years did he actually take a job where his brilliance might bring him to the world’s notice. For a while, he worked as Kapellmeister of the court of Prince Leopold. But such surroundings were a distraction to him. He soon left to accept a lowly position as cantor at a church in Leipzig, where he would again be cloistered in his unacclaimed but beloved world of church music.
More than anyone in history, Bach explained the “why” behind our various vocations, careers, and talents: They are for others and for God, not for ourselves. The next time you hear a masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach, reflect on his heart for glorifying God. His life and example changed countless lives and is still changing lives all over the world.
Spreading the Gospel Through Music
Johann Sebastian Bach is bringing Christianity to Japan through the beauty of his music. Now there are reports of thousands of Japanese, inspired by his cantatas, converting to Christianity. It’s a testament to the power of art steeped in a biblical world view.
Christianity has never been widely embraced by Japanese culture. When European traders and missionaries came to the island nation in the 17th century, they met with mixed success: Commerce thrived, but the Gospel languished. But Japan eagerly embraced the music of Western culture. Shinichi Suzuki even developed a method to learn to play classical instruments that became famous worldwide. But now, through a resurgence in Bach’s popularity, that music is providing a foothold for evangelism that trade and traditional approaches never had. Bach’s popularity is so great that the classes at the Felix Mendolssohn Academy in Bach’s hometown of Leipzig, Germany are filled with Japanese students. These students are learning about more than the music of the great composer. They learn about the spirit that moved him to write: that is, Bach’s love of God.
Masaaki Suzuki, founder of a school for Bach’s music in Japan, says that, “Bach is teaching us the Christian concept of hope.” And Yoshikazu Tokuzen, of Japan’s National Christian Council, calls Bach nothing less than “a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.” And the revival his music is causing indeed confirms that.
Bach’s legacy is a sterling illustration of C.S. Lewis’ maxim that the world does not need more Christian writers-it needs more good writers, and composers, who are Christians. And when we produce art that is really good, art that reflects a biblical world view, its richness will endure through the ages.
J.S. Bach – For the Glory of God by Patrick Kavanaugh
Bach’s “Fifth Gospel”: The Enduring Power of Artistic Excellence by Charles Colson