J.S. Bach’s setting of the Crucifixion story in his “St. Matthew Passion” is a Holy Week tradition throughout the Christian world. Bach’s sole goal, his overriding passion in all he wrote, was to glorify God.
This Good Friday, I want to share about a short biography of this phenomenal composer that I recently read, Johann Sebastian Bach by Rick Marschall. It’s part of the Christian Encounters Series highlighting important lives from all ages and areas of the Church published by Thomas Nelson.
Johann Sebastian Bach is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. A staunch Lutheran, he spent much of his working life as a church music director in Germany, leaving a body of sacred music that covered the entire liturgical year. He had a unique ability to survey and bring together the principal musical styles, forms, and national traditions. Though he was a highly respected organist during his lifetime, he wasn’t really widely recognized as a great composer until the early nineteenth century.
I enjoyed this brief biography! I found it a fairly quick read and I learned a lot about Bach’s personality and life, as well as 18th century Lutheran culture in general. I will admit that occasionally my eyes glazed over as I slogged through some of the sections with unfamiliar musical terms and technical explanations of his various compositions. I’m sure many are more familiar with musical jargon than I am and would find it fascinating. Still, even in those sections I got enough to gain even more appreciation of the precision and beauty of his work. For example, his use of the “Trinity of C’s”: counterpoint, cantata, and chorale. His musical ability and the volume he produced are just astounding!
I found the details about his faith, personality, and family life fascinating. He began every composition, secular or sacred, by writing “Jesu, juva” (Jesus, help me) in the upper left corner of the first page, and then when it was complete, “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God alone the glory) on the bottom right corner of the completed score. He intensified and standardized the Lutheran hallmarks of congregational singing and a heightened role for music as a means of exhortation and exposition of the gospel to the degree that many observers have called him “The Fifth Evangelist”. He saw the cantata as comparable to a sermon. It was exegetical, providing the message, and was followed by the actual sermon, which was hermeneutical, explaining the message. His library contained just as many theological volumes as musical volumes, and he knew the Bible so well that he was the functional equivalent of pastor in the positions he held.
Bach came from a very musically talented family (with fifty-three musical Bachs on the family tree in all!), and his extended family was close. He reportedly began composing his first music at the age of ten. He was an affectionate husband and father and many of his children followed in his footsteps, continuing the family musical tradition. He was intense, but lively. He had a sense of humor and a joyfulness about life that was evident.
Author Rick Marschall sums up Bach’s faith and work this way:
Sebastian Bach was born into the Lutheran faith, died a committed Lutheran communicant, and, by all evidence, never experienced any spiritual doubts or crises of faith. His employers were largely ecclesiastical, and his few secular (court music) postings always included Christian music in their assignments. Fully half of the music he wrote was Christian. He managed musical staffs at his churches and he taught Christian education. He was not an ordained pastor, yet the degree of his daily study and the examinations he was obliged to pass proved him the peer of clergy. He was indeed one of the most equipped and effective ‘preachers’ of his age.
Humble about his gifts, and determined that all his music was unto the Lord, we can see, as he surely did, that the Orchestral Suites and the Brandenburg Concertos and the Musical Offering and the Goldberg Variations and the suites for harpsichord and cello and violin and flute and lute-and the toccatas and trios and passacaglias and fantasias and fugues-were all merely spiritual compositions. Without words.
Is this not the perfect blueprint for any Christian? Willing to forsake worldly acclaim, this modest servant of his Savior thanked God for the talents with which he was mightily blessed and used them for the propagation of the gospel, the souls of his fellow man, and the glory of God.
The glory of God alone.”
This book would be an excellent read for anyone wanting to know more about Bach, especially those who are musically inclined and involved. It would also make a good addition for homeschool for use with high schoolers during studies of history or music.
I’ll leave you with this thought and the final chorus of St. Matthew’s Passion for this Good Friday:
“Bach ‘dances’ in some of the most odd places…[in] St. Matthew’s Passion; you have the final chorus, which, in a sense is a quasi-Sarabande (dance). The text is about the sleeping Jesus-you know, the Jesus who has died and been placed in the tomb. The actual dance form is implying, ‘Yes, but there’s more to come. What we can’t deal with, because this is Good Friday, you’ll hear about that in two days’ time on Easter Day.’ Bach was not afraid to use dance forms and we know the people in Leipzig took dancing very seriously…and when they were in church, here they were hearing Bach use dance forms in a remarkable way! I think what lies behind that is that it’s a theological statement. I think it’s a theology of the Incarnation, that Christ became fully human and that, therefore, all of human activities are transformed. Nothing can be considered outside the sphere of grace.” (Bach expert Robin Leaver, quoted in Johann Sebastian Bach)
Have a blessed Easter!