J.S. Bach: The Theologian Inside, Composer Outside
“The aim and final end of all music should none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” – J.S. Bach
Millions of people have heard of Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is arguably the most famous and gifted of all composers past and present in the entire western world. Even after 250 years since his death, Bach’s music lifts the heart and energizes the soul.
However, many do not know that behind the façade of the brilliant composer was a theologian whose heart was after God, only God. He just happened to be working with a keyboard and writing music.
In fact, he believed that music was a “refreshment of spirit.” He studied the Bible rigorously. At the age of 48, Bach acquired Luther’s three-volume translation of the Bible. “He underlined passages, correct errors in the test and commentary, inserted missing words, and made notes in the margin.” He was also known as “the Fifth Evangelist” who had an extraordinary influencing leading countless lives to Christ.
J.S. Bach was born into a family which produced 53 prominent musicians in seven generations. Learning from his father directly, he learned to sing and play several instruments at an early age. Orphaned at age ten, he went to live and study with his elder brother who was amazed at his learning capability.
Struggles and Trials
Bach was writing innovative chorals at such an early age. His singers couldn’t handle them. They thought his music was too “avant-garde” The church believed that music ought to be simple, less ornate – something that would draw attention to God and not to the music itself? Bach, in utter disbelief, protested that his aim was to create “well-regulated church music to the glory of God.” He lost first wife who died and fourteen children who died in infancy. He struggled with church leadership and town counsels as well.
Patrick Kavanaugh writes of Bach’s humility. 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. 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.
Listen to Bach’s brilliant masterpiece Cello Suite No.1
Roger Fry, an English artistic and art critic, after listening to Bach said, “Bach almost persuades me to be Christian.” Bach’s influence over people through his passion in glorifying God and edifying men is life-changing. His life-changing impact has particularly served as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit in the land of Japan which has less than 1% of Christians in the entire country. However, the beauty of Bach’s music and gospel-centered lyrics has created a spiritual boom where Japanese are exploring what Christianity has to offer. The fact of the matter is, to truly understand Bach’s music, you cannot do so without understanding his Christian worldview.
A Japanese Christian conductor named Masaaki Suzuki said, Bach works as a missionary among our people. After each concert, people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what “hope” means to Christians. I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith.
“For example, a Japanese musicologist named Keisuke traveled all the way to Bach’s home church in Germany to study the biblical basis for Bach’s cantatas. He ended up seeking out a pastor and asking, “It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.” Another Japanese musician, a female organist and former Buddhist named Yoko, said, “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity. When I play a fugue, I can hear Bach talking to God.”
Interestingly, Bach wasn’t well known at his time. In fact, he was remembered less as a composer than as an organist. His music was neglected over the next 80 years after his death until he was rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. Interestingly, if you see Bach’s manuscripts, he would write I.N.J (In Nomine Jesu: “In the name of Jesus”) or J.J (Jesu Juva: “Jesus Help Me”). He ended his manuscripts by S.D.G (Soli Deo Gloria: “Glory to God Alone”
Make it Real
1. How can you follow Bach’s example and do all for the glory of God? Read 1 Corinthians 10:31 to reflect on this.
2. J.S. Bach expressed his passion through music. What are some ways you use to express yourself?
3. God has gifted Bach with musical talents. What talent has God given you, and how are you developing your talent?