in the age of the Enlightenment, Bach was considered a ‘has-been’ and not well-received. Bach Bio: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is acknowledged as one of the most famous and gifted composers in the Western world. Orphaned at age ten, Bach was mostly self-taught in music. His professional life as conductor, performer, composer, teacher, and organ consultant began at age nineteen in the town of Arnstadt and ended in Leipzig, where for the last twenty-seven years of his life he was responsible for all the music in the city’s four Lutheran churches. In addition to being a superb keyboard artist, the genius and bulk of Bach’s vocal and instrumental compositions remain overwhelming. A devout and devoted Lutheran, he is especially honored in Christendom for his lifelong insistence that his music was written primarily for the liturgical life of the Church to glorify God and edify His people. (from The Treasury of Daily Prayer, Concordia Publishing House)
Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness, You have taught us in Holy Scripture to sing Your praises and have given to Your servant Johann Sebastian Bach grace to show forth Your glory in his music. Continue to grant this gift of inspiration to all Your servants who write and make music for Your people, that with joy we on earth may glimpse Your beauty and at length know the inexhaustible richness of Your creation in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives,and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
On this day in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach died, thus it is for the saints in Christ, a “heavenly birthday”.
When I was at Concordia Junior College, Milwaukee (now Concordia University, Mequon Wisconsin), I took the one credit course on Lutheran Hymnody. Professor “Ollie” Ruprecht pointed out that Bach’s library had around 80 volumes in it. Prof. Rupprecht pointed out that books were quite expensive and about 60 of those volumes were books of orthodox Lutheran theology.
Orthodox Lutheran theology is all about proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God. And so did Bach through music. One of Bach’s most marked set of volumes was Abraham Calov’s 3 book set of Luther’s Bible, with Calov’s commentary. Bach, spending a large part of a year’s salary, purchased a 7 volume edition of Luther’s writings which Calov has based his commentary. Calov wrote regarding Luther:
“It hinders a preacher greatly if he wants to look around and concern himself with what people want to hear and not hear.”
Bach double-marked that sentence for emphasis (Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines). That sentence sums up Bach’s understanding of music. He would mark on his scores AMG, ad mairorem Dei, to the greater glory of God. He has been called, after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the 5th evangelist. In his day, he was not known beyond Germany. After his death, his music was rediscovered. His output for 27 years in Leipzig for 4 churches was massive. Bach’s music still preaches.
Bach’s texts usually were the Bible and he put the Scripture to music. In his day, the Enlightenment, ‘modern’ music was suppose to reflect how the composer felt and what the people wanted to hear. Sound familiar? On NPR, they will have a segment that I call OMS, the obscure musical segment when the artist intros his/her work and tells us what “he is trying to do”, or what he was feeling at the time of composition. Not for J. S. Bach: it was to proclaim the Gospel. Bach did not listen to what people wanted, but what he heard was the Lord’s commands and promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, and he knew the Lord’s second best gift, music. “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (Luther). Bach’s talent at the organ and as a composer was wanted by the Church and he was not popular in the courts of public taste, but being popular in the world is never the goal, Christ is.
Only two of Bach’s works were ever published in his life time. In the age of the Enlightenment, Bach was considered a ‘has-been’ and not well-received. The Word of the Lord endures forever and the Lord gave Johann a gift that he did use to His greater glory and the joy of the Church, which is always, “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring”.
In an episode of M*A*S*H, Radar falls for a nurse who is quite cultured and loves classical music. He goes to Hawkeye and Trapper for lessons in classical music. Hawkeye gives Radar the names of some composers and then says, “…then if she mentions Bach, just say, ‘Ahhh, Bach’”. We also can say, Ahhh, Bach!
Thank-you Lord for Bach and all church organists, choir directors, choirs and musicians who also through music, especially Bach’s, proclaim the eternal Gospel.
Listen to Bach’s popular chorale Cantata 147, Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.