In lieu of a “Hymn of the Month” this month, a contributor to that series was invited to help us take note of a special anniversary–Ed.
Johann Sebastian Bach
The abilities and talents that God gives to His children vary greatly, not only in kind but also in measure. To one He gives much; to another little. But whether it is much or little, it is God who gives the gifts. For this reason it is improper for us to boast of our natural abilities. God alone should have the glory for these things.
It is always good to see Christian men and women giving God the glory for their talents and for their accomplishments. And it is especially good to see when the person is someone who has unusually great gifts.
Johann Sebastian Bach, the great composer who died 250 years ago, was such a man. His accomplishments in the field of music are such that they astonish us. The sheer quantity of his work is amazing: 300 sacred cantatas, four-part settings of 371 Lutheran chorales, numerous concertos and organ pieces.
The quality of Bach’s work is so high that it remains unsurpassed today. He wrote music of great beauty, complexity, and power. But he knew the source of his talent and its purpose. He understood that music itself is a gift of God, a part of His creation. He believed that his musical gift was a gift of God and that it was to be used for God’s glory. At the end of a composition he would write the letters SDG–for the Latin words Soli Deo Gloria, “To God Alone the Glory.”
Born March 21, 1685 in the German city of Eisenach, Bach was baptized two days later in St. George’s Church, where Luther had once preached on his way home from the Diet of Worms. In his youth Bach received instruction in the Word of God in the Lutheran church and he remained a student of the Scriptures all his life. His copy of Luther’s German translation of the Bible has been preserved, and it contains many notes showing the composer’s understanding and devotion.
A Church Musician
For much of his life Bach worked as a church musician both composing and performing music for worship services. Lutheran hymns formed the basis for a large share of his musical output. His choral and organ compositions have brought these fine hymns into concert halls around the world. Many a concert-goer who has never set foot in a Lutheran church has been exposed to the words of a Lutheran hymn expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bach also wrote musical settings for passages of Scripture. Among his greatest choral works are settings of the passion history of Christ from the Gospels of Matthew and John. These works also have brought the gospel into places where it is not otherwise heard.
The universal and enduring appeal of Bach’s music is truly amazing. You will find, for example, recordings of Bach organ music with the accompanying notes written in Japanese. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that Bach’s fame in his lifetime was primarily as an organist. His compositions were not much appreciated for a long time after his death. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that composers such an Mendelssohn and Schumann recognized the value of Bach’s works. Since then his reputation has grown steadily, and today his works are more popular than ever.
In the church of St. Blasius in the city of Muehlhausen where Bach served as organist for a time, on the organ loft are the words Soli Deo Gloria — “To God Alone the Glory.” Those words well sum up the composer’s view of his life and work. It was Bach’s motto, as it should be for all Christians.
In the last days of his life the composer did not cease his work though his sight was gone. He dictated compositions note by note to his son-in-law. The last of these, dictated not long before he suffered the stroke from which he died, was the organ chorale “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.”
–Pastor John Klatt