Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Church History Tuesday
David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was… (1 Chronicles 25:1)
One of Martin Luther’s gifts to the Protestant churches was music. He understood music itself to be a gift from God, and that our joyful response to the grace of God would inevitably take the form of singing. Not only did he write hymns himself, but he also composed the tunes. If you have sung ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, then you have not only sung his words but also his tune.
Two hundred years later, the Lutheran church produced a great - the greatest? - church musician in J S Bach, a man who also saw his music as being created in praise of God. He was no mean musician, but he also had studied Latin, Greek Hebrew and Theology as a youth. Amongst the many books in his library is an edition of the Bible which contains his own handwritten annotations, and one of these can be found alongside 1 Chronicles 25, a chapter which describes King David organising the musicians. Bach wrote: “NB, This chapter is the true foundation for all church music that is pleasing to God.”
This understanding was shot through his vast number of compositions. His manuscripts often ended with the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or “to God alone be glory”), and some began with the letters JJ (Jesu Juva or “Jesus help me”). He understood that singing can be a great tool to teach, and so many of his most famous works tackle Biblical themes and were written for the cycle of the church year. Although his music is extraordinary, it also a means to an end: the glorification of God.
As Bach’s prolific life was drawing to close, he made revisions to his organ chorale named “When We Are in the Direst Need”. Once amended, he also changed its title to “Before Thy Throne I Step Herewith”. Such was the sure and certain faith of the great musician of the church.