Archive for the ‘Christianity in the arts’ Tag

Musical Genius   1 comment

Almost nobody ever thinks of a musician as being courageous, but occasionally they are.

Full disclosure here — I dated one of his descendants in high school.

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Johann Sebastian Back was born in what is now Germany in 1685, the son of a musician, in a family of musicians, growing up in the shadow of Thuringia, where Martin Luther had been schooled. At the age of 10, Bach was orphaned and he went to live and study with his elder brother, an organist in Ohrdruf.

He showed early talent and became a soprano in the Luneberg Church of Saint Michael at age 15. Three years later, he was a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar and then he moved onto Arnstadt to become a church organist. He worked in several positions before settling down in Leipzig in 1723.

The time in Leipzig was not altogether pleasant for he squabbled continually with the town council and even the church populace because they wanted more “modern” music. Ironically, Bach wrote his most enduring music while in Leipzig, composing a cantata every week for a period of time. Possibly, his difficulty was that most of his music (202 survive) was closely bound to Biblical texts. Almost the entirety of his body of work was composed for worship services. Even Friederich Nietsche admitted upon hearing The Passion of St. Matthew that “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

In terms of pure music, Bach combined the rhythm several musical styles that existed in segregation at the time into singular compositions. He could convey verbal ideas through music. My favorite is an undulating melody that represents the sea.

For about 80 years after Bach’s death, people largely ignored his music. A few musicians admired his compositions — Mozart and Beethoven, for example — but it really wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of The Passion of St. Matthew that people began to appreciate Bach’s genius.

JS Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, but more he was probably the greatest Christian musician of all time. He was not attracted to stardom, fame or fortune. He once told a student “Just practice diligently, and it will go very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine.” When an acquaintance praised his extraordinary skill as an organist, Bach replied “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.”

Music was never just music to Bach. He bent his musical genius to his devotion to Christ, which had a profound effect on his music.

Bach wrote – “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” In Bach’s estimation, music existed 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.

Bach’s lived his life in complete accord with his beliefs. Though he possessed a musical genius found perhaps once in a century, he chose to live an obscure life as a church musician. Only once in his 65 years did he actually take a job where his brilliance might bring him to the world’s notice. For a while, he worked as Kapellmeister of the court of Prince Leopold, but he found the surroundings distracting, so he soon left to accept a lowly position as cantor in Leipzig.

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.

I met a young Japanese musician at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who explained that she accepted Christ because she was absolutely enthralled by one of his compositions and in studying how he wrote it, she was exposed to the gospel, which utterly changed her life.

That’s a testament to the power of art steeped in a biblical world view and an illustration of C.S. Lewis’ maxim that the world does not need more Christian writers-it needs more good writers, and composers, who are Christians. And when we produce art that is really good, art that reflects a biblical world view, its richness will endure through the ages.

PS –  One branch of the family, now called Back here in the US, are still extremely musical and very faithful people. Here’s to JD Back, my former pastor.

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