Biography: Johann Sebastian Bach

Dear TRCC,

Marschall, Rick. Johann Sebastian Bach. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Bach among the Theologians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Johann Sebastian Bach (JSB)

Huge thank you Cyndi Ivery for sharing so much music theory and music from the correct lens of a Christian worldview and some insight on hearing JSB.

Huge thank you to Bronson Long for giving me the hardest book I’ve ever “skimmed” and increasing my insight into the setting of JSB and the theology that fueled his work.

Huge thank you to my wife, Jennifer, who suggested I read about JSB. This has pushed me intellectually/practically/spiritually more than any bio I’ve ever attempted.

Truthfully, I feel like I know less now than when I started. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know so I didn’t know where to begin. Now I know what I don’t know and it’s a lot.

I truly feel a bit lost in the world of JSB, but I want to try and make some sense out of his contribution to the living out of following Jesus and capturing his domain about as well as one can.

As a starting point, let’s hear from the Scriptures regarding music, Father and our purpose as a banner over our look into the life of JSB:

“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” – Zephaniah 3:17

  1. Father is a musician/singer
  2. As image bearers, we all are musicians/singers to some degree
  3. Music and singing must be a crucial part of the worship of Jesus

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26-28

  • The creation mandate is to subdue the earth and have dominion over creatures
  • Mastering music is part of subduing created order. Created order is fallen. That’s why music is hard. From actual composition, to execution to personalities who do it.
  • Christians must work to subdue music as an art form not necessarily as purely “worship” music as a genre. All music is Father’s and it can be used for good or bad.

Overarching Purpose: For the glory of God, due to being made in his image, we are to subdue and have dominion over every living thing on the earth.

All of creation operates on mathematical principals, even biologically living things. This is why you do math in chemistry!

All living things have to deal with physics. This is why you do math in physics.

Follow my logic applied here: Some have argued, and I would agree, math is the language of God. Music is constructed on math. Music is the singing of God.[1]

God is creator among a host of other truths. As image bearers we most exhibit that image when we are taking creation and subduing it to create things, including music, to the glory of the Chief Creator.

“Besides other forms of worship, music has been ordered by God’s Spirit.” – JSB

This is why music, skillfully done (either in composing or in playing skillfully composed music), whether by a Christian or non-Christian, will stir the soul. Music is the singing of God. (so be careful what you portray Father as saying, if you are a composer and writer)

JSB understood this and from the math all the way up to the performance sought the glory of God in and through music.

Chronology of the Life of JSB

Johan Sebastian Bach (JSB)

1685 JSB is born March 21, in the German region of Thuringia

1695 JSB moves to Ohrdruf to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph due to the loss of both of his parents

1700 JSB moves to Luneburg and attends St. Michael’s School

1703 After brief work in Weimar, JSB is appointed organist at New Church in Arnstadt (18 years old)

1707 JSB is appointed as organist at St. Blasius Church, Muhlhausen (these are full-time positions often paid for in some money, but in housing, wood for the fireplace and some fish)

1708 JSB is appointed as court organist and chief chamber musician, Ducal court of Sachsen-Weimar

1717 JSB is appointed as Kapellmeister (person in charge of music making) at Cothen

1723 JSB is appointed cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, director of music at Thomasschule and three other Leipzig churches; JSB holds this post until his death in 1750(27 years devoted to the same location)

1736 JSB is appointed as honorary court composer to the Elector of Saxony

(writes much music other than works of worship for the church)

1747 JSB accepts an invitation to perform and improvise at the court of Frederick the Great, Potsdam

(after another war, issued challenges in composing difficult scenarios and he completes the task that others could not)

1750 JSB went to be with the Lord on July 28

He was 65 years old.

JSB: Some Cool Facts

JSB was thought by some to be irritable and demanding and rather moody

This is not a surprise. Some of the artistic personality can be such. But JSB’s personality manifested was due to his great desire to make his music perfect due to the audience he composed and played for, God.

He often fired and hired people on their abilities not their good heart. He took church music seriously and demanded others do so as well. No slacking when executing the Levitical role of playing music to God.

JSB’s Motivation: For the Glory of God and the learning of his neighbor

JSB ended his works with the inscription, Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory). This is loaded with meaning.

“Most people, especially devout Chrisitans of the 21st century, understand God and understand glory. But it is hard for us today to understand how a man like JSB could say and mean alone in that credo. Emerging cultures and emerging churches have compartmentalized every aspect of life, including God. Personal fulfillment is the artist’s goal in today’s world. To Bach’s worldview, such a concept was an offense to God. God alone is the source, the content, and the goal of artistic expression.” (Marschall, p. 130)

So JSB ended his works with the creed “Soli Deo Gloria.”

He also often wrote “…and for my neighbor to learn from.”

JSB composed for the glory of God and for the proclamation of the truth of God to those who needed to know.

JSB was a preacher and his sermons were music!

In case you wonder whether the medium of music can get the message across, listen to a critic: Friedrich Nietzsche assessed JSB in 1878 and complained, “In Bach there is too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude Scholasticism…”

It’s interesting that many misunderstood JSB in his own time and many do now by missing the clear gospel of the words but also of the actual composition of the music, however, a notorious atheist and cynic described him perfectly! (Marschall, p. 132)

It was written of the work of JSB:

“Bach wants to draw us into some sense of enjoying God as God enjoys us…into a holy dance!…This is shown most clearly in the Mass in B minor in its ascending and descending movements.” (Marschall, p. 132)

JSB was not licensed clergy for his day, but his knowledge of Scripture and consistent and continual study of theology made him an apt theologian as he composed music.

The result of the reformation in the reclaiming of the priesthood of the believer and the Scriptures in the heart language of the people, manifested itself in the population’s great desire to know Scripture and it’s application to their knowing God. This obviously affected JSB. Family time was spent reading Scripture, theology and singing.

Oh how time and freedom does erode what others have fought to win for us.

According to Marschall, “He was one of the most equipped and effective ‘preachers’ of his age.” (Marschall, p. 145)

One was not allowed to deliver a sermon unless they were licensed and trained as a preacher and JSB was neither of those. So he preached through the composition of music.

“Is this not the blueprint for any Christian? Willing to forsake worldly acclaim, this modest servant of his Savior thanked God for the talents with which he was mightily blessed and used them for the propagation of the gospel, the souls of his fellow man, and the glory of God.” (Marschall, p. 145)

JSB was called the 5th Evangelist.

JSB believe musical positions were founded by King David and that the Lord was present in the reverent playing of music and thus music was integral to the worship service

Based on 1 Chronicles 25, JSB believed his position and work to be founded by King David as an office.

JSB said that 1 Chronicles 25 was the true foundation for all God-pleasing music.

JSB said of 2 Chronicles 5:13-14 that “…at a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” (Marschall, p. 18)

“…and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord,

“For he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever,”

the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” – 2 Chronicles 5:13-14

This is how JSB viewed the service of worship through the excellent and skillful use of instruments and words of praise.

JSB was focused and hard working

During JSB time at Leipzig (1723-1750) he managed 1,500 performances with an average audience of 2,000 people. That’s an average of 55.5 performances per year.

We are not talking about him alone. We are talking about choirs and orchestras. This guy did surround sound before electricity. He would place singers at various places in the sanctuary, along with various instruments and groups of singers and instruments so that at various points as they moved through the service sound would be coming at your from all directions. (It’s like at a theatre when the door shutting sounds like it’s behind you)

Most of his 300 cantatas were written during this time. Think that through. In 27 years he wrong an average of 11.1 cantatas a year (not purchased and practices and performed, but written, practiced and performed). These cantatas were performed during worship services.

A Lutheran worship service lasted 3-4 hours and would contain cantatas, chorales and preaching etc. JSB planned these weekly.

JSB composed over 1,800 works and 1,200 of them actually survive to this day. JSB lived to be 65, so that’s an average of 27 compositions per year!

JSB led services at multiple churches, tutored music students, taught music at schools and still managed to compose and perform while giving adequate time to his wife and children (first wife died, remarried).

JSB was a spiritual giant and a family man

As a consequence of the reformation, JSB was, along with others, a bible reader and strong emphasis was given to knowing Scripture and communing with the Lord Jesus.

JSB’s workload never hindered his time from his family. JSB loved his 20 children and was proud of them and would make sure he spent much time at home nurturing and training his children.

Many of JSB’s children would go on to become composers as well.

This music gift was thick in the Bach clan. JSB’s father was a town musician (dudes got paid to produce and play music in towns). It was an iPod before there were iPods. Music, due to the reformation, was huge to people and it was taken seriously.

Before the Reformation, the priests primarily sang / chanted various creeds and few songs. The “laity” was not allowed to do such things.

JSB’s relatives were so musically inclined that for a season the “town musicians” were called “Bachs”. This is because their gifting was so prevalent. Perhaps it was gifting. Perhaps it was habit passed on. Either way, music was a signature of the Bach clan.

JSB could fight!

While at Arnstadt, JSB had a student who resented JSB’s insulting assessment of his abilities. So the student attacked JSB on the street. The student has a club and was swinging at JSB. JSB drew his knife and defended himself and fought off his attacker until help came to arrest the student.

Creativity through constraint

While JSB was with Prince Leopold in Cothen, he has tremendous freedom to do as he wanted (not freedom to be lazy, but freedom to compose whatever he wanted whenever he wanted). But when he left that wide freedom and went to Leipzig he was constrained to the work of the church. However, in that constraint is where his creativity soared and his production kicked of.

Perhaps, the key to productivity is not freedom but focus!

JSB: The Gospel in Word and in Composition

JSB is from the Baroque period. Baroque, in the vaguest sense, means “elaborate ornamentation” — which is a pretty good description of Bach’s technique. Because of its complexity it can be hard to appreciate if you aren’t actually performing the music, so don’t feel like you are supposed to understand all the layering and cleverness straight away. (Pelikan, p. 25)

During JSB’s time the trends started to change to what he called “light” and “airy” music. There were debates on the kind of music to use in the church. So, “worship wars” are not new to our time. People have been fighting trends in music one way or the other since the beginning.

Let’s not think we are unique to history!

JSB used what is called the “Trinity of C’s”.

  1. Counterpoint – Bass as the foundation with the other parts constructed on this. Southern Gospel is actually a southern cultural expression of counterpoint.
  1. Cantata – Literally “sung”, is a vocal composition with instrument accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.
  1. Chorale – Musical composition consisting of / or resembling a harmonized version of a simple or stately hymn. Intended to get the audience on the thematic page of the sermon that day.

Bach composed his music based on the “four seasons” of the church’s calendar year:

  1. Advent/Christmas
  2. Lent/Easter
  3. Feast of Ascension/Feast of Pentecost
  4. Trinity Sunday running until the last Sunday before Advent (this long 6 month season, scattered with multiple days and celebrations provided a challenge for church musicians).

“In a relatively short period of time JSB composed five complete cycles of cantatas for the church year with about 6 cantatas in each, making the repertory of roughly 300 sacred cantatas. About a third of these have been lost.” (Pelikan, p. 10)

Saint Matthew Passion is a great example of the language but also the music itself highlighting the gospel.

Thank you to Cydi Ivery for analyzing and providing me with this evaluation!

Below are five examples of how Bach uses musical elements to emphasize meaning in the Biblical text. If you refer to the video St Matthew Passion Bach scrolling score

The five elements are:

  1. The Halo – use of stringed instruments producing long tones which ‘illuminate’ the utterances of Jesus. At 1:02-ish, Judas betrays Jesus. Hear the sweet tones Judas uses. Jesus responds at 1:02:39, as the stringed instruments paint a ‘halo’, by playing long suspended tones around the utterances of Jesus. This is done throughout the Passion when Jesus speaks. (Like I use a highlighter to underline words, he used music to highlight Jesus’ words)
  2. A ‘sighing’ motif – In response to Jesus being betrayed, a theme sung by a soprano and alto (the singing begins at 1:03:36). Hear how the soprano and also emphasize the first note of each pattern of two, and when the notes descend, it creates a grieving, sighing effect. (This is also done in Bach’s BWV4 when singing ‘der Tod’, or ‘death’.) (Note: We are designed to be empathetic – when someone cries, we cry for them. The ‘crying’ sighs in this lamenting theme cause us to empathize – it’s a musical element that simply cajoles sympathetic grief from the listener). (It is intented to cause us to feel what was being felt in the text)
  3. Startling – (this is not a scholarly term, just saying what it sounds like) – within this grieving sighing movement, note the juxtaposition of the full chorus periodically singing “Leave Him!” with urgency (1:03:39). This startling entrance of the chorus would most likely have caused chills bumps to appear on the listener as a result of adrenaline, as they are already captivated by the lulling sighing sadness of the singers, creating a dynamic and textural contrast to which we would respond with a start.
  4. Onomatopoeic (imitative) effects – at 2:30:26, after the congregation has sung together in response to Jesus’s death (see #5), the Evangelist enters with a heroic melody, and bass strings create a ‘tearing of the veil’ with a long downward flourish, both visible in the score and audible to the listener. The ‘earth shaking’ is represented by the ‘agitato’, or agitated rapid stroking of strings as a way of sustaining a chord. The listener perceives this as ‘shaking’ or agitation, the technique is often used to convey suspense or agitation. (Instruments are used to imitate what one would feel having been there; the music takes you back to the experience)
  5. Congregational response – This is how we know Bach meant this piece as more than mere performance. Throughout the Passion, Bach placed well-known chorales for the congregation to sing in response to what they have heard. Example: At 2:23:00, the reed instruments (notable that it is reeds) begin a piece in which the alto sings a tender invitation to “look, come, seek, live, stay” – an offer of Jesus’s mercy and redemption. Throughout this invitation, the reeds are a picture of tender mercy, rather than the reed with a sponge and vinegar used to represent scorn and mocking which we hear moments later at 2:28:20.   Next, the stark and moving recitative portrays Jesus’s death (the marked change in texture at the moment of Jesus’s death – meaning suddenly there are fewer instruments – causes the listener to sit on the edge of their seat, moved by pity, remorse, grief, etc). Immediately following Jesus’s death, a familiar chorale is introduced, intended for the entire congregation to sing:

“When I one day shall depart, then part not from me!

When I must suffer death, then come to my side!

When I am most afraid in my heart,

Then save me from those fears by virtue of Your fear and pain.”

Surely, this moment of congregational singing becomes not something observed, but rather a moment of intimate communion between God and each individual participant who knows what it is they’re singing, and to Whom they are singing it. These words could have been spoken, but as demonstrated in the Psalms, words carry more depth of meaning, beyond what can really be articulated fully, when they are expressed with beautiful melody, harmony, and congregational singing. Oxytocin, a chemical produced in the brain when singing congregationally, not only produces joy and peace, but is a chemical responsible for the feelings of bonding, such as within marriage. God intends His people to sing these words congregationally, and Bach provided the set up for these moments, unforgettable for any believer who has ever participated in the Passion through singing.

Throughout the Passion, Bach uses different effects such as a ‘stereo’ dual chorus and orchestra, which he uses back and forth as Jesus is blindfolded and is being beaten. The chorus is singing from one side of the room to the other, “Who hit you? Prophesy!”, with fervor, in a manner which conveys the disorientation and confusion of such an experience. I suggest watching it a bit at a time, but surely watching it from Jesus’s death (around 2:28) to the end gives several examples of Bach’s purposeful use of musical elements to anchor the Gospel into the heart and memory of the listener.[2]

This intentionality on the part of JSB helps us see that the music itself was to stir the soul and remind us of Scripture so that Scripture carried by the music might lift the soul and take us back to the experience of what the text is telling us.

JSB: Music as Ministry to the Soul

“Bach mastered another technique that anticipated psychology – the subliminal message, a goal of later tone poets. Like no one before or since, he used musical keys, notes, themes, motifs, cadences, rhythms, instruments, voices, and ornamentation as tools to create moods, suggest messages, and plant ideas in the listeners’ minds.” (Marschall, p. 95)

For JSB music was so much more than a necessary component of a worship service in order to fill time or simply set up the sermon.

Music itself was a sermon that prepared or repeated the sermon to be brought verbally from the Scriptures by the minister.

“The organ is to be played with both hands in such a manner that the left hand plays the prescribed notes; the right hand, however, executes the consonances and dissonances so that a pleasing harmony will result to the honor of God and the soothing delight of the spirit.” – JSB (Marschall, p. 99)

Music is more than space filler. It is the singing of God, and it has effect on the soul.

Marschall quotes Michale Torke as saying, “Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B minor Mass.

Concluding Applications

Application: Seek the glory of God in the subduing of your created domain to as much detail as you can muster as an expert in that field!

Application: Make it your aim to so master your craft in the finer details so that people recognize your skill as given of God and your praise to God as one and the same!

Application: Put some thought into not only doing your work, but doing your work in a way that it says something about the King and your desire to follow and imitate him! (Ephesians 5:1, Be imitators of God as dearly loved children)

  • Let kingdom values drive what you do
  • Let Scripture dictate how you do what you do
  • Use some creativity in crafting your day and your production so that it’s beautiful and it (the work and production itself) proclaims truth                    Do some things in threes (Trinitarian) or intentional patterns (Inclusion, like in the Beatitudes, v. 3 “Kingdom of Heaven” v. 10 “Kingdom of Heaven”, so everything in between is what the Kingdom looks like)

                     – Do things beautifully (a well done weld is beautiful)

Illustration: I worked with a guy in high school who welded. Even on welds that were hidden, he made them beautiful. He took delight in welding, and it showed. I still remember that. Why? Because it was beautiful.

                        – Do things with joy

Application: Engage in music by listening to the music and the words together. Sing the words, but receive the intent of the music to your soul. Listening to and participating in music is a spiritual exercise!

  1. Try closing your eyes and listening to the flow of the music during the Lord’s Supper.
  1. Fully engage your mind and soul and body in the music and the words when we worship Father, Son and Spirit together.
  1. Make a habit of listening to all kinds of music and quality music composed to the glory of God (Sovereign Grace Music; Hillsong; Bob Marley; Cold Play; Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige Christmas CD “What Child is This?”; Sarah Brightman; Lecrae; Sting & Cheb Mami, Live Desert Rose; U2)
  1. Receive and enjoy the pleasurable and emotional effect of the music (enjoy those chill bumps and adrenaline releases of good music as a gift from the Lord) Psalm 16:11 “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is  fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

[1] Mitchell Jolly

[2] Analysis provided by Cyndi Ivery, Director of Fine Arts, Unity Christian School

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