The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach

After Bach’s death, some 250 years ago, people ‘wiped their ears’ of his music. Whilst he was remembered as a virtuoso organist, his compositions were sold and in some cases used to wrap butter. It took 80 years until his unique life's work started to be rediscovered. Today, Bach is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. His music points many a hardened atheist to the Bible and to Jesus Christ. What can we learn about (and from) this man?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born in Eisenach, a town which hosts the Wartburg and where Martin Luther had lived and translated the New Testament. In fact, the young Bach attended the same school that Luther was enrolled in some 200 years earlier. When Bach’s parents passed away just months apart, the young boy (then 10 years old) sang Lutheran hymns with the church choir during the burial. Bach not only grew up in the geographical heart of the Lutheran reformation: he was directly influenced by Luther’s work, owned a large number of Protestant books and two copies of the Luther Bible, one of which was recently discovered in a farmhouse in America. It shows Bach’s notes in the margin and how he underlined scriptures in black and red ink – an incredible testimony to his faith.

Let’s look at a few examples of Bach’s annotations: EXODUS 15:1-19 (the ‘Song of Moses’, with Moses leading the men and Miriam the women into worship) – “NB: First prelude of two choirs to be performed to the glory of God”, 1 CHRONICLES 25:1-7 (musical families of Israel)  - “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music” or at 1 CHRONICLES 28:21 - "NB. Splendid proof that, besides other arrangements of the service of worship, music too was instituted by the Spirit of God through David."

Music was never just music to Bach. Nearly three-quarters of his 1,100 compositions were written for use in worship. Between his musical genius, his commitment to Christ and the effect of his music, he has come to be known in many circles as "the fifth evangelist."

Bach often started his sheet music with the abbreviation “JJ” (initials for “Jesus Help me”) or “INJ” (“In the Name of Jesus”) and signed the reverse of the manuscript with “SDG” (‘Soli Deo Gloria’, “Only for the Glory of God”) – a quotation from ROMANS 16:27 and JUDE 25.

There were many tragedies in Bach’s life, for example the early loss of father and mother, as well as his first wife’s unexpected passing (while he was inspecting an organ). Bach - a loving family father – only saw 10 of his 20 children reach adulthood. As a musician who avoided the glamour of stardom and fame, he chose to work in humble and partially very difficult circumstances, where bureaucratic restrictions as well as financial hardships accompanied his entire life. These trials caused Bach to turn to God more intensively and to musically express a yearning for Christ and for holiness in a way never done before or after him.

Bach’s musical output is overwhelming: 45 volumes, 13,000 pages, 160 CDs - and not one inferior piece! It would take a single person decades to hand-copy on paper what is left of Bach’s music, let alone compose it. The original sheet music, as far as it is preserved, shows a swift stroke of the pen – yet hardly reveals any corrections or efforts to improve a finished arrangement. Musicians and scientists agree that Bach did not really ‘compose’, but merely wrote down what was given to him.

Many of Bach’s works, such as the passions, motets, chorales etc., are a direct expression of scripture text in music. During his later years in Leipzig, it was Bach’s weekly task to select bible verses, compose a “cantata” for the Sunday and train the musicians for the performance – about 200 of these cantatas are preserved and have come to us as a legacy of his masterpieces – powerfully preaching the word of God in the language of music.

Yet it is equally as fascinating to study Bach’s instrumental works. His music is interwoven with mathematical patterns. Consider, for instance, the “Chaconne” in D minor – part of a violin solo sonata. It is regarded as "the greatest structure for solo violin that exists" (Yehudi Menuhin) and "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. It is one of the greatest achievements of any man in history - a spiritually powerful piece, structurally perfect" (Joshua Bell). Presumably composed in response to Bach’s first wife’s death, it seems to be a dialogue of two voices, a pleading with God, an expression of an incredible range of human feelings, a walk through the circle of life – escaping all efforts of analysis. Recently a musicologist dedicated a book to this 14-minute violin piece, showing how its melodies, structures and numbers encapsulate quotations of scriptures and of Lutheran hymns about Christ’s victory over death and a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit – a sermon altogether! Similar results are seen in Bach’s famous organ work called “Passacaglia” and many others.

In affecting both performers and listeners alike, Bach’s music has carried the Bible to parts of the world and hearts mostly unreached by the light of the Gospel. Take Japan for example, a country where less than 1% of the population professes Christianity. Christian conductor M. Suzuki is quoted as saying: “Bach works as a missionary among our people in Japan. After each concert, people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what “hope” means to Christians. I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith.” A Japanese musicologist named Keisuke traveled all the way to Bach’s home church in Germany to study the biblical basis for Bach’s cantatas. He ended up seeking out a pastor and asking, “It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.”

Bach stated: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul.” In a world where music is so full of vanity, self and rebellion, this is a refreshing statement. In spite of his enormous talents, Bach chose to remain unassuming in his attitude, seeking God’s glory rather than “great things” for himself, humbly and diligently serving the purpose God had intended for his life. His last work, ‘The Art of the Fugue’, was composed on his deathbed. It contains a motif based on Bach’s name, the four notes B – A – C and H. Clearly this composition was between him and the Lord, a preparation for Bach’s appearing before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The blind man no longer had the strength to pull together its various themes to a perfect ending. Instead he dictated to his son-in-law a powerful last chorale: “Before thy throne I come herewith”, before he passed away.  

Apart from the enjoyment of the music – there are certainly many lessons to be learned from Bach’s discipline, diligence, inventiveness, passion, thankfulness, persistence, servitude, faith, hunger for God, humility and his care for family, assembly and students.

(Written by J. Whyte, Christian Assemblies Int., Coffs Harbour, Australia)




"I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well." - Johann Sebastian Bach

“God's gift to his sorrowing creatures is a joy worthy of their destiny.” - Johann Sebastian Bach

“Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure.” - Karl Barth

“The music of my father has higher purposes: it is not supposed to fill the ear, but to move your heart.” Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach

“Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars.” - Frederick Chopin

“...the greatest Christian music in the world... if life had taken hope and faith from me, this single chorus would restore all.” - Felix Mendelssohn

“Bach is the beginning and end of all music.” - Max Reger

“I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world's music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.” - Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov

“O you happy sons of the North who have been reared at the bosom of Bach, how I envy you.” - Giuseppi Verdi

“If all the music written since Bach's time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.” - Charles Gounod

“Study Bach. There you will find everything.” - Johannes Brahms

“Bach is the supreme genius of music... This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.”  - Pablo Casals

“If one were asked to name one musician who came closest to composing without human flaw, I suppose general consensus would choose Johann Sebastian Bach...” - Aaron Copland

“It is extremely difficult to play Bach; it does not only take intuition and logical thinking, but as well heart, blood and tears.” Alena Cherny

“In Bach, the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” - Gustav Mahler

“Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian.” - Roger Fry

“Everything is to be possible!” - Johann Sebastian Bach

“Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” - Johann Sebastian Bach

“Jesu juva [Jesus, help me] - In nomine Jesu [In Jesus’ name] - Soli Deo Gloria [To God alone the glory]” - Johann Sebastian Bach

And finally...

When eminent biologist and author Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send from earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft, he answered, "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." After a pause, he added, "But that would be boasting."