Finding God In


Johann Sebastian Bach

By Lael Arrington, co-author of A Faith and Culture Devotional

For several generations, the Bach family had produced professional musicians. But they could never have anticipated the genius and world-wide acclaim that would come to Johann (d. 1695), the musician’s son who left the family’s mark on history.

In his Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh describes one of the most famous examples of Bach’s “word painting”: “In his colossal Mass in B Minor, towards the end of the ‘Crucifixus’ movement, the voices and instruments quietly sink into their lowest registers as the body of Jesus is lowered into the tomb. This is immediately followed by an explosion of blazing glory in the ‘Et Resurrexit’, an effect composers have copied for centuries.”

Beauty. Order. Comfort. Majesty. Despair. Joy! Longing beyond words. Like the poetic repetitions of the Psalms, the contrapuntal phrases of Bach’s music evoke an extraordinary bandwidth of human emotion and experience. Beethoven praised this musical genius, saying, “His name ought not to be Bach (German for “brook”) but “ocean” because of his infinite and inexhaustible wealth of combinations and harmonies.”

He was a civil servant in Leipzig, Germany, overseeing the music in four churches, but nothing about Bach’s life was average. He was the father of twenty children. His published works fill 65 volumes of music, and perhaps that much again has been lost. He directed a musical service institute, and he wrote, rehearsed, and directed new oratorios (sometimes monthly and even weekly) for his churches.

Bach “was certainly the zenith of composers coming out of the Reformation,” wrote Francis Schaeffer.

His music was a direct result of the Reformation culture and the biblical Christianity of the time, which was so much a part of Bach himself. There would have been no Bach had there been no Luther. Bach wrote on his score initials representing such phrases as: “With the help of Jesus”—“To God alone be the glory”—“In the name of Jesus.” It was appropriate that the last thing Bach the Christian wrote was “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.”

Bach consciously related both the form and the words of his music to Biblical truth. Out of the Biblical context came a rich combination of music and words and a diversity with unity. This rests on the fact that the Bible gives unity to the universal and the particulars, and therefore the particulars (all individual things, even notes on a page) have meaning. Expressed musically, there can be endless variety and diversity without chaos. There is variety yet resolution.

The pathos and transcendence of Bach’s music emanated from a heart that sought God through great adversity. At the age of nine Bach lost both parents. He was passed over for appointments and promotions for political reasons and once worked for slave wages to play the violin in a duke’s private chapel. He and his first wife lost twins and two other infants. He then lost his wife. Of the twelve children his second wife bore, eight died before the age of five.

He lost another son to a lifestyle that incurred so much debt that twice his son had to flee to other towns to escape his creditors. “What can I do or say more?” his father wrote, entreating him to turn his life around. “My warnings having failed and my loving care and help having proved unavailing? I can only bear my cross in patience and commend my undutiful boy to God’s mercy, never doubting that he will hear my sorrow-stricken prayer and in his good time bring my son to understand that the path of conversion leads to him.” His son died suddenly at the age of 24.

Enduring a lifetime of sorrows, yet ever ambitious, hard-working, and hospitable, Bach always opened his home to visitors and his genius was widely acclaimed. Throughout his life, he continued to write magnificent music, completing his famous Mass in B Minor the year before he suffered a stroke and died.

For reflection and discussion:

• What connection have you experienced with Bach’s music? (Listen to Air on a G YouTube or download from iTunes)

• How do you think adversity and great music (great work) might be related? Do you think great music can proceed from a life of comfort and ease?

• As Schaeffer points out, all the diversity and dynamic tension of Bach’s music ultimately finds resolution. What do you think that says about Bach' worldview? As you think about today’s movies and music that end abruptly or on a note of dissonance, how do you respond to that unresolved tension?

• How do you experience both unresolved tension and resolution in your life with God? How do you want to respond to God in prayer about this reading?


For your enjoyment, an introduction to Bach's Mass in B minor:

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