May 1, 2016 2
The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived between 1685 and 1750, universally is regarded as one of the great music-makers of the human race; certainly on almost every critic’s list of the great composers of all time.
Bach received additional plaudits when in 1977 the Voyager spacecraft was sent to nowhere in particular except up, with the hope that, hurtling beyond the solar system and maybe the galaxy, it might some day intersect some civilization in a remote part of the universe. Perhaps, it was hoped, aliens would discover and understand something of mankind from the spacecraft’s unique payload – a copper and gold alloy disk with images and music, estimated by its designers “to last a billion years.”
Among the playlist of global music, Bach was the only composer represented thrice: the Second Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra; the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3; and the Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 were chosen to represent humankind’s creative profile.
At the time, biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what he would have nominated for this message to unknown civilizations about humankind. “The complete works of J.S. Bach,” he suggested. “But that would be boasting.”
Such are the sorts of tributes due to Old Bach, among countless heartfelt tributes when trained musicians and common laymen and everyone in between have their hearts melt and their souls stirred by his music.
Bach himself saw his music – and his entire life – as a tribute, instead, in all humility and with his priorities straight, to God Almighty. He was aware, but not vain, about his music-making gifts, gifts from God. Therefore his talents deserved to be raised up to God. In his life, he was first a Christian; second a family man; third, a man who made music. He made music, wrote music, composed music, taught music, was an innovator of music, breathed music, as did his family tree of 40-odd Bachs before, during, and after his own lifetime.
More than half of his approximately 1800 compositions (1200 of which survive) were of Christian focus: cantatas and chorales, motets and masses, Passions and Oratorios.
Yet for all his mighty “secular” works of keyboard and organ pieces, suites and concerti, songs and fugues (whew!)… he viewed all of them, too, to be written as unto the Lord. He knew the Source of his inspiration, and the One to whom credit was due.
Bach began virtually every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva (“Jesus, help me”) on the upper left corner of the first page; and Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) on the bottom right corner of the finished ending.
His was a personal relationship with the Savior, not a professional duty even when he was employed by churches.
Such “bookends” were as anointing oil over all of Bach’s creative work. So did he begin and end his days – and his life – with such petition and praise: “Jesus, help me” and “To God alone be all the glory.” With or without the mode of music, such dedication speaks to us through the years.
The “S.D.G.” (his occasional abbreviation) should have a special meaning to us today. Most people of the 21st century, understand “God,” and understand “glory.” But it is hard for us, in contemporary times, to understand how a man like Johann Sebastian Bach could say, and mean, “alone” in that Credo. Can we?
Emerging cultures and emerging churches have compartmentalized every aspect of life, including God, and arguments are made that God would have it that way. Not so! “Personal fulfillment” is the artist’s goal in today’s world. But to Bach’s worldview, such an idea was an offense.
God “alone” is the source, the content, and the goal of artistic expression. Alone.
These prayers, and the prioritization of “ALONE” when we thank God, is how we should live, and how we should pray. Not (virtually) “thanks for helping me in this way or that way, God”; but “Thank you for being my inspiration, my helper, my right hand, my goal… my all in all.”
When we are too busy to pray, we are… too busy. We all know this, yet it happens. But if – at least – we start every day with the brief “Jesus, help me” as Bach began his compositions; and if we ended every day with “To God alone be the glory,” we will be in appropriate frames of mind.
We will start dwelling on the profound and proper life-truths of those simple prayers. We will not escape from their gentle but deep implications. We will expand on them in our active thoughts, and in our subconscious moments. We will hide those words and their implications in our hearts.
The truths spoken to our lives will become like… tunes we cannot get out of our minds. Like many of Bach’s themes. Musical and spiritual.
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The second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite:
Click: Bach’s “Air”