Sermon: Johann Sebastian Bach

Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

In 1722 a composer applied for a music director job in Leipzig. There were five other candidates. The city council seemed to be looking for a college education, which this composer lacked. They offered the job to two other candidates, who both declined.  One councilman commented when they were calling the third candidate, “Since we cannot get the best, we will have to be satisfied with a mediocre one.”  That mediocre candidate turned out to be Johann Sebastian Bach.

The great composer Johannes Brahms wrote to a friend about a composition by Bach, “The man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece I am sure that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”

It would seem that a driving factor for Bach and the music he composed was God.  He says, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hub-bub.”  Bach’s works are so explicitly biblical that the famous missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer, who was also an expert on Bach, called him “the Fifth Evangelist.” 

As part of his duties in one position, Bach was to provide an original composition for each Sunday’s church service, as well as various feast days. Bach thus set about composing a five-year cycle of cantatas, amounting to 60 cantatas a year, for a total of 300 works of an average duration of 25 minutes, so on average he produced more than one cantata a week during that five year period. 

He lived until age 65 and died in 1750 and neither he nor his contemporaries had any idea that his music would last throughout the ages.  In fact he was obscure for a century after his death until he was rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn.  It is likely that many of those hundreds of compositions were simply lost, but on those that do survive there is an interesting notation on some: in Bach’s own handwriting, the letters J.J. at the beginning of each and S.D.G. at the end.  They are abbreviations for the Latin, Jesu Juva (Jesus Help Me!) at the beginning and Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone!) at the end.

We often say that things are done to the glory of God, but it was my friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá who helped me to understand the meaning of the phrase: “Dei omnis gloria—All glory to God.  It is an emphatic confession of our nothingness.  He, Jesus, is everything.  We, without him, are worth nothing: Nothing.  Our vainglory would be just that: vain glory; it would be sacrilegious theft; the ‘I’ should not appear anywhere.” (The Way #780)  Like Bach, that is definitely something to consider the next time we say, “to the Glory of God.”  However, there is a consolation: we may be ‘nothing,’ but we are God’s nothing and in the end… that is really something!

I can’t sing it, but I’ll share the words of one of Bach’s most famous hymns (surprisingly, it is not in our hymnal!)

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

7 Replies to “Sermon: Johann Sebastian Bach”

  1. It’s not Christmas for me without a good classical guitar version of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”! It’s criminal that it isn’t in our hymnal!

  2. If Bach was mediocre, I really want to hear great.

    There is a wonderful performance of the Mass in B Minor on YouTube. The performance is from the BBC Proms a few years ago. In one portion of the great work, a female violinist accompanies a female vocalist. It is obvious that both women, excellent musicians, were enjoying performing.

    Why not?

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