Johann Sebastian Bach
Composer, Musician, Christianby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed
lyre. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy”, says
Psalm 33. Johann Sebastian Bach to this verse and followed it wholeheartedly
throughout his life. Bach, writer of
music, and player of many instruments, was also a follower of Christ.
Bach’s childhood was one filled with both happiness and tragedy. Johann was born to Ambrosius Bach in 1685 in Eisnach, Germany. At the time, his father was a court musician. For 200 years before Johann’s birth, the Bach family had been prominent musicians in the town of Thuringia, which was a town in central Germany. As a child, the entire Bach family would have a musical picnic on a hillside. The Bachs would bring their instruments and play or sing all together. Sadly, at nine, Johann lost both of his parents. Johann and his older brother, Jakob went to live with their twenty-three year old, married brother, Christoph, who was an organist at a church in Ohrdruf, which was thirteen miles away. Young Bach could already play the violin, trumpet, flute, and oboe very well, and wished to learn the organ well too. The boy also excelled at playing the clavier, as did his brother, Christoph. Christoph had some clavier music in his study which he kept locked up. Little Johann craved to play the precious music, but was not allowed to, because his older brother thought it to be too difficult for him. Stealthily, during the night, Johann slipped up to the study, unrolled the beautiful music, and strained his eyes while he copied every note. Eventually, Christoph found him in the study and took back the copied music.
Several years later, it became hard for Christoph to support his brothers. Previously, Johann and Jakob had been attending a school in Lyceum where they studied Latin and sang in the choir, where they made a tuppence amount from performances. Taking the matter on themselves, the boys gave all of their earnings from singing to Christoph, though this amount still wasn’t enough. Amazingly, their head master approached them with an offer to go to a choir and music school for less fortunate and penniless boys. At 14, Johann and his friend, Georg journeyed to the school in Luneburg, a very wealthy and musical city. Johann lived at St. Michael’s school. Each day he studied, sang in the choir, and played on many instruments. Suddenly, at 15, during a church service, Johann’s voice cracked. He tried desperately to regain the note, but it was impossible. Dreading the outcome, he went to speak with the headmaster. Because Johann was such a good violinist, the headmaster allowed him to stay at the school, and learn to play the clavichord. At the age of 16, Johann journeyed on foot to hear the acclaimed organist Reinken. When the young man heard the master, he was astonished at its beauty, and desired to play in that way. Returning home after the concert, Johann found himself starving and penniless. Miraculously, as Johann began to eat two discarded fish heads because of his extreme hunger, he found a gold ducat in each head! He gave thanks to God for providing.
As Bach grew into a man, his faith in God prospered, as did his musical career. He was hired as a court violinist by Duke Johann Ernst. When he was just 18, Johann enchanted the court with his talent of playing the organ. While he was at the court, he also trained choir boys. In 1707, Bach accepted another position from the Duke in Wiemer, Germany as an organist, and wrote the “G-Minor Fugue”. When Johann wanted to change jobs in 1717, and accept a position in Cothen, England, the Duke objected. Because Bach complained so much about this injustice, the Duke had him thrown in prison. During his prison stay, Bach wrote the “Little Organ Book” When he was released, in 1723, Johann Sebastian became the cantor of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, a big, bustling city. Though he enjoyed this job, Mr. Bach found it tiring because he had to compose new music for each Sunday. The concert director of Poland’s castle told Bach of an organ contest proposition between Bach and the famous organist Merchard of France. Bach eagerly accepted the invitation, but on the day of the contest, Marchard, who was known to be unreliable, never showed up for the King. Bach, however played for His Majesty and the court and left them speechless. As a reward, the King sent Bach 100 gold pieces in a solid gold cup.
At 21, Bach became the director of music at a church in Arnstadt. Though the choir boys were unruly, and ungrateful, the young man enjoyed composing in all of his free time. Jakob, Johann’s brother came to see him, saying he was joining Charles XII’s army band as an oboist. While living in Arnstadt, young Bach composed the famous “Toccata”, and the “Fugue in D Minor”. The church board was constantly hoarding their young director with complaints. Dissatisfied, Johann journeyed on one month leave to Lubeck to hear Buxtehude, who had a feisty style of playing. When Bach journeyed home, four months later, and tried the new style, he was fired. After marrying his cousin, Barbara, who a singer at the church, Bach accepted a new position in Mulhausen as an organist. While there, Bach composed his first cantata named, “God is My King”. The board of the church did not approve of Bach’s style, and said it was of a disrespectful nature to God. Upon hearing this, Bach was shocked. Because of his strong faith and love for God, he had never intended his music to show any disrespect for Him. For Bach, his sole purpose was glorifying God in all of his music.
After being rejected at two places, Bach turned to his wife, Barbara, and new family for comfort and support. The couple moved to Weimar, where Johann lived, heard and breathed music. He studied the Italian works of Vivaldi and Corelli and the full, richness of the notes. While in Weimar, he composed numerous works. With his children in mind, Bach wrote the “Little Clavier Book”, while they lived at Cothen House, where Bach taught music and composed. At that time, Bach was good friends with Prince Leopold, and often played music with him. At that time, Bach also taught at the University, but the staff looked down upon him because he had no college degree. At an Easter service, Bach played the newly composed “St. Matthew’s Passion” which was very contemporary. The entire church was outraged, and when complaints started pouring in, Bach was exasperated but was forced to stay. He composed more suites and overtures and Mass in B Minor.
In June 1720, Bach went to Carlsbad to see Prince Leopold. Tragically, when he returned home, his beloved wife had died. He composed great songs of grief on the organ that expressed his sadness. Later that year, in Prince Leopold’s court, Bach met Anna Magdalena Wilke, a soprano singer with a gorgeous voice. Bach was captivated by her, and asked her to marry him. Anna Magdalena wasn’t sure. Marry a grown widower with four children? But she was a sweet, godly, lady, and happily consented to marry him. The adoring Bach composed the “The Little Clavier Book for Anna Magdalena Bach, Year 1722”. In May 1723, the happy family moved to the huge city of Leipzig where he became the music director. He sang, directed, and composed some of his most beautiful works there. As Anna Magdalena and Johann had children, they were raised to love and fear the Lord. Bach sincerely believed that his faith should be reflected in all areas. In 1942, the Bach’s last child, Susanna was born.
Johann Sebastian continued composing despite failing eyesight. In April 1750, he became totally blind and confined to bed. Bach had his son Christoph write down a chorale, “Before the Throne of God I Stand”. One morning, Bach told his wife, “I can see you!” for a few moments, then became blind again. At her husband’s command, Anna Bach began to sing “All Men Have To Die”, and people in his room sang all the various parts. On that day; July 28, 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach, great composer died at 65 years old.
This great man brought God-glorifying music to a peak, and was also a loving husband and father to twenty children. “Awake, A Voice is Calling”, shows Bach’s undivided faith. It is based on Matthew 25:1-3 in which the bridegroom (Christ) is waiting joyfully for the bride (the church). Bach seemed to preach through his music lyrics and purpose. This is calling Christians to “awake from their slumber and purify their hearts to receive the spirit of the coming Christ.” (Listening to Music, Craig Wright). Not only did Johann Sebastian Bach compose and play some of the world’s most beautiful music, but he incorporated his faith into his works to further glorify God. Though his music was not appreciated until long after his death, Bach left a legacy of cantatas, concertos, fugues, and arias that point to the Lord. This was Bach’s true ambition in life.
1. http://www.jsbach.org – J.S. Bach Homepage
2. Wright, Craig “Listening to Music” St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1992
3. Huchet Bishop, Claire “Johann Sebastian Bach, Music Giant”. New York: Gerrard Publishing Company, 1972