14 Apr The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
Most of us would probably agree that sacred music performs an important role in worship. Past listening to a sermon or reading scriptural text, something magical happens when audio is an essential part of religious services. It captures emotion which can’t be replicated by text and invites reflection and meditation in a manner that deepens personal beliefs and commitment to a religious life.
While there are lots of composers that have composed religious music, Maybe none is as highly regarded as Johann Sebastian Bach–that declared that his life work and end goal was to write music for the church. He routinely wrote “S.D.G.” (“Soli Deo Gloria”) at the conclusion of his manuscripts, attributing credit and glory to God. He’s also well known for saying that “the last aim and reason of music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.”
When he died in 1750, the popularity of his songs waned–though surprisingly, he was not really known because of his newfound talent during his lifetime. He was respected as an accomplished musician, but not necessarily hailed as a great composer. It wasn’t until Mendelssohn conducted a version of the St. Matthew Passion several 79 years after his death that interest in his work started to revive.
He was born March 21, 1685, to Johann, at the village of Eisenach Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. He would drop both of them, within weeks of one another, as a young boy. Bach was a deeply religious man, a staunch Lutheran who sang in precisely the same church choir who Martin Luther had sung in 200 years before. It was Luther who stated that “notes could make the words come alive,” and that seems to be a message Bach took to heart. He had been a master at combining religious text with strikingly beautiful harmonies and thought-provoking arias. By so doing, he managed to transfer the listener into scriptural narratives, inviting them to consider the personal consequences of Christ’s life to the thoughtful spiritual follower.
Bach was the youngest child, and if his parents died, he and his brother moved to live with their older brother, Johann Christoph. Christoph was an organist in Ohrdruf, and despite the sorrow and alter he was facing, Sebastian seems to have thrived in college within this new site. By the time he was 15, he procured a singing scholarship in Lüneburg, a space some 230 miles out of his brother’s house. He traveled on foot with a friend, and was there for 3 decades.
His career started in Arnstadt, and it was here that he had an incident with a bassoonist he had been criticized. Later, that exact same gentleman confronted Bach with a stick, to which Bach reportedly responded by drawing his rapier. It was here that he requested to leave for four months to be able to see Buxtehude, ended up being gone four months, and doesn’t appear to have been that apologetic about his lack of consideration.
Finally, he made Arnstadt to sit in Mühlhausen, and this was the place where he married his cousin, Maria Barbara, as well. After working for a brief time there, and then in Weimar for some time, he took a post in Köthen working with Prince Leopold. Because the prince was a Calvin and their spiritual tenets were different, Bach did not write a lot of sacred music reflecting his own beliefs in this time period. Some of his famous works, however–especially the Brandenburg Concertos and the set of famous Cello Suites–were written during his stay here. This was a good time for him personally, though sadness was to strike again if his wife died here at the youthful age of 35.
After he married Anna Magdalena a year and a half later, she had been a singer and a woman many years his junior. Following their marriage, they finally ended up in Leipzig, where Bach took a position at the Thomasschule. This was a very busy time for him. Directing the choir boys and needing to participate in a few of their secular studies also was one thing, but the volume of music he was turning around during this time is pretty mind-boggling. He had been composing a full cantata every week, and once the writing was done, the manuscripts had to be copied so that each musician had the music for their instrument’s component. The sheer enormity of the job is simply herculean. It was during this time he wrote two of his big works, the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion. The St. John was written first and performed for the first time on Good Friday in 1724 in the Nikolaikirche. Three years later, also on Good Friday, the St. Matthew Passion premiered at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Bach remained in Leipzig until his death in 1750. Though he wasn’t initially buried there, his grave is now in the Thomaskirche (Leipzig), the place where he spent the majority of his career. Today, over 250 decades after, his songs is regarded as some of the best of all time. His religious music is still used for worship, as choirs and conductors of different faiths perform some of his amazing works. His gifts and religious sensibilities have blessed churches, church choirs, and also the planet at large.
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