J.S. Bach and the Chief End of Music

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 19, 2000

“The aim and final reason… of all music… should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind” [Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader, rev. edn., New York: Norton, 1972, p. 33]. These words come from the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who died on July 28, 1750, which makes this year the 250th anniversary of his death. Many musical organizations are marking this anniversary with special Bach programs, and Tenth is no exception. Next Sunday evening Dr. Paul Jones and the Tenth Church Choir will present Bach Cantata 192 during the Sunday evening worship service. Like all of Bach’s cantatas, this piece was composed for public worship. Since it based on the familiar chorale “Now Thank We All Our God,” it will be a fitting follow-up to Thanksgiving weekend.

Many people value Bach’s music, but this is especially true of Christians, who best understand the deep spirituality of his work. Evidence of this spirituality comes from Japan, where Bach is presently enjoying a tremendous wave of popularity, and where thousands of Japanese who have listened to his cantatas have been converted to faith in Jesus Christ. One example is the musicologist Keisuke Maruyama. After making a careful study of the use of Scripture in Bach’s cantatas, Maruyama went to the pastor of Bach’s old church in Leipzig and said, “It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.” On the basis of such experiences, Japanese Christians refer to Bach’s music as “a vehicle of the Holy Spirit” [Uwe Siemon-Netto, “The Bach Boom,” Citizen, May, 2000, p. 25].

The deep spirituality of Bach’s music was the product of the thoroughly biblical education he received as a child. From the age of eight he attended Latin school, where he studied “the Catechism, Psalms, and Bible, history, writing, and reading, particularly the Gospels and Epistles in German and Latin” [Terry, Bach: A Biography, p. 21]. Later Bach was required to master advanced Lutheran textbooks in systematic theology. All of this theological training proved useful when he applied for the position of music director at Leipzig, for which part of the application process was a lengthy theological examination. Bach passed his exams and was awarded the position, which involved overseeing the music at four Lutheran churches in downtown Leipzig.

Bach continued to study theology throughout his career as a musician, and his personal library consisted almost entirely of biblical commentaries and weighty volumes of Lutheran theology, including the complete works of Luther himself. The only books that remain comprise a three-volume set of Biblical criticism. These books are filled with Bach’s personal notations. One of the things that made him such an outstanding church musician was his lifelong pursuit of biblical knowledge. Bach understood that in order to glorify God in any calling, a Christian must make a thorough study of the Bible and its theology.

One Bible passage that received Bach’s special attention was 1 Chronicles 25, the chapter that describes how King David appointed 288 musicians to serve at the tabernacle. Bach wrote in the margin: “Note well: This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music” [Calvin R. Stapert, My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 11]. Bach was right. David’s example shows that music is at the very heart of worship that pleases God. It is right and good for the church to employ skilled musicians to lead in the worship of God. The function of these musicians is to proclaim the Word of God. The Bible says that “David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying [in other words, speaking God’s Word], accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:1). Worship music is always in the service of God’s Word.

Few musicians have ever understood this more completely than Johann Sebastian Bach, who dedicated his life to music in the service of Christ. At one point in his career, Bach was responsible for producing a cantata every week. He wrote nearly 300 cantatas in all. One of the things that makes them special is the way that they expound the biblical text. In his cantatas Bach used all of his skill as a musician to draw attention to the meaning of Scripture. One scholar explains that for Bach, it was not enough “simply to bring musical interpretation to the biblical text, no matter how magnificent, colorful, or dramatic. The music must lay open the invitation of the text, the gospel invitation to the reader and the hearer to confront the claim of the text and to understand him- or herself anew in view of the grace of God” [Richard L. Jeske, “Bach as Biblical Interpreter,” in The Universal Bach, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1985, p. 87].

This is our approach to music at Tenth Presbyterian Church. Like the sermon, our worship music aims to proclaim the Word of God. The Scripture instructs us to “Let the word of Christ richly dwell in us as we teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). The reason worship music has this teaching function in the church is because what we sing is the Word of God. The psalmist wrote, “May my tongue sing of your word” (Ps. 119:172). When it is closely tied to the Word of God, worship music becomes a means of grace. As Bach wrote in the margin next to 2 Chronicles 5:13, “With a devotional music God is always present with his grace.” This will be true next Sunday evening, when the choir sings the cantata “Now Thank We All Our God,” which is based on dozens of biblical texts, especially from the Psalms.

Johann Sebastian Bach was an extraordinarily gifted musician. But his basic commitment is something that every Christian can emulate. It is well known that Bach often signed his compositions with the letters “s.D.g.”: soli Deo Gloria, or “glory to God alone.” The glory of God-this is the chief end of music because it is the chief end of man. Whatever we do, we should do it as well as we possibly can, so as to glorify God. As Bach wrote, “If you love God, you do everything at the highest level of competency.”

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