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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1996 -- Volume 9:16

Grace in the Arts:
"J.S.B.: S.D.G."

Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Dallas, TX

I. Prelude


The initials "J.S.B." are some of the greatest in all musical history, and certainly in the top two or three in great Christian music. The J is for Johann, German for John. The S is for Sebastian (pronounced ze-BAH-styahn), the name of a Roman soldier who became a martyr by being "darted" to death by his company for being a Christian.1 The B is for Bach, German for creek or brook.

Were it not for Bach’s ancestor’s loyalty to the Reformation, it is likely that such a scripturally oriented musician would never have lived. Some time before 1597, a baker named Veit Bach left Hungary for his native Germany to protect his Lutheran heritage against the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism in his area. He again became a baker, and, more important, the forefather of a host of German musicians by the name of Bach, including the greatest, Johann Sebastian.



In the Latin Bible at Romans 16:27 and Jude 25 we find the words "Soli Deo Gloria"—"to the only God be glory." This was to become J.S.B.’s motto. He would sign his works—whether sacred, such as "The St. Matthew Passion," or "secular," such as the light-hearted "Coffee Cantata," with these letters: S.D.G.

Actually, to Bach there was no difference between sacred and secular. All works, he maintained, should be to the glory of God.


Libretto by Luther

It has been well said that Bach is one of the greatest interpreters of Luther. Both came from the same part of Germany. Both loved music. Both loved and fathered large families (Bach: 20 children by two excellent wives—his first wife died). Both loved orthodox Protestant doctrine. Later in life, Bach clung to Lutheran orthodoxy when it was becoming less fashionable. He also had a strong "pietistic" flavor to his Evangelical Lutheranism: he stressed a warm, personal faith in God through his Savior.


Music Rooted in Luther

The types of music approved and practiced by the Lutheran congregations of Bach’s time are deeply rooted in the great Reformer himself. Wohlfarth’s words are worth quoting at some length:

The Protestant cantorship was a creation of Martin Luther and his musical collaborator, Johann Walter, near the beginning of the sixteenth century. Luther loved music: "Youth should always be familiarized with this art, for it makes for fine and capable persons. I give musica the next place after theologia, and the highest honor." For Luther, music was intrinsic to education: "Whoever has no desire or love for it and is not moved by such lovely wonders must surely be an uncouth clod, who does not deserve to hear beautiful music!" In worship music appeared to him as an indispensable means for proclaiming the divine good tidings. Here he differed significantly from the representatives of the Swiss Reformation, Zwingli and Calvin, who perceived sensual danger in the arts.

For I am not of the opinion that all the arts should be struck down by the gospel and perish, as some spurious spiritualists would gladly see happen. Rather I would see all the arts, but especially music, in the service of Him who created and bestowed them.

Besides simple hymns for congregational singing, of which he himself wrote many, Luther most loved and marveled at the exalted art of polyphony. He fervently encouraged its nurture among the cantors of the larger churches. What especially filled him with astonishment was the so-called Tenorsatz, that is, the art of joining other contrapuntal voices to a given melody. Indeed, such art actually appeared to him as a proof of the divine origin and nature of music:

But where natural music is refined and polished by art, there one first sees and recognizes the great and perfect wisdom of God in his miraculous work of music. The most rare and marvelous musical creation of all occurs when a simple melody or tenor (as the musicians call it) is joined by three or four or five other voices, joyfully playing and skipping around it, decorating and adorning that simple, ordinary melody most wonderfully in various ways, with various sounds, as if in some heavenly roundelay of dance.

Such frankly ecstatic musical enthusiasm as Luther’s upon hearing polyphonic chorale motets had not been uttered since the Confessions of St. Augustine. With what joy would Luther have eavesdropped on the chorale cantatas created from his own melodies by Bach, two hundred years later!2


Bach’s Consecration

Not only did our musician consecrate all his works of a Christian nature "to the only God’s glory" (S.D.G.), but he also believed everything should be ad gloriam Dei3 (to God’s glory).

When a Frenchman writes favorably of a German, as Andr� Pirro does of Bach’s religion, we do well to listen closely:

Bach . . . dreamed of consecrating ad gloriam Dei all forms of magnificence, even those born outside the church. A semi-Pietist by his personal fervor, mystic reading matter and feeling for Scripture, Bach was, nevertheless, strongly attached to Lutheran orthodoxy. Furthermore, what savored of Pietism in the religion of his choice came to him far less from its innovators than from his nature which was so profoundly German. His predilections, the emotions of his soul enamored of the Divine, his affectionate and almost fraternal worship of Christ were manifestations of that great current of pious familiarity which has so often flowed through Teutonic Christianity.4



II. An Evangelical Musical Genius A Great Family Man

Hollywood would be hard pressed to write an even mildly accurate script of Bach’s life that would please today’s "trash-TV"-oriented audiences. There were no moral or financial scandals, murders, or alcoholic excess in Bach’s immediate family. (Even his large extended family was respectable.)

Bach was a happily married, faithful husband and father. By his first wife, Barbara, he fathered three children. A year and a half after her death he married the 16-year younger Anna Magdalena, who bore him seventeen more! Both wives were not only sweet, "1 Peter 3" type women, but also talented singers and musicians.

Like Luther and his wife and children, Bach and all his family had musical evenings of great vivacity, talent, and enjoyment. They were not a rich family (20 young mouths to feed!), but they were richly endowed by their parents’ Christian faith, love, hard work, and tremendous musical talents.


A Great Teacher

J. S. B. should please both the traditional schoolers and the home schoolers. Bach practiced both. At the St. Thomas Church School he taught many subjects, excelling in Latin and, of course, music. He taught the boy students to sing as he also had sung in choirs as a boy. At home he taught music to all his own children, boys and girls.

Bach was the first to teach the use of all five fingers on the keyboard, which we now take for granted. He had respect for his pupils’ desires and made his musical lessons and drills interesting. He made compositions of an easier nature for those with competent but less-than-genius abilities, including his second wife. She has the honor of having the famous, still widely-used Anna Magdalena’s Notebook named after her.

Regarding his family, Bach said:

They [Bach’s children] are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form a concert, both vocal and instrumental, of my own family, particularly as my present wife sings a very clear soprano, and my eldest daughter joins in bravely.

It is not surprising that four of the Bach boys went on to become successful professional composers and performers—even rivaling their father at times.


A Great Organist

In his own time Bach was better known as a great organist than as a composer. He still is renowned for his marvelous organ works, which unfortunately we can’t hear him play himself.

Go to any organ recital (except those that are avant garde only) and the chances are excellent there will be a work by Bach on the program. Recitals of Bach’s works only are not a thing of the past either.


A Great Composer

Sad to say, soon after his death, Bach’s compositions fell into disuse. They were thought to be old-fashioned and too complex by many.

Fortunately, in 1829 the German composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy revived the "St. Matthew Passion." From then on Bach increasingly began to be rightly appreciated for his genius. His "St. Matthew Passion" and "St. John Passion" use the text of Luther’s Bible with soloists singing the parts of Jesus, the Evangelist, Judas, and others. These are interspersed with beautiful choral works which the congregation joins in. For example, the tune of "O Sacred Head Once Wounded"—arranged, not written by Bach—was so appealing to the composer that he used it several times with different words.

Bach’s setting of Mary’s "Magnificat" (Luke 1:46-55) is in Latin, yet it is exciting and truly magnificent.

For the last 27 years of his life Bach wrote cantatas for the regular Sunday and holiday services at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. All are worthy, some are wonderful.

In the "secular" realm (though J.S.B. didn’t believe in such a division—everything was "S.D.G."!) "The Brandenburg Concertos" and "The Goldberg Variations" are noteworthy.

Strong Protestants may wonder when they see "Ave Maria" and the "Mass in B Minor" in the repertoire. Actually, Bach wrote the melody now labeled "Ave Maria" in honor of the Heavenly Father and a French Roman Catholic composer arranged it for Mary. (Is there a theological lesson here?)

The word mass as a term for musical composition was retained to some extent in Lutheran circles,7 and Bach wrote this work as a courtesy to a ruler of a Catholic subdivision of Germany.8


III. Finale

In some liturgies, there is a prayer for the blessing of a happy death. Whether J.S.B. ever prayed such a prayer we don’t know, but the Lord definitely granted His servant the sort of homegoing that fit his life of glorifying the one true God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1749 Bach became seriously ill and finally blind. The Leipzig city council immediately gave another musician an audition "for the future appointment as cantor of St. Thomas, in case capellmeister and cantor Mr. Sebastian Bach should die."9

J.S.B. was not yet quite ready to depart! In his darkened room he dictated to Johann Christoph Altnikol his last thoughts:

The night shines deeper, to penetrate more deeply,
But yet within there glows bright light.
For completing of the greatest work,
One soul for a thousand suffices.10

As the musical genius felt the imminence of his passing, he dictated line by line—note by note—a last organ chorale. Most appropriately it is called "Before Thy Throne Herewith I Come."

On July 10, 1750, Bach had a stroke. He died ten days later, "a little after a quarter to nine in the evening, in the sixty-sixth year of his life, he quietly and peacefully, by the merit of his Redeemer, departed this life," as the wording of his obituary so nicely put it.11


IV. Postlude

J.S.B. has been long in glory. His music, ever glorious, which Mendelssohn revived from 1829 onward, is still being widely played and sung. As I write these words I have my Bach CDs set to play—each with a mixture of "sacred" and "secular."


An Enemy Testimonial

We can find many glowing tributes to J.S.B. from those who love classical music, especially conservative Christians who actually believe that the words being sung are not only beautiful, but true! When, however, we can find a tribute from someone who has known and rejected Christian truth, the testimonial is all the more powerful.

And so we include a word from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.12 In 1870 Nietzsche heard Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This was Bach’s great (Wohlfarth calls it "miraculous") confessional masterpiece and was performed only once during the composer’s lifetime. He had planned a second performance but the city council refused to support it financially. Nearly a century later, Mendelssohn directed the second performance. The rest is history. When Nietzsche heard it, he paid it this tribute: "One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as Gospel."13


Two Friendly Questions

Ray Keck, in his fine article on Bach’s legacy, asks the following two questions, which he feels, "alas, have no answer":

Did he know, as some critics have suggested, that he was a genius trapped in the service of parochial, foolish men? Did he suspect that he was one of music’s greatest and most lasting lights, that his compositions would forever stand as one of the most noble creative efforts of our kind? Or was he, as some have insisted, a Lutheran of extraordinary spiritual resources, humble before God and sustained by a great faith? He did study theology throughout his life, read theological works for pleasure, and finished his compositions on music paper that contained the watermark "Jesu, juva!" Jesus, help!14 

Regarding the first question, one suspects the answer is "yes," though Bach credited his work at least partly (in good Germanic style) to hard work. And yes, he did indeed suffer at the hands of many unappreciative officials and petty critics.

Regarding the second question, an Evangelical can well answer with a confident "Yes!" After all, what mere religionist would put S.D.G. on all his works? Or have "Jesus, help!" watermarked (not visible) into his composition paper?





1 Paintings of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian will be found in most classical art galleries.


2 Hannsdieter Wohlfarth, Johann Sebastian Bach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 89-90.


3 Educated Protestants still used a fair amount of Latin long after the Reformation.


4 Andr� Pirro, J. S. Bach. Translated from the French by Mervyn Savill (New York: The Orion Press, 1957), 36.


5 An admonition to Christian husbands: Make a will. Bach died intestate and Anna Magdalena outlived him ten years, dying in abject poverty, even though her husband had made good money, and could have left resources to her.


6 Phillip Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, translated by Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller-Maitland, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1951), 2:254.


7 I have my paternal Norwegian grandmother’s copy of Landstad’s Solmebog, an Evangelical Lutheran service book that includes the term hoi-messe ("high," that is choral service, of communion).


8 Germany did not become one united country until the late 1800s under Otto von Bismarck.


9 Wohlfarth, Bach, 112.


10 Ibid.


11 Ibid., 112-13.


12 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) glorified the "superman" (�bermensch) and ruthless will to power. His writings deeply influenced Nazi philosophy and propaganda. The philosopher suffered mental collapse and was nursed by his evangelical sister in his last illness (syphilis).


13 Quoted in Wohlfarth, Johann Sebastian Bach, 96.


14 "Bach’s Legacy: A Musical Offering," American Music Teacher, December 1995, 74.


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