J. S. Bach: Soli Deo Gloria - To the Glory of God Alone

J. S. Bach: Soli Deo Gloria - To the Glory of God Alone

Midnight Adventure
The night is dark and cold, and a fierce wind rattles the windowpanes. A small ten-year-old boy tiptoes quietly down the stairs. He cups his hand and shields the light from the candle he's holding, trying not to awaken the others in the house. Slowly, ever so slowly, he pushes on the door to the study. He knows it will squeak unless opened very slowly, and if anyone hears him, his mission will be over.

Johann Sebastian Bach has a burning desire to play new music. Since his parents died, Johann lives with his brother, a church organist. His brother keeps his music locked away, since he thinks it is too valuable to be used by children. Johann has already mastered the beginner pieces and now wants something more difficult to practice.

Johann sets down his candle and squeezes his arm through the lattice of the locked music cabinet. Very carefully, he rolls a manuscript and eases it out of the cabinet. He spreads the precious pages out on the table. The rest of his night will be spent carefully copying the notes of the piece he will begin to learn the following day. Once he has copied the final line, he carefully places the music back in the locked cabinet. Johann returns to his own bed, filled with anticipation of playing the new music. For young Johann, music is more than something to listen to or practice. It can cheer him up when he is sad. Music is the way Johann Bach expresses his thoughts and feelings.

God Makes the Music
Johann Bach's love of music and dedication to practice began to pay off. At just seventeen years old, he got his first job as a church organist. His Lutheran family was pleased to see him carry on the family tradition in music. Word of his musical abilities spread quickly. One day, he went to compete in an organ contest, only to learn there was no contest.

"I guess you've won the organ contest Johann!" the judges said.

"But I haven't even played a single note! How did I win?" he asked.

"The Frenchman heard of your amazing talent and didn't want to risk getting beaten. Louis Marchand knows he can't beat you!"

When Johann played music, he felt his soul praising God. In fact, he once said, "I play the notes as they are written but it is God who makes the music." After a few years, Johann got another job as church organist and choir director at a small German church. He directed the choir and wrote the worship music used in the church service. But even though he used his musical talents to glorify God, a problem soon arose.

"Johann, people are complaining about the music you've been composing."

Bach was stunned. He knew that some of the recent pieces were his best work. What could the problem be?

The man continued, "The music is too showy. Some of our members even think it is sinful. Music should be simple so that it draws attention to God, not to the music or the performers."

Bach couldn't believe it! His music was "sinful"? How could people call his music sinful when he only tried to glorify God? Bach took a deep breath before defending his music.

"The main purpose of my music is to glorify God. Some people do this with music that is simple. I haven't chosen to use a simple style, but my music comes from my heart as a humble offering to God. This honors God no matter what musical style I use."

Unfortunately, Bach and the church could not agree on this matter, so he started looking for another job. In fact, Bach changed jobs many times during his life, searching for the freedom to write the music he heard in his soul. He found a temporary refuge in the town of Weimar. This was the first time Bach did not work for a church, but his boss, the Duke of Weimar, was a religious man. The Duke encouraged Bach to continue writing sacred music, and for a while, Bach had the freedom for which he had searched.

"Jesus Help Me"
Even though the Duke gave Johann the freedom to write what he wanted, Johann never forgot that it was God who made the music through him. Whenever he began a new piece, he bowed his head and prayed. "Jesus, help me show your glory through the music I write. May it bring you joy even as it brings joy to your people." Without Jesus' help, Johann knew he'd never be able to complete the task. Before writing even one note, Johann carefully formed the letters J J at the top of the page. With that, the music began to pour from his soul and onto the page. When he was finally satisfied, he wrote the letters SDG at the bottom of the page - Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone. He hoped that when the music was played, it would point toward God.

To the Glory of God Alone
People today know that Bach was one of the most brilliant composers ever. Although the peace he found at Weimar did not last, it gave him temporary relief from the problems he experienced earlier. Instead of having to please the whole church with the music he wrote, he only had to please the Duke. But while the people of his day recognized Bach as a great organist, they never accepted him as a great composer. When he died in 1750, his music was considered old fashioned, and had been forgotten by most people. It was not until almost 80 years later that his music was rediscovered. In 1829, the composer Felix Mendelssohn found a copy of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (the story of Jesus' crucifixion and death) and decided to perform it.

The people who heard this performance of Bach's music loved it! They wondered why his music had been forgotten. Now that people knew about Bach's music, they began performing it at concerts and in churches around the world. Bach became more famous a hundred years after his death than he had ever been while he was alive. But he never desired to become famous. His desire was to glorify God. Today his music is played and studied around the world. It is used in nearly every Christian denomination. It's safe to say that many people now agree that Bach's music truly is  Soli Deo Gloria - "to the glory of God alone!"

Make It Real!
Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.
  1. How can you follow Bach's example and do all for the glory of God? Read 1 Corinthians 10:31 and find some of the ways you can do this.
  2. Johann expressed his thoughts and feelings through music. What are some ways you use to express yourself?
  3. Bach's music was never really appreciated by the people of his time. Do you think he was discouraged by this?
  4. God gave Bach a special talent for music. He developed that talent by practicing diligently. What talent has God given you, and how are you developing your talent?
  • Suggested reading:
    • Sebastian by Jeanette Winter (Browndeer Press, Harcourt Brace & Company)
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