Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a man of profound Christian faith and unparalleled musical genius. He has been called by James R. Gaines in one of my favorite books, Evening in thePalace of Reason, one of the greatest creative minds in all of Western civilization. This distinction allows that Bach be not only chief among our acknowledged great composers, but competitive even in the company of minds like Plato, Aristotle, the Apostle Paul, and St.Augustine. It is a great testament to the legacy of our Christian faith and its quintessential tool of corporate worship that such a man would sign every piece of music he wrote with the same inscription: SDG. Soli Deo gloria is Latin for “to God alone be the glory.” With these letters, Bach committed his work, all of his work – not just his “church” work – to God.
“Old Bach,” as his more progressive contemporaries called him, both to distinguish him from his cadre of well-known sons as well as to offer him gentle derision for his devotion to what was seen as an antiquated, outmoded style of musical composition, wrote a great deal of church music. It was his goal to create a cycle of “well-ordered” church music to be used in corporate worship throughout the liturgical year. By the time he died in Leipzig in 1750, he had produced not one, but five years’ worth of such well-ordered church music. Chief among the forms he employed was the cantata. The cantata, as Bach used it, combined all the musical tools of the popular dramatic music of the day (opera and oratorio) with the biblical texts for each Sunday in the church year (as well as other special days). Generally, the first movement of such a cantata would be a complex, difficult, and advanced choral piece, portraying a bit of the text for the day. Following this would be a series of shorter solos and vocal ensembles of soloists presenting the bulk of the day’s texts in various styles. The cantata would then close with a final chorale, very much in the style of the hymns we are used to seeing in our hymnals (some of which are taken directly from some of Bach’s cantatas).
Because Bach so admired the expertise and beauty required to compose music in the style of the 16th century, because he saw in it the order and unity that were the trademarks of his God (and ours), he was branded “old-fashioned” by his contemporaries. He was not particularly well-known or well-paid in his lifetime, though he could have been if he had so desired. In his own time, he was simply an over-worked and underpaid creative genius, who thought that the small but steady paycheck he earned teaching music at St. Thomas School and providing worship music for two local churches was a better way to care for his wife and children than tramping across Europe fulfilling the fleeting operatic desires of a fickle public. The rich and famous of his time thought “Old Bach” foolish. I hope that the fools of our modern time say the same about me.