Monday, 3 September 2018

Three lessons from the world’s most listened to Christian: J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

Not a saint, but a Christian

J. S. Bach was not a saint. He could lose his temper, be sharp with words, niggardly with money, and frustrate his employers. For this he once, rather unfairly, spent a month in prison. His crime was ‘obstinacy’[1].

Bach was not a saint; but he was definitely a Christian.

There is no record of a Damascus Road experience; but we have his three volume German Bible with a commentary by Luther and Abraham Calovius. It has 348 markings and comments, almost certainly in Bach’s writing. [2] These comments reveal a devout Christian.

And a knowledgeable one. 

To be considered for the post of cantor at St Thomas’ School, Leipzig, Bach had to take a tough theology exam in Latin. He passed when others had failed[3]. Bach remained a student of theology. In an inventory of his library drawn up in 1750 after his death the majority of the titles relate to Christian theology[4]

Famously Bach wrote down nothing about his own life. He was too busy. His son, Carl Phillipe Emmanuel wrote:

‘With his many activities he hardly had time for the most necessary correspondence…he never wrote anything down about his life.’

However from the small glimpses available we see a Christian man. Carl Phillipe described their home in Leipzig as a ‘pigeonry’, full of family, friends, and resident students, people that his father gave time to: ‘Association with him was pleasant to everyone and often very edifying.’ 

Pleasant and edifying – that is exactly the impression a true Christian should have. One of Bach’s biographers, Peter Williams, writes that the ‘picture of Bach as hard-working, demanding, solicitous, but urbane family man who enjoyed his family, boisterous gatherings, with music, tomfoolery, and drink…was not far from the truth.’

Another testimony to Bach’s faith is his steadfastness in the face of death. The reaper was unrelenting. Both his parents died when he was ten. Of his seven siblings, three died also before they reached the age of ten. Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, died when she was just 36. She had mothered seven children. Three died in infancy. Her fourth son died of a fever in 1739, aged 24. With his second wife Anna Magdalena, Bach had thirteen children. Seven died when young.

Bach buried ten of his children. ‘Curse God’ would be the reaction of many; but he continued to praise God. And it was during those very years of grief, Bach gave us perhaps the most beautiful music the world knows, nearly always signed off with: ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (Glory to God alone).

For even if there was no Bible, no theology books, no glimpses into his home, the music on its own points to a composer with a deep Christian faith. Music set to Biblical texts – especially the Passions and the cantatas – dominate the Bach canon. And, as his biographers note, a secular piece would later find itself re-cycled into a sacred one.

In his early years in Leipzig he was sometimes composing more that one major piece a week.  This is surely a labour of love, not just for the music, but also the message of Scripture. Writing about the Christmas Ontario Carl Phillipe said: ‘He worked devoutly, governing himself by the content of the text, without any strange misplacing of the words…’

In his Bible Bach made this note by Chronicles 5:12 -13:

 ‘In devotional music, God is always present in his grace’. He believed that in music as a bringer of God into people's lives. Further evidence of this is found on the title page of a notebook he gave to his second wife Anna Magdalena in 1722. On the title page Bach had written the names of three titles by the theologian August Pheiffer. They emphasize that music is from God; can teach Christians; and can cure melancholy. 

Millions still experience of something of the divine in Bach's music that speaks of the Christian faith that motivated the composer.

A kind friend invited my wife and I to Deventer, Holland, to hear ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ in 2015. At the end there was total silence in the packed church. Then the conductor, Klass Stok, raised his arms with his baton towards heaven, as if in worship. It was a God moment, exactly as Bach wanted it to be.

It would have been impossible to leave Deventer thinking that Bach was anything but a devout Christian.

Probably the most listened to Christian

Bach was not just a Christian.

He is known as the fifth evangelist.

Nearly 270 years after his death he is probably the most listened to Christian in the world, more so than any preacher. It would take years of research to prove this, but it is very likely. On Youtube just one of the many Bach uploads has had 37 million views. There are Bach radio stations; and on BBC classical channel, Radio 3, with two million listeners, Bach is the only composer to have a piece of his music played every morning [6] Add the millions listening to Bach CDs, and the live concerts, three thousand in 2017, and the claim is not outrageous. I cannot think of any other Christian who has such a vast audience.

As said, Bach was not a saint, he was earthy with human flaws. And yet, his life – because he was a Christian - will continue to thin the boundary between heaven and earth for millions. Given Bach continues to have such an impact, it is worth asking what lessons we can take from his life.

Here are three: work; building on the past; faith in the meaning of music


It was a lot.

There was all the composing for the churches; and for Leipzig's Collegium Musicium, which held weekly concerts.  Once he composed more than sixty major pieces in one year. Bach started composing in his teens; by his death there were over a thousand compositions bearing his name. And it is certain that some of his compositions have been lost. 

After the composing there were the rehearsals. It seemed that Bach was a stickler for proper rehearsing and he instantly spotted a wrong note. He expected very high standards from his musicians. Indeed one of his first controversies with his seniors was his refusal at Arnadst to work with the student choir which he considered was incompetent.

Then the actual performances. Every week, in churches with large congregations, of well over 500. These were the days when everyone went to church. During his 27 years at Leipzg Bach’s biographer, Christoph Wolff, reckons that he put on over 1,500 performances. And for the Collegium Musicium he put on at least 500 two hour programmes.

And church organs: Bach was renowned not just for being the virtuoso organist of his day, but the leading technical expert. So he was called upon to test organs and write up reports. In fact Bach was very particular about all the practical sides of music – the fingering for the keyboard, the acoustics, the positioning of singers, the best way to tune instruments.

And teaching: at Leipzig he was a school master at St Thomas’. As well as music, he was meant to teach Latin and once a month he was the inspector. This meant making sure the whole school was up at 5.00 a.m. in the summer, 6.00 a.m. in winter, and ensuring all went smoothly till the evening.  Moreover Bach, even before Leipzig, always had residential private students. Michael Wolff reckons he tutored at least sixty.

All of this adds up to a monumental amount of work. No wonder his biographers[7] reckons he usually worked a fourteen to eighteen hour day.

Bach himself certainly believed that hard work was the main reason for his success. He once said, ‘What I have achieved by industry and patience, anyone else with a tolerable gift and ability can also achieve’. He said the same to his first biographer, Johann Forkel, ‘‘I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.’

That is a lesson we can all apply if we want our lives to have impact.

Building on family and past masters

Bach had more than a ‘tolerable gift’; he was an extremely talented genius.

But that did not guarantee his success. That was due both to hard work – and the way he built on what had been given to him.

This is especially true of his extended family, and other musicians.

Bach was born into a family of musicians. His great-grandfather Johanns was a musician, as his grand-father and great uncle, Christophe and Heinrich, were musicians and composers. His father, Ambroisus, was the director of music in Eisenach, where J.S. Bach was born. His three uncles were talented musicians, and one of his father’s cousin, Christophe, was the town organist and court harpsichordist. Three of Bach’s siblings were professional musicians. His eldest brother, Christophe, was the organist in Ohrdruf, Balthasar was a trumpeter, and Jacob was a court musician in Stockholm.

Bach thoroughly enjoyed his family. Bach’s first biographer, Nicolaus Forkel, tells us that ‘The different members of this family had a very great attachment to each other’. And he tells us about their gatherings. ‘The first thing they did when there were assembled was to sing a chorale…they proceeded to drolleries…partly comic, partly naughty.’

Bach received a lot of support from his family, especially his older brother, Christophe. When both his parents died in 1695 the ten year old Bach went to live with Christophe, who had been taught by Pachabel, and it is here his musical education flourished. His biographer Christoph Wolff writes: ‘The most decisive role in Sebastian’s musical upbringing must be assigned to his brother Christoph.’ It is here Bach began composing.

As well as building on all the music in his own family, Bach also looked to the past masters. Hence the famous ‘Moonlight’ story. This is when the young Bach went at night to copy out music by Froberger, Kerl, and Pachabel by moon-light because Christophe would not give him access to these precious manuscripts. 

We see this same determination when, as a school boy, he walked over 30 miles from Luneberg to Hamburg to hear the great organist Reinken. And again when he absented himself without leave from his post as organist at Arnstadt and walked over 230 miles to Lubeck to hear the famous organist Buxtehude.

This is a man determined to learn from the masters, whatever the cost. Forkel says that as a composer Bach was mainly self-taught. However when he realised that his early music had too much 'running and leaping to nothing' Bach turned to study Vivaldi. From this master he learned  ‘the inseparable functions of order, coherence, and proportion.’

Bach, perhaps more than any other, developed the art of composing; but he first learned the rules. Much later in his life he commented on this: ‘When the rules of composition are most strictly preserved, there without fail order must reign…there is nothing more beautiful than this harmony.’

Towards the end of his biography, Christophe Wolffe quotes a Leipzig man, Magister Pitschel, who had clearly heard Bach many times. In 1741 he made this observation that underlines how Bach built on the work of others.

'You know the famous man….does not get into condition to delight           others…until he has played something from the printed page and has thus set his powers of imagination in motion…The able man has to play something    from the page which is inferior to his own ideas. And yet his superior ideas are the consequences of those inferior ones.'

This importance of building on what has gone before us is a lesson nobody – especially Christians – can ignore. Bach calls us here to cherish our families, to appreciate what they give us; and to make sacrifices to study those who have gone before us, to make those long journeys to hear whoever is the Reinken or Buxtehude for our calling. As in music, so in the affairs of the church, there might well be new and better way to do things. But first we must master the old rules; we must build on what has gone before[8].

Music as science to reveal God

The rules that brought forth the beauty of harmony for Bach were not utilitarian; they reflected the reality of the universe.

Christoph Wolff argues that Bach considered music to be a science whose purpose was to ‘imitate nature’, and therefore ultimately God who orders nature. In essence, music for Bach was wholly theological, it was about the knowledge of God. Later Wolff says that Bach looked to the ‘Hebrew notion of the presence of the invisible prompted by the physical phenomenon of the sound of music’

And so for Bach, his music was an argument for the existence of God, his beautiful harmonies reflected something of the divine, and especially the unity, the inter-connectedness of creation.

This belief in harmony has given both the music and the composer an overall sense of seriousness. Of course there is also exhilarating joy and vibrancy in the music, but underpinning it all is a sense of depth, or seriousness.

And while we know that Bach was convivial, there is no doubt that he himself was a serious man. For, as another biographer Peter Williams writes, Bach wanted to reveal to the listener the ‘scope of God’s gift of music.’ In a sense Bach saw himself as being just as much a priest as the clergy he worked with. Indeed in the famous Hausmanne painting Bach looks more like a bishop. For this reason, Williams suggests, that Bach avoided and disliked the frivolity of the theatre music that was reaching Leipzig in his later years.

This could raise the cheap charge that he was kill joy. It is the exact opposite. Bach composed understanding that as man took up his rightful position as a creature worhsipping God, so there would be recreation and delight for his soul.

Bach wrote that ‘All music should be none else but for the glory of God and the recreation of the soul’ or, ‘the permissible delectation of the soul’.

And this has been the experience of millions. Whatever their faith they have found rest and delight for their souls listening to Bach[9].

Why then is Bach probably the most listened to Christian in the world?

Ultimately it is because he believed in this inter-connectedness in creation, this harmony, and as he in his profession sought the glory of God, so others would be blessed. That is the rule he believed in and followed and so he continues to enjoy success.

Despite the present intellectual environment that undermines even the idea of a creator and interconnectedness, the unchanged view of orthodox Christianity remains the same as it was in Bach’s day, as it was at the time of the Nicene Creed: God is the creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

There is ordered harmony at the heart of things, not chance, and so the lesson of Bach’s life – to believe and pursue that harmony – applies to us all and especially Christians. We should be serious about ourselves and our work, and we should seek God’s glory in all we do. If we follow this rule surely we will bless others, as Bach has.

Bach has a warning for people who disregard the rule of seeking God’s glory for the recreation of the soul. He says, ‘Where this (rule) is not observed there is no real music, but only a devilish blare and hubbub.’

A devilish blare and hubbub.

Nobody wants that to be their epitaph.

Bach’s life has given us heavenly music and here are three lessons from his life that we can all follow to avoid blare and hubbub and bring blessing to others: work hard, build on the past, and above all live for the glory of God.

[1] Regarding Bach’s temper and tongue: on August 4th, 1705, twenty year old organist for Arnstadt lost his temper called a student ‘oafish’ and got into a public brawl. Many years later Bach could still respond to opponents in a rough way. In 1736 Gottlieb Biedermann, the rector in Freiberg, called all music ‘wicked and depraved’; in response Bach made a crude pun and called the rector, dreckhohr, which means ‘shit ear’. Regarding money, Bach was careful. In one letter to a former secretary, Johann Elias, who had sent him a gift of a barrel of wine his tone was almost niggardly. He complains that the barrel arrived damaged, and that the cost of all the taxes made it too expensive. Regarding his employers, especially in Leipzig, the relationship was often uneasy, and at the end he was not on talking terms with the young rector of the university, Johann Ernesti. Earlier when employed by the Duke of Weimer he spent a month in prison for negotiating a new job behind the Duke’s back. His crime was ‘obstinacy and importunity’. It is worth noting that Bach’s brusqueness and obstinacy is usually seen when either he is defending his family’s security, as in this latter case, or his calling as a composer and the value of music itself.
[2] For more on Bach’s Bible see
[3] Here are some examples of the questions which Bach might have faced:"How many verses are in the Book of Micah"? "What are the differences between the respective geneologies of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?" "What is the relationship between the Epistles to the Romans and of James to Luther's theology of justification by faith rather than works?" See
[4] See here for the full list -
[5].The three titles were ‘Against Calvinism’ and so teaching that music is from God; ‘Evangelical Christian School’, which demonstrated that music can teach Christians; and ‘Against Melancholy’, showing that music is a cure for depression.
[6] This article explains why the Bach is the only composer who merits having a daily slot. There is no other.
[7] The two main biographies used for this article are: Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff, and Bach: A Musical Biography by Peter Williams
[8] It is worth noting that the churches that have stood the test of time – the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans and Bach’s Lutherans – use liturgy. It is sad that many evangelical/charismatic/Pentecostal churches dispense with liturgy.
[9] Radio 3’s ‘The Spirit of Bach’ is a fascinating and sometimes poignant record of how people have found comfort in Bach’s music. See

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