On this day in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most industrious and gifted composers of all times, died in Leipzig in what today is Germany at the age of 65. He had been ailing for a while, and it seems in the end he died after a stroke.
Bach came from a very musical family. In the Bach House in Leipzig, there is an entire big wall with the Bachs’ family tree, which goes back to Johann Sebastian’s great-greatgrandfather, Veit (or Vitus) Bach. Veit was a baker, but apparently loved to play a certain instrument that cannot be identified anymore today. Veit’s son Johann (we will encounter this name much more often in the Bach family) also worked as a baker, but already earned part of his money as a traveling musician. In the generations following after, basically all the boys/men were professional musicians of some sort (and it can be assumed that the female members of the Bach Family also inherited some musical gifts).
Johann Sebastian’s, Johann Ambrosius, father was a professional musician. He laid the groundwork for Johann Sebastian’s musical education. When Bach was orphaned at the age of nine, he went to live with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph (I told you that the name ‘Johann’ was very popular in the Bach Family), who himself was an organist and music teacher. Johann Christoph introduced his younger brother to the works of the hottest composers of the day and continued his music education.
We don’t hear that Johann Christoph was a composer – however, there is proof that Johann Sebastian taught himself to compose – and wrote at least 25 pieces while living with his older brother.
Beyond that, Johann Sebastian visited the local gymnasium – school of higher education – and was instructed in Latin, Greek, math, geography, and theology – the latter definitely influenced his later sacred compositions.
And: Bach, as his family, was a fervent adherent of the Christian faith in the Lutheran confession. It has been said that Luther and his theology experienced a renaissance in the 18th century through the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach – in fact, Bach, in his unique way, may have been one of the most effective Lutheran theologians. A Swedish bishop in the early 20th century even claimed that Bach’s music was the ‘5th gospel’.
Once Bach finished school, he held several positions as a musician in different towns and cities. Now he didn’t last too long anywhere – apparently he was not the easiest to work with. Sometimes Bach wasn’t happy with his salary. Some princely employer claimed that Bach should ‘tone it down’, because his music was ‘too Italian and too flashy’. Bach even spent a few weeks in jail at some point, because he took a new position without telling his current princely employer about it. Bach’s boss didn’t take to kindly to that…
Bach did not have the best reputation, to put it mildly. It was acknowledged by his contemporaries that he was an extraordinary organist, one of the best – but as he applied for several plum organist jobs, he was repeatedly rejected.
And then there was the cantor position (today we would say ‘music director’) in Leipzig. The city council of Leipzig was wary about hiring Bach. In fact, the position was first offered to two other candidates, who declined for different reasons. So Bach, the third choice, became the cantor of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches. Apparently this turned out to be a good match – Bach held this position which from 1723 until his death in 1750. As the cantor, Bach played the organ, led the famous Thomaner Boys’ Choir, taught music at the church school, and composed countless sacred pieces – during his first few years in Leipzig, Bach churned out at least one sacred cantata A WEEK.
Bach composed at least 1,100 pieces during his lifetime – sacred, secular, in German, in Latin, for organ, harpsichord, orchestras and choirs, and, and, and…It is not an understatement to say that he was a genius. Also his contemporaries didn’t regard him as such. They though he was an okay composer, but the true stars of the day were Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi…Of course this has changed.
Now I have to make a confession: I didn’t like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach when I was a child. I even didn’t like his music when I was a teenager. It just sounded boring to me, too technical, almost mechanical – lifeless. When I got interested in classical music, I much preferred listening to composers from the 19th century, and Tchaikovsky was my favorite – THAT was music that much more reflected the drama and emotional turmoil of my teenage years and teenage angst.
I didn’t gain appreciation for JS Bach until my early 20s, when I was in seminary. All of a sudden, it ‘clicked’, and I started listening to the music of J.S. Bach with different ears. Today, some of my favorite musical pieces are by Bach.
One thing that really has fascinated me about Bach is his understanding of his music – how it is connected to his deep faith. Bach said, “I play the notes as they are written but it is God who makes the music.” Bach famously signed all the sacred music he wrote – and many of the secular pieces – not only with his name, but also with the letters ‘SDG’, which stands for ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ and means ‘to God alone be – or is – the glory’.
Bach understood himself as a vessel, an instrument of God. His musical gifts reflected the glory, awe and majesty of God. For Bach, it was give and take – he took the gifts he received from God, but gave his compositions and his play in return. Each piece of music Bach wrote thus became a fervent prayer to God – praise, lament, supplication. And we still hear this intensity in his music today, from a mournful cantata like ‘Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ – ‘From depths of woe, I cry to Thee’ to the majestic and joyful opening chorus of his Christmas Oratorio, ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket!’ – ‘Shout for joy, exult!’
Bach’s music was and is an expression of his deep devotion to God. And his devotion built community – on the one hand, Bach built his personal relationship with God through his music, but then he did (and still does) so much more: he built and still builds community in Christ by sharing the music, his prayer. And we today still become part of the great cloud of witnesses who, over the centuries, have partaken in Bach’s prayer by listening to his compositions – or, if we are musically gifted, by playing or singing his music. Bach’s prayer becomes our prayer.
Today’s gospel story begins as follows, ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
It’s quite an odd request, if you think about it. Why would the disciples need to learn how to pray? All of them, like Jesus himself, are Jews, and in Judaism we have this very rich and deep tradition of prayer – just look at the psalms, which basically is a big musical prayer book, which we still pray and sing in our Christian tradition as well.
There must have been something different and special about the way Jesus prayed. What the disciples witnessed most likely was a deep devotion, the deep connection Jesus had to God, the Abba, the communion between the two. They must have witnessed how this prayer refreshed and empowered Jesus to then go out and share God’s love and God’s kingdom with all. And it seems that this is something the disciples are longing for as well.
But, interestingly, Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples a certain prayer technique – that’s how you connect with God – but rather teaches them words, and according to the gospel of Luke, they sound like this: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Of course it’s not just words. The prayer Jesus teaches his disciples, and also us, to pray, the prayer we know and cherish to this day as the Lord’s Prayer, is all about healthy community with God and in God. Jesus addresses God tenderly as ‘Abba’, which we best translate as ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’. This name implies a very intimate relationship with God – and we as God’s children, as God’s family, can call God by this name as well.
The central petition in this prayer is forgiveness, which is key to living as part of the family of God and is essential for the kingdom of God to come. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that it is not about me and my wants and needs, but about the father who is behind everything – soli Deo Gloria -, and about us together, connected so intricately to God, to each other, and all of God’s creation.
The little story about the one neighbor waking up the other neighbor because he needs help with unexpected guests in the middle of the night shows, in what I think is a typical Jewish humorous kind of way, how important it is that we have such a good relationship to our neighbor that we can bother him at any time – and isn’t it wonderful that God is our neighbor, our friend? It is important that we have such a good and intimate relationship with God that we can pester God at any time, especially if we come to God with the needs of someone else.
And the key to that kind of relationship? Constant communication. Only in talking and listening to one another can we build and maintain a trusting and loving relationship. Ask, and it will be given to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. God wants this relationship with all of us. God is willing to listen and to give. God is devoted to us to the point that God gave the Son. It is only fair for God to ask for our undivided devotion in prayer. It is only fair that we are challenged to do our part to make the relationship work – by praying.
And prayer, as Johann Sebastian Bach teaches us, can be different things to different people. We can use words, we can use music, we can use meditation, we can use movement and dance; our prayer even can become flesh through what we do. As long as our prayer shows our devotion to God and neighbor, as long as our prayer is meant to build, foster and maintain relationships – instead of causing exclusion, division, and building walls – , anything goes. This is how we pray.
This post is also available in: German