When I was growing up, one of my favourite CDs was Mr. Bach Comes to Call. It’s about a girl practicing piano when Bach himself drops in to give her some tips. So I was excited to learn more about Johann Sebastian Bach in a Christian Encounters biography by Rick Marschall.
Perhaps I knew Bach was a Christian, though most of the time I hear his music in a more secular context—a concert hall or a CD recording. Even in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, I don’t recall much discussion of his church music. Yet Marschall says, “He saw his ‘secular’ music equally as honoring to God as his church works.” Bach’s music was inspired by his deep faith in God.
Johann Sebastian Bach is almost more music review than biography. Marschall mentions that Bach was more interested in writing music than in letters or journals, so we have very few details about his life. There are the dates of his various job postings, marriages, the births of his children, but little information beyond that.
I was a bit disappointed; I wanted more information about Bach himself. Marschall goes into greater detail about Bach’s music and how brilliant and prolific Bach was as a composer and musician.
Bach was a strong Lutheran, raised in the same town that Luther once lived in a century before him. Despite this, his “highest achievement” was his Mass in B Minor. Marschall says that in this piece, Bach was “paying homage to centuries of Christian worship.” The Mass in B minor was finished in 1748-49, just before his death.
Bach also wrote several Passions—oratorios on the theme of the suffering and death of the Saviour. Today, we still have the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion. There were apparently three others that have been lost.
Marschall commented repeatedly on how Bach didn’t separate his faith from his work. His music was truly his vocation—both his job and his calling from God. This made me think about my own life and whether I dedicate the day-to-day things that I do—even the simple things—to God, just as Bach did. Whether he was teaching, playing, or composing, it was all for God’s glory. Marschall sums it up by saying,
“Humble about his gifts, and determined that all his music was unto the Lord, we can see, as he surely did, that [his works] were all merely spiritual compositions. Without words.”
Reading about the composer made me want to dig out my Bach CD and listen to his music again. However, I often found the biography too much about the music. The first chapter was slow to get into, as it gave an overview about the music and little details about Bach’s story. I wanted more about the man, less about the music.
While I’ve listened to his music and knew most of the musical terms (and could find the rest in the appendix), I think someone with no music background would find the book difficult to read. I’m going to send this book to my mom, who, as a strong Lutheran, accomplished singer, and classical music aficionado, will really enjoy it.
Christian Encounters is a new series of biographies by Thomas Nelson Publishers. If you are interested in learning more about the faith of well-known historical figures, you may also enjoy the Christian Encounters biography of J. R. R. Tolkien.