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Johann Sebastian Bach as a Protestant composer and 'The Fifth Evangelist'
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In a year that commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it's appropriate to think for a few moments, too, of the greatest musician in the German Protestant tradition. - photo by Deseret Connect
Johann Sebastian Bach was born to a musical family in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685. After holding a variety of important musical positions, he arrived at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1723, remaining there until his death in 1750. But neither the city fathers nor the general public appreciated his genius many found his work too complicated and already before he died, he and his music were widely dismissed as old-fashioned and out of style. During his lifetime, he was most highly esteemed as an organ and harpsichord virtuoso rather than as a composer, and, with time, he was only dimly remembered as a gifted keyboard teacher. Many of his compositions were lost; legend reports that some of his manuscripts were used to wrap garbage.

The 19th century, however, saw a Bach revival an important early landmark in that revival was Felix Mendelssohns 1829 performance of Bachs St. Matthew Passion in Berlin and, today, he is generally acknowledged as the greatest musical figure of the Baroque period and, indeed, as among the foremost composers of all time, if not altogether the greatest. (Hes commonly included in a classical music trinity whose other members are Mozart and Beethoven.)

Why discuss Bach in a series of columns dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? Because Bach is the quintessential Protestant composer. He even attended the same school in Eisenach where Martin Luther had been a pupil two centuries before.

His heavily annotated copy of Luthers illustrious Bible translation (see Martin Luther's history-changing translation of the Bible," published Aug. 18 on deseretnews.com and part of our series) features such handwritten notes as "This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music" (adjacent to 1 Chronicles 25, which supplies a list of Davidic musicians) and At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence (at 2 Chronicles 5:13, which describes temple musicians praising God).

Among his compositions, along with chamber music, hundreds of cantatas and secular masterpieces including the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier, are such works as the Mass in B Minor and the St. John Passion both of which, like his St. Matthew Passion, were intended as worship services the Christmas Oratorio, the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and the Ascension Cantata. His cantatas almost always conclude with a chorale based upon a Protestant hymn (for example, Luthers A Mighty Fortress is Our God, which he used multiple times).

Indeed, nearly three quarters of his compositions were written for church use. The St. Matthew Passion, for example, was intended for Good Friday. It is a musical treatment of Matthew 26-27. The well-known Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiring comes from the final movement of Bachs cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life, catalogued as BWV 147).

All of Bachs sacred works and some of his secular creations as well end with the initials S.D.G., representing the Latin words Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Sometimes he wrote I.N.J. (for In Nomine Jesu or In the name of Jesus) on his sheet music.

Bach has been described as a theologian who just happened to work with a keyboard. Some have even termed him the fifth evangelist, ranking him (in a sense) with the New Testament gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As one Catholic commentator puts it, Bach is certainly the most important creative artist given to humanity by the tradition of the Reformation but also one whose importance transcends both the German-national and Lutheran-sectarian traditions from which he sprung (see nationalpost.com/holy-post/protestants-v-catholics-who-has-bragging-rights-for-bach).

Addressing the question Protestants v. Catholics: who has bragging rights for Bach? the same writer explains that Martin Luther is the only other creative artist of the Reformation whose human accomplishments namely, his crafting of the modern German language in his translation of the Bible, and his establishment of the fundamentals of vernacular, metric hymnody as we know it throughout what is left of Christendom today can rival those of Bach.

In a 1969 essay, the late William F. Buckley Jr. commented on a student in inner-city Los Angeles who had complained that his high schools music curriculum was imposing middle-class values on him by teaching him about Bach, that old, dead punk. Terming Bach the greatest genius who ever lived, Buckley responded that, if one dislikes Bach, one should then be disturbed about oneself, not about Bach.

For further reading, see: "Johann Sebastian Bach: 'The Fifth Evangelist,'" online at christianitytoday.com/history/people/musiciansartistsandwriters/johann-sebastian-bach.html; "Johann Sebastian Bach" online at biography.com/people/johann-sebastian-bach-9194289; Protestants v. Catholics: who has bragging rights for Bach? online at nationalpost.com/holy-post/protestants-v-catholics-who-has-bragging-rights-for-bach.
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