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Two-and-a-half centuries after his death, the complex life of composer Johann Sebastian Bach continues to fascinate.
Bach's colorful life was anchored in his belief that "music has been ordered by God's Spirit"―so much so that he began each composition by scrawling Jesu, juva (Jesus, help me) at the top of a blank page and concluded each with S.D.G. (short for Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be the glory). Through the eyes of noted music and culture writer Rick Marschall, the ...
Two-and-a-half centuries after his death, the complex life of composer Johann Sebastian Bach continues to fascinate.
Bach's colorful life was anchored in his belief that "music has been ordered by God's Spirit"―so much so that he began each composition by scrawling Jesu, juva (Jesus, help me) at the top of a blank page and concluded each with S.D.G. (short for Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone be the glory). Through the eyes of noted music and culture writer Rick Marschall, the intensely personal yet boldly public faith that earned Bach the nickname "The Fifth Evangelist" takes on fresh meaning.From a survey of Bach's family and its deep Christian roots to a behind-the-scenes look at how he crafted his masterpieces, this book paints a picture of an astonishing figure and his relationship with his God.
Marschall brings Bach's enduring music and influence to the postmodern world and to all who would draw inspiration from his relentless pursuit of divinely ordained creativity.
Music has been mandated by God's Spirit. —Johann Sebastian Bach
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is hard to study, but easy to understand.
In a manner of speaking, that can be said of his life too. He was born more than three centuries ago, a time whose fashions, whose daily habits, and certainly whose musical styles, are not familiar to us today. Bach occasionally justified the characterization that he could be irritable and demanding, a prototypical "artistic temperament." He was the father of twenty children; he never traveled more than a few hundred miles from his birthplace; he wrote music that, by the end of his life, was widely viewed as complicated and theoretical, inaccessible and dense.
Yet he was totally transparent. And if his music is easy to understand, his faith is even more so: without guile, self-evident, and inspiring—if we let it be. Music was Bach's life— his talent a gift from God, he believed. He sought to praise God by making his church music to be sermons in song. He knew the Bible so well that he was the functional equivalent of pastor in positions he held. He saw his "secular" music equally as honoring to God as his church works. And what works they all were! Almost twelve hundred compositions of all sorts have arrived—organ and keyboard works, suites, concertos, even a complex fugue masterfully built on the letters of his name; and church music, including cantatas, Masses, motets, musical Passions, songs, and hymns. Bach's Christian music served as forcefully—and to the same ends—as the creeds, Bible readings, and sermons with which they were nestled in church services.
St. Paul's epistles can be read, but only read. Luther's powerful sermons fill many volumes, but they, too, can only be read today. Theologians, evangelists, and preachers from centuries of Christianity's heritage move our spirits today—through their words. Bach, too, was a preacher, as effective and doctrinally pure as many saints since apostolic times, but he exhorted through his music. Those sermons in music live today, ministering to our ears and emotions but also to our minds and hearts. Indeed, to our souls.
The simple life he led (by the way, to most observers one of modesty and thoroughgoing affability) was in stark contrast to the complex music he composed and performed. Is Bach's music profound or simple? It is both. He was a man of the austere Baroque period, yet his music touches the soul more directly, and more humanly, than that of any composer of the Romantic period. The humanity and passion of his work is what breathed life into otherwise restrictive forms.
Newcomers to his music—indeed, newcomers to his remarkable life, which was surrendered to a continuous passion to honor God—can choose to be bewildered by the quaint aspects of earlier times, the unfamiliar initial sounds of Bach's music. Or they can let the sheer audacity of magnificence pour over them; they can luxuriate in the talent of a God-ordained musical servant.
Johann Sebastian Bach lived during the Age of Enlightenment. Today, schoolbooks imply that this era was so named because societies "woke up" from superstition and musty traditions, most of them from "close-minded" religion, and entered a new consciousness of science, progress, and freedom. In fact, the very standard-bearers of Enlightenment thinking, beginning with the greatest scientist of the age and perhaps any age, Isaac Newton, understood Enlightenment to mean new lights shining upon our understanding of God's nature. They were "enlightened" to draw closer to God, not be liberated from Him. Science proved to them God's perfect ways of working. Political revolutions like America's were based on biblical principles, almost as if by blueprint. Art that rejoiced in nature was meant to indicate a refreshed connection with the Creator. And that included music.
The most profound composer of his age, Johann Sebastian Bach, of the area now comprising provincial northern Germany, was a product of his times, but also of his place. There was no German state until 1871, when Kaiser Wilhelm I and Prince Otto von Bismarck united a bewildering array of principalities and free states. Beyond those political boundaries, areas like Austria, East Prussia, Alsace, parts of Bohemia, and so forth, have often been included in "German" cultural discussions. A common culture was bound, if not always by religion, then by ethnicity and language. The south was generally Catholic after the Thirty Years' War, the north generally Lutheran, and by such matrix we consider Bach's lands of Thuringia and Saxony as of northern Germany.
Bach's every composition and performance was a testament to his close relationship with God, yet he plainly termed his work "the science of music." Thus do we see in those fertile lands the conjunction of tradition, piety, a frank reliance on faith, and an intellectual Enlightenment Age thirst for artistic expression.
Isaac Newton's ideas were well known in the superficially peasant lands of Saxony and Thuringia, and it is significant that what Newton was to science and physics, Bach was to music. Essentially they both sought to prove that their works, their discoveries, their observations—and all the implications they drew—illuminate the workings of a supreme Creator in the universe. Newton asserted that his numerous and astonishing discoveries "pointed to the operations of God," just as the astronomer Kepler had observed about music that it "mirrored the harmony of the universe," and in so saying he picked up the philosophic thread from Plato who recognized in musical harmony a reflection of the Golden Ideal, a certain set of universal truths. The Enlightenment connected the dots between Pythagoras and Plato to Copernicus and Kepler, adding a biblical perspective to observations about universal harmony and perfection. Plato, who lived before Christ, in fact was embraced by early fathers of the church. His attitudes, certainly as regards absolute truth and music's effect on the soul, lived once again in the Age of Enlightenment. The God of Bach's age was a creator and sustainer, but also a motivator and inspirer.
This perspective allows us to see how much more than calendar years separate the cultures of earlier times and ours. We can gain a fresh view of the era that spanned the High Renaissance (roughly the generations following the artistic explosions centered in Florence and the spiritual explosions of the Reformation in Germany), the Baroque (roughly 1600– 1750), and past Bach (1685–1750) to the Rococo (1750–1775) and early Classical periods (the early nineteenth century). These were times of petty wars, of plagues and famines, of gaudy opulence in European courts, and of grinding poverty and ignorance in city streets and country villages.
Specifically to Bach's own life and time, it was the back-flush of the Thirty Years' War, which ended a generation (thirty-seven years) before his birth. Incredible devastation followed one of the most useless of many useless European wars. It was fought mostly on German soil. The regions of Thuringia and Saxony were two prime objects of the combatants' desires. The Thirty Years' War was partly a result of the death throes of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the clear establishment of Protestantism as more than a localized protest movement. It also was a fight over valuable trade routes, rich farming and mining lands, access to seaports, and more.
Spain, for instance, desired to hold to lands in the Netherlands and Italy. Denmark and Sweden coveted German lands adjacent to the Baltic Sea. France desired German soil, but also, despite being a Catholic nation and suppressing the Protestant Huguenots, resented the power of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and therefore allied itself with Protestant Sweden. Britain had backed several factions and bankrolled war machines in the hopes of gaining leverage, but withdrew when she virtually bankrupted her empire and was overwhelmed by her own internecine conflicts. There were rivalries between the Hapsburg and Bourbon thrones, and, of course, the smoldering differences between Catholics and Protestants, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and, yes, the Counter-Counter-Reformation.
The religious disputes had long ceased to be debates over the primacy of the pope or the doctrine of consubstantiation. By the early eighteenth century, battles raged more over the political boundaries and prerogatives of states that had declared for or against Romanism. The last of several treaties of the Thirty Years' War was signed in 1648, as opponents collapsed from exhaustion. Ironically, the supposed motivating cause of the conflicts—Catholicism versus Lutheranism—was almost a moot point, because other Protestant sects, chiefly Calvinism and Pietism, had emerged as rivals in both Catholic and Protestant lands. (Basically, the followers of John Calvin focused on predestination, the individual's inability to initiate regeneration, and a relative independence of local churches' governance. Pietists stressed personal holiness and pushed back against religious rituals. Both movements, contra Catholicism and Lutheranism, discouraged music in service, particularly the rise of exuberant and sophisticated expression in Bach's time.)
Treaties after the Thirty Years' War generally stipulated that monarchs could establish "state" religions of their preference within their domains but allow religious freedom to other subjects of theirs. In the German lands, comprised of 225 states, cross-border commerce and travel was common, so freedom suddenly thrived behind a very thin façade of monarchical supremacy.
Battles of this war had been fought in many places (eventually even in colonies like Brazil) but none so fiercely nor so often as on the soil of Thuringia and Saxony. In Brandenburg, the province just east of Saxony, half of the total population was killed. The Swedish armies destroyed approximately a third of all German communities—two thousand castles, fifteen hundred towns. The male population of all the German states, by some estimates, was reduced by half. Armed conflict, pillaging and looting, mercenary armies, expropriation, and expulsion of entire communities contributed to the death tolls in persecuted Germany.
Exacerbating these horrors, inevitably, were starvation and disease. The bubonic plague raged through parts of Europe at this time; dysentery and typhus were commonplace. As armies of the Holy Roman Empire and the Danes made a battlefield of Thuringia and Saxony, the local population suffered infestations of bizarre maladies called "head disease," "Hungarian disease," and a "spotted" disease now thought to be typhus.
This was the world into which Johann Sebastian Bach was born—or rather, into which the previous generation had been born. So the culture was returning to "normal" when little Bach was growing up. Historians have reported many accounts of the dispirited population exhibiting widespread malaise after the war. Justly so. But historians have not always credited those peoples' faith in God as a palliative—no, a curative—especially when added to the traditional religious strength and cultural maturity of the north Germans, as the society revived. A long-held historical analysis suggested an additional reason for the Saxons' capacity for restoration, inherent in what was called the "germ theory": that a unique societal rejuvenation, indeed democracy itself, grew from the Saxon forests of Germany. This theory was current in late-nineteenth-century America, which romanticized that a unique combination of heartiness, self-reliance, independence, reverence, and homely virtues planted the "seed" of democracy as harvested, ultimately, in England and America.
The deeply held Christian beliefs, and specifically the tenets of its native son Martin Luther, were surely the foundation stones of a spiritual revival, and other reinvigoration, amongst the peoples of Thuringia and Saxony. In the villages set amid rolling hills and dense forests, exciting ideas and political ferment rapidly took hold. The lands experienced rising literacy and increasing liberty, the spreading availability of music and art, economic renewal that afforded tradesmen (and a growing middle class) certain degrees of independence and leisure never known in Europe.
It became, with determination, a time of optimism, liberty, and artistic expression. And faith. As everywhere in Christian Europe, towns and cities of Bach's regions were built, spiritually and physically, around the church. Matters of faith and doctrine were matters serious enough over which to wage war. But in a literal sense chapels, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals were the centers of every community, not just where people worshiped, but where people met at other times for meetings and speeches; baptisms, weddings, and funerals; and at designated times for concerts, feasts, and festivals.
In Bach's day, town halls and commercial establishments also arose. Economic revival and the growing independence of the middle class led to a social network of public gardens, shops, town squares, and taverns. Craft guilds and trade associations established magnet centers and agencies. Public and private charity rivaled that of the churches. Confraternities often served as quasi-legal or para-governments, deciding disputes, providing employment, and offering a basic safety net for many citizens.
Areas like Thuringia and Saxony developed a peasant nobility—comfortable, not ostentatious; homes of solid wood furniture, for instance, not the finely carved appointments of the French; heavy tankards, not fine glassware. Yet even in this regard a development in the region illustrates the changing culture at the time of Bach's early years. A frustrated alchemist named Böttger, spurred by the entrepreneurial Augustus the Strong of Dresden, devised a means to make delicate porcelain, leading directly to the Royal Porcelain Works in Meissen, world respected ever since.
In the emerging culture of the region, there was more respect for women than was accorded in most other parts of Europe. In France, for instance, ladies initially hosted intellectual salons. But it was in Germany where women received elaborate musical training and vocal instruction, performing with men in public venues and, if not in royal courts, then in numerous family circles. Which status was more elevated?
* * *
The eighteenth century—and nowhere more so than in Thuringia and Saxony—gave rise to the nuclear family as a social and not just relational entity. These family units embraced extremely strong expressions of faith, around each hearth as well as between neighbors. The Lutheran church served as a social unifier. The Bachs were doubly blessed because the emerging economy in northern Germany honored the artisan class, in contrast to France, where the nobility took rank; England, where class divisions were rigidly observed; and Italy, where a moral lassitude affected the social fabric. On the soil where two centuries later the Weimar Republic sought to establish a New Order, in Bach's time it was a place where religion and art reigned without having to rule.
Flowing from this cultural dynamic were three specific and profound changes in peoples' lives. The first was a new, limited role of the state. Let us consider what that meant to Bach. As an adult, he was an employee of princes, churches, and town governments; he was not a slave, subject, or total supplicant. Second was the civic manifestation of Protestantism—the elevation of the common man. In Bach's case that led to a degree of independence and self-determination, no matter how much he chose to adhere to tradition and form. Third, rising literacy. Nowhere was this more marked than in the peasant aristocracy of Thuringia and Saxony's landscape. To read the entire Bible several times during one's life was an assumption of Protestant Germans.
Excerpted from JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH by RICK MARSCHALL Copyright © 2011 by Rick Marschall. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 15, 2012
I found this book about Johann Sebastian Bach to be extremely eye-opening. Before, I knew of Bach and his work but I had no idea that his musical talent sprouted from his devotion to God. I found this book to be quite educational and a good read for those who might be interested in their musical favorites or in the famous Christians of our past.
I knew going into this read that it would not be a very exciting book, considering its biographical nature. Nonetheless, I was very intrigued and felt that the author, Rick Marshall, did an excellent job in walking his readers through the life of Bach and surprising them with new facts about how deeply rooted in Christianity he truly was. However, despite being interesting, I was correct in its lack of excitement. I found it all too easy to walk away from the book for weeks at a time and only recall it when spotting it on my computer desktop. I admit that biographical books are quite dull in nature, but Marshall’s diction was just a bit too bland for my liking. I doubt I would recommend it to anyone unless I knew they had a deep interest in music and musical artists of the past, but should I have an acquaintance like that I would immediately thrust it upon them.
**DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
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Posted November 19, 2012
For those who dont want to read a 600 page book about every little detail of Bach's life, this book is an excellent alternative. In fact, the whole Christian Encounters Series is really neat to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 4, 2012
As a Christian who happens to be a musician, it is always interesting to learn more about the Christian lives of composers and artists. However, as the author, Rick Marschall says, "It is not necessary to be a learned musician, nor a Bible scholar, to discover the man Bach, the servant of God, in these pages."
The book begins with a snapshot of the world at the time of Bach's childhood and his early career. He grew up in " The Age of Enlightenment," when the world was just beginning to open itself to other cultures and ideas., in an effort to gain knowledge and advance society.
Bach's career develops and grows as he matures. He became the choirmaster at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. There, it was his job to compose music for the year, with regard to the church calendar. From these compositions, we have many of the master works of J.S. Bach.
As a family man, Bach was extremely proud of all his children. Several accounts show his house as being a place bustling with children, students, and music. Several of his children grew up and established musical careers of their own.
More than any of his musical accomplishments, Bach believed himself to be a man called by God. All of the work and the composing he did was for the glory of God, as he wrote Soli Deo Gloria on many of his compositions.
For a wonderful, concise history of the faith and work of J.S. Bach, please give this a read!
Posted May 23, 2011
Johann Sebastian Bach by Rich Marschall is a much more concise and limited biography of the man who is one of the worlds most beloved composers of all time. Bach's compositions are known throughout history as beautiful works of art and praise.
In our household, classical music is a favorite with Bach being on the top of our list. When I saw this as a book offer for review, I knew it was a must have for our library. I wasn't disappointed with my choice, however, I did find that this biography was much different than others I have read about Johann Sebastian Bach.
Posted April 29, 2011
This book is a joy to read, even for folks who are not particularly interested in classical music. The volume relates details of Bach's time and culture and tells about the many different places where he worked during his long and prolific life. Marschall rightly calls Bach one of mankind's astonishing figures. However, the composer is far better known for his music than the details about his life. This author's research showed that Bach's entire desires and goals were to serve and honor God. On every score he wrote, Bach penned that his compositions were for the glory of God alone. His faith was inspiring, clear and honest, even when he wrote secular music. In Bach's day music as well as art and science focused on connecting people closer to God and to a better understanding of Him. The creator of almost twelve hundred compositions of all sorts, this musician has become increasingly famous over the three centuries since he lived. He designed and played a number of musical instruments and taught theology in addition to musicology. His church music, always a major part of three to five hour services, encouraged worshippers, kings and common people to experience a deeper faith. Bach came from a long line of outstanding musicians. Among the ten of his twenty children who survived to adulthood, several became composers who are still famous in our day. Bach, who became the most profound composer of his age saw God as his creator, sustainer, motivator and inspirer. An outstanding example for each of us!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 15, 2011
The premise of this book is a discussion of Johann Sebastian Bach and the influences that inspired his music. As biographies go, it is short and a quick read, offering a glimpse into the man who himself had a wide impact on the musical world.
Of Bach's great many works, the one which I am most familiar with is Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Consequently, I knew that Bach was a Christian, but did not fully understand the great extent to which his faith impacted his music. Rick Marschall paints a very vivid picture of Bach as a man who had great theological knowledge, and transposed his theology into the musical realm. In this book, we see Bach as a missionary of sorts, delivering God's message through the world's most universal language.
On the other hand, the book didn't give me much insight into his life beyond that. For a man who must have been capable of great passion, very little of that seeps into the pages of this biography. This book is more a discussion of the times in which Bach lived, and a conglomeration of quotations from other biographies on Bach. The spirit of the man does not leap off the pages of this book as I would have hoped.
That being said, however, I am now better prepared to listen to Bach's music now that I have read this book. After all, perhaps the only way to truly understand a musician is to understand his music. And so, even though the book does not live up to my expectations from a biography, its brevity was just enough to pique my interest in a great man. I recommend this book to anyone who doesn't know much about Bach, but would like to know more without devoting too much time to the subject.
Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher. I was not required in any way to submit a positive review.
Posted April 12, 2011
Johann Sebastian Bach by Rick Marschall is a little book, a biography, that reveals many unknown details of this most recognizable German composer. Bach's life was humbly and totally given to God - not in spite of, but because of his talent, that could have led him anywhere in the musical world. Bach began every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva, Jesus help me on the upper left corner. On the bottom right corner of the last page he would inscribe Soli Deo Gloria, To God alone be the glory.
What the author so cleverly emphasised was that Bach was the worship leader of his church up until his death. He composed music to honor and glorify God alone. Yet, his music was carried to new heights when it was also embraced by the secular world as entertainment. In many ways, Bach was a radical of his time who, I believe, would have embraced crossover Christian music composed and also played in the secular realm. Bach desired that his music, written to glorify God, reach those who do not yet know God. That maybe through his compositions, they might know Him more.
This work is part of Christian Encounters, a series of biographies from Thomas Nelson Publishers, and highlights important lives from all ages and areas of the Church. Some are familiar faces. Others are unexpected guests. But all, through their relationships, struggles, prayers, and desires, uniquely illuminate our shared experience.
Posted April 12, 2011
I received a copy of JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACK by Rick Marschall, from Thomas Nelson. It is a biography that is part of the Christian Encounters series. I never learned much about Bach, so I was excited to enter his world. He is famous for his music, but he should also be remembered for his strong ties to Christianity.
I never knew he began his works with "Jesu, juva." It is also how the book begins, which I feel ties the story together well. The biography is divided into eight chapters. It also includes an introduction, a part about his family, a chronology, an annotated glossary, notes, bibliography, and acknowledgements. I had never known much about his family, which made him seem like a real person. I also learned a few fun facts about him, such as that he married his cousin. That was not uncommon for the time period, but becoming famous for music was. The tales recounted in this biography gave me a new appreciation for the man I once studied in elementary school. Schools should teach the history behind the person, not just the music. It makes the notes come alive. After I read the book, I looked up some of his music and this time listening, I had a greater understanding.