How Relevant is Bach, part 4 of 4
Fourthly, Bach committed himself to teaching others for the purpose of raising up future church musicians and laity who could worship through song. In Johann Sebastian Bach: An Introduction to His Life and Music, Russell H. Miles points out that “Bach’s interest and patience in helping young people is unique among the great composers.” Bach scholar Christoph Wolff wrote that “Bach was one of the most active, dedicated, and prolific teachers the world has seen” (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician). Students lived with him and his family and even moved with him at various times. Based on the number of active students, Bach taught at least four to six professional level students at any given time. By all accounts, his students were devoted to him throughout the rest of their lives.
Most importantly, Bach did not teach dry technique, but passed along life lessons in the application of theology to music. Wolff states that, “Bach explored, probed, and taught the principles that govern music—not only its physical, technical side but also its spiritual and emotional dimension.” A selfless leader is one who is willing to share their knowledge to future generations for the Glory of God.
Part of Bach’s teaching technique included building upon the prior generations of composers and understanding the timelessness of objectively good art. By thinking multi-generationally and not just composing music for the passing style, Bach created a lasting legacy which is just as relevant and affective as when it was written. Working with a view towards the permanent is a reflection of God’s immutability and the covenantal nature of God’s action in history and of his people. Fads and fashions pass away, but those things built on the foundation of the Word of God will last.
Bach’s life illustrates the nature of thinking covenantally and inter-generationally. He was far more successful in leaving an inheritance to subsequent generations than he was in creating change in his own time. Although he stood firm against the secular thought of his day, the fruit of his labors was not fully appreciated for another 70-80 years; however, his influence and example have been incalculable ever since.
Principle #8: Part of leading worship is looking towards the development of subsequent generations of musicians grounded on issues of permanence and with knowledge of the history of Church worship.
Principle #9: Worship leaders should build on the foundation of the past instead of replacing it, relying more on the Biblical notion of craftsmanship rather than the humanist concept of originality.
Fifthly, Sebastian Bach understood the grace of the Gospel and his daily need for that grace. Motivated by an overflowing of love, Bach consistently worked in response to that love through sacrificial service. Bach often started musical scores with J.J. for Jesu Juva (Jesus, help me) and ended them with S.D.G. for Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone). Anyone as talented and gifted as Bach could have turned his art or the perfection of his art into a god or transformed their efforts in legalistic piety. Bach did neither, and his legacy remains as a humble artist fully aware of his need for repentance and rejoicing in the free gift of God’s grace and the promise of eternal life.
Principle 10: Reliance on God’s grace alone—S.D.G.
Bach understood that excellence is its own apologetic of the gospel. All truth is God’s truth. But all beauty is also God’s beauty and all goodness flows from Him as well. The very pursuit of his artistic calling provided, and continues to provide, a rebuke to shallow aesthetics—those things that are transient, temporary, or trendy. The permanent things—those that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise—are profitable to think on. Beauty, finding its source in God and as one of His attributes, reflects the nature and character of God in a powerful and transcendent manner. His adherence to biblical objective standards in his work instilled his music with an ageless quality that secured for him an enduring legacy in succeeding generations.
Having its source in God, true beauty points to the reality of the great Sovereign in a manner the false beauty of the world can never do. Paired with truth and goodness, beauty can excite the “joy” and yearning that C.S. Lewis said set him in search of Christianity.
Worship Leaders: We should pursue craftsmanship and excellence in the calling to lead in worship. Rely not on inspiration but dedicated labor. Flee from the transient fashions of the day which may be momentarily rewarding but which will stagnate your art. Dig deep into the well of scripture and apply it not as a script for your art, but as the very weave of your approach, materials, goals, purpose, content, and work habits. In all things, remain steadfast for the glory of Christ’s kingdom and not your own. The biblical standards and theological motivation behind Bach’s work still resonate to the Church in every era and place.