AS A CONDUCTOR and composer, I am constantly asked the question, “Who is your favorite composer?” The truth is that my answer changes every day. If we've just performed a Beethoven symphony, then he gets my vote. If asked after a Brahms concerto or a Mozart opera, then I lean their way. But what if someone asks, “Who is the composer who has influenced your life the most?” That answer has always been the same: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Millions of people have heard of J. S. Bach. There are many Bach Societies, Bach Festivals, even entire orchestras and choruses dedicated to performing his works. Thousands of concerts and hundreds of CDs present his matchless music. Yet in his day, Bach was virtually unknown as a composer, at least outside of the German towns where he quietly lived and worked.
J. S. Bach was never attracted to stardom, fame, or fortune. This unquestionable genius was refreshingly modest and unassuming. He told a student, “Just practice diligently, and it will go very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine.” Once, when an acquaintance praised Bach’s wonderful skill as an organist, Bach demonstrated his characteristic humility and wit by replying, “There is nothing very wonderful about it; you have only to hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument does the rest.”
Perhaps one has to have worked in the performing arts world as long as I have to fully appreciate the rarity of such humble sentiments. In today’s competitive music world, the temptation is always to make yourself look better by tearing down the reputations of others. As a young man in music school, I was often surrounded by the clash of egos, and, it must be admitted, I had my own struggles in this area. Bach provided a way out.
I remember reading for the first time in my freshman year a simple statement by this master musician. Bach said, “Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” The more I pondered this sentence, the more it liberated my heart. Music was given to glorify God in heaven and to edify men and women on earth. It wasn’t to make lots of money, or to meet my ego needs, or to see my name in lights. Music was about blessing the Lord and blessing others. After months of auditions, rehearsals, recitals, and competitions, the simplicity of Bach’s statement was a balm for my soul.
Furthermore, I noted that Bach’s own life was in complete accord with his beliefs. Though he possessed a musical genius found perhaps once in a century, he chose to live an obscure life as a church musician. Only once in his 65 years did he actually take a job where his brilliance might bring him to the world’s notice. For a while he worked as Kapellmeister of the court of Prince Leopold. But such surroundings were a distraction to him. He soon left to accept a lowly position as cantor at a church in Leipzig, where he would again be cloistered in his unacclaimed but beloved world of church music.
More than anyone in history, Bach explained the “why” behind our various vocations, careers, and talents: They are for others and for God, not for ourselves. The next time you hear a masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach, reflect on his heart for glorifying God. His life and example changed my life and is still changing lives all over the world. CH
By Patrick Kavanaugh
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #87 in 2005]Dr. Patrick Kavanaugh is the Artistic Director of the MasterWorks Festival and the Executive Director of the Christian Performing Artists’ Fellowship. He is the author of nine books, including Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers (Zondervan, revised edition 1996).
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