Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
Rock musician Kurt Cobain (1967 -1994), considered one of the top 100 guitarists of all time, reflected the pessimism, philosophical emptiness and nihilism of Generation X (those born between the 1960s and 1980s) so effectively that his album Nevermind (meaning ‘don’t bother’) sold ten million copies, displacing Michael Jackson at the top of the charts. He called his band Nirvana, which, according to Indian intellectual Vishal Mangalwadi, refers to the final goal of Buddhism: release from cycles of meaningless suffering through the dissolution of illusory individuality into Shoonyta (nothingness).
What is the purpose of music? In a pessimistic or philosophically empty worldview it has no purpose. In this regard, Kurt Donald Cobain and Johann Sebastian Bach were as far apart from each other as the first and last chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Bach’s life was saturated with both music and theology. His forbears were so musically gifted (seven generations of Bachs produced 53 prominent musicians) that “Bach” and “musician” became synonymous. At family gatherings the Bach family sang chorales. Bach’s father was a violinist, his uncle an organist and composer; and his wife Anna Magdalena — a singer and daughter of a court trumpeter — copied music scores.
Born in 1685, just over 200 years after Martin Luther’s birth in 1483, Bach and Luther had much in common. Both loved music. (Luther, following in the tradition of the Biblical David, was a prolific hymnodist.) Bach’s birthplace was not far from Wartburg Castle, where Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise sheltered Luther after his ex-communication by Pope Leo X in 1521. Bach was baptized in a church where Luther had preached while traveling to and from the Diet of Worms, where Emperor Charles V had called Luther to face heresy charges. Bach attended the same Latin School that Luther had attended.
At school Bach was a choir boy with a routine of daily rehearsals and services. His general education included Lutheran reformation theology which comprehensively prepared him for worship music composition. He had access to a library of music by leading composers of church music dating back to the 16th century; and by his late teens he had become an accomplished violinist and organist, composing cantatas that demonstrated extraordinary musical and theological acumen.
After a stint as Court Organist and Konzertmeister to the Duke of Weimar, Bach had risen by 1717 to Kapellmeister in the court of German Prince Leopold, was organist at a prominent church, and was composing some of his well-known Brandenburg Concertos. His output was prodigious: By 1722, as cantor at Leipzig, he composed 60 cantatas a year — this while also teaching and providing music for churches (which had to be composed, copied, rehearsed and reviewed with church pastors).
Bach’s 80-volume personal library of theology included Luther’s translation of the Bible and two sets of Luther’s complete works. In accordance with the Greatest Commandments of the Christian faith (Mt 22:36-40), he believed his God-given calling was writing music to the glory of God and the edification of his neighbor.
Staunch faith informed Bach’s life, his career, and his music: he was a theologian whose tools-of-the-trade consisted of musical scores, organs, and cantatas. Almost three-fourths of his 1,000 compositions were written for worship. He viewed all his cantatas, Passions and organ chorales as powerfully proclaiming the gospel, and for this reason is affectionately described by many as the “Fifth Evangelist.”
He wrote music to bring glory, not to himself, but to God, which is why he wrote (like Georg Frideric Handel of Messiah fame) the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory”) at the end of most of his scores.
Soli Deo Gloria was one of five “solae” defining the Protestant Reformation — the other four being Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone as authoritative in faith and practice), Sola fide (Justification by faith alone), Sola gratia (Salvation by grace alone), and Solus Christus (Christ, the only mediator between God and Man).
Towards the end of Bach’s career, the understanding that mankind existed to serve God and the common good was giving way to a lower view of music spawned by the Enlightenment (and subsequently reflected in today’s skeptical post-modern culture) that defines music at best as self-expression, or merely a gratification of the sense of hearing for emotional pleasure, or as having no purpose at all.
Kurt Cobain’s life was tragically despairing and brief. Hearts invariably go out to lives snuffed out in the kind of spiritless culture described in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes. In one of his lyrics Cobain wrote:
Silence, Here I am, Here I am, Silent.
Death is what I am…Die.
At just 27 years of age, Kurt Cobain took his convictions to their tragic conclusion and ended his life with a shotgun, triggering (according to Rolling Stone magazine) at least 68 copycat suicides.
Bach lived in a very different milieu than that of Cobain. But his music, played the world over to this day, calls to mind a Message that reaches out to the human spirit in any age, and will continue to do so until the end of time. The aim and final end of all music, said Bach, should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. Hymnodists like Issac Watts and Charles Wesley who followed in Bach’s wake, would undoubtedly agree.
Bach’s legacy was an enduring gift of tremendous value to all humanity. According to music experts, his Mass in B Minor, a synthesis in 27 sections across four movements of every stylistic and technical contribution he had made to music, represents one of the greatest compositions in musical history. This towering monument in music and song, completed a year before his death at age 65 in Leipzig in 1750, can be regarded as Bach’s last and greatest tribute to the highest purpose of music: music as mission.
Bach’s example is an inspiration to the human spirit. Regardless of how different and varied our vocations may be, let us pursue them with passionate conviction and clarity of purpose for the glory of God and the common good of all.
This post was written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations at Village Schools of the Bible.
Johann Sebastian Bach. ’The Fifth Evangelist’. Christianity Today.
Stapert, C. R. To the Glory of God Alone. Christianity Today.
Mangalwadi, V. The Book that Made Your World. Thomas Nelson, 2011.