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Friday, January 20, 2012

I Could Feel Papa Bach Looking Over My Shoulder

While taking music theory classes as an undergraduate student at the University of Washington in the late '60's, I was repeatedly struck by the prominent place given to Johann Sebastian Bach. When it comes to the musical "rules of the road" for composition, such as voicing and chord progression, the way J.S. Bach did it was just plain right. Not because he declared it to be so, but because it just plain was. Through his work, Bach provided the gold standard for musical composition, blazing a trail and setting the course for all Western music to follow. I could feel Papa Bach looking over my shoulder at each exam.

Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" solidified the major-minor system we take for granted in Western music. He created the "well-tempered scale," which allowed musicians to begin a scale from any note on a keyboard, which was not possible before Bach. His development of the musical form called the "fugue" provided a foundation for all classical music. Some 200 years after Bach, when the French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel complained that Debussy was stealing his musical ideas, Debussy replied, "Bach has said all there is to say in music. The rest of us only say it in different forms.”

Bach (born the same year as George Fredric Handel, in 1685), is a prime example of what it means to do one's work "wholeheartely unto the Lord," as the Bible puts it in Colossians 3:23. Bach consciously and intentionally wrote all his music to the glory of Jesus Christ, and literally left this message on the musical pages he penned. Historians can't miss it. That's because Bach left letters such as "S.D.G." and "J.J." throughout his manuscripts. S.D.G. was shorthand for Soli Deo Gloria, Latin for "Solely to the glory of God," and J.J. was an abbreviation for Jesu Juban, which means "Help me, Jesus." Bach dedicated many of his compositions "I.N.J.," which means In Nomine Jesu, "In the name of Jesus."

Why did the West produce Bach, and not the East, or Africa, or the Aztecs? It's because Bach viewed his work through the incomparable grid of a biblical worldview, and approached his work as an outworking of that unique belief system. A belief system that saw the world in ways only possible through the Bible, and the life and resurrection of Christ.

Worldview matters.



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