Johann Sebastian Bach

Composer (1685–1750)
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Despite his fantastic output as a composer, J. S. Bach was better known in his day as an organist. Only ten of his works—out of thousands—were published in his lifetime. Despite other opportunities, he chose to spend most of his career as an organist and choir director in various churches in his native Germany. Only after his death did his renown as a composer—indeed, one of the most popular composers of all time—become firmly established. 

Although he composed music of nearly every type, most of Bach’s compositions were written for use in church. Bach was a devout Lutheran. His work was the perfect artistic reflection of Luther’s conviction that the ear—attuned to the Word of God—rather than the eye was the ideal “Christian sense.” Bach’s chorales were the Protestant counterpart to the stained-glass windows that adorned the medieval cathedrals or the Baroque paintings that filled Catholic churches of his day: they engaged the minds and hearts of the worshiping congregation in the mystery and challenge of the Gospel. 

For Bach, music was an act of praise and devotion. At the end of each composition he would set the initials “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”). His spirituality, reflected in his music, is not for the cloister but for the world. And it is a remarkable fact that any place his music is performed is transformed into a sacred space. 

Bach died on July 28, 1750. From his deathbed, virtually blind, he dictated his final work, a chorale entitled “Before Thy Throne I Come.” He was buried in an unmarked grave. 

“Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.”  

—J. S. Bach 

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.