334 Years Later, Bach Harmony Lives On

ohmygoodness, I went to Google earlier today and lookee what I found! Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach!


As soon as I saw that Google Doodle, I knew I had to whip up SOME sort of blog post about Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach is definitely one of my favorite composers. And, as my brief 20 minutes of Internet research showed me, apparently many people believe him to be the greatest composer EVER. No doubt because of his beautiful harmonies and complex multi-part melodies that intertwine between, for example, the treble and bass lines of a score .

The Google Doodle uses AI (artificial intelligence) to take a simple melody that the user has created and to expand it into a Bach-like rich harmony. The Google backstory says that “With the press of a button, the Doodle then uses machine learning to harmonize the custom melody into Bach’s signature music style …
Specifically, Coconet [the machine learning tool] was trained on 306 of Bach’s chorale harmonizations. His chorales always have four voices, each carrying their own melodic line, while creating a rich harmonic progression when played together. ”

One of my very favorite piano pieces that I played back in the day was a Bach three-part invention, #3 Allegro moderato in D. Yep, here’s my ancient piano book, with the markings still there from my piano teacher to help me out with the accidentals and phrasing and such (the red check mark baffles me a little and makes me wonder which piano teacher this was and why she would have used a red pen on music… but I digress…).

The Google backstory goes on to say “Composing music at a prolific pace (sometimes at the rate of one cantata per week!), Bach was a humble man who attributed his success to divine inspiration and a strict work ethic. ”

As a matter of fact, Bach was well known for signing his work “Soli Deo Gloria” — “To the glory of God alone ” — after he finished composing a piece . He did it for the massive number of church works he composed. He did it for the secular works he composed. Just think — Bach cello suites, organ music like Toccata and Fugue in D minor (one of my son’s favorites!) — all written to the glory of God, even though there’s NO WORDS associated with them. How can this be? I think Bach understood something that we often forget in the modern American church: that all our lives are to be given to God and used for his glory — not just the “sacred” and not avoiding the “secular.” But all of it.

1 Corinthians 10:31 says ” So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do,
do it all for the glory of God. “

And not only that, but it’s possible that Bach, with his “strict work ethic,” was able to create those thousands of musical compositions because he took to heart the Scripture encouragement found in Colossians:

Colossians 3:23, 24 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…It is the Lord Christ you are serving. ”

So what can we learn from this guy whose melodies are still resonating with people, over 300 years after they were written? Well, here’s some ideas:

  • Harmonies are important. In our music and in our lives. If Bach’s harmonies weren’t so critical to his music, the AI/machine learning tool that undergirds this Google Doodle wouldn’t have had to analyze hundreds of his compositions to understand his methods. Just think if we only had a single melody line instead of the complex chords and multiple lines of melodies moving from one part of the piece to another? how boring and plain would that be? Harmonies in Bach’s music works together, sorta like how the multiple, varied, church of Jesus Christ, with all its different members and gifts, should work together to serve each other for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7).
  • Music that brings glory to God may not always sound like the current “church music” style. While we might immediately think of Bach’s music like St. Matthew’s Passion or the Mass in B minor and associate it with sacred music — some detractors in Bach’s time actually thought that his music was too “showy” and told him that ” Music should be simple so that it draws attention to God, not to the music or the performers. ” So even though now when we hear Bach organ music, we think of pipe organs in soaring church cathedrals, it wasn’t appropriate (they thought at the time…) for worshiping God! (Christianity.com article about J.S. Bach)
  • As Bach showed by dedicating all of his work to “Soli Deo Gloria,” we don’t need to necessarily be doing “church work” to bring glory to God. Let’s bring all our lives and all our energies to glorify Him, whether that is by doing a job with excellence and integrity (whatever that job is) or whether that is sharing the good news of the gospel to someone who has never heard before.

So that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Let’s follow Bach’s example and see how we can live “Soli Deo Gloria.”

And maybe listen to a little Bach along the way for inspiration. Enjoy!

Can’t I get rid of this mess?

News flash: People don’t like messy. I don’t like messy. Oh don’t get me wrong —  I can live with the piles of messy on my desk. For a long time, in all honesty. But I’m talking about a different kind of messy: Like messy relationships where people’s feelings get hurt, expectations are not met, or words are spoken in anger that cannot be reeled back in. Relationships with spouses, children, parents, or friends that can be challenging and uncomfortable and sometimes much less than what you want. Or messy finances where you’re trying to figure out how to juggle the bills that are bigger than the amount of money that is coming in and which bills could slide until that next paycheck/paying customer/project comes in. Or the messy career path – you know the one —  where all of a sudden there’s been a downturn in your industry and you keep looking around you at all the people getting laid off. Until one of those people… is you. THAT’s the kind of unkempt chaos I’m talking about.

Who wants any of THAT kind of messy? I’m 99.9999% positive that if I asked you if you wanted any of THAT sort of messy in your life, that your answer would be ummm, NO.   NO, NO, NO, thank you very much, I would like my relationships, my finances, my career plans, my health, my… whatever… to be perfect. I want my life to always be looking up, always getting better, moving upward and onward to the next terrifically fantastic thing.

By now you’re wondering what in the world this post has to do with music or faith. Maybe you can see a tie-in to faith – “Oh, right, Cindy, I get it – you’re gonna talk about how we’ve gotta have faith that God is working out all things for our good, Romans 8:28 and all…”   Well… yes… He HAS promised to work out good for those of us who love Him and have been called by Him.  But that’s not my point.

My point is that while we don’t want life to be messy, God doesn’t shy away from the messy.

We want life to be a neat package wrapped up in a bow, always moving onward and upward, climbing effortlessly up that next hill (without breaking a sweat, of course).   We want our faith to be like that. We want God’s salvation to come to us like that. Shrink-wrapped and sanitized and neatly packaged up for us with five easy steps to becoming a true saint . But the reality? Our faith IS messy.

And here’s where the music comes in. There’s this great song called “O Come to the Altar” by Elevation Worship – it’s a popular one among those that listen to contemporary Christian/worship/praise tunes, so maybe you’ve heard it.

I can wait right here while you go listen to it if you’d like.  

It’s got this lovely, waltz-like, 6/8 beat that makes you want to sway to the rhythm.

One – two – three, four – five – six…

with words that say, “O come to the altar,
the Father’s arms are open wide.”

Doesn’t that sound beautiful? welcoming? Can’t you just picture the scene of the prodigal son, where even after the rebellious son has blown his inheritance and rejected his father in the worst of ways, the father goes running to his son to welcome him back with open arms?  

Or what about the altar? Can’t you just see the  beautifully carved table, sitting in the front of the church building, holding the communion bread and wine, just waiting for us to come celebrate that Jesus lived for us, died for us, and is coming back again for us?

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

BUT. Hold on.

Let’s stop and think about that altar. Have you ever thought about what an altar looked like in the Old Testament? Now, I’m no Old Testament scholar. Believe me!  I haven’t done any big (or small!) studies about the sacrifices. But here’s what I do know: back in the day, in the days of Moses or King David, when a bull was sacrificed as a sin offering, the priest sprinkled  blood all sorts of places (“around the curtain of the sanctuary”), then dipped his finger into the blood and smeared it onto the horns of the altar. The priest poured out the bull’s blood at the base of the altar (Leviticus 4, among other places). The bull was ripped apart so that the organs and fat were burned on the altar and the hide and… other parts… were taken outside the camp to be burned. Ugggh.  Can I just say… yuck?!?!

And on great occasions, when the people were going all-in with worship and celebration, it wasn’t just one bull.  Some days, like when King David transferred the kingdom over to his son Solomon (1 Chronicles 29: 21), there were a THOUSAND bulls slaughtered and sacrificed as part of worship.  So, back to that altar ? I’m thinking it wasn’t really so beautiful. I’m thinking it was MESSY.  Are you ready to come to a messy altar like that ?

And the chorus continues:

“Forgiveness was bought with
The precious blood of Jesus Christ”

Just like our lives don’t get packaged up neatly, our salvation didn’t come packaged up in a neat bow.  Our God has been in the mess with us, from the very beginning.  God ordained messy, bloody sacrifices in the Old Testament for the forgiveness of sins.  In the New Testament, we find out that God the Father sent Jesus to be born, in the flesh, as a human baby. And he lived in the broken, dirty, world of the Roman empire before being crucified on a cross as the perfect, bloody sacrifice that we needed for forgiveness of sins for all time and for all people.

So, go back and listen to the song again. It really is a great song.  Just think about it, God is in the messy with us. He is not shying away from the messiness of our lives. So let’s come to the altar.

“O come to the altar,
the Father’s arms are open wide.
Forgiveness was bought with
The precious blood of Jesus Christ. Oh what a Savior, isn’t he wonderful?”