334 Years Later, Bach Harmony Lives On

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

https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-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!

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