“Soli Deo Gloria.” “Jesu Juva.”
Translated from Latin, these two statements read, “Glory to God alone,” and “Jesus, help.”
Johann Sebastian Bach, the monolithic Baroque keyboardist and composer, would often start and finish his pieces with the initials for these short sentences. Scribbling the letters “JJ” at the beginning and writing “SDG” at the end of the piece indicated his focus on God as he composed. He wrote music with the help of Jesus and for God’s glory alone.
I am a professional pianist, and the music of J.S. Bach forms a cornerstone of the repertoire musicians study and perform. Researching composers and music history is part of our discipline, and I often find myself in deep admiration of the example that Bach set for all of us.
A devout Lutheran, Bach established himself as a foundational figure in the history of music. Recognized as a master of technique, he played a large role in developing the modern method of fingering that we pianists and organists still use today. During his lifetime, he composed over one thousand pieces. Musicians today still stand in awe of his music and marvel at its ingenuity, beauty, and difficulty.
But what makes Bach so special to many is his deep commitment to his faith. Bach’s relationship with God appears in his music in many places. One of the most tangible indications stems from his lifelong habit of always ending his pieces in the major. Pieces in minor keys beautifully captivate your feelings and create despair and hopelessness, while major keys liberate you and triumphantly declare you redeemed. Even Bach’s most remorseful pieces end in a major chord, demonstrating his hope in salvation through Jesus Christ and his belief in life after death. Hearing our Christian theology in the music reminds me of the shared hope that we have and truly comforts me.
As a pianist, I both incredibly enjoy and intensely hate playing Bach’s music. It is so difficult to play! When I practice Bach’s music, I must be totally engaged – musically, mentally, and emotionally, which tires and challenges me. When I do not make the effort to completely focus, the music loses its life and becomes a waste of my time. The members of the audience do not care about just the notes. They desire and deserve the story behind the piece, and unless you throw all your energy into bringing the piece to life, it will feel dead. But, interestingly, when I engage in Bach’s music, I feel more connected to his music than to that of any other composer. The technical and musical challenges combined with the emotions inherent in his music make successful performances incredibly satisfying.
This is not an accident. Bach’s theological beliefs manifest themselves in the character and flow of his pieces. Many of his preludes take the form of a prayer put into sound as he takes us on a journey of repentance and sorrow. We can imagine Bach describing with music the feelings that we all have when confessing our sins.
I am a new Stoa alumnus, and I am currently studying at the Longy School of Music with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys. Although intensely focusing on music is good and necessary for music schools, most of them do not acknowledge the creator behind the music. Even though learning the music of Bach remains an important part of my musical training, the most valuable thing I see in Bach’s life is the fact that no matter what our vocation is, we should call on Jesus for help and seek to glorify God in all we do. Continually searching our lives and ensuring that we are committed to doing God’s will helps us to become more focused, satisfied, humble, and secure. I do not have to worry about the mistakes I make while performing (which inevitably happen), as I do not play for my glory, but, rather, I play to glorify God through his creation of music. Taking the spotlight off of me and putting it on our God has been a long journey that is still continuing, but it is absolutely worth the time and effort.
Whose ‘initials’ are on your work? I challenge myself and all of my fellow Stoa alumni to consider the ways that we can publicly witness and testify for God in the sphere He has given us. We do not have to ‘initialize’ everything we make, write, or create; but, we should follow Bach’s example in asking God for help and glorifying Him alone. When we turn our focus on God, it takes the stress out of our lives. It gives us purpose behind what we do, and, most importantly, we begin to fulfill the task that God created us for.
We were created to glorify God. God is the one who guides and strengthens us. We should give any credit we receive to Him. May our vocations and our lives be His instruments. As Bach would say to us, in summary:
“In nomine Jesu.”
Born and raised in central Arkansas, Samuel Durand studied piano from a young age at the Searcy Community School of Music under Dr. Scott Carrell. A recent Stoa graduate, Samuel was a member of SOAR, and qualified for NITOC in Original Oratory, Apologetics, and Demonstration. He enjoys playing in all styles of music but is especially drawn to that of the Baroque and French Impressionist periods. He is currently studying with Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to playing the piano, Samuel conducts and composes music.