Bach's Spiritual Life

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Of all the art forms, music is considered to be the highest form of meditation. Music can be a bridge to commune with the Higher Self. The Vedas say that Om, the divine vibrational force, is the source of all matter and creation. In the book of Genesis it is said that God created the world with sound.

According to the German philosopher Schopenhauer, music is superior to all art forms because it does not depict persons and things in the way of a picture or literature. One often wonders about the spiritual experiences of musical geniuses. However, more often than not, these flashes of Truth experienced by musical masters have been neglected and not been documented. One has to frame them from occasional confessions made in private letters. Western music has always only been confined to the realm of art unlike Indian music, which is acknowledged as a medium that finally can be the bridge that makes the musician merge with the Absolute. Western music has never experimented with this idea. It’s always been confined to being a refined way of praising the Lord. But the idea of it being a form of meditation has never been a part of Western music.

In spite of that, if the lives of the musical giants are studied, one does get an insight into their brush with the Truth. And whether consciously approached or not, music finally becomes the winged chariot that takes one to the immortal beloved.

The magnitude of their experience and the interpretation will always have a large gap. However, this in no way takes away the greater truth that revealed itself to them through their music. And even the little that one can piece from these lives is witness enough to the fact that these geniuses had touched that which cannot be known and that which thoughts cannot reach, through their music. The three most prolific musicians whose music expresses this divinity in all its glory are Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

"Bach gave us God’s word, Mozart God's laughter and Beethoven gave us God's fire, and God gave us music so that we can pray without words" — written in front of an old German opera house.


Father of Western Classical Music

"The aim and final end of music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul" — Bach

German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach is known as the father of Western classical music. He is known for both his secular and choral works. His contrapuntal music still awes performers and listeners alike. Mahler wrote that in Bach the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God. Goethe said of Bach’s music: “It was as if the eternal harmony was conversing within itself as it may have done in the bosom of God before creation.”

Bach came from a family of illustrious musicians and was an accomplished keyboard player apart from being a talented composer. However, Bach faced difficulties all his life, starting age 10 when he was orphaned and then raised by his brother. In adult life too, Bach faced more than his share of grief with the early death of his wife. Of his children, only two of seven lived to see adulthood. Bach was employed by the church so most of his music is religious. But that was not the only reason he wrote religious music. He was a devout Lutheran and showed a deep interest in liturgy.

Technique of Gematria

Bach used an ancient technique called Gematria to compose his music. In this, the letters of the alphabet are assigned numerical values. This allows the composer to use intervals and the number of notes in a melody to make symbolic references to specific Biblical words and doctrines. Some common examples of this are obvious in his work. In certain compositions, there are 10 repetitions of the melody. This is a reference to the 10 commandments. There are musical elements that revolve around the number three, which is an allusion to the Holy Trinity, and the number four for the New Testament gospels. Patterns of five represent the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross, while 12 represent the apostles. Some of these allusions are so subtle it would need a detective to find them. And most of them couldn’t be deciphered till recently.

Some researchers say Bach was wired to do this, driven by his genius he couldn’t think in any other way. It could also be his way to escape boredom as he had to write large amounts of church music every week. He was a very busy man; apart from composing church music, he also taught and had to support a large family. And one wonders when did he have time to compose 1,200 works and those are just the ones that have been documented.

But it wasn’t just sheer genius, or boredom, that prompted Bach to compose music in this way. In his book, The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Kavanaugh says: “Perhaps all these numbers and patterns were something Bach did as a kind of meditation. This was perhaps his way of worshipping God and at the end it didn’t matter if any one else figured it all out. He was writing music for a different audience. This was between him and the Lord.”

Bach had a distinctive way of annoting his manuscripts with Initials like J.J. for Jesu Jevu (Help me Jesus), and ended them with S.D.G. Soli deo Gloria (To God alone the Glory).

See Also