To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is widely acknowledged as one of the most extraordinary musical geniuses of all time.
The only people who didn’t seem to recognize that were those who were closest to him.
His own sons, several of whom went on to have notable musical careers, concluded that Dad, by the end of his life, was hopelessly mired in the past. He was a has-been.
Within 24 hours of his death in the summer of 1750, the leaders of the church he had served for almost three decades in Leipzig, Germany, hurriedly met to pick his successor. Bach was buried in an unmarked grave with no fanfare. There was no special service.
When the next music director arrived, he looked around and decided he needed more space. So he cleared out most of Bach’s files. Bach had written a brand-new cantata (a work for choir and small orchestra) every week for seven consecutive years. Most of these works were performed just once. Then Bach filed them carefully according to the biblical texts associated with the church year.
What happened to those musical treasures? No one has any idea how many disappeared forever.
Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena, was left impoverished by her husband’s death. She sold some of his manuscripts in order to eat. Sadly, they weren’t considered valuable as music, but as paper.
In the era before Canon copiers and laser printers, music was written out by hand. It’s likely that most of Bach’s many works – including his operas, sonatas, preludes, and hymns – were ultimately represented by a single copy. Some of Bach’s masterworks ended up in the Leipzig marketplace. There they were used as wrapping paper in the meat, butter, and fish shops – the equivalent of the use-once-throw-away plastic bags that will hold your next purchases at Target. Others were coated with tar and wrapped around fruit trees to protect them from invasive insects.
Who knows how many masterpieces that were heard just once by semi-appreciative audiences in Leipzig – not one of the great cultural centers of Europe – ended up smelling like tar or pot roast.
Music historians know that Bach wrote at least five “passions” – lengthy, complex works for voices and instruments that creatively presented the story of Jesus’ final hours, including the Last Supper, his anguish in Garden of Gethsemane, his trial and torture, and finally his crucifixion and burial. But copies of only two of them – the St. Matthew and St. John Passion – still exist.
Superlatives quickly become wearying. Nevertheless, as music historian Robert Greenberg points out, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the St. Matthew Passion is one of the most technically perfect, spiritually sensitive musical compositions of all time.
A full concert presentation takes between three and four hours. It is so exquisitely beautiful that even Friederich Nietzsche – the atheistic philosopher we profiled yesterday – was moved to say that it actually compelled him to imagine the existence of God.
The St. Matthew Passion was almost lost forever. By the start of the 19th century (the 1800s), Bach had been largely forgotten. His works were either unknown or rarely performed. Felix Mendelssohn, himself a first-rate composer, made it his mission to reintroduce the master’s works.
He arranged for St. Matthew to be performed in 1829 – the first time it had been heard in 80 years. Incredibly, he had received his one and only copy from one of his mentors, who had discovered the manuscript years before in a shop where it was being used to wrap cheese.
Here is a seven-minute sample: Bach: St Matthew Passion | Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen | Sir Stephen Cleobury – YouTube.
As one first-time listener reflected, “I truly couldn’t believe music could be so transcendently, universally beautiful. When I die my epitaph will say, ‘I have heard Bach. This was enough.’”
It was a close call, but Johann Sebastian Bach is still with us – every time his music is played.
The author of Ecclesiastes clearly understands the frustration of entrusting one’s most earnest efforts to those who honestly don’t know what they’ve inherited:
“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-21).
Perhaps, when it’s come to passing along some of your own work, you can truly relate to “my heart began to despair.”
You helped your company establish a culture of trust. But your successor set everything back to zero by resorting to fear. You helped a group of children fall in love with math and science. But their next teacher made them dread coming to class. You spent years lovingly crafting an extraordinary flower garden. But after you sold your house, the next owner covered the whole thing with asphalt.
No wonder Solomon concluded that seeing good work needlessly ruined is “meaningless and a great misfortune.”
But there is hope.
If we skip forward to the New Testament, arriving at the time in which people can know and trust Jesus, we find this statement: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).
Ecclesiastes tells us that our work in this world is but “vanity of vanities” (1:2). But the apostle Paul repurposes that same word and insists, “No, it is not in vain.”
Whatever we do for the Lord will never be ultimately lost, even if it momentarily seems to slip through our fingers in the here and now.
Bach frequently inscribed three letters at the bottom of his musical scores: “SDG.” That was shorthand for the Latin words soli Deo gloria – for God’s glory alone.
No matter what we are doing – whether coaching baseball, painting a bedroom, harvesting corn, writing a paper, visiting a nursing home, flipping pancakes, repairing an air conditioner, or driving a carpool – our call is the same. We do our very best with the gifts, energy, and circumstances God has provided.
Then we let our work go. It belongs to God now, for whatever purposes he sees fit.
And that is enough.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.