The bittersweet music of life

Keep family and friends informed by sharing this article.

There is nothing like discovering new music, particularly those songs which speak to your heart and soul through crescendos, trills, rests, diminuendos and a skilful orchestra. These songs can awaken a range of deep emotions that don’t always have a name, but which lead us to ponder the bigger questions of life.

I often use music to cope and express my emotions, and this has become something I have relied upon greatly in recent months. Recently a person I was close with experienced a life-altering health issue. Doctors could not explain the cause of the issue despite weeks of searching, testing and observing. The impact the health issue had was devastating to this person and to those close to them. They had to pick up the fractured pieces of their life across the next several months, living with the fear that life might never be the same again. Watching them go through this heartbreaking journey of suffering and loss led my mind to ponder this question with great frustration: why does God let bad things happen?

Johann Sebastian Bach is a well-known name, up there with Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and the classical music greats. Born in 1685 in Germany to a musical family, Bach was a man renowned for his skills in composition and musical aptitude, producing one of the largest quantities of classical music on record, at 1128 pieces in 65 years, with a further 23 compositions lost or unfinished. Approximately three-quarters of his music was written specifically for the church, with much of the rest maintaining religious undertones. In one of the greatest sustained feats of creativity in history, for three years Bach created a new cantana every week.1 This involved setting a German religious or biblical text to music, creating scores for each instrument, copying the scores for each part, rehearsing the work, and finally directing it at church—all in one week. Astonishingly, Bach rarely repeated himself from week to week, consistently producing fresh music of extraordinary impact and beauty. 

Bach’s life was built upon three pillars—music, family and faith. To him, music and faith were inseparable, saying that the purpose of all music was “nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit”. Bach was not a natural prodigy, but worked tirelessly to master instrument after instrument until he became a skilful composer and church music director. Not only did he religiously study instruments and music, but he was also devout in his study of the Bible, annotating it and writing in the margins—even correcting errors where parts of verses were left out. For him, music was the means through which God was displayed in his life, being described himself as “a theologian and preacher who communicated in music”.2 Upon finishing a composition, Bach would often write at the end of the song, Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to God alone be glory”. 

Bach’s musical life, despite its widespread renown, was not without immense hardships. In fact, many have proposed that the complexity, depth and intricacy of his music comes from the intensely painful experiences he endured. Bach lost both his parents before reaching 10 years of age and was raised by his oldest brother. At 22 years of age, Bach married Maria Barbara and together they had seven children, of which only four survived to adulthood. Then, after a two-month overseas work trip, Bach returned home to find his wife had died suddenly and been buried without his knowledge. Within such a short time frame, Bach had lost both his parents, his wife and three of his children—it is needless to say that Bach was familiar with deep sorrow. After some time, Bach remarried. His second wife was Anna Magdalena with whom he had 13 children, however only six of these children lived to adulthood. 

They say the hardest pain is that of losing one’s child . . . like the biblical Job, Bach lost 10. 

No words can describe the magnitude of loss that Bach suffered.

When you hear Bach’s music, you know it comes from the depths of his heart. His inner despair and heartbreak carried through to his music, creating some of the most moving pieces of music in history. Yet despite the sorrow, each piece of music was infused with his unwavering faith in God.

The authenticity of Bach’s music transcends human experience and transports the listener to a spiritual dimension, capturing the heart and moving the soul to meditate upon God. Even confirmed atheists have admitted experiencing emotions they can only attribute to faith upon hearing Bach’s music. Hungarian composer György Kurtág said, “consciously I am certainly an atheist . . . but if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist”. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of atheism, upon hearing Bach’s composition of “St Matthew Passion” (three times), admitted, “each time, I had the same feeling of immeasurable admiration. One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.” 

Light shines brightest in deepest darkness. Perhaps faith works the same. Perhaps the greater the darkness and despair we face, the more powerful the “music” of faith in our lives. It was because of the trauma and anguish that Bach endured that he could tell so profoundly of the wonders and majesty of God’s love through his music. Times of trial provide an opportunity for us to draw close to God, and the tighter we cling to God through the storms of life, the brighter the light of hope which shines for others. 

Romans 5:3-5 puts it like this: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Why does God allow horrible events to happen? Perhaps there is no rhyme or reason for our pain. Not everything happens for a reason . . . but reason can be made from it. 

Our struggles can offer solace and a shared understanding to others going through similar experiences. Remaining faithful to God in our suffering can reveal to others the truth of the gospel—that the God we serve is not one who is immune or indifferent to our pain. Our God is found in the heart and life of Jesus, who came down to Earth to experience our griefs, our sorrows and hardships alongside us, so that we never have to walk through the dark valleys of life alone.

1. <>.

2. ibid.

Olivia Fairfax is the editorial assistant, Adventist Record.

Related Stories