Besides studying their music, there is a lot to be learned from the actual lives of the great composers. I’ve always been fascinated by composers’ lives and often fantasize about being in their time, seeing them day to day, and what they were actually like. The “Big 3″ of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven tend to be deified to such a degree that we can’t imagine the musical world without them. We may be right to think this way, but they were human just like us, and I think we sometimes lose sight of that fact- when we play a glorious piece by Mozart for example, that seems as though it were given straight from the heavens. This is why I enjoy reading about their lives- it helps me understand their humanity and their strivings…what they were reaching for, and what inspired them.
Being a church musician myself, I’ve always been intrigued by J.S. Bach and the fact that virtually everything he wrote was in service to the Lutheran church. This would be unheard of nowadays. Sure, there are full time church arrangers and composers, but they are not generally composing on a weekly basis. Bach managed to write new music every week for services. Was he simply churning out pieces as fast as possible for a paycheck, or was there something else driving him?
It turns out that Bach was in fact a very religious man. Some other composers such as Schubert and Beethoven wrote religious works and masses, but were not overtly religious themselves from what we can tell. But Bach’s faith is evidenced by his repeated use of one simple phrase – Soli Deo Gloria. To God Alone be the Glory. Bach wrote this phrase on every work he completed, even non religious pieces. He was not writing only for his church- he believed in the greater responsibility of personally giving glory to God through his music. He even took this idea a step further with the following statement (and I believe I’m paraphrasing): “There are two purposes of music – to give glory to God, and the refreshment of the soul.”
This is inspiring to me as I play weekly at church, as I know it is to countless others.