What’s Bach Trying to Tell Me?

Johann Sebastian Bach

Soli Deo gloria and the organ belong together. The most prolific composer of organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach, appended its initials—SDG—to the manuscripts of his musical works. The American Guild of Organists has followed his lead and has adopted Soli Deo gloria as their motto.

Soli Deo gloria is a Latin term for Glory to God alone. It is the teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone; that one should not exalt humans for their good works, but rather praise and give glory to God who is the author and sanctifier of all people and their good works.

As I have studied Bach’s works I have often wondered why he did this, and what Soli Deo gloria has to do with the things he wrote. To bring it to a more personal level I asked myself, “How does Soli Deo gloria apply to me and my music?” Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me:

What if someone plays music better than I do? Feeling intimidated can be a natural response. But I think that Soli Deo gloria suggests that feeling bad about myself is not necessary. Putting myself down is, in effect, exalting others. Every individual is one of God’s creations. Most people consider roses to be beautiful, but daisies brighten our world too. I can be grateful to God that I am privileged to associate with creative, capable and talented souls who share with me. I can be appreciative for my own body and spirit that allow me to enjoy their contribution to the world.

What if others tell me I performed well? Accepting compliments graciously may not always come easily. But I do not believe that God wants me to belittle or degrade anyone, including myself. With a simple “Thank you” I can show my appreciation for the kindness of another, for the mind and body God has given me, and for his strength and mercy which allow me to learn and grow and progress.

What if I don’t perform well? According to Navajo tradition, when a rug is created the weaver is to place an imperfection somewhere within the design. This is a way of showing respect to the gods; for, to create something that one believes to be perfect shows a true lack of regard for Deity. I also love the LDS doctrine that teaches that our weaknesses are part of God’s plan for us. Though it can be uncomfortable for my weaknesses to be made obvious to others, I can use these difficult experiences to draw closer to God, to rely more on him and to increase in charity and compassion towards others in their own moments of weakness.

As I have attempted to put these concepts into practice I have found them to be a wonderful guide in my quest for excellence both musically and spiritually. It is more than just a catchy phrase that some guy put on his music. Soli Deo gloria reminds me both who I am, and whose I am.

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