Perhaps you know the initials JSB. If you do, you might also expect them to be followed by another set of initials: SDG. JSB refers, of course, to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who often signed his works with his initials and with SDG for soli Deo gloria—for God’s glory alone. But Bach used other initials on his compositions as well. He would sometimes write JJ (Jesu juva; Latin for “Jesus, help”) or JH (for the German of the same phrase) at the beginning of a composition. Whether he was writing something for the court, for his friend Prince Leopold, or for the church, he would begin his work by petitioning Christ to help him. And when he was done, he would add the initials SDG, for all of his work was done for the glory of God.
Bach was born in the town of Eisenach, which has a great Luther connection. Eisenach sits in the valley below Wartburg Castle, where Luther was holed up after the Diet of Worms. Bach grew up in the town below the Wartburg, so he literally grew up in the shadow of Martin Luther, and he very much appreciated Luther. Bach’s library grew to about eighty theological works, and for the 1700s, that wasn’t bad. Among those books were a number of Luther’s works, and of course he had Luther’s German Bible.
Bach came from a family of musicians. Sometime near the end of the sixteenth century, a musician named Veit Bach fled Hungary because of persecution over his Lutheran faith. He ended up in the German state of Thuringia, and there the Bachs flourished. Johann Sebastian was born March 21, 1685, 202 years after the birth of Luther. With all these musicians and Lutherans in his background, it is no surprise that Bach became a Lutheran musician—arguably, the Lutheran musician.
Bach was married twice; his first wife died. He had twenty children, nine of whom survived into adulthood. He also had a great relationship with Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and composed many pieces for him. At one point, Leopold got married and his wife didn’t like music, meaning Leopold no longer needed Bach’s services. Forced to look for work elsewhere, Bach ended up working primarily as a cantor at Leipzig from the 1720s through 1750. He was actually not the top candidate for that job. He was third in line, and the other two candidates ahead of him couldn’t accept the position. A town councilor is on record as saying, “Since the best man cannot be obtained we will have to resort to a mediocre one.”
That’s Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed his music Jesu juva, with the help of Jesus, and soli Deo gloria, for the glory of God alone.