Christmas is not complete without music, and perhaps the greatest of Christmas music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. For much of his life, Bach was in charge of music at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany.
But Bach had many other responsibilities as well—including raising 20 children—which may explain why he developed a few shortcuts: He often recycled old material into new musical pieces.
Of course, this did not render the great master any less creative. True creativity does not require us to work from scratch, to create complete novelty. Instead, creativity consists in taking what God has given us and cultivating and developing it to its highest form.
In composing the Christmas Oratorio, Bach recycled virtually every solo from sacred music he had composed earlier. Other parts, such as choruses and instrumentals, were mixtures of new and old.
But some sections were completely original, such as the opening chorus. If you own a copy of Bach’s oratorio, listen as the choir, representing the angels, urges us to “Rejoice! Exult and Praise what the All Highest has done today!”
Later in the oratorio, Bach invites us to contemplate the paradox of the Incarnation: that the King of heaven saw fit to become a tiny baby born in a stable. We hear a powerful bass marveling that “the Great Lord and mighty King… who maintains the whole world must sleep in a hard manger.”
Today, Bach’s notion of creativity has largely been lost. Contemporary artists are children of the Romantics of the nineteenth century who focused on the self as the creator, the artist who spins out something completely novel and unique. As a result, most artists today equate creativity with novelty—even subversiveness.
But Bach’s music stands as a powerful reproach to that notion. He used creativity to enhance traditional Christian belief, incorporating scriptural texts and basing his musical forms on Lutheran hymns or the church’s classic liturgy.
Bach signed all his work “SDG,” shorthand for Soli Dei Gloria—to God alone the Glory. Bach knew that God was the one who inspired true creativity—that He works through the efforts of the composer. This is a lesson that all of us need to take to heart in our own work.
So this Christmas let Bach remind you that all of our work should be done to the glory of God. Then our lives will likewise be illuminated with the beauty of true creativity.
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