Jan Oskar Bender was born in Haarlem, Holland, on February 9, 1909 and moved to Lübeck, Germany at age 13. His interest in music began at an early age. He was drawn to the organ in the Marienkirche after moving to Lübeck, studying first with the organist Karl Lichtwark, and then with his successor Walter Kraft. In 1930, Bender went to Leipzig to study with Karl Straube, but finished his study in Lübeck with the young composer Hugo Distler. In fact, Bender was Distler’s only composition student.
Bender was organist at St. Gertrudikirche in Lübeck from 1934 to 1937. Then from October 1937–52 he was organist at Lambertikirche in Aurich and Kirchenmusikdirektor for Ostfriesland, interrupted twice for active duty in the German army. He was wounded during his first tour of duty, losing his left eye to shrapnel. At the end of the war, Bender surrendered to Allied forces in France and, while in an American POW camp, completed his Auricher Singbüchlein. After the War, there was a great need for new church music, and Bender, having been encouraged by his mentor, Distler, was ready with Opus 1 (Auricher Singbüchlein—four volumes of chorale settings, mostly for treble voices) and Opus 2 (90 organ chorale preludes in three volumes). Thus his extensive composition and publishing career was launched, which extended to Opus 114, written and published in 1989.
After a year in Langen near Frankfurt, Bender became Cantor and Organist (1953–60) at the Michaeliskirche in Lüneberg (where J.S. Bach had sung as a choir boy). He was also Kirchenmusikdirektor for Lüneburg. Through this position, Bender and his compositions became known to several prominent Lutheran church musicians in America and, in 1954, he was invited to become a “house composer” for Concordia Publishing House.
Bender visited the United States in 1956 and 1959 as a visiting professor, finally moving there for the remainder of his career, first as Professor at Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Nebraska (1960–65) and then as Professor of Composition at Wittenberg University (1965–76). In addition to a prolific output of compositions, he played numerous organ recitals around the country and abroad, and served on the ILCW Hymn Committee, preparing Lutheran Book of Worship.
He moved back to Germany when he retired, but returned to the United States as Visiting Professor at Valparaiso University (spring 1979) and as Composer-in-Residence, first at Gustavus Adolphus College (1979–81) and then at Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary (spring 1982). He died at his home in Hanerau, Germany, on December 29, 1994.