Norrington mixes it up

I have to recommend a wonderful concert we went to last night in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  It’s on the iPlayer and well worth a listen.  

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was conducted by the inspiring if slightly eccentric Sir Roger Norrington and his whole approach left me grinning from ear to ear.  We started with Haydn’s Passione symphony, which he believes was written possibly for use in church. It was a small band with four double basses arranged two on either side, which I have not seen before and Sir Roger in the middle conducting without a baton. I honestly believe the RSNO could have played the whole symphony without a rehearsal, so expressive were Sir Roger’s gestures and so clearly communicating what he wanted, with encouragements and coaxings galore. They responded magnificently. 

Next came Mozart’s d minor piano concerto in another unique arrangement, piano in the middle, lid removed, with Lars Vogt facing the orchestra and Sir Roger at the back of the piano facing him and the audience. The woodwind were arranged flute and oboes on the left and bassoons on the right, and the strings turned slightly so they could see the conductor. Not quite sure how the cellos, with their back to Sir Roger, managed.  It was wonderful to see Sir Roger’s expression now, which along with his hands were again drawing out wonderful playing. The piano was a little distant without the added projection from the lid, but all in all it was a fantastic experiment which almost paid off, apart from some issues with wind ensemble, which was hardly surprising given they were separated on opposite sides of the platform and also give the speed of the performance which must be among the fastest on record. 

After the interval a more traditional arrangement, with basses along the back Vienna Philharmonic style, delivered another engaging performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. 

The whole concert left me enthused about the possibilities of new ways of thinking around arranging musicians in different layouts, and the expressive and musical possibilities of gesture, expression and sheer enthusiasm from a man who will be 81 years old in two weeks time. 

Love divine, all loves excelling

As a diversion from Bach I was listening yesterday in the car to a lovely album of Purcell from Voces8 – including a beautiful rendition of his song Fairest Isle (words by Dryden) from the semi-opera King Arthur (1691).

I started singing Wesley’s hymn, Love Divine all loves excelling, to the same tune and realised how well it fitted. Consulting Wikipedia I discovered that indeed the hymn was originally written to the tune of that song, using the words of the first stanza as a model for Wesley’s own first verse.

While Dryden had written the following:

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures, and of loves;
Venus here, will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.

Wesley’s is as follows:

Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.

What is more the latest Methodist Hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms, contains the hymn set to Purcell’s tune in a version from John Wesley’s Sacred Harmony of 1780.

It’s a haunting melody and wonderful words that ought to be re-united more often, as here.

The Essence of Bach

Part of my Bach musings and reading are seeking to answer the question “How is it that Bach’s music speaks to us so directly in such Spiritual terms today?”  This was a question which was raised at the end of an excellent lecture by Robin Leaver which I watched yesterday entitled “Bach, a preacher?”

The lecture started with a wonderful anecdote from when Robin Leaver was a pastor (his words) in England. He talks about a Polish Biochemist who walked into the service on Sunday as he was preaching. The biochemist was fortunate to have a scholarship to study in the west at a time when this was rare and had sought Leaver out specifically. He had Christian academic friends at Moscow University who were developing an interesting line in evangelism. It was not unusual for students to become disillusioned with communism, and when they did these Christians gave them a cassette tape with extracts of Bach’s music which had spoken to them particularly and simply asked them to listen to it. When they went back to talk to these people the conversation revolved around the basic question “What motivated this man to write this music. What is it about this man that he was moved to created such wonderful music”.

Leaver says this:

The answer was and is that Bach wrote the music self-consciously as a Christian composer and his understanding of the Christian faith is woven into the texture and fabric of his music.

He then goes onto explain how a deep appreciation of both scripture and of the role of law and gospel in the Christian faith is indeed woven deeply into piece after piece.

The understanding of law and gospel in Bach’s cantatas is something I want to come back to, as is Leaver’s description of Bach as a “preacher in sound.”  How Bach does this is indeed amazing and wonderful and worthy of exploration. It also seems to relate to a Reformed approach to preaching which is outlined in Paul Scott Wilson’s interesting book “The four pages of the sermon” [1] which my former minister Dr. Michael Quicke drew my attention to the other day. Wilson outlines an approach to all sermon construction which should cover the four “pages” of Trouble in the Biblical Text, Trouble in our World, Grace in the Bible: What God did, Grace in our World: What God does. Frequently we see a similar story outlined in the twenty minute “sermons in sound” which are Bach’s cantatas.

Plenty to explore there, but for now I want to come back to the question which interests me most.

At the end of the talk a women in the audience asked the following [1:26:53 in the video linked above]

I was fascinated by you talking about using Bach as an [evangelistic] tool now, and obviously we are far removed from the baroque Lutheran understanding of these chorale tunes and we don’t have this chorale tune vocabulary that Bach’s audience would have had. How do you think that this music speak to us now without that context?

Leaver responds by explaining talks about how Bach often develops his music from one simple idea, something which Jeremy Begbie [2] and Lawrence Dreyfus [3] have both written further about, yet same time uses all the deep, layered complexity of scriptural, chorale, tonal, numerical and even visual references while still creating such beautiful music that still speaks to us, without knowing anything of the deeper layers of meaning.

All true – but I don’t think this answers the question. For me, it’s still out there.  Expect me to come back to that, because whatever it is, we should take it and make it part of our worship!

[1] Wilson, Paul Scott (1999). The four pages of the sermon: A guide to biblical preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

[2] Begbie, Jeremy. Created Beauty: The Witness of J S Bach in Begbie, J. (2011). Resonant witness: Conversations between music and theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] Dreyfus, L., & American Council of Learned Societies. (1996). Bach and the patterns of invention. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

A good walk

…none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

Who is the man who fears the Lord? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. (Psalm 25:3-8, 12 ESV)

The picture at the top of my blog is from the top of Causey Pike, overlooking Keswick in the Northern Lake District. It is Elizabeth’s and my favourite walk and we have walked up there almost every year since our first trip together 30 years ago.

It’s a nice mix of steep and gentle walking, with a rest at the col as the vista over Newlands opens up, which also lets everyone catch up, before a slog and a scramble to the summit.

There is a lovely balance of walking and resting in this Psalm too, or walking while waiting; and of looking back and looking forward.

I observed four things as I read it this morning.

1. Waiting on and waiting for God is normal Christian experience
2. No one who waits for God will be put to shame. Resting on God and his salvation is certain
3. While waiting we should remember all God has done, and all that he has saved us from
4. v8 seems to say that as we wait God will show us the way to go, but also that as we walk he will instruct us.

Jesus promises to teach us as we walk with him. Follow in his steps. We take his yoke upon us and LEARN from him

So perhaps it’s like a good walk in the Lakes with a good friend. Having an attitude of waiting and listening and teachability while walking, chatting sometimes, just pushing forward together when its steep, stopping to check the path against the map, catching breath not forgetting to  look back to from where you have come and admire the view, and looking up to where we are headed and our ultimate goal of the summit.

About Time

time-piece-puzzler-ftrAppropriately enough for a Sabbatical I have been reading a couple of books about time.

The first by Jeremy Begbie, Music, Theology and Time, [1] seeks to look at how time relates to music and what that might teach us about God. In other words “What would it mean to theologise not simply about music but through music?” (Begbie, p.4)

The second is The Sabbath [2] by one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

There are a couple of immediate insights I want to share here.

The first is that time is good. This is not obvious to the modern or indeed postmodern mind. In a chapter looking at the music of John Tavener, Begbie talks about a pathology of time where we experience awareness of the loss of what is good, are haunted by the sadness of the past we would love to forget but can’t, and either hold a fear of the future or pour into that future all kinds of hopes and expectations which may ultimately disappoint us.

But, there are number of Biblical reasons for stating that time is a gift, neither not “neutral nor inherently threatening.” (Begbie, p.97)

To start with, time is not a result of the Fall as we might suppose, but precedes it. With all the emphasis on interpretations of Genesis 1, as to whether God created the world in seven actual days and so forth and without wanting to resurrect that debate here, I wonder if we have at least partly missed the point. Which is that God created the world in time. The Hebrew word is יוֹם, yom meaning day or time.  And He did not create it in one day, but over six days, the creation of each day building on the next with the climax the creation of man on day Six. We will have more to say about that later.

Then, we see that God acts within time. Heschel has much to say about that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space…it is more concerned with history than with geography.”

…the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting himself in events of history rather than in things or places…The main themes of faith lie in the realms of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days. (Heschel, p.8)

Of course for the Christian, the day has both already come and lies still in the future. But we see that “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1) and that the whole of history, of creation, turns on 33 years of Jesus’ life, 3 years of Jesus’ ministry and 3 days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That the God of eternity fulfilled his eternal purposes ordained before the creation of the world at a point in time, when Jesus said “It is finished.”

Karl Barth has written:

The many philosophical theories of time which deny its reality and regard it as a mere form or abstraction or figment of the imagination can only be finally abandoned when we consider that God himself once took time and treated it as something real [3]

Begbie argues from that we can use music to build on the fact that time is inherently good, and a gift. He says, “To share in music is to find a temporality in which – at least to some extent – past, present and future have been made to interweave fruitfully.” (Begbie, p.150)

Second, the Bible points us to a further insight, that time is holy. Heschel’s little book on The Sabbath has many insights, but none more rewarding I think than this:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word קָדוֹשׁ qadosh, holy… Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen 2:3)…It seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.  (Heschel, p.9)

There is much more to be said, but for now let’s conclude with this. If time is good and time is holy then I must stop longing for the past or regretting the past; or longing for the future and loading it with expectation or dreading the future. I should recognise now as a gift and seek to enjoy it and savour it as good and holy; as a gift.

[1] Begbie, J. (2000). Theology, music, and time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Heschel, A. J. (1951). The Sabbath, its meaning for modern man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

[3] Barth, K. (1957). Church Dogmatics; Volume 2, the Doctrine of God, Part 1, Edited by G.W / Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. S.l.: T. & t. Clark. p.620

Learn from me

I was fortunate enough to be asked again to lead worship at the Friends International staff conference last weekend at The Hayes in Derbyshire. It’s always a really enouraging time for me – people are so appreciative and affirming and encouraging and the Bible ministry is always excellent and challenging.

At the start of the conference a staff worker from Edinburgh challenged us to expect to hear from God, and she had done last year – attending several seminars which didn’t seem that relevant at the time, but which as it turned out prepared her well for things God was doing in her work through the year that followed. I prayed that God would do the same for me, and for all of us that weekend.

And so, I believe, it proved, at least for me. It was wonderful to hear Desi Maxwell preach 3 times on the same passage – the end of Matthew 11

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

Drawing on his enthusiasm for Jewish teaching he set the words of Jesus in wonderful context.  Talking to him over lunch he recommended the writings of one of the foremost Jewish scholars Abraham Heschel and I am looking forward to reading two of his books, The Sabbath and The Prophets.

But thinking back, what has struck me most as very applicable to this Sabbatical I am taking are the words “Learn from me” and how they relate to a couple of Ccriptures.

One is Psalm 131 – a verse that God brought to my attention a few months ago in the middle of a lot of struggle which finally led to this period of rest I am currently enjoying:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2 ESV)

The idea of calming and quieting my soul was pretty appealing. But was my idea of study, of travelling to Cambridge “occupying myself with things to great and too marvellous for me”?  It had seemed that as I had gone on reading and seeking God, I was understanding less and less.

Then a second famous passage spoke with new force and seemed to provide a way forward

[Martha]… had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:39-42 ESV)

I saw that Mary was not being passive. She was not simply doing nothing and sitting doe-eyed at Jesus feet. She was listening to his teaching.[1] Learning from Him. Perhaps even talking, asking questions. We see in John 11 that she is quite prepared to challenge Jesus strongly – and that comes from a relationship which is far from passive.

So I think my Sabbatical is taking a new focus. Calming and quieting my soul. Taking some time away from being distracted with much serving. But also sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, studying and above all “learning from Jesus”.  Let’s see where that takes me. Ought to be pretty good.

[1] After posting this, I read Tom Wright about this passage from Luke for Everyone and he says this:

‘Sitting at someone’s feet’ doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, dog-like adoring posture, as though the teacher were a rock star or a sports idol. When Saul of Tarsus ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 22.3), he wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting it together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you did if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. There is no thought here of learning for learning’s sake. Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God.  Wright, N. T. (2004). Luke for everyone. London: SPCK. p.130

My Bach Project

It was about 15 years ago when I first discovered the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach through the recordings of Masaaki Suzuki. 

Suzuki introduction to his first recording of what ended up as a series of 55 CDs of 196 works which make up what we have today of Bach’s output of sacred cantatas, with the following words (dated in the CD liner notes as The 50th anniversary of VJ-day, 15th August 1995)

It may seem strange to think that the Japanese perform the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was one of the most important figures in the history of German music…  ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ – this is typical of the sort of question with which I was often confronted when living and performing in Holland a number of years ago…

In his introduction Suzuki talks about what caused him to embark on such an ambitious cycle, finally completed 18 year later in 2013. He says that “the God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same.” Bach’s music is “a true product of German culture” which gives a Japanese some difficulties, but “what is most important in infusing a Bach cantata score in real life in performance is a deep insight into the fundamental religious message each work carries” [liner notes: Cantatas Vol 1, BIS CD-751]

Concluding his thoughts in the last volume (vol 55) of the series Suzuki implies that Bach’s cantatas are God-breathed in the same way as the scriptures.

Humbly I state that J S Bach and I believe in the same God. I am directly linked to the music of Bach through God. I have come to understand how Bach believed in God, as Bach inscribed his inner belief through his cantatas…With the help of his disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. This is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God’s message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria!

So with Bach’s “handle” with which he concluded all his sacred and secular works, Suzuki proclaims Bach, as others have done before him, as the fifth evangelist.

It is not only Suzuki who has been inspired by Bach’s cantatas. On Christmas Day 1999, in Weimar, John Eliot Gardiner embarked on his Bach Cantata pilgrimage with the aim of “performing all Bach’s surviving church cantatas in the course of the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.” Further cycles of the cantatas are underway or have been recently completed from Ton Koopman, Philip Herreweghe, Sigiswald Kuijken, and many others. 

I too, have been captured by the cantatas of Bach since I bought that first CD.  Like Suzuki, I have come to believe that there is something in His music which, to quote John Eliot Gardiner “gives us the voice of God – in human form” [Gardiner, John Eliot. Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.London: Allen Lane, 2013. p. 558].  

I wonder if Gardiner or Suzuki truly realise the claims they are making? That Bach’s sacred works are on a level with Scripture – the written Word. Or that Bach’s music is the voice of God in human form, the voice of Jesus Christ – the incarnate Word. 

This leads me to ask a number of questions:

Looking at this first from a  musical point of view:

  • What is it uniquely about the music of Bach that causes such claims to be made for it? Claims that are made for the music few other composers as far as I am aware. Although Karl Barth made similar claims for Mozart.
  • Is there something about the character, form, structure of the music of Bach that is uniquely suited to carry the inspired word and to be “the voice of God”? Does the structure, order, harmonic and rhythmic richness and complexity (what Sir Thomas Beecham meant perhaps by “Protestant counterpoint”!) of Bach reflects God’s written Word in a particularly helpful way?

Then historically and theologically:

  • What was it about the historical context that gave rise to Bach and his music?
  • Was there something in the theology and emphases of Luther, Lutheranism, or Protestantism in general or the particular brands of Protestantism such as Pietism that pertained at that time, which influenced Bach’s music uniquely which makes it what it is?
  • Bach’s music to me seems infused with Joy and Hope and Truth above all things – but that is a subjective view. Are there theological emphases or attributes of God and His character which Bach particularly emphasises? What are they? Are there other aspects of God’s nature which Bach misses, or which the Lutheranism of the time missed?

And finally culturally and sociologically

  • What has caused such a resurgence in his music in recent years, and enthusiasm from musicians of all backgrounds, with or without a Christian faith?
  • Does Bach’s music have anything to say about worship today. About contemporary Christian Music, or the so-called “Spiritual music” of composers from Olivier Messiaen to Arvo Part and John Tavener
  • Are there parallels between the music of Bach and contemporary worship music today – especially Gospel music, which might illuminate this?
  • Is our worship music today impoverished and does it need to re-discover something from what Bach can teach us?
  • Have we lost something of the sense of beauty in worship, which looking at the music Bach can help us recover?

There area couple of other questions in my mind as I embark on this

  • (This question has got me into trouble before) Is there truly a type of music which better reflects God than another type? Or is it just individual preference? Is there any type of music (or art) which cannot reflect the Glory and nature of God, music that fights against the words or ideas it is carrying? For example, does music that reflects God have to be, ultimately, beautiful?
  • Does the type of music we like, and the type of music we find helpful in worship reflect the underlying nature of our relationship with God. A kind of music-language of worship, akin to the (in)famous “love languages” or the nine spiritual temperaments referred to by Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Pathways. What might those musical temperaments be?

And for me personally, how can a study of Bach show us more of who God is and his character and nature and so cause my love for Him to be kindled afresh, my relationship with Him deepen and my spirit to rise in worship and praise. It’s some of these topics I hope to be investigating during my Sabbatical.  Soli Deo Gloria indeed!