If Bach were my worship leader…why bother with Bach?

Over 20 years ago a Japanese organist and conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, embarked on a project to record all the sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Suzuki introduced the 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…[1]

Suzuki talks about what caused him to embark on such an ambitious cycle, finally completed 18 years 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” [1]

Concluding his thoughts in the last volume (volume 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! [2]

So with the words, Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone, which Bach wrote at the end of his sacred and secular works, Suzuki proclaims Bach as the fifth evangelist, as others have done before him [3].

It is not only Suzuki who has been inspired to Herculean efforts 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 almost every week another cantata recording seems to appear, not least in this year (2017) of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  John Eliot Gardiner doesn’t mince his words as he claims that Bach “gives us the voice of God – in human form” [4].

I am fascinated by the impact that Bach’s music has had over the centuries and still has today. From Soviet communist students in the 1970s [5], to the Japanese of the new millennium, where Masaaki Suzuki has been reported as saying that he is convinced that tens of thousands of Japanese have been baptized because of Bach [6].  I myself have found Bach’s music to be very helpful in my Christian faith, pointing me back, as Suzuki puts it, to the God that Bach worshipped and that I worship today, and to his Word in the Bible.

Much research has been undertaken into the music of Bach, the cultural and social context and theology of the time, as well as the transmission of his music since, and impact today. Encouragingly, as Jeremy Begbie has noted, “there is much to suggest that the time is ripe for a new and rewarding conversation between theologians and musicians regarding this stupendously gifted craftsman of sound” [7].

But as far as I can determine, few if any have applied this to the context of a musician working in the church today. Even fewer have thought about his relevance to the work of a worship leader using contemporary worship music in the evangelical church, as I do. So, I have to ask myself, why not? Bach worshipped the same God that I do.  His pastors preached the Bible, as mine do.  And although Bach was not a committed Pietist, there are many aspects of Pietism that influenced the libretti of his cantatas [8], and appear to me to contain many of the same elements of mainstream evangelicalism and the charismatic movement (with quite a few of the same criticisms). We can trace a line from Pietism down to the present day, a recent example I have encountered being the influence of Count von Zinzendorf on Pete Greig and the 24×7 prayer movement [9].

Ruth Tatlow, in her book Bach’s Numbers, has written, in a musicological context, of the problem of hearing and thinking as Bach did.

The many philosophical and musical differences between Bach and ourselves are increasingly irreconcilable. A face-to-face conversation with Bach would be the simplest way to answer many of these questions, but as this is impossible the musicologist has to confront the problem and decide: either to give up any ambition to hear and think as Bach did, content to discover twenty-first-century resonances in his music; or to continue to attempt to hear as Bach did, and strive to understand the universe and music as he understood it. [10]

Like Tatlow, I choose the latter, and believe there must be value in attempting to understand the world in which Bach wrote, and therefore what makes Bach music speak to us of God so directly today, and how we could take those principles and apply them the worship of the church today, and especially to the context in which I mostly work – contemporary evangelical church worship.

I am not saying that all evangelical churches should add the occasional Bach Cantata to their repertoire of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman [11], although Keith Getty has used the music of Bach in at least one of his songs (A Worker’s Prayer) and has called him “my hero for sure” and “the model of a church musician’’ [12]. I am saying, however, that Getty is right. Bach is the model of a church musician and, as such, there are things in the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which can teach us how to be better church musicians, and something about how we use music in worship today.  That will help us in our day to day task of leading worship, and will also lead us to a deeper appreciation of Bach’s music itself.

It can legitimately be asked how a 20th Century musician leading a worship band can learn anything from an 18th Century musician leading concerted music with a baroque orchestra and choir in a cavernous, and often freezing Lutheran church.  I think this is a bit like the question that Suzuki has said was posed to him: ‘How is it that the Japanese, with such a different cultural heritage, dare play the music of Bach?’ [1]. The issue for us is not simply geographical/cultural or theological but also chronological distance. But the answer is the same one Suzuki gave which I referred to above: we worship the same God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. As Christians, we may be able to find something in the music of Bach which people who don’t share his faith, although knowledgeable, might miss. Jeremy Begbie expresses a similar view when he asks:

Why should serious scholarship not consider the possibility that Bach’s music might articulate a disturbing resistance to some of the metaphysical and, indeed, theological (or anti-theological) axes on which modernity and much modern scholarship have habitually turned. [13]

If we use what Begbie calls a “biblically rooted perspective” [14] then I believe we can find the principles behind Bach’s music, and extract them from the time and place and give them a more eternal perspective which sounds down into the present day. Then we will have found something extremely valuable.  And if we think there is nothing to learn, then could we not be guilty of what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery?

This is not just hagiography, along the lines of those who claim that Bach was “never known to speak a word of complaint” [15]. A quick flick through Bach’s letters in A New Bach Reader will soon dispel that illusion [16]. But there’s value there too. The frustrations Bach had are not that different from those of any church musician, and we can learn both positively and negatively from how he handled them.

In the end, none of the above is particularly controversial. You might suggest that I am largely wasting my time, but if something good comes out of it that’s fine. However, there are a couple of areas which have got me into trouble before which I would like to explore.

Firstly, Harold M Best’s statement that music is without moral quality has always troubled me [17]. It troubles quite a few others in the more conservative evangelical stable too, but seems to have been accepted as orthodoxy elsewhere.  I would like to explore the nature of Bach’s music and, if possible, unpack a thought that there is something inherent in way Bach’s music is put together which makes it particularly suited to carry Biblical (propositional) truth. In this context, Ken Myers has argued that “Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning” [18].  I will try to argue that Bach’s music is full of non-propositional meaning of the most Christian sort!

Secondly, the other orthodoxy is that music from all periods, all traditions of the Christian church is equally valid to be used in worship.  Let’s use (from a very non-exhaustive list) Gregorian Chant, the Eton Choir Book, Josquin, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Wesley, Fuguing tunes, Sankey, Elgar, James Macmillan, John Taverner.  My heart says yes, but my head says, wait a minute.  We would not use words from all periods of the Christian church in evangelical, bible-based worship.  We would recognise that there have been periods in the church that have been particularly fruitful in Christian thought, writing and preaching. We might cite (in another all too short short-list) the Reformation, the Puritans, the Wesleys and Whitfield, Spurgeon. Why could there not be periods in the Church that have been particularly fruitful in producing music for worship? I think particularly of periods of revival for example. I’m not so convinced of this second proposition. But I think it’s worth exploring, particularly in the context of understanding why Bach and his music came at the time it did.

So, if we can, in Ruth Tatlow’s words, “strive to understand the universe and music as [Bach] understood it” [9], and understand Bach’s music itself, perhaps we will be able to find why his music continues to have such an impact, and perhaps bottle some his “secret sauce” to pour liberally over our own efforts at leading music in worship today.


[1] Suzuki, Masaaki (1995). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.1 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 4

[2] Suzuki, Masaaki (2013). [Liner notes]. In Johann Sebastian Bach, Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki – Cantatas Vol.55 [CD]. Åkersberga, Sweden: BIS Records AB, 5

[3] According to Christoph Wolff, “The course was set in the nineteenth century. With the authoritative writings of Spitta and Rust, the concept of the ‘Fifth Evangelist’ was preordained.” In a footnote (12) he notes that “The notion of “Bach the fifth Evangelist” goes back to Nathan Söderblom, [1866-1931] the Swedish theologian, cf. Hans Besch, ‘J. S. Bach. Frömmigkeit und Glaube’ 2d ed. (Kassel, 1950), p. 3.” Wolff, C. (1999). Bach: essays on his life and music. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 285 and footnote 12.

[4] Gardiner, John Eliot (2013). Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Allen Lane, 558

[5] Robin Leaver (2001). Bach, a Preacher? at 8’43’’. Retrieved from http://www.veritas.org/talks/bach-preacher/

[6] Weigel, G. (2001). Bach Converts Japan. Retrieved from  https://eppc.org/publications/bach-converts-japan/

[7] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 41.

[8] Pelikan, J. (2003). Bach among the theologians. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 56-71.

[9] Greig, P. (2017). Dirty Glory. London: Hodder & Stoughton

[10] Tatlow, R. (2016). Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 34

[11] Although, why not? One of the most wonderful performances of a Bach cantata I have heard was of Cantata 140, Wachet Auf, in the context of an evensong at an evangelical Anglican church, with a sermon preached (in this case before the cantata, not afterwards) explaining and expounding the Bible passages on which the cantata is based. It probably helped that my daughter was playing the oboe obbligato. The involvement of family for a worship leader is something we might explore further when we look at Bach’s own family and heritage.

[12] 9marks (2017). Music for the Church: Mark Dever Interviews Keith Getty. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/interview/music-for-the-church-mark-dever-interviews-keith-getty/, at 11’57’’

[13] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 72.

[14] Begbie, J. (2015). Music, modernity, and God: essays in listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 48.

[15] Kavanaugh, P. (1992). The spiritual lives of the great composers. Milton Keynes, Eng.: Word Publishing, 34

[16] David, H. T., Mendel, A., & Wolff, C. (1999). The new Bach reader: a life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W.W. Norton. For example see Bach’s resignation letter from Mühlhausen on page 57, or his dispute with the Rector Ernesti of the Thomasschule, Leipzig, on page 189ff.

[17] See Best, H.M. (1993). Music Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: HarperOne.

[18] 9marks (2014). Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others. Retrieved from https://www.9marks.org/article/journalmusic-and-meaning-some-forms-are-better-others/

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A Music Advent Calendar – 4. Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

Of the Father’s Heart Begotten has always been a favourite carol of ours.  I remember hiring the music from OUP for the first Christmas orchestra I ever organised for St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, while a student.  We later had the hymn at our wedding.

The hymn is based on the Latin poem Corde natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius, and there are various translations available, the most popular from J M Neale and Henry Baker and is most common sung to a metrical version of the plainchant Divinum mysterium.

The hymn talks of the Lord Jesus, born of the love of the Father’s heart, Alpha and Omega, the Word by whom all things were created, the promised Saviour foretold by the prophets, born in frailty to die to save us. The final verse, particularly in this arrangement below with a soaring descant by Sir David Willcocks, lifts our hearts to praise with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

At the Cantus Firmus Trust Advent Service, Coming Soon to a World Near You, as this post is published (Sunday 4th December 2016) we will be singing these words from Jubilate Hymns. If you are reading this on Sunday morning it’s not too late to join is and sing this wonderful hymn with us.

1 God of God, the uncreated,
love before the world began;
he the source and he the ending,
Son of God and son of Man,
Lord of all the things that have been,
master of the eternal plan,
evermore and evermore!

2 He is here, whom generations
sought throughout the ages long;
promised by the ancient prophets
justice for a world of wrong,
God’s salvation for the faithful;
him we praise in endless song
evermore and evermore!

3 Happy is that day for ever
when, by God the Spirit’s grace,
lowly Mary, virgin mother,
bore the saviour of our race.
Man and child, the world’s redeemer
now displays his sacred face
evermore and evermore!

4 Praise him, heaven of the heavens,
praise him, angels in the height;
priests and prophets, bow before him,
saints who longed to see this sight.
Let no human voice be silent,
in his glory hearts unite
evermore and evermore!

Corde natus ex parentis Jubilate Hymns version after Prudentius (348 – c.410), J M Neale (1818 – 1866), and H W Baker (1821-1877)
© Jubilate Hymns Ltd

A Musical Advent Calendar – 2. Sleepers Wake!

While not strictly written for season of Advent (it’s actually for the week before), Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140 is always closely associated with Christmas.

It’s a relatively late addition to his incredible set of over 200 (surviving) church cantatas, written as part of his project to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” As a man of deep Christian faith, Bach felt strongly his calling from God as a musician, and so as soon as he arrived in Leipzig in 1723, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he started on a bout of furious cantata composing. For three years he came up with a new work for the church service every Sunday, as well as several Passions and a variety of other music. It was an unprecedented creative burst which left a lasting legacy.

For this cantata Bach turned to a hymn from the theologian Philipp Nicolai. The epistle for the day – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – is about preparation for the Last Judgment, but the service focusses on the Gospel reading from Matthew 25:1-13, and the parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids, with Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that they should be ready and waiting for his coming again in glory.

The parable concerns a wedding and ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who take their lamps and go to meet the bridegroom – a picture of Jesus himself. The foolish ones take their lamps, but no oil – a mistake the wise ones don’t make.  The bridegroom keeps them waiting; they all grow tired and fall asleep.  Around midnight there is a shout: “Look, the bridegroom comes.” The foolish bridesmaids’ lamps have burned out and they have no oil to fill them. So while the foolish girls set off to buy more oil, they miss the arrival of the bridegroom himself. Only the five wise ones remain to join the feast, and for the rest the door to the Kingdom of Heaven remains shut.

Bach’s librettist expanded Nicolai’s three-verse hymn by adding recitative and aria texts. After the opening chorus, where we are invited to wake up, prepare, and search for the bridegroom’s return, Bach leads us in a dance with two of the most beautiful love duets in music – not between couples united in earthly love, but rather with Jesus as the bridegroom (bass) and the faithful Soul as the bride (soprano).  These beautiful movements, really trios for two soloists and instrumental obbligato, draw from the Song of Solomon, considered in Lutheran and Puritan tradition as an allegorical love song between Christ and the Church. The final chorale combines praise of God with a vision of the joy that awaits the faithful in the heavenly Jerusalem – complete with twelve pearly gates!

Truly in this cantata Bach provides us with some of his most wonderful music -and from what we know the cantata is one of the few that continued to be popular immediately after his death. It’s inspired by the Joy of Christmas, where we celebrate God with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, and the hope of his return in Glory, when his invitation to His true love to join the dance is finally fulfilled. With Bach, as it can with us, the dance starts now.

This performance is from eminent Bach interpreter Ton Koopman, and you can follow text and translation here. Worship with Bach’s congregation this Christmas (but in the warmth of your own home and without the lengthy sermon in German that would have followed this!)

Bach later took one of the movements and arranged it for organ, as he did with 5 other cantata movements to form the 6 Schubler Chorale Preludes.

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – 1. Lo He Comes

While there is more and more Christmas music available on CD and the radio and online, in some evangelical churches the traditional carols seem to be increasingly absent, which is a shame, perhaps because they don’t lend themselves to being played by a worship band.

There is so much wonderful truth – and some rather good backstories – in Advent and Christmas music, so for the next 24 days I thought I would draw attention to some of my favourites.

Where better to start than with Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.

According to the admirable notes from the New Oxford Book of Carols (NOBC), this hymn was written in the early days of Methodism, and based on a hymn by the Moravian John Cennick, whose original starts with the unlikely lines “Lo! he cometh; countless trumpets / Blow before his bloody sign.”

The tune first appeared in a publication by the Revd Martin Madan whose own story is about as colourful as John Cennick’s verse.[1]

But to return to the hymn, surely this is one of the greatest celebrations and anticipations of Jesus’ return, praying with Paul: “O come quickly!” – while not pulling any punches over how Jesus will be received by those who have rejected him.

Words and tune are a perfect match and always sum up Advent for me.

[1] According to the NOBC, Martin Madan was a dissipated man who underwent a sudden conversion after hearing Wesley preach (he had gone to mock his mannerisms), and eventually became a warden of a hospital for women suffering from fatal venereal infections. As a result of seeing these women driven onto the streets by poverty and the shortage of marriageable men, he wrote a treatise “…which advocated Polygamy as the lesser evil.  Forced to resign from the hospital in the resulting furore, Madan spent the rest of his life quietly in Kew, translating literary and theological works from the Latin.” As you would. 

Word and Music – taking it forward

It is a long time since I blogged here and I was inspired to have another go after seeing my former minister Michael Quicke a week so ago. Michael was the person who started me on my Christian music and worship journey.  He gave me the opportunity to play the organ at my home church in Blackburn when I was only a teenager. He gave me a job as music director at St Andrew’s Street Baptist in Cambridge when I was only 18. He set me on a course to understand that excellence in music in worship was a great thing, that music and indeed worship as a whole should reflect above all the glory and majesty and beauty of God.  He was and is an amazing preacher and communicator, and lover of all that is best in music.

Those were the days when I practised hymns on the organ over and over to get the speed just right, tried to illustrate the words with differing registrations for each verse, collected last verse harmonisations to provide a thrilling conclusion to the great hymns of praise, wrote trumpet descants for my friend Jackie to play.   I used also to choose organ voluntaries for after the service that were (for the most part) loud and triumphant – to send people out confidently to “live and work for His praise and glory.”

Those services of worship were ones where preaching and worship went hand in hand.

As an aside, even now as well as still loving great hymns and organ pieces, I get most excited at church in worship when we sing joyful gospel music, or loud songs of praise, or beautiful quiet songs, and struggle most to engage during times of “intimate” worship or response times when the focus seems to be all about me and how I feel about God, how I am going to respond, how He might want to fix things that are wrong with me, and less about who God is.   Rather than build confidence and faith in God, for me these times seem to undermine that.  I am not saying they are wrong, but I certainly struggle hugely with them.  Am I the only one?

The last time I blogged, it was about my Bach studies and how Bach’s music, particularly, is a medium for letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us.

 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16 ESV)

The other passage that has been of great significance to me over the past 20 years is Psalm 40.

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3 ESV)

Here the Psalmist talks about music as a medium for proclaiming the works of the Lord, above all proclaiming the salvation of God and the truth of the gospel.

So I am taking up the computerised pen again, and will use this blog to keep exploring how music can best proclaim the truth of God and help his Word well in us as richly as possible.

I want to try and look at this from an historical and contemporary perspective.  No doubt Bach will feature, but I want to see how other composers over the centuries approached this task, or failed in it.  I hope that regular blogging will gradually cause some key ideas to surface which may point to how, in our day, our worship can enable the Word of Christ to dwell in us as richly as possible.

I hope that if these ideas interest you, you will respond, comment, point me to different avenues of exploration. I am excited about how music, actually ALL music, can point to God and how all theology can and should elicit deeper worship.

 

 

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.

Sabbatical musings

During the first few months of 2015 I am taking a mini-semi-Sabbatical from Church, and also from all but one of the choirs that I seem to have started leading over the past few years.  Due to some changes at work I am also managing to take every Friday off and and planning some reading and informal study around anything that interests me, but primarily (unsurprisingly) Word and Music.

Watch this space for I hope much more regular updates on what I am reading and discovering about Bach, music, theology, singing, the Bible and connections between them.

What’s the purpose? Apart from to re-group and re-fresh and listen to any fresh revelations of His purpose, I think (to quote from a talk I heard last weekend) “the goal is God”.  A greater understanding of who He is, leading to greater worship.  And if there’s one thing I am seeing more clearly than ever, understanding comes through hearing the Word and putting it into practice.

If you want to check up on me through this, then hold me to those overarching goals.