What sort of a man

… do you think Bach was?

Here are some answers, from neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, conductor John Eliot Gardiner and organist John Butt, interviewed by Catherine Bott, during the BBC’s Bach Marathon on 4 April 2013.

Continue reading What sort of a man

Mr. Suzuki’s Bach Passion

Masaaki SuzukiHere is a BBC radio documentary about the extraordinary story of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan whose Bach recordings have blown away Bach performance—and opened unexpected doors for the Gospel in Japan.

These are the recordings we feature on Lutheran Radio UK’s Sunday Cantata. Listening to this, you will know why.

Click here to go to listen on the BBC website. I don’t know whether it is available to listen to outside the UK)

If you want to get hold of the BCJ Japan recordings, I can heartily recommend eClassical.com, who sell them as high-quality downloads (the more recent volumes at studio quality) at a very affordable price. You can also download the CD booklets, for no extra charge.

Here’s the blurb for the programme from BBC:

The story of how a group of remarkable Japanese musicians overthrew centuries of tradition – and prejudice – to become one of the of the world’s most brilliant baroque music ensembles. Presented by Roland Buerk.

A musical revolution is in the air. After three centuries as the undisputed masters of Johann Sebastian Bach’s legacy, Germany has found itself rudely usurped…by Japan.

The Bach Collegium Japan – and their musical director, Masaaki Suzuki – are a phenomenon. Founded in 1990, they’ve overcome the cultural prejudices of a snooty musical world to become one of the most lauded baroque musical ensembles in the world.

The BCJ have won major award after major award for their extraordinary complete series of Bach’s cantatas: the Mount Everest of baroque music, numbering more than 200 works and 50 CDs of some of the most beautiful – and challenging – music ever written.

Critics praise the remarkable clarity, finesse and sheer musicianship of their performances: readings that throw off hundreds of years of European baggage to reveal the unadorned beauty and raw devotion of the notes beneath.

Yet wasn’t always this way. When Suzuki set up the BCJ more than two decades ago, Western critics were in stitches. “Don’t worry – this isn’t Bach in kimonos”, chuckled one reviewer – after all, how could a nation with its an entirely alien musical and cultural tradition – a place where classical music and Christianity were decidedly minority interests – master some of the most complex, subtle and devotional music ever written?

They’re not laughing now. Critics and members of the public alike queue around the block to catch a glimpse of the ensemble in rehearsal – whilst their CDs sell in their hundreds of thousands across the globe.

In “Mr Suzuki’s Bach Passion”, Roland Buerk follows the BCJ as they prepare for the latest in their acclaimed series of performances – recorded in February this year, and featuring exclusive excerpts from the group’s latest series of cantata recordings, as well as their acclaimed readings of the St John and St Matthew Passions, and Bach’s B Minor Mass.

As momentum builds towards a sell-out performance at Tokyo’s vast Opera City Hall, Roland investigates the roots of Japan’s love affair with JS Bach and the BCJ – trying to pin down why a nation with less than 3% Christian population is so taken with this highly contemplative, devotional religious music.

Is there something in the Japanese national psyche that mirrors the unadorned aesthetic beauty of JS Bach’s music? How much does a musical culture require a tradition – and how much is it hindered by it? And does an age-old Western claim about Japanese society – that it is brilliant at copying and refining, yet can lack true originality – apply to the BCJ’s music? Or does it merely reflect Western prejudices?

Roland also reflects on the message of hope imbued in Bach’s music – and its power to heal – in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March this year.

Contributors include Masaaki Suzuki, director of the Bach Collegium Japan; Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music; Catholic priest Fr. Takehiro ‘Gus’ Kunii; Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS records; and the celebrated German tenor and BCJ soloist Gerd Tuerk.

Just for its own sake

I recently caught up with the BBC’s A Brief History of Mathematics with professor Marcus du Sautoy of Oxford university.* For a non-specialist such as I, it’s an enlightening crash course into some of the great turning points in modern Maths and the people who made the ground-breaking discoveries.

In the final episode, Prof. du Sautoy makes a very important point: while all the break-throughs he relates in the series have been of fundamental importance in the development not only of Mathematics but also much of modern natural science, none of the mathematicians in question set out to find solutions to practical problems. Rather, they were simply interested in dealing with purely mathematical problems. In other words, they worked at mathematics purely for the sake of it, for the love of mathematics. And it is precisely because of this that their work had such an impact: it was entirely unrestricted by practical considerations or utilitarian demands—they were driven by questions of mathematics, therefore driving their mathematics to the highest level, which has then yielded maximum benefit for physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and countless others.

What a fantastic principle, one that has been almost entirely forgotten in our pragmatic age. The applications are countless. Take education. What would be the benefits for our children if education once more became an end in itself, rather than a pragmatic preparation-for-a-job, a utilitarian skills-honing process for future employees? Learning in order to learn, subjects with practical relevance and subjects with none, in order to shape minds and personalities. It’s not hard to see how all of society would benefit far more from such classical education than from today’s narrow diet [at least the one on offer in most schools in the UK].

But I have another hobby horse of even greater importance. It was while studying theology as an undergraduate that I first encountered first-hand this stultifying pragmatism amongst Christians. People would ask me in all seriousness what on earth I thought the point of studying theology was. I mean, what good theology ever do for Christianity? Just so much hair-splitting over irrelevant questions while people were going to hell. Why not get out there and evangelise instead?

Or if one must be a theologian, why not stick to useful topics? Stuff with contemporary relevance that saves souls here and now.

Whereas it is precisely the opposite that best saves souls. Not only is it that studying theology—God’s revelation of Himself—for its own sake is not only the most worthwhile thing to do (in Cambridge, it was theology, not mathematics, that was traditionally considered the Queen of the Sciences; yet another reason to prefer the Light Blues over the Dark Blues), because it deals with, studies, the one thing that is necessary.

And because it is the study of the word of God, theology is an inexhaustible well of learning, a limitless object of study. And as in mathematics, theology must be allowed to have its own agenda. It is when it is studied for its own sake, answering the questions it poses itself, without our own limited and limiting agendas, that we encounter the greatest discoveries, the most wonderful surprises—and the most fruitful ones.

And if we want to find answers to today’s questions, answers that are genuine and enduring—and questions that are real questions rather than perceived ones—we will need to have studied God’s word just for its own sake, leaving our narrow horizons at the door.


*For any non-European readers: over here, a professor is someone who holds a seat in a university, the highest academic position to hold. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can become a PhD, only the best become professors. So that makes prof. du Sautoy one of the top mathematicians at Oxford.

King James Bible on the BBC

For those who missed it, yesterday BBC’s Radio 4 marked the 400th anniversary of the Authorized Version, also known as the King James Bible, by a series of readings throughout the day. In seven separate episodes, key passages from the Old and New Testaments were read by various British actors.

On the downside, most of the introductions to the selections are appalling: very appreciative of the language, hyper-sceptical and often ill-informed about the history and theology. However, the readings are beautiful renditions of the biblical text.

Go and listen here. Alternatively, you can get the whole lot as a podcast feed from here.

Available until Sunday 16 Jan 2011.

The Benefit of the Doubt (8th Commandment)

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

It has been heartening to see the way the Eighth Commandment has been applied to Barack Obama’s little stumble over the oath of office. One commentator on the BBC‘s Today Programme even suggested that it was his oratorical genius that led to the mistake.

I can’t help wondering what the reaction had been if it had been Obama’s predecessor. Does the Eighth Commandment apply to all, or only to polished orators?