The Right Response to a Great Tragedy

There’s a good post over on Steadfast Lutherans by Pr. Nathan Higgins on how to respond to a national tragedy. The substance of the post is summarised in the opening sentence:

Perhaps the best way to respond to a national tragedy – or any kind of tragedy, is with mourning, repentance, and faith.

In case you were wondering about this, Jesus seems to agree.

By a complete coincidence, this Sunday’s Sunday Cantata will be showcasing a cantata written for a penitential service in response to a great tragedy. That’s right: a penitential service. On 30 May, the city of Muhlhausen suffered a terrible fire, in which several hundred houses were destroyed. They responded by holding a penitential service in one of the town churches, St. Blasius. For that occasion, the newly-appointed organist of St. Blasius, 22-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach.

The text of the Cantata is Psalm 130, and no one is surprised that Bach does an absolutely sublime job on setting it. The music is full of unresolved tensions—which are only resolved on the word “Forgiveness”. And the whole piece ends on the major dominant chord: we are left waiting for God’s answer, but in full confidence that it will come.

Here is what Masaaki Suzuki, founder and director of Bach Collegium Japan, has to say:

This psalm tells of ‘the depths of our sins’, and traditionally it seems that the descending fifth interval was often employed to express these depths. Both Luther’s chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From depths of woe I cry to Thee), which Bach later used in his cantata No.38, and Psalm 130 of the Genevan Psalter, compiled by Jean Calvin, begin with this motif of the descending fifth. Bach, too, opens his cantata BWV131 with this same motif, and relates the words of the psalm with deep passion.
In fact the sense of ‘sin’ against the Absolute Being does not exist in the traditional Japanese mentality. In Japan, ‘sin’ has always been something relative, and it is believed that sins are washed away as time passes. However, ‘sin’ as taught in the Bible can be forgiven only by God, and not by one’s own self. Therefore, in this cantata, Bach stresses that only God can give forgiveness by using the dissonant major seventh chord and its resolution only once on the word ‘Vergebung’ (Forgiveness)( BWV131, No.2). The longing for God is sung fervently by the alto and tenor (opening of No.3), and the night watch waits longingly for the morning, which signifies redemption, as expressed in the sustained tone in the tenor aria (opening of No.4).

Bach’s cantatas continue to tell the Bible’s messages vividly through the universal language of music, just like the biblical stories portrayed in stained glass in churches, even in this predominantly non-Christian country, Japan.

Here’s a little taster:

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.

Jesus lost and found

Another preview of Sunday Cantata.

Bach didn’t write any cantatas for the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, so this Sunday’s offering is for the First Sunday after the Epiphany. The libretto meditates on the Gospel selection from Luke 2:41–52, where Mary and Joseph lose the 12-year-old Jesus—and then find Him in the Temple, where He had been all along.

The unknown poet whose text Bach set takes the idea of losing, searching for, and finding, Jesus as his theme and spiritualises it: transposing Mary’s distress to the soul who has lost Jesus on account of his own sin—and then finds Him where He had been all along: in Word and Sacrament. All good CA VII stuff!

Here’s a little taster: first, the start of the opening tenor aria, with anguish and distress in every note, every diminished chord, every dramatic pause:

My dearest Jesus is lost:
Oh word that brings me despair,
Oh sword that pierces through my soul,
Oh thunderous word in my ears.

Then part of the penultimate movement, a delightful duet for alto and tenor solo, rejoicing in the happy conclusion (and proving yet again, if it were needed, that no composer does joy quite so splendidly as Bach!):

How happy I am, Jesus is found,
Now I am troubled no more.,
He whom my sould loves,
Reveals Himself to me in hours of joy.
I want never again to abandon you, my Jesus,
I want constantly to embrace you in faith.

The soloists are Gerd Türk, tenor, and the incomparable Robin Blaze, counter-tenor. The recording is from Vol. 17 of the complete cantata cycle from Bach Collegium Japan.

Coming Soon: Sunday Cantata

As you ought to know by now, Lutheran Radio UK, the ELCE’s round-the-clock English-language Lutheran radio station, has been running for quite a few months. If you haven’t, have a listen on the website, through an internet radio, or on your portable device (e.g. via TuneIn Radio).

Starting this coming Sunday, I will be presenting a new weekly show calledSunday Cantata. Each Sunday, I will introduce a cantata written for that Sunday by J.S. Bach.

The church cantatas of Bach are one of the most extraordinary artistic achievements in the history of Western culture. For several years, Bach produced a cantata a fortnight, or more, for the churches of Leipzig, beside all his other duties.

The music is outstanding, the theology profound and thoroughly Lutheran. What better way could there be to spend 15 minutes on a Sunday?

All the recordings come from the award-winning and most outstanding cycle of complete Bach cantatas by Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki.

Find out more by visiting the programme page.

I look forward to your company some time this Sunday!

P.S. If you want to buy the BCJ recordings, I can recommend eClassical, who sell them as high-quality downloads at a very reasonable rate.

A master on a master

A wonderful little video from BIS on Masaaki Suzuki’s latest offering of Bach’s sacred choral music. It’s a great testimony to the spiritual significance of the music, not only to Bach but to all who hear it.

Enjoy!