Category: J S Bach

Death and Nobelity

By , 16 October 2009 6:00 pm

I see that they have just awarded the Nobel prizes. I have no particular comment to make on the most widely noted one (Barrack Obama’s award for peace) except that given that he has at least three years left in the White House, it is perhaps well, a little premature.

What did cross my mind was that if there were a Christian version of the Nobel prizes I’d certainly award one for the man or woman who could come up the right thing to say to those who you meet who have close relatives facing death. I have two colleagues/friends at the moment in this sort of situation, one where the affected relative is in their 20s; the other late 50s. It’s not easy to know what to say. At an earlier stage of their cancer, one could offer to pray for healing and I did, but now with both having developed secondaries and been pronounced incurable I’m less inclined that way. The problem is that however we phrase it, (and boy, do people avoid spelling it out) they face death.

Interestingly enough I actually hesitated writing that last little word, death and instead wrote ‘the big D’. And that of course is part of the issue. It’s not a case of applying the Christian solution to a problem, it’s that we are now so far back that we barely recognise there is a problem until it is staring us in the face. Today, death is the great unmentionable; the thing above all that that we must not talk about. An alien living amongst us might assume that modern humans believe that our life is endless because we so rarely talk of its ending. The result is we now live in what is effectively the worst of all possible worlds in this respect. Our culture has lost the Christian hope of resurrection beyond the grave but not regained the social and intellectual defences that most pagan societies have to enable them to handle the monstrosity of death. We don’t really know what death is except that it is an abomination and that it tears at the very fabric of our lives.

As with so many trends in the secular world there is a parallel (if slightly muted version) in the church. Within Christianity we pray for healing, rejoice that aches and pains have gone away in the name of Jesus, talk in distant and abstract terms about heaven and glory but rarely, if ever, dwell on the inevitable termination of bodily existence. It may be that it is a little bit of the trend I talked about last week, that we have decided to become so seeker-friendly in our churches that we don’t want to put people off by mentioning the great unmentionable. Even if it is an unavoidable unmentionable.

Let me make two cautious and related observations. The first is that these times of bereavement or impending bereavement are probably the worst time to share the Christian view of death, suffering and resurrection through Christ. There is too much aching and hurting for lectures. Such vital beliefs probably need to be taught (and rehearsed) in times when the sun shines, not when the clouds are gathering. You practice fire drills well before fires, not during them.

The second is that we probably ought to declare our belief in eternal life through Christ more readily and more frequently than we do. Again, difficult times are the worst times for us to come up with our own personal views on death. As I have mentioned recently I am currently listening through a lot of Bach’s cantatas. One of the plus points of doing this is that (particularly when I read the words in translation) I am exposed to a lot of nearly 400-year-old Lutheran theology from a very different church world. They did things differently there and it helps me put my own 21st-century faith in perspective. One of them, No. 161 has a title whose very words make you blink: Komm, du süße Todesstunde which is perhaps best translated ‘Come, O sweet hour of death’. A few lines give you its flavour:

“Pale death is my rosy dawn,
with this rises for me the sun
of glory and heavenly delight.

Therefore I sigh truly from the depths of my heart
for the last hour of death alone.

I desire to pasture soon with Christ.
I desire to depart from this world.”

Universally, modern commentators, even Christian ones, struggle with such sentiments. Yet we cannot accuse Bach, of all people, of being naïve about death; I forget how many of his children died in infancy, and on one appalling occasion he returned from a relatively short trip to find his wife dead and buried. It may be that he, and what theologians call the German Pietist school, went too far in looking on the bright side of death. But surely it seems undeniable that we have gone too far in the other direction.

Segues, spaceships and Suzuki

By , 1 November 2007 10:15 pm

This is an early blog this week as I am away over the weekend. For new readers and others, I try to post weekly, Friday evening, UK time. And those interested in commenting on the books may wish to know that there is a rather fun Lamb among the Stars Facebook group.

I have always been a fan of the segue: the art of seamlessly moving from one section or theme to another. (Mind you, it took me a long time before I realised it was pronounced seg-way.) Anyway, there are a couple of instances below.

I seem to have survived last week’s posting on JKR and the outing of Dumbledore. I was worried I would either get damned or praised for being anti-gay. One comment I made last week did though come back to haunt me: my criticism of her ladyship for tinkering with the plot post-publication. The reason was that I have been finishing the final edits on the Infinite Day (it is half-term: I get to work at home and drink my own coffee) and I realised that if I was to make any changes, now is my last chance. One change I would like to make but alas, it is in the first book and beyond recall, is where I mention a spacecraft named after Shih Li-Chen, someone who Merral recollects “was poet, church leader and unsurprisingly for early twenty-first century China, martyr.” In hindsight, I think it would have been more daring (and conceivably more prophetic) to hint that the martyrdoms for the faith had been in the West rather than the East.

The fact is that Christianity is alive and well in the East. If you wanted proof of that it was very audible this week with the long-awaited (and not just by me) release of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass under the conductor Maasaki Suzuki. For those outside the blessed elect of Bach fandom, let me explain. Although elements of the B Minor mass were written earlier, Bach compiled the whole work in in his final years. Two hours long and in Latin, it was quite unperformable in any church context, least of all in Bach’s own Lutheranism and seems to have been intended as a monument for posterity, summing up all that he could do. Anyway, it is one of the most perfect masterpieces of Western music and Maasaki Suzuki does it proud.

Suzuki, a Japanese Christian, and a very considerable musician, has been working his way for years through the vast canon of Bach cantatas (36 CDs so far and about 24 to go) to growing acclaim. What distinguishes his work is a polished musicianship plus – and here is the key – a sensitivity to what the text is saying. Apparently, he makes sure that his singers fully understand the meaning of Scripture. (There is a fascinating article on him and the growing Japanese interest in Bach here.) Anyway, they’ve just released his version of the B Minor and I downloaded it off eMusic for a very reasonable cost. It seems to me that he gets it wonderfully right; reverent without being slow; dramatic without being too theatrical and everywhere beautifully played and sung. It’s an awesome piece of music, and in his hands you can happily believe that no one has written anything finer. Even if it seems imperilled in the West, Christianity is alive and well in the East

And now ladies and gentlemen (roll of drums) for that rarity: the return segue. When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977 – by now it’s about 9.5 billion miles away – it bore a golden disc with sounds and musical items on it. Bach was the most represented composer with three tracks. In discussing the choice of music, the biologist Lewis Thomas said: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach . . . but that would be boasting.”

Just so.

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