By Uwe Siemon-Netto
(From January 2008 issue of The Asia-Pacific Times)
This year, thousands of Japanese and Koreans will be among the
visitors pouring into the central German town of Weimar where Johann
Sebastian Bach took up residence exactly three centuries ago, composed
most of his organ works and was jailed by the local ruler after seeking
greener pastures elsewhere. Bach’s popularity in Asia has become an
enduring phenomenon, particularly because of its missionary attributes.
When Yuko Maru-yama launches into her organ prelude
Sunday mornings at the beginning of divine service in a Minneapolis
church, chances are she will be playing something Johann Sebastian Bach
wrote three centuries ago during the period he was the court composer
to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxony-Weimar.
There are two reasons for this probability. First, like an
ever-growing number of Japanese, Maruyama is passionate about Bach -
she attributes her conversion from Buddhism to Christianity to his
music. “When I play a fugue, I can hear Bach talking to God,” she told
Metro Lutheran, a monthly church paper in the Twin Cities.
Second, Bach composed three quarters of his organ works in the
enchanting Thuringian town of Weimar, which captivated him in a strange
sort of way at the end of his nine-year tenure there from 1708 until
1717. When he accepted a more lucrative position in nearby Köthen,
Weimar’s Duke Wilhelm Ernst sent him to prison for four weeks, reducing
him to a daily diet of bread and water. The lock from his cell is still
on display at the Bach Museum in Eisenach, the town where the composer
was born in 1685.
Still, this year Weimar will benefit from the persistent Bach boom
sweeping East Asia. Scores of Japanese journalists have already roamed
this town on pre-tercentenary research assignments, according to Uta
Kühne, spokeswoman for Weimar GmbH, a company promoting the city’s
economic development and tourism.
Two major tour operators in Japan and another in South Korea have
added Weimar to their destinations. Not only is it the site of his
brief incarceration but also the birthplace of two of his sons, Wilhelm
Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, who were also stellar musicians
whose compositions are as much admired in Asia as they are in the
The influx of Asians to Bach sites in Germany has been perplexing
musicologists and theologians alike for decades now. They come in
droves not only as tourists but also as serious students of music. Of
the 850 students at Germany’s oldest state conservatory, the Hochschule
für Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in Leipzig, 148 are
Asians, chiefly South Koreans and Japanese, according to Ute Fries,
dean of students. Bach was musical director of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche
for the last 27 years of his life and wrote most of his cantatas there.
Leipzig’s late “superintendent” (regional bishop) Rev. Johannes
Richter used to wonder even back in the days when this city was part of
Communist East Germany: “What is it about his work that evidently
bridges all cultural divides and has such a massive missionary impact
for Christianity in faraway parts of the world?”
For years, Richter observed with growing fascination how in his
Gothic sanctuary, Japanese musicologist Keisuke Maruyama studied the
influence of the weekday pericopes (prescribed readings) in the early
18th-century Lutheran lectionary cycle on Bach’s cantatas. When he had
finished, he told the clergyman: “It is not enough to read Christian
texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.”
But this scholar’s conversion could have been attributed to the
impact of pericopes’ biblical texts on Maruyama. Why, though, would a
fugue have such evangelistic powers as it did on the Japanese organist
in Minnesota? Why would even listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations,
which contain no lyrics, arouse someone’s interest in Christianity?
This happened when Masashi Yasuda, a former agnostic, heard a CD with
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s rendering of this complex Clavier-Übung,
or keyboard study. Still, Yasuda’s spiritual journey began precisely
with these variations. He is now a Jesuit priest teaching systematic
theology at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Some theologians tend to attribute the astounding impact of Bach’s
music particularly on the scientific minds of many Asians to the Holy
Spirit. Canon Arthur Peacocke, a Church of England clergyman and noted
biologist who is also one of the leading spokesmen in burgeoning
international dialog between theology and the natural sciences, once
suggested that the Holy Spirit personally dictated “The Art of the
Fugue,” Bach’s arguably most challenging work, into the composer’s
“The reason why Bach’s most abstract works guide some Asian people
to Christ is because his music reflects the perfect beauty of created
order to which the Japanese mind is particularly receptive,” suggested
Charles Ford, a mathematics professor at the University of St. Louis.
“Bach has the same effect on me, a Western scientist,” added Ford, who
is also one of America’s foremost experts on the theology of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, the martyred Lutheran theologian hanged by the Nazis.
Henry Gerike, organist and choirmaster at Concordia Seminary in St.
Louis, a Lutheran school of theology, agrees with Ford: “The fugue is
the best way God has given us to enjoy his creation. But of course
Bach’s most significant message to us is the Gospel.” Gerike echoes
Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), who famously called
Bach’s cantatas “the fifth Gospel.”
Rev. Robert Bergt, musical director of Concordia’s Bach at the Sem
concert series, has first-hand experience with the missionary lure of
Bach’s cantatas in Tokyo. He used to be the chief conductor of
Musashino Music Academy’s three orchestras in the Japanese capital.
Bach’s compositions brought his musicians, audiences and students into
contact with the Word of God, he said. “Some of these people would then
in private declare themselves as ‘closet Christians,’” Bergt told
Christian History magazine. “I saw this happen at least 15 times. And
during one of them I eventually baptized myself.” While only one
percent of Japan’s population of 128 million is officially Christian,
Bergt estimated that the real figure could be three times as high if
one includes secret believers.
After two failed attempts to popularize Bach’s music in Japan since
the late 19th century, a veritable Bach boom has been sweeping that
country for the past 16 years. Its driving force is organist Masaaki
Suzuki, founder and conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan that has
spawned hundreds of similar societies throughout the country.
During Advent or Holy Week, respectively, Suzuki’s performances of
the “Christmas Oratorio” or the “St. Matthew Passion” are always sold
out, even though tickets cost more than $600. After each concert,
members of the audience crowd Suzuki on the podium asking him about the
Christian concept of hope and about death, a topic normally taboo in
polite Japanese society. “I am spreading Bach’s message, which is a
biblical one,” Suzuki said.
But why do Bach’s melodies and harmonies, so alien to the Asian ear,
appeal to the Japanese? Some musicologists attribute this to Francis
Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries, who introduced the Gregorian
chant to Japan and built organs from bamboo pipes 400 years ago. Though
Christianity was soon squashed, elements of its music infiltrated
traditional folk song.
Four centuries later, this curious fact is now enabling tens of
thousands of people in one of the most secularized nations on earth to
turn to Christianity via Bach. But here’s the irony: As some of these
will come to pay homage to Bach during the Weimar tercentenary
celebrations, his own land has become mission territory after 56 years
of Nazi and Communist dictatorships. In Thuringia and neighboring
Saxony, only one quarter of the population belongs to a Christian
– Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Leipzig-born veteran foreign correspondent
and Lutheran Lay theologian, is scholar-in-residence at Concordia
Seminary in St. Louis (U.S.).