The New Yorker Takes a Swing at Understanding Bach’s Sacred Music and Misses
No matter how often one is disappointed by articles on Bach’s sacred music, published in secular periodicals, there is always hope that maybe, just maybe, the article will be objective enough actually to recognize that J.S. Bach was a committed orthodox Lutheran composer, no, make that a Kantor, a servant of the church, and…there are actually committed Christians who keep his sacred music alive, like Masaaki Suzuki, of the Bach Collegium of Japan, precisely as a way to witness to their Christian faith, but alas, the latest example of such an article is another disappointment. It simply boggles my mind that such a key ingredient in really understanding who Bach was and why he did what he did is so blithely ignored and overlooked, even when there are references to the specifically Christian content of his sacred music works. I suppose it should not be a disappointment, but alas, it is.
Here’s an example from the New Yorker article of a reporter, perhaps struggling valiantly, to grasp the meaning of the St. John Passion, but failing utterly, to come up with anything more than a recognition of morality and human helpfulness, which, I suppose, is the right place to start, but the glorious good news of the Passion of Jesus Christ, is missing entirely from the reporter’s view.
We feel both the blind mechanics of catastrophe and the desperation of those caught in its midst. Perhaps the most uncanny example is the opening chorus of the “St. John Passion.” The orchestra begins with a divine maelstrom: swirling sixteenth-note figures, stinging dissonances, a pulsing drone in the bass. Three times the chorus cries out “Herr!”—“Lord!”—and then is caught up in the rapid-moving instrumental rhythm, in an image of mortal helplessness.
In contrast, the now retired, UPI Religion Editor, Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto “got it” when he wrote this article for, yes, Christianity Today, about how the sacred works of Bach are bringing people to the Christian faith in Japan. Uwe wrote a number of years ago, in an article titled Bach in Japan:
During Holy Week, Suzuki’s performances of the St. Matthew Passion are always sold out, although 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 told me. But why do Bach’s melodies and harmonies, so alien to the Asian ear, appeal to the Japanese? Musicologists attribute this to Francis Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Gregorian chant into 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 Japanese to come to Christ via Bach. The surprising success of this music in evangelizing one of the most secular nations on earth has led Lutheran theologian Yoshikazu Tokuzen to call Bach a “vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”