Bach can change your life…

Five years ago, I made a bucket list of works I wanted to have conducted – in five years. I can only say that I had no idea what it would cost me to realise those musical ambitions – and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have kept that dream alive.

But this week, with my completion of my first-ever Bach passion now ticked off – despite a smogasbord of challenges that some of you could never believe – the fulfilment that I am now experiencing is hard to describe in words. But I’m not writing a happy-go-lucky post to say how wonderful it is to achieve goals and dreams.

I’m saying that it is only after you have completed what you set out to do that you truly discover if this was what you were supposed to be doing. And as an increasingly popular modern saying has it: we can spend our lives climbing a ladder only to discover that we put it up against the wrong wall.

Wrong wall? Or wrong ladder? The intrinsic semantic specificities of that analogical framework are not our concern; I’m sure the point is made. For me, Bach has become something of a father figure as I look to grow who I am and how I want to work as a musician. Unlike his predecessor, Kuhnau, who was incredibly erudite and well-educated on a scary number of levels, Bach had an excellent formal education up to his late teens – but nothing beyond that. Having enjoyed more academic opportunities than many people – and being part of an ethnic minority community where ‘education’ is a passport to the promised land – what I call ‘Middle England’ (to be precise, I am referring to middle-class Anglo-Europeans) – I can see how all of that is supposed to work, but for my entire life I have looked at how people from all sorts of minority communities have used the letters after their names to demand status, and I am more appalled at this than I can say.

It gets worse – because this ‘worship of letters’ is all over the church. We should know better, but…

How does this relate to Bach? Well, he never really fit easily and comfortably into any of the places in which he found himself, and that astonishing period from 1723 to 1730 will remain an enigma forever as far as I am concerned. Kuhnau made an outstanding contribution to musical life in Leipzig and was a darling of the establishment for the rest of his life. But Bach was far, far too much for the ecclesiastical authorities, and despite the fact that his goal was nothing more than to write a ‘well-appointed church music’ – I am now going to make my own assessment of the reality – Bach’s music pointed to a God who was and is far bigger than the sanitised deity that archetypal liturgy had gotten used to. And those two monumental passions that remain will challenge conductors, soloists, chorus members and instrumental players for a very, very long time as yet.

Preparing to conduct the St John Passion has been the most formative experience of my conducting career to date. And it has changed the way that I think and work. It has forced me to confront the areas of my musicianship in which I am not as disciplined as I need to be if I’m going to work at the level for which I am striving. It has shown me that whatever I think I can bring to music and to early sacred music as an interpreter, I will receive more than I give if I am willing to accept that and be genuinely humble about it. It has shown me that my desire to make a difference inside the church walls is well and good, but the church is not about to become a more open and safe place for honest spirituality that is actually biblical – which means that the pursuit of truth in music will have to take place outside its walls. Bach is better loved, better understood, and better served by musicians who have no interest in confessional Christian faith, and I have one word for that:


It means that as a church (and this in the broadest sense of the word) we still don’t get it after all these years. I literally came apart at the seams trying to fight for better musical standards in my own church, and not understanding why God couldn’t just make it happen. But after conducting St John, I understood why God has let that door close.

The story of how this performance came off the ground is itself entirely epic. If it had not been for my best friend and project co-conspirator, it would never have made it. That person understood what this was better than my own parents who – 48 hours later – are beginning to realise just why I have refused to accept the standard and the attitude of church music-makers. My mother has believed for a long time that I have set my expectations too high, but the truth is more devastating – they weren’t high enough! And only in raising them have I now discovered more about who I am and how I am going to work.

This is not an end. This is now the beginning. And every single challenge, obstacle, doubter, hater, critic – and more – is something for which I want to publicly give thanks for. I have not become who I am because my life worked. I have become who I am because my life did not work and has not worked in more ways than most people can ever and will ever know. Sure, Bach had it worse than I did. He was orphaned by 10, lost his first wife, and buried ten of his twenty children. I’ve only lost my sister – but bereavement is bereavement and we don’t trivialise by reducing emotions to numbers.

My Evangelist was very, very unwell on the day of the concert, but by God’s grace he made it almost to the end. But his being indisposed at that point meant that I had to decide how we were going to end, and so I seized my vocal score (which I’d kept to hand on my stand just in case – previous experience) and read the final recitative – and the emotions I felt as I read those words were the most profound experience I’ve ever had onstage in a public concert. In that moment I was determined to become a better person. A more faithful Christian. A more exacting and disciplined musician.

Bach has changed my life. And now, I want to conduct (and hopefully record) as much of his sacred music as I can. But I’m more than a classical musician. I’ve always wanted to write a contemporary passion setting of my own but I knew I wanted to wait until I’d conducted one by J.S. Bach. And now that I have, I am inspired in ways I did not think possible.

But the only people from my own church who were present were my parents. And that’s okay. They now get it more than before, but the truth is that other people believed in me as a conductor and I had to somehow choose to leave doubt, fear and ignorance behind to press on with this journey of becoming a conductor. Last night I popped into a church to see if they were having a Bible study or something. Thought I might say hello to a few folks. But there was a choir practice taking place, and I just listened to it from a position where I could not be seen. 20 minutes later, the exact same verse had been rehearsed several times and was no better than when I had arrived. In the past, I’d have thought about trying to assist – particularly as I know the folks involved. But I left, knowing that having been very badly burned in my own church community with regards to music ministry, I cannot help these people anymore. I want to help – but they want the kind of help that takes no real regard for musical truth, and so it will never sound better. It will never be musical. After all the years of trying to inspire a higher standard of music-making, I know that what I did with this Bach performance eclispsed almost everything that I have ever managed to achieve with church people. And that’s one reason why Bach stopped writing sacred music – God was not less glorified in a second book of Preludes and Fugues, but only musicians can ever really understand how that works…

The greatest joy is ALWAYS as a consequence of the greatest sacrifice. This St John Passion project cost me – but it was worth it. It has been worth it. Oh, how it has been worth it. I hereby thank God, and everyone who played a part in helping this to come to fruition. And now, time for the next level…

As JSB himself would have said: Soli Deo Gloria!


Freedom…part 2

The last post on freedom focussed on the thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, best known for his role in the formation of the ‘Confessing Church’ in Germany during the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer would give his life for the gospel like so many before him, and as I read some contemporary academic analyses of aspects of his theological thought, I do sometimes wonder if those who are blithely arguing away have taken the time to think about the fact that less than a century ago this man actually gave his life for what he believed – in so-called ‘civilised’ Western society – as a Christian?!

Those of us who have taken religious freedom for granted may well have some work to do on our knees before God.

This post was (is) inspired by one text in Luke 14 that surfaced in another morning devotional. However, although I opened a Bible to the last section of Luke 14, my eyes fell on the beginning of the chapter – and then on  Luke 13 – at which point I realised I was being led. So I began to read from the beginning of Luke 13.

Dear reader, if you are any sort of genuine Christian who has been reading the Bible over a prolonged period of time, then you will be acquainted with the phenomenon where despite having read a passage of Scripture over and over several times, you STILL find new things in it that at times make you feel as if you never read the thing before in your life!! That was what happened this morning.

And the mad thing: it is happening again even as I type this post. I have just had to go before God before coming back to this, because I had been about to begin the main thrust of this post from Luke 13:2 – but as it is, I JUST connected to what is really going on in verse 1.

Let’s read it in two versions, starting with the KJV:

1There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

OK, let’s now try that in The Message (TM):

“About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. ”

If you missed the actual import of what was said in the KJV, you could not have done so in the TM. The TM is not always clearer – I can point to other places where the KJV is in fact clearer than the TM. But on this occasion the TM really helps us. It seems as if although in strict historical terms Luke is the only writer who recorded this particular massacre, the famous Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Josephus for short) refers to a number of other similar massacres perpetrated by Pilate and various others. The point: this kind of thing was not unknown.

So, these people have gone to offer sacrifices to God in the customary manner of a time when there had not yet been an ultimate sacrifice that would render the blood of bulls and goats unnecessary and irrelevant – and in the very act of worshipping God, they had been struck down by Pilate’s death squad. There is a real link between this situation and what happened in Nazi Germany where Christians who refused to get in line with what the state wanted were literally persecuted to the point of death. Would you believe, the Roman Catholics signed a treaty with the Third Reich in 1933 – the very year Hitler came to power. Three years later the Protestants followed. And those who opposed the new state religion were imprisoned.

The thing is – despite the fact that these agreements had been formally signed, there were still a great many Christians – and (more to the point) Christian clergy (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) who refused to acknowledge the ‘Fuhrer’ as he wanted. If you are not familiar with the story of Daniel 3, please go look it up asap!

Yes, it is true that the Jews were the greatest group of people to suffer loss under Hitler. But how many of you know that 2.600 Roman Catholic priests from 24 countries were killed under the Third Reich? As of yet I personally have no properly verified statistic for the number of Protestant clergy who also gave their lives, but as we have noted already, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those. Famous Protestant survivors who went on to make a theological difference to post-WWII Germany (and beyond) were Martin Niemoller and Jurgen Moltmann. How dare any of us Westerners take the ability we have to publicly call ourselves ‘Christian’ for granted? It was here in the West that this happened!

Knowing the people that He was addressing, here is how Jesus responds to the shocking news of (another) Pilate-sanctioned massacre:

“Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”

This message is every bit as pertinent now as it was then, given that so many Christians today are so obsessed by the blessing of God that they fail to even consider the fact that they are called to take up a cross – their own – and follow the Master. Worse yet, when the inexplicable happens to believers, many of us are quick to hold a theological inquest using the hermeneutical principles handed down from Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – no prizes for guessing who these Bible scholars are!

OK, for those who may have missed that, those guys are Job’s friends, who assumed that Job had to have sinned because of what had happened to him. It is one of the rare occasions in Scripture where God Himself speaks to say “you are wrong, and you need prayer, or else I will not forgive you.” Don’t miss the point – your theology MATTERS!

To think that it is enough to just agree to a set of doctrines and propositions is more erroneous than you may think. Remember, Jesus did not say that ‘a sincere heart’ will set you free – no, instead He said that the truth would set a person free.

That’s basically our conclusion, but there is a bit of work needed to bring this together with rock-solid coherence. Well, that’s what we are trying to do here at the theomusicology blog. Having just compared five different translations, we will once again pick the TM for our next passage:

“25-27One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.”

There are three clear principles that emerge from the passage from verses 25-35:

  1. Discipleship involves bearing a cross – one’s own, not another’s (vs 26-27)
  2. The actual COST of discipleship should be carefully counted (vs 28-32)
  3. All personal ambitions and worldly possessions must be laid on the altar of sacrifice (v 33)

From verses 34-35 we could conclude – given the passage as a whole – that spirit of sacrifice needs to be maintained permanently – if salt stops being salty, how will it (how can it) regain its saltiness?!

OK, so after this mini-Bible-study, what does this have to do with freedom?

Let’s go back to a verse that was alluded to earlier – from John 8:

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The written word is crystal clear. The Incarnate Word has spoken.