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The Archbishop on Bach

Thursday 22nd December 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, contributed to BBC Radio 3's "A Bach Christmas".

Radio 3 Bach 1

Johann Sebastian BachBach's Christmas Oratorio is of course not just one composition, it's a series of reflections that takes us from Christmas through to Epiphany and, like so much of his great music, it has a journey to take us on. And again, as elsewhere in Bach's music you have hints and very strong pointers quite early as to where it's all going to end up. The continuity is strong throughout it with the repeated use of that beautiful little Chorale von heiman huch which Bach plays around with, reworks, uses very very slowly and solemnly, very joyfully. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Christmas Oratorio is what Bach does at the very end. Here for the final chorus, he takes the Passion Chorale, which is so thematically important in the great Matthew Passion, and he makes it a Christmas hymn. It's all about how the Christmas story ends with this blaze of triumph, it's as if the struggle, the suffering, the triumph that's embodied in the Passion is already present in the events of Christmas, as if what Christmas is all about is the triumphant re-invention of the human race which is the life of Jesus. And so if you listen to the Christmas Oratorio as a whole, what you will hear is, quite early on, the reminder that this is the great lord, the mighty king who is coming to struggle, to battle. The incarnation is not just a sentimental story about a baby in a cradle, it's about a struggle, and the struggle is bound to be a successful one because at the end of the day the person who is doing the struggle is the grosser herr, shtaker kerny, the great lord and mighty king that the base aria celebrates early on. So when you get to the very end of the Christmas oratorio, you've already been given in a sense, the whole story, of which Christmas is the beginning. It's a story in which the greatest of lords, the most powerful of monarchs, undertakes a struggle and undertakes it through weakness, through humility, through becoming vulnerable. And thus, at the very end, what is celebrated is the passion and the resurrection, all contained in these first events of Christmas in the event of the incarnation, God becoming human flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.

Radio 3 Bach 2

I think it was Iris Murdoch who said of Bach's music that it arrogantly demands our contemplation, that's to say it doesn't just allow itself to be background music, it doesn't let you sit back. And there's something in that because performing Bach is, I think, inexorably a matter of spiritual attention. It does demand a kind of selflessness, it does demand a kind of intentness, it does things to you. The passions involve you, they don't just let you sit back, you have to take part, you have to become an 'I' in the story, but even very brief pieces change you, they unpredictably lead you into territories where you felt you hadn't chosen to go. So, it's very difficult to know how you would characterise Bach as a religious composer, he's not just a composer who sets religious texts, he's a composer who sees all his music as a kind of spiritual exercise. And although performers and listeners may not share his own confessional convictions, I think it's very difficult to listen to Bach without that sense that we are being invited to change your life.

Radio 3 Bach 3

Drama is essentially important part of Bach's music, even the shortest, smallest pieces have a powerfully dramatic quality. And the Matthew Passion, even more than the John Passion, works with a plurality of voices arguing, pleading, occasionally coming together, sometimes in real tension, in real dissonance with each other. And one of the most significant aspects of this drama of the Passion is of course what it does to our perception of ourselves. The Matthew Passion is not written as, so to speak, a spectator sport, it's an event in which listeners are supposed to be involved in the early liturgical performances, of course the congregations would join in the chorales, but even elsewhere there's a sense in which people speak for you, in the Passions, constantly the narrative is interrupted with those poetic meditations that some moderns find so difficult where we have to identify ourselves with characters in the story, we have to take on our responsibility. People have talked quite often in recent years about the anti-Semitic undertone of the Passion story, it's all about the wicked Jews crucifying Jesus. And we're so rightly sensitive to this that it makes us extremely awkward with Passion and sometimes with the liturgical singing of the Passion. But, of course, what makes this aspect so much more uncomfortable is that we've lost, as a culture generally, the idea of a liturgical performance of the Passion in which we are involved. It's not about somebody else somewhere else, it's about us, and if you listen carefully and indeed if you involve yourself carefully, in the Matthew Passion, you realise of course that this is about where you stand in this story, about your responsibility, no one else's but yours. It comes over most dramatically I suppose in the moment in the Last Supper narrative, where Jesus has predicted that one of his disciples will betray him, the chorus comes in 'Lord is it I?, Herr bin Ich?', and, almost abruptly, before Jesus has a chance to reply in the words of the Gospel, the Chorale comes in, immediately saying, 'It's me' the disciples are all asking 'it is I?' and so to speak the Christian congregation steps in instantly saying 'no no it's me, it's each one of us'. So that sense of being involved in a terrible, tragic, enormous action, almost a cosmic catastrophe, that has to be part of how we respond to the Passion and that's why at the end there's no easy movement on to the resurrection. This is Good Friday and you sit with it, you stick with it. It's Good Friday, you've been through this colossal tragic event, now you have to sit with the results and literally at the end in the last chorus Ver sets sbd, we sit down we weep, it's been terrible, we need to sit down and grieve and that's it. Bach is not going to rush us forward to a happy ending because, if we have really been involved in this as a narrative, as a drama, we have to sit with the consequences, we have to let it soak through, we have to let it become part of us. So the Passion is a long voyage, in the course of which we have to take on a lot of roles, we have to see ourselves in a different light, we have to see ourselves as the betraying disciples. We have to see ourselves as the blood-thirsty crowd. And finally we rest because we have come to a place because of all the events we've been through, mysteriously, paradoxically, it's now possible to be at peace. We don't know quite how or why but that's where we are at the end of this.

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