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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Bach in Holy Week

We have had a lot of Bach in the Cathedral today.  At evensong we sang two hymns that Bach used in his Passions, one of them the famous Passion Chorale ('O sacred head surrounded').  Before the service there was Bach organ music, and afterwards we were treated to the mighty Passacaglia in c minor.  The whole congregation (bar one) sat still, listening in silence; afterwards there was enthusiastic applause. It's good that worshippers at Durham Cathedral understand that organ voluntaries are a vital part of the service and appreciate the immense amount of hard work our musicians put into them. 

You can't beat Bach in Holy Week.  After the morning service we came home to lunch and idly turned the radio on. We've had a week of Schubert on Radio 3.  But now it was Bach: the St Matthew Passion, all of it.  We came into it at the sublime aria 'Erbarme dich', the lament that follows Peter's denial of Jesus.  Yehudi Menuhin called it the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin. Peter's tears are in the cello part, the soprano voice is his soul.  It was a real gift to take us up to evensong on this Sunday when we had read the passion story in full at the eucharist.  For me, it wouldn't be Holy Week without a Bach Passion.   

It goes back to my school days.  I was 12 when the school choral society sang the St John Passion one Lent.  I had only just started singing and although I had played some of Bach's keyboard music, I'd never sang any of his sacred works.  The St John was a revelation.  I remember being completely absorbed by this wonderful work, and at the same time, drawn not only into a new musical world but a new spiritual one too.  In so far as we can ever trace the first conscious stirrings of faith, I look back on that spring as a life-changing time.  It was through Bach's music that I began to glimpse the meaning of the cross and the love of God it reveals to us.

What I didn't appreciate as a schoolboy is that Bach wasn't just a great musician.  He was a supremely good theologian too.  His passions and masses and cantatas are wonderful commentaries on biblical and liturgical texts which he understood with the insight of a true spiritual guide.  Albert Schweitzer, scholar both of Bach and Bible, said that ‘if we have once absorbed a biblical verse in Bach’s setting of it, we can never again conceive it in any other rhythm’. For me that's true of the Passions when they are read at services at this time of year.  I could say a lot about this, how well he understands the distinctive emphases with which Matthew and John tell of the cross.  (I am going to say a little about the St John Passion later this week in a Passiontide reflection in the Cathedral.) 

But this Palm Sunday, 50 years after first encountering the St John Passion, I find myself simply wanting to give thanks for JSB and the way in which his music has enriched the church's worship and countless lives.  Including mine. 

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