reprinted by permission from



Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan (photo: Kyoichi Miura)

May 20, 2001

Coming to Fresh Terms with
the Sacred in Bach

By BERNARD D. SHERMAN Reprinted by permission of The New York Times. This article also appeared in The International Herald Tribune, May 23, 2001.
Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music, and writes articles for The New York Times, Early Music, and many other publications.

KEN BURNS'S latest documentary, "Jazz," some critics have argued, implies that you have to be black to make great jazz. Long before such notions surfaced in the jazz world, the classical-music world was making its own claims about the importance of coming from the right stock. As recently as a few decades ago, a Viennese musicologist said that only "a born Viennese" could get a Strauss waltz right. Critics called Carlo Maria Giulini too Italianate for Brahms and Pablo Casals not English enough for Elgar.

Such fencing-off of national turf is much less common in classical music today. Yet one subculture known for controversy, the early-music movement, still argues about other types of personal background. There is language, for example: some madrigal enthusiasts claim that only native Italian speakers can sing Monteverdi properly.

Then there is religion. That topic arises in discussions about the Japanese keyboardist and conductor Masaaki Suzuki, who is recording virtually all of Bach's music the choral works, the concertos and the keyboard and organ music for the Swedish label Bis. The question of Mr. Suzuki's nationality rarely comes up in reviews today, as it used to when he studied and performed in Europe in the 1970's. Critics now are mostly enthusiastic about his recordings, and they say hardly anything that might seem a coded form of "too Oriental." Still, they often note that Bach and Mr. Suzuki share a belief in Christianity.

Profiles of Mr. Suzuki report that at 12 he was playing the organ in the Protestant church where his family worshiped and that he explains Christian doctrines to his Japanese audiences and musicians. (His Bach Collegium Japan, a small chorus and period- instrument orchestra based in Tokyo, is predominantly Japanese.)

"My chorus members don't have any Christian tradition, so I must explain almost everything," he said recently, "for example, what a parable means. Everybody in my choir has the translation in their hands for the rehearsal and recording." His admirers sometimes argue that his faith helps him achieve a special authenticity in Bach.

Many of us recoil from claims of a home-turf advantage for Bach performers who are Christians. Musicians everywhere see Bach as common property. But the home-turf claim is worth discussing. After all, some of the ideas and language in Bach's sacred music present barriers for non-Christians. A performer cannot ignore those ideas, for Bach often illustrates them with musical details. In Cantata No. 136, long streams of notes represent the great stream of Jesus' blood, which alone can cleanse humanity of sin. In Cantata No. 106, a severe fugue in the lower voices represents the strictness of Old Testament law, under which according to Bach's Lutheranism all humans perish, while an independent soprano line represents the hope of eternal life brought by Jesus. If you want to understand the emotions Bach intended, you have to engage with the texts.

Some texts are easy enough to engage with. But if a theological idea distances or even repels performers, can they bring its musical setting fully to life? On the other hand, if performers believe a doctrine themselves, will they identify more deeply with its musical setting?

Most mainstream Christians today would find some of Bach's beliefs repellent: his prejudices against "murderous papists and Turks" (to quote Cantata No. 126) or his view that a monarchist social order was divinely ordained. Eagerness for death, a sentiment expressed in a number of cantatas, is not a popular sermon topic today. And other discrepancies arise between Bach's world view and those of modern believers.

The sociologist Alan Wolfe summarized a recent New York Times survey by noting that an overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves religious but "want a capacious God who smiles on everyone." (Perhaps some non-American believers have similar concerns.) God doesn't seem to be smiling in passages like this from Cantata No. 199: "The fruits of my sins make me a monster in the holy eyes of God. I must hide from him before whom even the angels hide their faces."

Along with rejecting the fear of God, Mr. Wolfe notes, "75 percent believe in the intrinsic goodness of people, which suggests, whether they fully realize it or not, that they no longer subscribe" to the notion of original sin. Bach and his librettists subscribed, all right. In Cantata No. 136, the tenor and bass sing of the "marks of sin that Adam's fall has brought upon us."

But many of Bach's core ideas clearly ring true for Mr. Suzuki. Bach's attitude to sinfulness and original sin seems to attract Mr. Suzuki more than it does Mr. Wolfe's typical American. Mr. Suzuki sees it as counteracting the darker values that led Japan to World War II.

"The tendency always exists in the Japanese mentality to ignore our own fault or blame or sin, and to think that all sin can be forgettable," he said. This tendency, he thinks, allows the Japanese to whitewash wartime realities.

Bach gives Mr. Suzuki ample opportunity to explore the theme. The "St. Matthew Passion," for example, emphasizes the guilt of sin-tainted Christians. In an essay with his much-praised recording (Bis 1000/2), Mr. Suzuki writes of the work's effect on "each of us with our sinful souls." He says that the music "will show us the release of our souls from sin, and the path to purest joy." So while most performers value Bach's music for the sake of its art, Mr. Suzuki seems also to value it for its religious effects as did Bach, who designed a cantata or Passion as a sort of musical sermon.

Whatever one thinks of Mr. Suzuki's agendas, they might conceivably add urgency to his music-making. His musical urgency, at any rate, is often notable.

In Cantata No. 46 (Bis 991), a bass aria musically illustrates the thunder and lightning of the Last Judgment; it is downright terrifying in the performance by Mr. Suzuki and his baritone soloist, the Dutchman Peter Kooy. By contrast, the performance in Ton Koopman's cantata series on Erato is a bit gentlemanly. (Mr. Koopman, a Dutch keyboardist and conductor with whom Mr. Suzuki studied, is the only musician so far to have recorded as much Bach as Mr. Suzuki will cover for Bis.) Similarly, in an alto recitative in Cantata No. 12 (Bis 791), Bach represents earthly tribulation with dissonant harmonies; Mr. Suzuki conveys their impact vividly.

But such musical success does not resolve the question of the home-turf advantage for Christians. Mr. Suzuki himself seems ambivalent about the issue. He told Brian Robins in Fanfare that "if you are living a Christian life, it is much easier to understand and express the text" but conceded that non-Christians can perform Bach just as well as believers. He recently said: "I don't think it's necessary to have faith or belief to perform Bach. Musical performance is a kind of complex of very different elements."

Michael Marissen, a musicologist who has written liner notes for Mr. Suzuki's recordings, is also ambivalent. In conversation, he complained about Bach conductors "whose attitude is, `You strip away those awful words, which are irrelevant to us now anyway, and then the cantatas are just basically concertos with extraneous words.' " Mr. Suzuki's religion, Mr. Marissen suggested, may make him "more inclined to pay close attention to what the cantatas are about" that is, to their theological meanings.

But Mr. Marissen hesitates to claim special privileges for Christian performers. Some atheist conductors, he pointed out, "have paid close attention to the texts and the historical background and have succeeded in conveying them in performance," while certain "deeply pious Christian" conductors have "lacked the technical expertise" to master Bach's vocal works. For Bach, Mr. Marissen emphasizes, musicianship matters most.

Musicianship is, to be sure, Mr. Suzuki's greatest strength. His recordings of the keyboard and organ music demonstrate a subtle ear for color, a keen sense of harmonic direction, and an ability to make phrases breathe and rhythms live. These attributes go most of the way toward explaining the warm reviews of his cantatas, Magnificat (Bis 1011), "Christmas Oratorio" (Bis 941/2) and Passions as well.

But while no one doubts that first- rate musicianship is necessary for playing Bach, the question is whether it is all an artist needs to bring the sacred music to life. Does this music demand something more of the performer, something involving religious belief?

An ambivalent answer is appropriate, because the matter is complex. On one hand, a nuanced, responsive rendition of a Bach sacred work demands more than a mature grasp of musical structure and style. It also asks a performer to understand, even enter into, the world view of an orthodox Lutheran in the early 18th century. Responsive performers sound as if they believe in sin, hell, redemption and eternal life.

Yet they can sound that way without themselves believing. An actor who has never so much as disliked his stepfather can identify with Hamlet; a musician who never sets foot in a church can convey the terror of hell and the joy of redemption. Being a Protestant might help you relate to Bach's message, but there are other ways to manage it.

Indeed, having a modern Christian faith might contribute far less to responsive performance than understanding period conventions in theology, liturgy, sacred poetry and sacred music. Consider the dramatic entry of a third soprano line a few minutes into the opening number of the "St. Matthew Passion."

When the work was performed at Good Friday afternoon services in Leipzig, the scholar John Butt writes in his notes for Jeffrey Thomas's new recording on Koch International, the melody of the entry "had particular significance for members of Bach's congregation." They had heard it earlier that day, in the hymn at the end of morning services.

That hymn, says Mr. Butt, portrays Christ as "an innocent sacrificial lamb." The image "points towards the Apocalypse when Christ rules the New Jerusalem." Moreover, during the "St. Matthew" opening chorus, the three choirs were located in different parts of Bach's church, and this third group was placed in an organ loft at the east, "a graphic depiction of the direction of Christ's throne in the New Jerusalem."

It is true that even a performer who understands all this will never recreate the effect Bach intended. The hymn tune, for one thing, will not have the same associations for modern audiences that it did for Bach's congregation. Still, knowing its original significance might help a performer convey the meaning of the entry more fully. It could do so regardless of whether the performer actually believed in the Second Coming.

There are further reasons for ambivalence. Trying to recreate a historical mind-set is not the only valid way to make Bach's sacred works come alive today. Recent stage dramatizations of such works represent one attempt to modernize or universalize Bach's message. Non-Christian Bach devotees often do something similar, relating to Bach's sacred works as explorations of human (not strictly Christian) guilt, fear, tears, peace or joy. Indeed, Bach's music has long served as a sort of quasi-religion for agnostics. The sense of spiritual comfort that many music lovers associate with it clearly does not depend on engaging with its theology.

Mr. Suzuki demonstrates what seeking to engage with the texts on their own terms can add to a musical performance of Bach's sacred works. (Indeed, he conveys the mystery of the hymn tune in the "St. Matthew" opening particularly well perhaps, as Mr. Marissen notes, because his third choir has a more unearthly acoustical ambience than the other two.) But in the end, considering Mr. Suzuki's case reminds us that artistic sympathies need not be circumscribed by identities, whether national or religious. Bach remains common property, an example of how the world's cultural heritage, from New Orleans to Leipzig, can bear fruit for anyone, anywhere, willing to take up its challenges.

Bernard D. Sherman is the author of ``Inside Early Music: Conversations With Performers.''