Who best approaches the spirit of Bach?

Masaaki Suzuki is a distinguished harpsichordist, organist, Yale music professor, and conductor who founded and directs the Bach Collegium Japan.  He is also a devout Christian.  Many thanks to Paul McCain and the various people he credits for unearthing this quotation from the liner notes to the first album of Bach Collegium Japan.   He is responding to the question of how the Japanese can play Bach, whose music comes out of a very different culture.  He says that better than having the same culture is having the same religion:

“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

via News Flash: J. S. Bach was a Christian – Why Suzuki Gets Bach | CyberBrethren – A Lutheran Blog.

Here is an interview with Suzuki and a sampling of his music:

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Cincinnatus

    I think Herr Suzuki is wrong on this point. Of course, I think a robust understanding of Bach’s robust faith is an essential prerequisite for capturing the spirit of his work.

    But which of the following two archetypical persons would be better equipped to understand, play, and master Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Major” (St. Anne) or his Mass in B Minor for pipe organ?

    a) A Lutheran woman who deeply and devoutly shares Bach’s faith in all its essentials, and who was taught to play organ for church services by her mother.

    b) An organist trained at Julliard with a profound and comprehensive understanding of Bach’s historical context, his musical language, and the peculiar manner in which the pipe organ was played in the baroque period–but who is also an atheist with no intrinsic interest in the truth value of Bach’s religion.

    I’ll go with option b) every time. If what separated those who are merely proficient in playing a particular composer’s songs on a given instrument from true virtuosos were merely sharing that composer’s religious faith, I would have been a famous organist a long time ago. Faith doesn’t give one magic powers of understanding music. I think that one can experience, participate in, and perhaps even understand the spiritual force of a musical composition without subscribing to the specific dogmas that undergird that spiritual force. Some of the organ music I find most moving is Roman Catholic.

    In short, I don’t think Mr. Suzuki’s secret is his faith. I think his “secret” is that he is a highly practiced, sensitive, accomplished, erudite musician.

  • Cincinnatus

    I think Herr Suzuki is wrong on this point. Of course, I think a robust understanding of Bach’s robust faith is an essential prerequisite for capturing the spirit of his work.

    But which of the following two archetypical persons would be better equipped to understand, play, and master Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Major” (St. Anne) or his Mass in B Minor for pipe organ?

    a) A Lutheran woman who deeply and devoutly shares Bach’s faith in all its essentials, and who was taught to play organ for church services by her mother.

    b) An organist trained at Julliard with a profound and comprehensive understanding of Bach’s historical context, his musical language, and the peculiar manner in which the pipe organ was played in the baroque period–but who is also an atheist with no intrinsic interest in the truth value of Bach’s religion.

    I’ll go with option b) every time. If what separated those who are merely proficient in playing a particular composer’s songs on a given instrument from true virtuosos were merely sharing that composer’s religious faith, I would have been a famous organist a long time ago. Faith doesn’t give one magic powers of understanding music. I think that one can experience, participate in, and perhaps even understand the spiritual force of a musical composition without subscribing to the specific dogmas that undergird that spiritual force. Some of the organ music I find most moving is Roman Catholic.

    In short, I don’t think Mr. Suzuki’s secret is his faith. I think his “secret” is that he is a highly practiced, sensitive, accomplished, erudite musician.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well, Cincy has a point, I guess. Depending on what one means by “the spirit of Bach,” I suppose.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well, Cincy has a point, I guess. Depending on what one means by “the spirit of Bach,” I suppose.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    The real question is, who is better able to *appreciate* Bach and his work:

    (A) The classically trained Julliard organist or

    (B) the simple devout orthodox Lutheran parish organist who understands why Bach was writing his music?

    I’ll go with option (B) every time.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    The real question is, who is better able to *appreciate* Bach and his work:

    (A) The classically trained Julliard organist or

    (B) the simple devout orthodox Lutheran parish organist who understands why Bach was writing his music?

    I’ll go with option (B) every time.

  • Cincinnatus

    Rev. Paul T. McCain,

    That depends upon what you mean by “appreciate.” There are many varieties of musical appreciation. The “simple” parish organist may intuitively “experience” something in Bach’s music related to a pre-thematic identification with its religious foundation. That is, of course, a valid appreciation of Bach’s music, and I have no interest in demeaning it.

    But the Julliard concert organist will have a profound understanding of its technical complexity, its structural forms, its specific virtuosity–and, at the very least, an “external” awareness of its religious meaning. That too is valid musical appreciation.

    Then again, you missed the point. We’re not talking about who appreciates the music “more” or “better”–a question which I think is impossible to answer, because it’s like comparing apples to oranges based on entirely different criteria–but who can play the music with more proficiency. I’m sticking with the product of Julliard.

  • Cincinnatus

    Rev. Paul T. McCain,

    That depends upon what you mean by “appreciate.” There are many varieties of musical appreciation. The “simple” parish organist may intuitively “experience” something in Bach’s music related to a pre-thematic identification with its religious foundation. That is, of course, a valid appreciation of Bach’s music, and I have no interest in demeaning it.

    But the Julliard concert organist will have a profound understanding of its technical complexity, its structural forms, its specific virtuosity–and, at the very least, an “external” awareness of its religious meaning. That too is valid musical appreciation.

    Then again, you missed the point. We’re not talking about who appreciates the music “more” or “better”–a question which I think is impossible to answer, because it’s like comparing apples to oranges based on entirely different criteria–but who can play the music with more proficiency. I’m sticking with the product of Julliard.

  • dwcasey

    Appreciation is the difference from someone who is ‘technically’ able to better play the music versus someone who feels, understands the music as they play it.

    And it’s that ‘feeling the music’ that comes from an understanding of the meaning, the religious meaning, behind Bach’s music/compositions.

    Can a non-christian person feel, understand, or fully appreciate Bach’s Passion compositions? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Easter or the Ascension?

    Being able to hit the notes ‘better’ and in the most technically perfect way seems to strip away the essence.

    I seem to remember two instances way back…one of Wynton Marsalis and the other of YoYo Ma talking about the difference between simply ‘playing’ the music and feeling it.

    As Bach’s music is primarily all religious ( Christian, Lutheran ) in nature, I would say for it to be interpreted best would be by someone who grasps the worldview/inspiration from which Bach wrote.

  • dwcasey

    Appreciation is the difference from someone who is ‘technically’ able to better play the music versus someone who feels, understands the music as they play it.

    And it’s that ‘feeling the music’ that comes from an understanding of the meaning, the religious meaning, behind Bach’s music/compositions.

    Can a non-christian person feel, understand, or fully appreciate Bach’s Passion compositions? Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Easter or the Ascension?

    Being able to hit the notes ‘better’ and in the most technically perfect way seems to strip away the essence.

    I seem to remember two instances way back…one of Wynton Marsalis and the other of YoYo Ma talking about the difference between simply ‘playing’ the music and feeling it.

    As Bach’s music is primarily all religious ( Christian, Lutheran ) in nature, I would say for it to be interpreted best would be by someone who grasps the worldview/inspiration from which Bach wrote.

  • Cincinnatus

    dwcasey@5:

    I don’t suspect you were addressing yourself directly to my comments, but I should add a couple of clarifications. First, I’m not talking about merely grasping the technical features of a musical composition. Rather, I’m arguing that grasping those technical features can itself produce an exalted “feeling,” a certain appreciation for the music. Indeed, I would argue that a knowledge of the technical features of Bach’s music (or Mozart’s, etc.) is a prerequisite for increasing one’s appreciation for it.

    Second, the substance of my point is that one doesn’t need to believe in the Christian faith to be able to appreciate its role in undergirding Bach’s music–and playing accordingly. As I said, I experience some of the most profound “feelings” from sacred music written for Catholic services (think music written in exaltation of Mary, for instance)–but I don’t share the composer’s exaltation of Mary. Or think of Romantic music: much of it is a paean to either the heroic ego or to a particular ethnic nationality. But do I have to be German to appreciate Wagner properly? Am I incapable of feeling the force of Wagner’s epic music if I’m not a self-absorbed German nationalist?

    You could try this thought experiment with other artistic media: do you need to be a devout medieval Catholic to appreciate Dante’s Divine Comedy? No, but you should understand the particular cosmology and theology that motivates the work. Do you need to be a Renaissance humanist to appreciate the statue of David? No. I can still experience the sublimity of a work of art without agreeing to the doctrines, dogmas, beliefs, sentiments, etc., that inspired the work; I just need to understand them at some level.

  • Cincinnatus

    dwcasey@5:

    I don’t suspect you were addressing yourself directly to my comments, but I should add a couple of clarifications. First, I’m not talking about merely grasping the technical features of a musical composition. Rather, I’m arguing that grasping those technical features can itself produce an exalted “feeling,” a certain appreciation for the music. Indeed, I would argue that a knowledge of the technical features of Bach’s music (or Mozart’s, etc.) is a prerequisite for increasing one’s appreciation for it.

    Second, the substance of my point is that one doesn’t need to believe in the Christian faith to be able to appreciate its role in undergirding Bach’s music–and playing accordingly. As I said, I experience some of the most profound “feelings” from sacred music written for Catholic services (think music written in exaltation of Mary, for instance)–but I don’t share the composer’s exaltation of Mary. Or think of Romantic music: much of it is a paean to either the heroic ego or to a particular ethnic nationality. But do I have to be German to appreciate Wagner properly? Am I incapable of feeling the force of Wagner’s epic music if I’m not a self-absorbed German nationalist?

    You could try this thought experiment with other artistic media: do you need to be a devout medieval Catholic to appreciate Dante’s Divine Comedy? No, but you should understand the particular cosmology and theology that motivates the work. Do you need to be a Renaissance humanist to appreciate the statue of David? No. I can still experience the sublimity of a work of art without agreeing to the doctrines, dogmas, beliefs, sentiments, etc., that inspired the work; I just need to understand them at some level.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    One can play a piece of music well without fully appreciating the spirit of the author.

    Having said that, a Christian playing Bach will have an appreciation and connection with the grand old composer in a way that a non-Christian will not, regardless of the final outcome of a performance.

    Let’s take this to another venue: dramatic reading. Suppose you have two people read the Scriptures: one is a Christian with a decent amount of vocal training, while the other is an atheist with the ability to move the listener to tears by blowing his nose. The atheist may “perform” his reading better on a technical level, and may even do so in a way that moves his audience in an emotional manner, but the Christian will read the Scriptures with a connection that the atheist (short of conversion) will never experience. I believe THIS is the difference.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    One can play a piece of music well without fully appreciating the spirit of the author.

    Having said that, a Christian playing Bach will have an appreciation and connection with the grand old composer in a way that a non-Christian will not, regardless of the final outcome of a performance.

    Let’s take this to another venue: dramatic reading. Suppose you have two people read the Scriptures: one is a Christian with a decent amount of vocal training, while the other is an atheist with the ability to move the listener to tears by blowing his nose. The atheist may “perform” his reading better on a technical level, and may even do so in a way that moves his audience in an emotional manner, but the Christian will read the Scriptures with a connection that the atheist (short of conversion) will never experience. I believe THIS is the difference.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m in complete agreement with Cincinattus here. Furthermore, I have doubts about the motive of some when they say – “You’ll only appreciate this fully, if you are a Christian”, when speaking about non-theological issues. It is almost as if the old Adam’s need to feel superior in some way is worming itself out into the open.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m in complete agreement with Cincinattus here. Furthermore, I have doubts about the motive of some when they say – “You’ll only appreciate this fully, if you are a Christian”, when speaking about non-theological issues. It is almost as if the old Adam’s need to feel superior in some way is worming itself out into the open.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Let’s try this experiment out. The real question is, who is better able to appreciate Bach and his work:

    (A) The classically trained Julliard organist who is a Calvinist, or

    (B) the Lutheran who took piano lessons until fifth grade and owns a few Bach CDs?

    Would you still go with option (B)? Because that would be me. And I’m pretty darn sure that Mr. Suzuki is better able to appreciate Bach than I am.

    However, as a member of the Reformed Church of Japan, Mr. Suzuki does not share Bach’s faith to the degree that I, a Lutheran, do.

    But if you want to claim I have a better understanding than he does, well, I’m flattered. But that’s ridiculous.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Let’s try this experiment out. The real question is, who is better able to appreciate Bach and his work:

    (A) The classically trained Julliard organist who is a Calvinist, or

    (B) the Lutheran who took piano lessons until fifth grade and owns a few Bach CDs?

    Would you still go with option (B)? Because that would be me. And I’m pretty darn sure that Mr. Suzuki is better able to appreciate Bach than I am.

    However, as a member of the Reformed Church of Japan, Mr. Suzuki does not share Bach’s faith to the degree that I, a Lutheran, do.

    But if you want to claim I have a better understanding than he does, well, I’m flattered. But that’s ridiculous.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD@9: I think your analogy is helpful in demonstrating how much more ridiculous it would be to claim that local-yokel organist in a Lutheran parish (bless her heart) would be able to play Bach better than a classically-trained but Calvinist Julliard concert organist just because she’s Lutheran.

    …which was the question Veith originally proposed, if implicitly. The suggestion is absurd.

  • Cincinnatus

    tODD@9: I think your analogy is helpful in demonstrating how much more ridiculous it would be to claim that local-yokel organist in a Lutheran parish (bless her heart) would be able to play Bach better than a classically-trained but Calvinist Julliard concert organist just because she’s Lutheran.

    …which was the question Veith originally proposed, if implicitly. The suggestion is absurd.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, Suzuki is responding to those who wonder why a Japanese guy is one of the foremost interpreters of Bach in our era and not some European as might be expected. So, in that regard he is doing more of a comparison between

    a) two Juilliard grads, one of whom is a mostly a cultural Christian and the other a practicing one, and giving the nod that in interpreting Bach, faith may be more important than ethnicity.

    and, b) two amateurish types of equivalent skill, one of whom is a Lutheran and active in their congregation and the other a secularist professor at the local college who has an amateur Bach “collegium.”

  • SKPeterson

    Well, Suzuki is responding to those who wonder why a Japanese guy is one of the foremost interpreters of Bach in our era and not some European as might be expected. So, in that regard he is doing more of a comparison between

    a) two Juilliard grads, one of whom is a mostly a cultural Christian and the other a practicing one, and giving the nod that in interpreting Bach, faith may be more important than ethnicity.

    and, b) two amateurish types of equivalent skill, one of whom is a Lutheran and active in their congregation and the other a secularist professor at the local college who has an amateur Bach “collegium.”

  • Booklover

    Most of the comments are missing the intent of Mr. Suzuki. He was asked how the Japanese are able to interpret Bach, even though they do not have a Christian cultural influence. He said that this Japanese group is able to do that because they and Bach share the same God. He is comparing culture and religion, NOT technique and religion.

    I have this CD with these liner notes starred, and I’ve quoted Mr. Suzuki with this quote on these pages somewhere earlier in time but don’t know how to find it.

    Suzuki’s further conversation in the liner notes answers some of the previous commenters’ questions:

    “I do not hold with those who say that non-Christians can never approach Bach’s cantatas properly, nor do I believe that adherence to the Christian faith is necessary for the beautiful performance of the music. Bach’s cantatas are a true product of German culture, inextricably wedded to the German language. This presents the Japanese with some difficulty, since not only the pronunciation of the language itself but the sense of musical phrasing and articulation which emerge from it, and indeed the musical structure and counterpoint integral to Bach, are all alien to the Japanese musical tradition. We must investigate these aspects of the music’s context carefully; however firm one’s Christian faith may be, one cannot handle this music without an understanding of its purely technical and musicological side. Having said this, however, what is most important in infusing a Bach cantata score with real life in performance is a deep insight into the fundamental religious message each work carries.”

    He completed the recording on the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, and continued, “It is my hope that in some way our venture may demonstrate that Bach’s music contains a message which can touch the human heart, regardless of nationality or cultural tradition, filling hungry spirits and spreading inner peace.”

  • Booklover

    Most of the comments are missing the intent of Mr. Suzuki. He was asked how the Japanese are able to interpret Bach, even though they do not have a Christian cultural influence. He said that this Japanese group is able to do that because they and Bach share the same God. He is comparing culture and religion, NOT technique and religion.

    I have this CD with these liner notes starred, and I’ve quoted Mr. Suzuki with this quote on these pages somewhere earlier in time but don’t know how to find it.

    Suzuki’s further conversation in the liner notes answers some of the previous commenters’ questions:

    “I do not hold with those who say that non-Christians can never approach Bach’s cantatas properly, nor do I believe that adherence to the Christian faith is necessary for the beautiful performance of the music. Bach’s cantatas are a true product of German culture, inextricably wedded to the German language. This presents the Japanese with some difficulty, since not only the pronunciation of the language itself but the sense of musical phrasing and articulation which emerge from it, and indeed the musical structure and counterpoint integral to Bach, are all alien to the Japanese musical tradition. We must investigate these aspects of the music’s context carefully; however firm one’s Christian faith may be, one cannot handle this music without an understanding of its purely technical and musicological side. Having said this, however, what is most important in infusing a Bach cantata score with real life in performance is a deep insight into the fundamental religious message each work carries.”

    He completed the recording on the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, and continued, “It is my hope that in some way our venture may demonstrate that Bach’s music contains a message which can touch the human heart, regardless of nationality or cultural tradition, filling hungry spirits and spreading inner peace.”


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