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Bach insights

21 April 2017


COMPLAINING about money, ar­­gu­­­ing with colleagues, and upset­ting congregations with fancy ver­sions of the hymns. Does that sound like any church musician you know? If so, they are in good company. J. S. Bach was the same: cantankerous and intransigent. The difference is that with J. S. B. you also had served up the most sublime music ever com­posed for the liturgy.

During Holy Week, Radios 3 and 4 hosted a mini-series of pro­grammes in advance of a Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, designed to ex­­plore the human and emotional side of Bach’s personality. To this end, in Bach: Man of passion (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Professor John Butt took us through some of the evidence: his beating up of a bassoonist, his complaints about import duties on wine, and his unsanctioned leave of absence to study at the feet of Buxtehude.

Of particular relevance is where Bach’s music lies on the early-18th-century Lutheran spectrum. Cast in an established liturgical tradi­tion, the Passions nevertheless witness to Bach’s taste for a newer, Pietist rhetoric: highly emotional, and at times lurid.

If you needed a refresher course on Lutheranism before hearing Pro­fessor Butt’s programme, then ear­lier that morning Start the Week (Radio 4) provided a convenient Reformation 101. There has not been much on the airwaves, yet, to mark the Luther anniversary, and this round table used it as a step-off for a wider discussion of global Christianity.

Among the topics was gender politics: was the Protestantism of the Early Modern period an excuse to put women back in their place? The argument was proposed by Sarah Dunant, who made the cur­i­ous suggestion based on the rich­ness of domestic devotion by wo­­men in Renaissance Italy, and the impoverishment of domestic imagery in Protestant households.

It was left to the Roman Catholic historian Peter Stanford to defend Protestantism against the charge of chauvinism; and at the same time to disabuse us of the notion that Luther might ever have nailed any­thing to any door in Wittenburg. In those days, wax was apparently the adhesive of choice.

Those prepared to go a little off-piste over Holy Week may have encountered an excellent modern reworking of the Passion, courtesy of the writer Nick Warburton and the director Paul Arnold. Oliver Parks (Premier Christian Radio, Good Friday; also available as a podcast on www.thingsunseen.co.uk) presented a documentary-style inves­ti­gation of the fictional West Trent riots, during which a man of peace was killed and a community revived.

Warburton and Arnold’s prev­i­ous collaboration in this vein was The People’s Passion (Radio, 13 April 2012); and, as with that project, their skill here was to produce an authentic narrative without the clunkiness that so often attends contemporary translations. Nor does it turn out quite as you expect.

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