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Interview: David Mitchell, Precentor and director of music, Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral, Brussels

25 May 2018

‘I find music and biblical study inseparable. I can’t do one and not the other’

We have a great ministry team here — nice to work with. I’m responsible for Holy Trinity’s music, with direct oversight of two of four Sunday services, where I lead the singers and sometimes play, though we have other organists, too. These two services have different flavours: the first is popular cathedral-style with traditional hymns, anthems, and worship songs; the second is bilingual English-French, with Afro-Pentecostal praise and worship, mission songs, and spirituals.

We have monthly evensong, and end-of-term events each year. At Christmas, our festival of carols, with a 35-piece orchestra, packs the church. On Good Friday, we sing a Bach Passion — alternately Matthäus and Johannes — together with the amazing Baroque musicians of the nearby Conservatoire Royale. Then it’s trumpets and drums for Easter. At the end of June, our morning service is a Viennese mass by Mozart or Haydn, with a small orchestra. We also have an annual Messiah, directed by one of our singers.

I also compose Christmas carols, hymn arrangements, worship songs, children’s songs, service settings, and psalm-settings.

I was born and grew up amid the hills of Renfrewshire, between St Mungo’s green city and the sea. In my early twenties, the Lord pulled me from the mire, blessed me, and said: “Call on me, and I will show you great and unsearchable things that you do not know.” The Psalms became central to my Bible-reading.

I read English literature and music, and then theology, and then went to teach in Bulawayo, where I began to teach myself Hebrew. One day, 30 years ago, when my study door was open to the wind swaying the palm trees in my garden, I sat with the Hebrew Psalms open in front of me. I fell into a deep reverie, wondering whether their music could ever be traced. Determined to discover more, I returned to Britain to do a Master’s in biblical interpretation, and a doctorate in the Hebrew Bible.

My first book, The Message of the Psalter: An eschatological programme in the book of Psalms, proposed that the book of Psalms wasn’t an ad hoc collection of Israelite devotional lyrics, but had an underlying narrative about the coming of a bridegroom-messiah, his brief reign, his violent death, the scattering of Israel in the wilderness, their subsequent regathering and imperilment, and the appearance of a heavenly conqueror who summons the nations to worship in Zion.

Critics said that this was a Christian interpretation of the Psalms, but I maintained that this narrative is found from the Caananite Baal Cycle, through the prophets, into rabbinic literature. The idea of a messianic meta-narrative in the Psalms has since become widely accepted.

With the doctorate in hand, I asked myself how to put this into practice. Friends studying the New Testament found it easy. The New Testament is all about teachers and preachers; so they became teachers and preachers. But there are no teachers or preachers in the Psalms: just righteous kings and directors of music. No one was advertising for a righteous king. But I’d already been a pastoral musician for years. In fact, every church I ever visited said: “You play the organ? Will you lead our music?”

So I continued in my role as director of music in a central Edinburgh church, ran a recording studio in the Pleasance, worked with John Bell on a project for remetricising the Psalms, and composed a Christmas Cantata. A group of Edinburgh folk funded a recording of it as a gift for the new Scottish Parliament in 1999.

In 2000, I married, and moved temporarily to Brussels, till my wife finished a medical degree at Louvain. I got a teaching job here, was appointed Director of Music for the afternoon service in 2001, then, in 2006, for all of Holy Trinity. And I’m still here today. We have two daughters, and I envy their easy fluency in French, English, and Dutch.

Here, we think Brexit is tragic. The European Union is becoming increasingly Anglophone: most EU meetings here are now in English. David Cameron secured a good deal for Britain. Our contribution to the EU was widely appreciated: we were seen as vital to protect the Union from German dominance. And, with all this in our favour, we followed empty promises to become a Euro-pariah, and are now desperately looking for friends. Most of my British friends are taking Irish or Belgian citizenship. I don’t need to, since my wife and children have Belgian passports.

I continue writing. My search for the lost music of the psalms took me through ancient synagogue and church psalmody. I discovered the work of the French musicologist Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, and knew enough to realise that her insights were vital. In 2015, I published The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the worship of Jerusalem’s temples. As a biblical scholar and period-performance musical director, I reconstruct how these psalms were performed in Israelite worship, including the temple melody for each of the 15 psalms.

Then there is Messiah ben Joseph, the suffering messiah of rabbinic Judaism. The prevailing wisdom was that the figure was post-Christian. But I found this hard to believe. Why would the rabbis invent a Galilean messiah who dies and rises again? So my publications between 2004 and 2009 concentrated on ben Joseph, a subject central to the messianism of the Psalms. Last year, I gathered this into one 142,000-word volume, Messiah ben Joseph, to show that his origins lie in the Pentateuch.

This summer, I’m preparing parts to part-perform Christmas Cantata in Holy Trinity at Advent. It tells the story of the incarnation from the pre-existence of the divine Logos to the future glory of Jerusalem. It’s scored for soli, chorus, continuo trio (piano, bass, and drums), and orchestra, and employs the whole gamut of contemporary music — barbershop, bossanova, soca, highlife, bhangra, mbaqanga, R and B, and more. We’ll do it with a mixture of recorded backing track and live orchestra.

Each October, Holy Trinity celebrates two English saints, martyred at Brussels: Nurse Edith Cavell, shot at Schaerbeek in 1915, and William Tyndale, strangled and burnt at Vilvoorde in 1536. When the Cavell Centenary celebration group asked me for a musical commemoration of Cavell’s death, I wrote a 20-minute Mass for soli, chorus, and 18-piece orchestra in neo-Viennese style. Last year, I also wrote a short English Communion Service for voices: In Memoriam William Tyndale.

I find music and biblical study inseparable. I can’t do one and not the other. It’s maybe a left-brain, right-brain thing. But it’s also linked to my conviction that music is heavenly speech. Our scale-system — seven modes of seven notes — came not from ancient Greece, but from Sumer, where King Shulgi of Ur, in the 21st-century BC, said that he received it from heaven. In ancient thought, seven is the number of heaven, and four is the number of earth. Melody, with its compounded sevens, is the language of the stars. Combined with rhythm, in twos and fours, it makes a channel between heaven and earth. The ultimate director of music, the mnatsea, in the Psalms, is the Lord Jesus, who leads the morning stars in the praises of the Father.

So, I’m a biblical scholar who directs choirs and orchestras, writes polyphony, and works with Cubase; and I’m a musical director who studies the Bible, rabbinics, and Masoretics. I don’t find any problem moving between Hebrew cosmology and Cubase, but my wife thinks I dwell on another plane. She says, “If it’s not in crotchets or Hebrew, it doesn’t register with you!”

If I could meet anyone who ever lived, it would be the Lord Jesus. I’ve everything to thank him for, and questions only he can answer. I’d tell him how we long for his appearing and his Kingdom. When that day comes, maybe Bach and Mozart will have time to talk. And praises will be sung in Jerusalem.

David Mitchell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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