Friday, 15 July 2016

The "Hillsongisation" of Bach?

Last weekend I attended a brilliant performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart. 

It was part of Hobart's Festival of Voices, a festival which is essentially a celebration of vocal music of all forms.  This is why the St. Matthew Passion was performed in July rather than on Good Friday, in Holy Week, or (at least) late in Lent, when we normally hear it.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, a large massed choir, and a number of noted soloists performed under the baton of the brilliant Richard Gill as guest conductor.

However, I'm not writing a music review of the performance but, rather, a theological and liturgical reflection.

Encountering both the music and the English translation of the text, I was struck by the heavily Lutheran character of Bach's church music.  Please note that, as is the case in many performances of vocal music where the text is sung in a language other than that of the audience, the translated words were projected on a screen over the stage area.  (More about the projection later.)

Now, the Lutheran character of Bach's church music should not really be too amazing.  Bach was a Lutheran.  He spent most of his career as an organist and choirmaster in Lutheran churches.  And he wasn't even an ecumenically folksy, Garrison Keilloresque, contemporary Lutheran, but a conservative, 18th century Lutheran pietist.

But, given the ecumenical embrace of Bach as the Christian composer par excellence, the specifically Lutheran character of Bach's music may not be too apparent.  In the churches I know where Bach's music is frequently played, the congregation has essentially made Bach an honorary Episcopalian/Anglican, an honorary UCA member, an honorary United Methodist, an honorary Vatican 2 Catholic, etc., whether Herr Bach would have wanted this posthumous designation or not.   But, looking at Bach's use of his texts, he expressed his Christian faith through his music in a consciously Lutheran way. 

Bach's texts for the St. Matthew Passion came from three sources.  Most of the text was from the Gospel of Matthew itself, from Martin Luther's classic German translation.  Other texts came from German-language hymns which were already in wide use in Lutheran churches in Germany ("O sacred head now wounded," for example), and for which Bach's arrangements of the tunes soon became the standard version of these hymn tunes.

And then, there were some original texts, written by Bach's frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who used the pen name Picander.  These texts, which included the words for some of the most memorable music in the St. Matthew Passion, expressed a pietist, individualised approach to Christian faith which was typical of the conservative Lutheranism of the day.  In a sense, some of the best musical moments in the St. Matthew Passion are accompanied by some of the most problematic theology in the work, at least for a critically-minded ecumenical Christian today.

I have  far fewer issues with whether or not I completely agree with the theology of a work of consciously "Christian" music when the music is a work from an earlier era and written in a specifically classical genre, than I do when the music reflects a contemporary or popular idiom.  I assume that our theology has moved on since Bach's, Handel's, Vivaldi's, Mozart's, or Faure's day and can still appreciate the beauty of the music, as well as the spirituality and devotion behind the music, without having to hold up a critical yardstick to every word and phrase in the text.  This is also why I can sing hymns by Charles Wesley (and other 18th/19th century hymnwriters) with enthusiasm, even if I differ with the details of Wesley's theology of the atonement. 

I really can't do this with many contemporary Christian worship songs, such as the output of "Hillsong", because I believe that worship music in a contemporary musical style should also reflect a contemporarily inclusive theology.  I find a certain dishonesty in worship music in which a contemporary musical idiom is matched with words that proclaim an ultraconservative theology.

In the whole area of music written for Christian worship, I've often regarded (in recent years) the two extremes of the continuum of styles and content in terms of Bach at one end of the spectrum and Hillsong at the other, with my own preferences strongly at the Bach end of the spectrum.   I'm thinking now that perhaps this dichotomy is a bit too hard-and-fast. 

Perhaps performing the St. Matthew Passion in July, rather than during Holy Week, was part of the problem.  During Holy Week, a strong focus on the crucifixion is part of the context for all Christians.  For many Christians, a Holy Week-like focus on the crucifixion at other times of the year tends to imply an eccentrically conservative theology is present.

And the use of the screen may have contributed to this notion.  I associate words projected on a screen, particularly words with a Christian content projected on a screen, with the style of Christian church where a very conservative theology is found alongside an emphasis on contemporary worship music.  I associate the use of a screen and projector with a Hillsong style of church music, not with a Bach style of church music.

But then again, there were many present that night at the Federation Concert Hall for whom the important reason they were there was that the music was by Bach, not that the performance was of one of Bach's specifically Christian pieces. 

While I'm not advocating the Hillsongisation of Bach, I'm beginning to realise that Bach is not an inclusive, 21st century ecumenist in his approach to Christianity, but a conservative 18th century Lutheran pietist, warts and all.  But that should not mean that those of us who are inclusive, 21st century ecumenists necessarily find a barrier between ourselves and either his music or his spirituality.

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