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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - F
F is for Faith

Extract from an interview with Rabbi Julia Neuberger, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'.

'A lot of people think that if you listen to Bach - the quintessentially religious composer - you have to share his faith. Sometimes listening to, for example, the Magnificat or the St John Passion, you almost do need his faith, because when you have those soaring phrases and voices then you think 'what is Bach trying to do?'.  Bach is trying to express musically almost the purity and the ascendancy of religious faith. I'm Jewish, I don't share that faith, can I appreciate that almost trying to touch the divine - can I appreciate it and not share his faith? The answer is yes, but with reservations, I'm happier listening to it when it's not in my first language and where I can listen to the sublime soaring of the human voice and not listen to what the words really mean.

Clearly when you're listening to the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion or some of the Cantatas Bach is in a sense telling the Christian story - the story of Jesus, in Christian terms the son of God. This is something that as a Jew I cannot share. Some people would say that the whole Christian story is quite anti-Jewish. I personally don't believe that, I think Jesus himself was a Jew and that he taught Judaism. He taught a very un-orthodox sort of Judaism, but he taught Judaism. What was done with it later is a whole different question.

I don't have a problem with it, it just isn't mine - when I listen to Bach I'm not thinking that someone is telling a story that is directed against me, I don't think there is anti-Semitism there, remotely. All that Bach is doing is telling, in the most faithful and sublime of ways, the Christian story and he does it brilliantly - he is a great Christian composer. Bach was a good Christian soul who was expressly his Christianity in music that makes the heart sing - and it makes my Jewish heart sing'.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger

    Read what others have said..

    Non-Religious Music Lover
    To suggest that Bach's music is anything but human is to discredit his immense talent as a composer. To claim that a secular listener can have merely a "technical appreciation" of his music is simply arrogant. Yes, Bach's work represents a spiritual experience for some. But please do not assume that just because you share his faith, your understanding of his music is any more profound than that of those of us whose only belief is in the music itself.

    Harry Pearson, Stewarton, Ayrshire
    The level of appreciation of, or identification with, any music is purely subjective - each listener relating to the work within the context of their own understanding. I have no doubt that 'Non-Religious Music Lover' is able to enjoy Bach to a degree that is completely fulfilling in relation to his/her intellectual and emotional experience. However without sharing Bach's faith he/she is unable to enter fully into the spiritual experience that Bach's work represents. The clue lies in the comment that 'creating music is entirely human' - not so in Bach's case. His faith did not merely act 'as muse', but was instead the catalyst for the creation of divinely inspired work. This is obvious to those of us who do share the composer's faith, and in so doing are able to relate to the music as an act of worship and not just in the technical appreciation of the secular listener. Rabbi Julia Neuberger was almost correct in describing Bach as 'the quintessentially religious composer' - he is rather the quintessentially Christian composer.

    London violinist and atheist
    The wealth and power of the church provided Bach with a job. Being filled with extraordinary musical fervour, Bach made the most of what he was employed to do - just as he did for his secular employers. No one goes on about how the cello suites or unaccompanied violin sonatas were written for the greater glory of prince Leopold of C÷then, so why use that kind of language about his religious works? I once played in a cantata performance for a service at the Dutch church in the City. During the sermon, the minister remarked, "Not all musicians believe in god - but they all believe in Bach." If a church minister can understand that atheists can appreciate Bach to the full, so should the rest of you.

    Non-Religious Music Lover
    I resent the suggestion that a Christian is any more able to identify with the true spirit of Bach's music than a non-Christian or, indeed, someone with no religion whatsoever. As a non-religious person, I enjoy his religious and secular works in equal measure. Whether or not Bach's faith acted as a muse, creating music is entirely human and, as such, transcends all religions. I guess this boils down to an age-old argument that remains moot: whether or not having an understanding of or a belief in a composer's background and motives for writing can in any way enhance one's enjoyment of their music. I believe the music is a separate entity and although knowing where it has come from is often of great interest to me, it has no bearing on my attitude towards the music itself.

    Bruce Reid, Oldenburg Germany
    There are some problems in this text from the Rabbi. I find it a little petty that a religious woman can squabble over doctrinal differences when it comes to Bach. A religious 'leader' should be able to see past such differences. Bach was undoubtedly God's servant. This should be respected by all. The vehicle that was used to express this (musical) truth was the one 'available' to God at the time. The small print doctrinal correctness is irrelevant.

    Music Lover
    I found this extract interesting. I think it is true non-Christians can enjoy the sublime beauty of Bach's music. However, if you are a Christian, you can truly identify with the true spirit of this music.

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