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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - R
R is for 'Religion'

Extracts from interviews with Mark Morris, Andrew Marr, Julia Neuberger and Rowan Williams, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'. 

'Before I realised that I was atheist I used to say that Bach was God's favourite composer - and that still might be true even though I don't believe it. Obviously Bach wasn't the first composer and didn't invent opera or religious music, but he was obviously the greatest one, unless there's a missing one!'

Mark Morris

'I'm not religious at all, I'm a flinty atheist - I think Bach does for me some of the things which religion does for other people. Bach draws me out of myself and makes me more sensitive to what's going on in my life at the time. I can find him very disturbing, and moving. To say Bach is a great intellectual composer seems to me to miss more than half of the point'.

Andrew Marr

'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'. 
Julia Neuberger

'It's very difficult to know how you would characterise Bach as a religious composer -he's not just a composer who sets religious texts, he's a composer who sees all his music as a kind of spiritual exercise. Although performers and listeners may not share his confessional convictions, its difficult to listen to Bach without that sense that you are being invited to change your life...something in Bach prompts you to re-evaluate who you are, that re-evaluation of your feelings and your thoughts.'

Rowan Williams

    Read what others have said..

    greg wade devon
    I totally agree with Andrew Marr about how listening to Bach can be a spritual experience, Yes, Bach wrote mostly religious music but you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate the composers humanity and un-surpassed musicianship. Radio Three's Bach Xmas provides an amazingly uplifting experience, maybe the best thing the station and the BBC have ever done.

    DJP, Sheffield
    Bach was a Lutheran but his church music is immensely important to Christians of many denominations today: he is one of the great prophets of ecumenism. I cherish in particular his St Matthew and St John Passions: they have greatly deepened my understanding of what Jesus's life, death, and resurrection can mean to us, and I always try to hear at least part of one or other during Holy Week. Radio 3 might just as easily have organised a 'Bach Easter'!

    Lars Groningen Netherlands
    They used to say here that God and Bach helped each other out

    Hazel Uren, Weston-super-Mare
    For more than fifty years Bach's music has been nourishing my soul. Two of the greatest spiritual highlights were, first, singing St Matthew Passion for the first time as a member of the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, and second, visiting Leipzig last year for the Bachfest.

    Jeremy Stone Southampton
    I have always found a close connection between Bach's music and Buddhist meditation. There is a complexity to the music that equates to our mental business. For many people it is too much and they prefer to listen to other things perhaps less demanding. But try listening to Bach with a different perspective. Allow the sounds to be absorbed as you listen but do not try to understand them. In fact, as each phrase passes you by, allow it to disappear into wherever sounds go. So, without clinging onto the music and yet not chasing it away, we learn to peacefully exist in the moment, enjoying the music for what it is, ephemeral, impermanent and amazingly beautiful.

    Kati Beetles, Rochester, Kent
    For me Bach is the the "empty flute" that plays God's music....irrepressible, infinitely creative, passionate and intellectual at the same time, it is boundless, rolling, organic, good and celebratory of the spirit. It first touched me when I was about 7 and made me think then that in body I may be a child but in myself I am old and deeply connected to this same powerful source of creation and I knew straightaway that this is a composer who holds the world in his music. Religious? ...yes, and much more than that!

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