Simon Frith: Why we should be frightened of Bach (and why we’re not)

The following is a transcript of Professor Simon Frith‘s keynote talk, given at our  Coffee & Enlightenment performances on 4 & 5 February 2015. For a review of the Glasgow event, please see The Herald.

Talks at classical music concerts are not common these days, so I should begin by saying what this talk is not.  It will not be a lecture on Bach, an exercise in musical appreciation of the sort that Donald Francis Tovey developed when he was Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.  He set up the Reid Orchestra so he could illustrate his talks or, rather, he mastered a way of introducing music that enabled his audience to listen better, with more understanding of what was going on.  This way of talking about music lives on in radio broadcasts, concert programmes and record sleeve notes, but such lectures to inform listening rarely introduce live classical music any more.

What we are more used to now is a spoken introduction to early music concerts, in which a group’s leader introduces us to the instruments, describing their provenance and saying something about the sources of the music we will hear, perhaps explaining the group’s more unusual performing decisions.

My talk will not be like this.  I won’t attempt to analyse the music to which we are listening tonight nor say anything about the Dunedin Consort’s instruments or John Butt’s take on Bach’s historical musical practice.  Rather, this evening celebrates a different sort of event, not a classical or early music concert, but a coffee concert, an institution first established in the early eighteenth century (in the 1730s Bach directed such concerts in Leipzig).  These can be seen as early examples of what the German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, calls “the public sphere”, places where citizens met to listen to music, drink coffee and talk, talk not just about music but also about matters of the day, about public events and rumours, in a setting that was not under the auspices of the government or organised for political ends.  The music played might or might not affect or feature in the discussions.  In seeking to get some sense of what these events might have been like, John Butt therefore asked me to start a discussion.  I suspect he invited me because even though I am Tovey Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh I am not a musicologist; no-one would expect me to display Tovey-style analytical expertise although, as John also knows, I can talk about anything, especially when I know little about it!

What I want to reflect on this evening is music and religion.  My thoughts are obviously inspired by Bach’s music (and by the cantatas we’re are hearing today) but I believe this is an appropriate topic for a contemporary coffee concert because arguments about religious beliefs, secular society and the relation between the two are matters of immediate importance, whether we’re discussing religious faith and what’s now called militant atheism or Islamic fundamentalism and the ever-louder demand that the Enlightened West be more aggressive in defending its secular principles from irrationality of all sorts.  In relating these issues to my experience of listening to Bach, I will draw on an excellent essay on enlightenment and belief that appeared in the Guardian a few weeks ago, written by the Indian scholar, Pankaj Mishra.  []

I will begin with two anecdotes.  The first is from someone I know who is on the committee of one of England’s many Bach Choirs.  Last year, like many other choirs, they performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  A choir committee member who was a Quaker thought this was a good opportunity to use an advertisement in the programme to publicise the Quakers as a group which is particular concerned to debate issues of war and peace.   This suggestion was strongly opposed by other members of the committee, who thought it inappropriate for a Bach Choir to be advertising a religious organisation.  If the Quakers were allowed to advertise in this programme, what would stop other religious groups advertising in choir programmes in the future?  The irony of members of a choir that primarily performs religious music (often in religious buildings) wanting to keep a clear distance between themselves and religious organisations does not need spelling out.

Second, as some of you will know, Radio 3 has a daily Bach slot between 6.30 and 7.00 am every weekday morning.  The reason, as I heard a presenter explain last December, is that “Bach is the ultimate pick-me-up!”, the ideal way of getting people ready to face the working day.

I draw two conclusions from the Bach choir argument and this cheery remark.   First, it seems clear that Bach’s sacred music has been effectively removed from its original context of the rituals and needs of worship.  Like his secular music, it has become a form of entertainment, a ‘pick-me-up’, a pleasure-commodity for which people happily pay.  And, of course, this musical move from worship to entertainment is not just an aspect of classical music history.  We can find similar processes in popular music—in the history of gospel, for example, or of Christmas carols.  What we have here is the long-term secularisation of music in terms of its sociological functions and value.

Second, though, the secular musical pleasure for which people now pay, the secular musical experience we/they value is, nevertheless, understood in terms of a free-floating uninstitutionalised religiosity.  Individually what we get from classical music is routinely described as a spiritual uplift: music, it is said, gives us a sense of a realm beyond the everyday material world.  Music is good for the ‘soul’, enables us to experience ‘profound’ feelings and offers us a kind of restrained ecstasy.  I haven’t got time to go into this in more detail here, just to argue that for many people today (and not just so called high music listeners) the musical experience is understood as a quasi-religious experience.  Such sacralisation of musical pleasure was established in the nineteenth century (not least by Mendelssohn’s ‘revival’ of Bach), as concert halls became the equivalent of churches, sacred spaces with hushed audiences, seriously listening to transcendent sounds ‘for their own good’.   This is religion as a way of feeling rather than as a way of believing, which means, in turn, that while everyone at a concert —at this concert, for example—may feel they are in something like a congregation, there’s no reason at all to think that we share any religious beliefs or purposes at all.

It follows that even though we often do describe our listening experiences in religious terms, we are rather different from Bach’s original listeners.  Try hard as he does to perform Bach’s music so that it sounds like it did when it was first played, John Butt can’t get us to listen to it in the way people listened then, even in this coffee house context of a reconstructed environment.  John’s book on the philosophical context of Bach’s musical work, Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions(Cambridge University Press, 2010), suggests to me that for the original listeners to Bach’s sacred music, ‘a religious experience’ described something decidedly unsettling.  The comfort of God’s blessing and the exhilaration of God’s grace were stalked by doubt, guilt and the fear of damnation.  I can relate to this in my own experience.  My parents met in an evangelical youth camp and I grew up in a religious household.  When my mother died—she was one of the kindest and most gentle women one could hope to know–I was dismayed to hear her described in the minister’s funeral oration, as a miserable sinner no better than the worms in the soil.  Such a shame-inducing account of the inescapable sinfulness of humanity—and the damnation that would follow—was, it seemed, a necessary part of the belief in Christ’s redemption.   The religious experience of Bach’s music, in other words—the experience of Bach’s music as religious—is very different from the quasi-religious experience of today’s classical music.  To listen to Bach and contemplate human folly and consider what kind of afterlife awaits us is not a way of listening to Bach that is likely to make us feel good and enjoy opaquely profound thoughts about nothing in particular.

At the heart of Bach’s sacred music was a tension between the institutionalized fear of God and the possibility of individual enlightenment.  In the long term the Enlightenment led to the ascension of reason over faith as the basis of our beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.  Individual autonomy came to trump traditional authority, but Protestantism itself, was an attempt to reconcile the different tendencies here, to reconcile reason and faith.  For an individual, such attempts always face the possibility of failure, of getting things (reason and belief) wrong and being damned as a consequence.  Bach’s sacred music was music for people for whom the precise contours of individual religious belief both mattered and were a constant source of anxiety as well as grace.

Since then, rationalism has come to be taken for granted, but that is not to say that the resulting secularisation has solved all ethical or perceptual problems.   To start with, it is clear to me that something is missing from an account of human experience that explains everything by reference to evidence based reason.  There are experiences, experiences that we value, that can’t be explained in this way.  This is one reason why music is seen to provide a kind of religious experience, an access to something that we feel but do not ‘understand’, an experience, that is, which is essentially irrational.  The problem is that if music certainly can be used as a substitute for religion in terms of feeling, providing a sense of the ineffable—it cannot provide the same sort of moral purpose or guide to living.

To put this another way, it is apparent that neither the heritage of European enlightenment nor the experience of listening to Bach guarantee anything in the way of either reasonable or moral behaviour.  Last year, the eminent academic international lawyer, Philippe Sands, staged a musical/theatrical event: ‘A Song of Good and Evil’,  (See This followed his discovery that both Hersht Lauterpacht, the Jewish lawyer who helped develop the concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ and drafted closing arguments for the prosecution in the Nuremburg trials, and Hans Frank, a Nuremberg defendant (he was a Nazi lawyer who in 1939 became governor-general of the occupied sector of Poland), talked about getting through the stress of the trials by listening (or imagining listening) to Bach’s St Matthew Passion. What, then, can Bach’s Passions be said to mean when that meaning is so important to people on both sides of an argument about good and evil?

What can be said is that Bach’s music doesn’t sound archaic to contemporary sensibilities (anymore than do Shakespeare’s plays).  The reason, I think, is that one of the questions Bach was asking (though I’m using Mishra’s words here)–does an enlightened society have to be a godless one?–is still relevant, although, as an atheist, I would phrase it differently (again using Mishra’s words): does individualism and the language of rights have to trump a sense of community and the language of obligations?

Mishra ends his essay with a discussion of Jürgen Habermas, who, as I suggested at the beginning of this talk, is the most prominent academic celebrant of the rise of the secular public sphere, of which coffee houses were an early example.  Habermas. Mishra notes, has come round to believing that the ‘substance of the human’ can only be rescued by societies that ‘are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions.’  Habermas’s dramatic shift is one sign among many that the identity of the secular modern, which was based on exclusivist notions of secularism, liberty, solidarity, and democracy in sovereign nation-states, has unraveled, and requires a broader definition.  A new common space has to be negotiated.

It is precisely such a common space that Bach’s music, sacred and secular, describes.  And ironically, perhaps, it seems to me that it is the sacred music—the cantatas we are hearing this evening—that provide the best evidence of what the secular public sphere should now sound like.

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