Arts feature

Does the great Bach conductor Masaaki Suzuki think his audience will burn in hell?

Damian Thomson talks to the Japanese conductor – and strict Calvinist – about the religious underpinnings of his celebrated Bach recordings

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

When the Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki leads his forces in a performance of a Bach cantata, does he worry that the non-Christians in his audience will face the fires of Hell?

That seems a bizarre question to ask any conductor of Bach’s music, especially one from Japan, where only one per cent of the population is Christian.

But when I met Suzuki in Copenhagen last Friday I asked it, because the 61-year-old founder of the Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) is part of that one per cent. He’s an Evangelical Protestant, like Johann Sebastian Bach himself. Indeed, he adheres to an even fiercer interpretation of the Bible than the cantor of St Thomas’s.

Bach was a Lutheran; Suzuki is a member of the Reformed Church in Japan, which adheres to Calvin’s teaching that the fate of the soul at death is ‘predestined’ by God. The Lord already knows whether people are headed for paradise or damnation, and there is absolutely nothing they can do to influence their eternal fate.

For years I’ve wanted to ask Maestro Suzuki about his Christian faith, which he proclaimed in the liner notes for the first CD of his Bach cantata cycle with the BCJ and again, 18 years later, in the 55th and last.

As he wrote when he signed off: ‘With the help of His disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. That is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God’s message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God.’

Whoa! When did you last hear a world-class conductor of Christian sacred music espouse the doctrines it conveys?

Make no mistake about it: Suzuki is in the top flight of choral conductors (and, in addition, a magnificent harpsichordist and organist — he’s working on what may turn out to be a complete Bach organ cycle).

When I interviewed him he was, arguably, one of three supreme living interpreters of the Bach cantatas, masses, passions and motets. On the following day, sadly, the number was down to two: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who with Gustav Leonhardt recorded the first cycle of the 193 Bach cantatas on baroque instruments, died on Saturday.

That leaves Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who recorded the works live in a single year, and the vastly more self-effacing Suzuki, who begins the Bach Collegium Japan’s first UK residency at the Barbican Centre with a performance of the B minor Mass next month. (Mind you, even Boris Johnson is more self-effacing than Gardiner.)

That said, self-effacement has a ritual dimension in Japanese culture: Suzuki greets me with the customary graceful bow and it’s difficult to judge how modest he is. But, my goodness, meeting him is an enchanting experience. He speaks so excitedly about the B minor Mass that you’d think he had just come across it for the first time.

‘Eight voices in the Credo!’ he says — meaning eight lines of polyphony, unprecedented in any of Bach’s cantatas or keyboard fugues. He sculpts them in the air and sings the words ‘in remissionem peccatorum’ just to remind me how glorious it all sounds.

No wonder, then, that the freshness of Bach’s inspiration blooms everywhere in Suzuki’s cantata cycle for Bis. I spent two decades collecting them, impatient for the next one to appear.

Critics praised their ‘devotional’ quality, even in the sprightliest choruses, and assumed, as I did, that this owed something to Suzuki’s own faith. He says not. ‘The music is a miracle of God, but there’s nothing personal — I want it to speak for itself, and most of my musicians aren’t Christian.’

Suzuki grew up in Kobe, which as Japan’s busiest port was one of the few cities where Christianity had a foothold. His parents were Protestant but it was his decision to join the Reformed Church.

‘I’m lucky to be there, because Calvinism is so practical for evaluating cultural activity in this world. Any type of music can be appreciated,’ he says.

Really? But didn’t John Calvin discourage music in church? Aren’t his followers gloomy philistines? ‘No! His teachings are so badly misunderstood,’ sighs Suzuki.

‘Any type of church music must be appropriate to our age. For example, Bach’s cantatas would not work as worship in church anywhere in the modern world. Not even in Germany, where Lutheranism is now so different than in Bach’s day.’

What does he mean, then, when he writes that his group sings Bach ‘to the glory of God’? As he says, they’re Japanese and not believers. The lessons of scripture are as foreign to them as the German tongue (which, none the less, they pronounce as accurately as any English choir).

‘Calvin saw music as part of God’s creation in this world, part of the wonderful grace that He has sent for us,’ says Suzuki. It doesn’t need to be sung as worship to glorify God — and it doesn’t lose its spiritual power because the performers or the audience aren’t Christians.

Fair enough, but according to the doctrines of Suzuki’s church, if members of the concert-going public die without faith in Christ then they will go to hell.

He puts it more diplomatically. ‘I think of people waiting to be saved, and in Japan most people are waiting,’ he says. ‘I don’t think I may judge them at all, because no one can know what’s happening in each soul, each heart, so our task is to carry the message in the music.’

In other words, Suzuki doesn’t question for a moment that unbelievers are lost; but he is confident that the Lord can change hearts through music. Moreover, that music doesn’t need to be attached to religious words to do the work of salvation.

Bach knew this, he says. It’s why he didn’t mind taking a melody originally written to convey a specific theological message and reusing it in an entirely different work. The Art of Fugue is as much part of his spiritual edifice as the St Matthew Passion.

This is a liberating insight. The music works its own wonders. Therefore Bach-lovers at the Barbican needn’t worry if the words they hear don’t resonate with them; Suzuki certainly doesn’t mind.

On the other hand — and it’s hard to think of any other conductor of whom this is true — this irrepressibly cheerful man does believe that the singers in front of him and the audience behind him will face divine judgment.

The lady in the fifth row may smile at the felicities of Bach’s counterpoint; but one day she will either join the company of the saints or, in the words of Cantata 115, ‘be covered in the sleep of eternal death’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

The Bach Collegium Japan residency is at the Barbican on 8 and 9 April.

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Show comments
  • Being saved is a tricky business: Luther is going to have some embarrassing questions to answer, and his disciples also may not get an easy ride. However, listening to Bach – or better still, being Bach – probably gives you a few years off purgatory.

    Of course you may get even more salvation points from a Catholic composer such as Byrd, Monteverdi, Haydn, Brucker, Elgar or Messiaen.

    • Sanctimony

      Or even the S€x Pistols…

    • Ricardo Galvan

      If Saint Augustine is in heaven, then so is Luther who only said what Augustine said. Catholics do not know the theology of their own Doctors.

      • turriseburnea

        …says Mr. Galván, no doubt a huge authority…

        • Ricardo Galvan

          My degree isn’t in theology (it’s in English), but I have read the vast majority of Augustine’s writing and have read books on the subject.

      • Brad Magyar

        That is absolutely true… I’ll even go one step further. If Catholics believe fully in their Church’s officially dogmatized teachings, they are not Christians. Trent officially anathematized the gospel itself. If you are saved through faith the way that Jesus and the Apostles say, you are damned, according to the RCC.

  • What an odd article. The author seems almost surprised that a Christian would hold Christian beliefs. I’m sure an atheist – or even Shinto conductor wouldn’t have their religious beliefs scrutinised in an article ostensibly about music to quite the same degree.

  • Tony

    The author of the article has never read Calvin, and does not understand the issues. I don’t comment glibly about particle physics; what makes people think they can comment glibly about theology?

    • GUBU

      What makes people think they can comment glibly about theology?

      Sadly, in my experience, often because they have been ordained.

    • Brad Magyar

      Amen to that. Everyone’s instantly an expert.

  • Matthew Williams

    So if Suzuki doesn’t say anything in particular about eternal judgement, and even indicates quite clearly it isn’t focussed in his worldview in the way the author’s prejudice dictated, why still insist on framing the whole article and headline through that premise? Poor journalism, but insofar as we still see the man through it, fascinating.

  • Steve Holtje

    While other folks are saying the author doesn’t understand Calvinism, I’m wondering whether he even knows that much about Bach conductors, given that he doesn’t mention Ton Koopman or Helmuth Rilling, both alive and just as good as Suzuki if not better.

  • Eric Kayayan

    About Calvin and music: Singing the Psalms in Reformed worship was introduced by Calvin when he was ministering the French congregation in Strassburg between 1539 and 1541. In 1543 he very explicitly wrote about the beauty, strength and prayer like character of communal singing during worship,(different from music made at home or in public places). Calvin contracted some of the best French poets of his time (Clément Marot, Théodore de Bèze) to versify in French all 150 Psalms, which were set in music by notable composers of his time. The first full edition of these French psalms set in music was published in 1562 and became the greatest publishing success of the whole 16th century (more than 50000 copies sold, an incredible amount for that time!) Shortly after editions in various European languages, with the same music, started spreading an an amazing speed.

  • S_D_G

    “I don’t think I may judge them at all, because no one can know what’s happening in each soul, each heart, so our task is to carry the message in the music.”

    This is exactly what happened to me. Listening to Suzuki’s cantatas for about 3~4 hours everyday for 5 years and my life transformed. While listening I often asked what is this pain, joy and healing expressed through this music? and looked into text translations wanting to know more. It was a beautiful journey and Suzuki San did an incredible job delivering the Message.