Extraordinary really. I think I used just to hear and enjoy the music. Now I go for my annual ‘fix’ of Bach St John or St Matthew Passion and it turns me inside out. Tonight it was St Matthew with the Dunedin Consort in Perth Concert Hall. Mists of tears.

But why?

Old and tired and uncomfortably aware of frailty? Aware of how much crucifying goes on around the church – both that I have my hands as a friend once said ‘pre-drilled’ and that I bang in a nail or two myself.

I know that it’s the story of people like us fumbling about and not knowing – until like Peter we realise and weep bitterly. I know too that the key moment for me is the arrest in the garden. You need to recognise the moment when they come to take you away – the moment when everything is at stake – the moment that can’t be finessed away. Everything else depends on that point of discernment.

I thought about Richard Holloway’s preoccupation with the llne, ‘He saved others – himself he cannot save’. And I remembered his remarkable exposition of the meaning of the Passion in the middle of a performance of St John Passion in the Concert Hall a few years ago.

And as I stumble about in the tears, I ask myself why it is so seldom that worship does that to me. The performance this evening was deeply worshipful. It was as my colleague Grace used to say ‘brisk with spaces’. It had huge involvement and commitment – great ranges of expression in light and shade and pace. And the Evangelist gave me that rare feeling at one point that the ground had opened up and was going to swallow me.



  1. I think it does fulfil an evolutionary purpose. The Upper Palaeolithic people had instruments and music and were able to develop language and bond as a group whereas the Neanderthals did not and died out (that’s the short version). We hear words and muzak all the time and we have lost the ability to really listen but sitting in a church or concert hall and having to focus on the words and music together brings another dimension. Anyway, Bach was a genius so you can’t fail to be moved.

  2. Is it something about the starkly powerful and tragic story (ok not strictly “tragic” if you insist, but you know what I mean), combined with the intensely personal commentary of the arias and then Bach finishes one off altogether with the simplicity and familiarity of the chorales.

    Tho there again, why am I trying to analyse it; I’ve given up twice recently on books about music as the neuroscience was too hard, but there does seem to be a consensus that there is no point to music, in the sense that it fulfills no evolutionary purpose. I find this on the whole cheering and have certainly valued music’s power to move one, sometimes without warning.

    And having heard the Dunedin Consort sing Bach here in Belfast a couple of years ago, I can imagine the quality of the performance was of the highest.

    1. Yes I’d been thinking about that too – and wondering about the power [less accessible for me] of apparently random splodges on a canvas to do the same

  3. Wonderful and poignant. You have got me thinking about the moment when they come to take you away- or is it the moment when you give yourself away?

    1. Well since you’re asking! For me it can of course be literally the moment at which the heavies arrive. But in the everyday, as it were … I hear it in the voices of those who arrive in my office/study and ask me to agree with them on the ‘all right-thinking people will understand …’ basis. Sometimes they are offering a simplistic response to something which is complex. More often it is something which is a part instead of the whole. Or they are asking me to accept a view which represents an assumption about somebody else’s integrity or motivations. Does that make sense?

      1. Well, I suppose it’s all an approximation, rather like integration in mathematics. Closer, closer, but never quite close enough to be fully real. The realisation of the ever receding ‘point vierge’…

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