Thursday, 5 May 2011

Bach's role in political change

Recent events in North Africa and the Middle-East have illustrated the utilitarian position of mosques and places of worship, which many westerners recognise as a Friday event in the current unfolding Arab Spring. 

It may be worth commenting on the changes which occurred in 1989 in Eastern Europe.  The previous Pope, John Paul II, has rightly gained some credit for the changes, though his influence was primarily with Poland and the Catholicism of the country.  The role of the EKD (the German Protestant Church) is fairly well-documented and this is discussed further below. 

A new theme, however, is the influence of JS Bach – born 1685 – and the effect of the tercentenary celebrations which featured heavily in the former East Germany, especially in Leipzig, which is regarded as the key flashpoint of the wende or turning point (wendepunkt, title of a book by Klaus Mann).
In discussing the relationships between religion, democracy and human rights three binary relationships can be considered.  First, religion and democracy have a two way relationship: religion can promote and encourage democracy as in the case of Eastern Europe; but religion can also abuse political power or be suborned by political power to the detriment of democracy.   

Second, religion also has a two way relationship with human rights.  Many claim that religion expounded the concept of human rights.  However, others contend that religion abuses human rights, though religious leaders would attribute this to interpretation rather than religion itself.   

The final binary relationship is between democracy and human rights.  This need not consider religion at all, and is usually expressed as either a constitutional or a ‘majoritarian’ influence over minorities of any type.  Examples include group human rights for religious minorities, homosexuals and the right to life itself.  In addition to these three binaries, there is the interaction and intersection of all three spheres themselves. 

In Eastern Europe, religious organisations provided physical space (as in East germany), alternative symbology (especially in Poland), international non-Marxist connections with other societies, while religion provided an alternative philosophy to socialism or Marxist-Leninism. However, in both countries the interaction of religion, democracy and human rights arose from a different background. 

In East Germany, the religion was Protestant and so less hierarchical both in structure and its expectations of obedience in terms of authority.  The East German political structure was markedly more atheist, with a denial of secondary education to those who had not taken the (secular) Jugendweihe (‘youth dedication’).  The Stasi (state security service) was also more repressive and pervasive. Nevertheless, the church (EKD) was able to provide facilities for those wishing to progress ‘peace, justice, integrity of creation’ themes.

While the PCC (Polish Catholic Church) had shown itself to be capable of being an effective opposition in the 1960s-80s, the EKD had to be seen as being less confrontational.  By the time of the ‘wende’ at the end of 1989 leading churchmen Ullman and Schroeder offered contrasting political structures. Both leaders, however, were doomed as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was promptly reunified into the new Germany, and though the churchmen did not retain a significant influence, they had been able to maintain the momentum of change, although neither was interested in setting up a Christian nation.  However, in East Germany the church was reluctant to espouse German nationalism in the post war period.

In contrast, even in the Communist era, Poles were allowed to travel to the West (and still do!) and apart from short clamp downs, the Roman Catholic church had never been as suppressed as in East Germany.  The PCC was thus able to use religious symbology such as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa as a potent focal point for opposition.

The power of a religious organisation is a function of the level of homogeneity of the citizens and impacts on both majoritarian and constitutional models of democracy.  The Stasi EKD scandal continues with former agents claiming human rights to avoid being named – see The Lives of Others: Das Leben der Anderen a German film released in 2006 to much critical acclaim and recommended by Obreption.  (Obreption has an interesting file in the Stasi archives, if you’re interested!)

And now to Bach: Many churches in the old East Germany had funding problems which were overcome to some extent by the then EKD in West Germany.  The Bach tercentenary gave many citizens opportunities to gather in organizing Bach celebrations, which ought to have been shared with Handel and to some extent Telemann.  However, it was not in Halle rather Leipzig where the momentum for change occurred.  Having witnessed many packed rehearsals for Bach concerts in Leipzig, Dresden, Freiberg and Naumburg, there was clearly scope for avoiding too much Stasi attention. 

On a lighter side, Obreption has decided that a gestalt shift is in order.  It’s the old generational change, where younger generations take over the reins of power.  It may be the jam generation, but it’s now in power but for me JS Bach rules and I have to decide on whether to transfer my cds to the computer or download music in mp3 format and the rest.  I have actually bought JS Bach’s Easter Oratorio (BWV249) and Cantata no. 11 (Ascension Oratorio) in a new recording by the Retrospect Ensemble under Matthew Halls and released by Linn Records.  (We paid hard cash for this.) 

Linn Records:

Observor review:


  1. Thank you for raising the topic of changing formats. Apparently, it's very 'in' just now to play 78 rpm records, now that vinyl is yesterday's format. Is this another cycle of regress? I ought to point out that some of the equipment and broadband capability for very high audio is quite expensive. You ought to have brought out the point that Linn no longer issue products on CD, but of course you can always burn the download to have something more tangible. What I miss is the old box set with the score, essays, pictures and quality.

    I don't understand Bach and the East German political scene, but some interesting thoughts. I'll come back again.

  2. I found this post very interesting. I also like the music of JS Bach, but hadn't thought of his music being used as a smokescreen against the Stasi. Seriously, you may be onto something here and I've realised that there is a serious point to many of your comments. Is there any inspirational music for the Arab Spring? Or is this a social networking phenomenon, in much the same way as Leipzig was a TV phenomenon as from memory it was difficult to get western TV in the Dresden area.

    I think you were wrong in saying that Halle didn't play it's part and you may have done Handel's music an injustice or perhaps Handel was too English for a common cause.

    Very interesting points raised.

  3. This was interesting. Your comments about utilitarian sharing of religious buildings does have some traction in looking at the Arab Spring as it applies in Egypt. Do you think that Egyptians were using facilities provided by the Muslim Brotherhood in terms of radical, legal and educational facilities which they had much influence over? It may be worthwhile comparing Egypt's Arab Spring with the Polish 'revolution', which occured with the aid of the Church and then the Poles in some cases regarded the Church as being too authoritarian. Can you comment on this.

  4. I find your post fascinating. It echoed some comments the Chief Rabbi mentioned on Radio 4 Thought for the Day concerning social media in the Arab spring. I don't often like this slot, but it has recently become more relevant - or is it that they are just picking more intellectual theologians. I also thought Angela Tilby was good the other day - quite a realist. Thanks again for airing some Bach into a post!

  5. Do you think the people of Scotland were playing JS Bach following the success of the SNP in sp11? I see from your previous post that you have used pipe tunes and laments . I hope you are not making remarks about our wild fires in Scotland with some of the hillsides catching fire in tne north-east. This might be a sign or even divination that it was time for Clegg. What inspirational music should other countries under tyranny play?

  6. This is not quite the same thing, but according to TIME magazine a certain El General's songs were instrumental in inspiring Tunisians to oust their rotten 'President' and were an inspiration for Egyptians as well. I wonder if it is significant that it was a rapper - given that Islam doesn't look too favourably on most music .... I suppose Umm Kulthoom, the classical Arab diva, was too closely associated with Nasser?

  7. We find Mozart to be very inspirational - especially the requiem. It's much nicer than Verdi - and Bach, of course, didn't write any.

  8. I noticed your comment regarding the utilitarian use of churches in the former East Germany. What is your view on church music? Do you think people understand what they are saying or listening to. I suspect you prefer Bach cantatas, but I think the Haydn masses are very suitable for adaptation for some liturgies assuming they're happy to pick and mix.

  9. Having listened to alot of catch-up on the political change sweeping through the Middle East and Scotland, I can't see Bach having anything to do with it. However, what happens in Scotland with the carnage of Goldie, Scott and Gray perhaps Handel's Judas Maccabeus would be more appropriate? See the Conquering Hero and Thine be the Glory. Surely more Anglican than EKD?

  10. I was thinking about how a similar scenario might develop in say Pakistan, especially given a previous contributors comment on Islam and music. I thought poetry might have been an alternative - but the two great poets of Pakistan - Iqbal and Faiz - are both frowned upon by the fundamentalists as being heretics and blasphemers.

  11. Regarding Bach v Handel, I think it is important to appreciate the BWV numbers involved in JS Bach. They usually have a verse from scripture and the BWV numbers were often useful in recognising the mood music at the rehearsal within the EKD churches during the Stasi period. For example, BWV 82 (Ich habe genug) was often shorthand for "I have enough". You could say that Bach was the equivalent of today's Twitter in getting round the super-injunction. We mentioned BWV numbers in the post and I thought we would have attracted more conspiracy theorisers, given the recent events regarding OBL. Mozart's K numbers are very analogue, whereas Bach is much more in-tune. In my humble opinion, Handel - a bit too theatrical.

    Now regarding fundamentalism: I think it can be said that music can be corrupted in many ways. It's all too easy in any society to regard someone who speaks against the grain of accepted wisdom as a heretic. You only have to look at the vilification of the Bishop of Oxford and the Archbishop of Canterbury by some right-wing morons (if that's not an oxymoron). Perhaps we could invite an essay on Faiz? Are current guest blog seems to have attracted quite a lot of attention.

    Thank you all for your comments.