Bach’s best friend: Masaaki Suzuki at the Barbican (©MARK ALLEN/BARBICAN)
Bach big in Japan — who would have thought it? Well, a full house at the Barbican Hall last month certainly did, after a performance of the B Minor Mass by the Bach Collegium Japan under the baton of its founder, Masaaki Suzuki. It was the opening night of the Japanese ensemble’s first major UK residency. There was a whiff of stereotyping in the London critics’ verdict on the “pristine blandness” and “stifling politeness” of this “softly spoken” Bach. One critic (who shall remain anonymous) was frankly racist during the interval. To my comment that Bach no longer belonged just to Europe, he replied: “Yes, but why do the Japanese have to come waving their crap under our noses? We know how to play him properly here.”
Yet Suzuki himself is quite a phenomenon. Besides conducting Bach, he serves the master as a musicologist, organist and harpsichordist. Now 61, he founded his Bach Collegium in 1990. Since then they have toured the world, and recently finished recording the complete church cantatas on more than 50 CDs, a project that took two decades. Like the Bachs, the Suzukis may become a musical dynasty: Masaaki’s son Masato is a composer.
The superlative quality of these Japanese interpreters of Bach, fully equal to their European or American counterparts, raises a wider question: how Western is Western civilisation now? Musicians from non-Western civilisations are evidently quite capable of embracing Western culture without thereby abandoning their own.
In Bach’s own day, Japan was a feudal country not unlike Germany, but far more powerful. United under the Tokugawa shoguns and ruled by a warrior caste of samurai, early 18th-century Japan had a population of 30 million, twice the size of Germany, then divided into 1,800 territories with various degrees of sovereignty under the moribund Holy Roman Empire. Japan’s largest city, Edo (later renamed Tokyo), had a population of a million in 1720 — the world’s biggest metropolis at a time when Bach’s Leipzig was a town of 20,000 and London, Europe’s largest, had about 500,000.
Yet Japanese culture in this period was more or less sealed off from the outside world. While some arts flourished — the prints of Hokusai (1760-1849), for example — music never aspired to be more than court entertainment. What enabled Bach and the other great European composers of his day to rise above that level was, above all, the importance of music in Christian worship. The medieval, Renaissance and Baroque traditions of the Catholic south, with their highly trained church choirs and soloists, came together with the more popular Protestant musical culture of chorales and organ music, founded by Luther himself. The unique achievement of Western music is inseparable from the Judaeo-Christian basis of Western civilisation.
But why did Christianity not play a similar role in Japan? After heroic attempts by Jesuit missionaries, led by St Francis Xavier, to convert the country in the 16th century, Christians were mercilessly persecuted. By the mid-17th century they had been executed or driven underground, only to re-emerge in the mid-19th century. Today just 1 per cent of the Japanese population call themselves Christian. Among them, however, is Masaaki Suzuki. His devotion to Bach is no coincidence.