Friday, 29 May 2009

Piano Recital (slightly messy)

After 5 days away from the piano touring round the north of the country visiting relatives and friends, we returned more weary than when we'd begun the "holiday". That didn't stop me attempting a piano recital at Ely Cathedral on Thursday lunchtime.

Debussy, Préludes (Book I)
I. Danse des Delphes: Lent et grave

Haydn, Sonata No. 29 in E flat major
Allegro molto

Debussy, Préludes (Book I)
II. Voiles: Modéré
VIII. La fille aux chevaux de lin: Très calme et doucement expressif

Haydn, Sonata No. 62 in E flat major

Debussy, Préludes (Book I)
XII. Minstrels: Modéré
The music of Claude Achille Debussy (1862-1918) is some of the most revolutionary in the history of Western music. His significant output for the piano is no exception, exploring new sound effects, extended pedalling, whole tone scales and other disruptions to the world of classical harmony. The first prelude (“Dancers of Delphi”) was inspired by an ancient Greek sculpture of three women that Debussy came across in the Louvre. It is a slow sarabande (a Baroque dance), showing his fondness for pre-classical forms. The second prelude (“Sails”) depicts the wind in the sails of boats at sea, and is almost entirely constructed out of whole tone intervals rather than the key-based scales that all sudents of music are drilled in. The eighth prelude (“The girl with the flaxen hair”) needs no introduction, as one of Debussy’s most famous works, while the ninth (“Minstrels”) is a composite impression of the composer’s many visits to Parisian cabarets to watch African and African-American performers in cabarets full of slapstick, song, tap dance, somersaults, drumming and general high spirits.

By contrast, Josef Haydn (1732-1809), whose double centenary is currently being celebrated across British and European TV and radio was a master of given forms, perfecting the classical sonata, string quartet and symphony. He was also an astute businessman, turning out hundreds of popular arrangements, folk tunes, choral extravaganzas and music for the rising middle classes to play in their homes. The 29th sonata dates from 1766 and mostly displays the restraint and poise typical of Haydn. All three movements are in sonata form, with the first two prepared to roam more widely in harmonic terms and the third to explore considerably more keys at high speed, not to mention testing the soundness of the piano’s mechanism in sets of repeated notes! Of course Haydn was never a slave to tradition (indeed with his large and surprisingly varied output he in many ways set the boundaries for that classical tradition) and in his final piano sonata, from 1794, he began to strain at the shackles that Beethoven would shatter just a few years later. In its grandness, its virtuosity and its unusual modulations this sonata competes with anything that Beethoven wrote, yet still retains the lightness and elegance of Haydn at his best. It is brimming with both deep emotion, especially in the slow movement, and humour – enjoy the bizarre pauses in the outer movements and the sudden explosions of joy.

Friday, 8 May 2009

where I would be sure to be well fed

challenged, offended and generally encouraged. But Moscow, Idaho is just a little too far away and a little too pricey to get to. Shame really - one day it would be nice to do a grand tour of the US, get the flavour of the various states, revel in the scenery and the people and the diversityand the metropolises and the many great believers there.

where I would like to visit

If I was around in the area on a Sunday.

As the astute blog reader will know, I am torn between the post-theonomic-high-Reformed-literary analysis-covenant children-postmillennial appraoch, and the low-church-anabaptist-emerging-missional-anticlerical-household movement. It would be interesting and edifying to visit some of the former not just read about them!

Both schools, as it were, have an inclusive policy towards children and young people in the main worship meetings of their congregations and both favour alcohol in the Lord's Supper (neither of which things are generally features of mainstream evangelicalism in this country). I expect there are other similarities, too ;-)

what I would be doing

If I were still in the ocean of academia, as opposed to merely an interested observer who sits on the beach enjoying the view, occasionally paddling, but mostly staying on dry ground where it's possible to play the piano (and teach it, and idle around, and study theology and plant a church and do the washing up and the laundry whenever I should be doing something more important).

Prof Andrew Basden is a great bloke, judging from his writings and his beard. Perhaps I'll even get to meet him one day before the New Creation!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Religious dialogue

In a fascinating book edited by N. Vaporis [Orthodox Christians and Muslims, (Brookline: Holy Cross, 1986)] the papers from a 1985 symposium held in the USA are presented. The twelve main papers, on various historical and theological topics, are all interesting. I expect to blog on one or two in weeks to come...

The foreword from Archbishop Iakonos makes a plea for ‘common understanding as to the role religion can play in a terribly turbulent society’ in which ‘men and women everywhere are looking for peace, security and humanitarian coexistence’ (p.2). He suggests that (presumably) in the 1970s and 80s at least ‘Christians are seeking unity, while Muslims are witnessing a worldwide resurgence’ (p.1) and this means there is a great need for each to approach the other. All very nice and well put, and as it’s only a brief welcome message it seems a shame to be picky, but there is a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship that needs to be flagged up. Both officially and unofficially, any attempt by a Christian to ‘convert’ (however construed) a Muslim, or any perceived criticism of Muhammed (etc) is a pretext for hostility – not merely intellectual but also physical. Let alone what happens to Muslims who do choose to leave Islam. When the very structure of the faith is set up to suppress discussion at particular points and to employ coercion to the point of death against those who demur, then ‘dialogue’ and ‘common understanding’ are severely hampered.

We should also note that the blasphemy and apostasy laws of Islam, whether or not the state happens to endorse them in various territories, cut the aggrieved moral high ground out from under those Muslims who wish to complain about proselytism, or who wish to demonstrate or assert openness to dialogue now or in some mythical glorious Islamic past. If the threat of death or ostracism against any who wish to identify with a different religion remains in the formal and popular teaching of Islam, we can dispense with the high horses and be honest about what the situation is. The nations of the earth rage against the LORD and his annointed one. Sometimes they pretend not to, but they do. This is not really a complaint about persecution, horrible and damaging though that is (and after all, many countries and systems now and in the past have persecuted Muslims), but a plea for honesty about the full-orbed nature of religio-political communities. For as long as peaceful Christian (or other) evangelism among Muslims is considered an affront and worthy of harsh response the potential gains for dialogue will come at the cost of half-truths, turning blind eyes and certain types of intelletual dishonesty – and the benefits will largely be felt by the academic and politial elites anyway.

Another day I’ll make the same complaint about the supposed ‘tolerance’ of secular pluralism

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Flame-loving fans of Spurgeon

No mention of the Prince of Preachers could go past without a pointer to these SUPERB bloggers on pyromaniacs. Clear thinking and writing, always provocative and full of passion.

Spurgeon's significance today

The contemporary significance of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1843-1892)

‘Spurgeon towered among nonconformists’ (1). He provides today’s evangelicals with proof that fidelity to Scripture and unfashionably strong evangelistic preaching need not produce an irrelevant or disengaged Christian church. His public stand for conservative evangelicalism inspired fellow Baptists – and also many from other denominations – to greater zeal and piety and a more active witness. Given the many differences between the 1850s and the 2000s, perhaps his greatest significance, if only we had the will and courage to grasp it, is in his character, showing us who a Christian leader needs to be.

“Prince of Preachers” is how he is generally remembered. Certainly his preaching was exceptionally powerful, in substance and in manner. He loved the doctrines of grace, clearly urged repentance and faith on all his hearers, and was a great orator. But, aware of the dangers of preaching anything more than Christ, and alert to the power of rhetoric and mannerism, he toned down this last aspect of his preaching in his later years, certainly from 1875 (2). There was no diminution in numbers who came to hear him, in invitations to preach elsewhere, nor in conversions. His ability to communicate with people from all walks of life is a rare gift, and one worth cultivating today, even if his commanding pulpit style is no longer be appropriate to our broader culture and most subcultures.

By Spurgeon’s example many other Baptists were inspired to be much more evangelistic in their sermons and church life, including some whose hypercalvinism or unnecessarily strict approach to fellowship and “the world” had stymied their outreach. His training of new preachers, evangelists and leaders was tireless – starting small, giving lectures in his home and chapel, this work grew to a college from which hundreds graduated to go and revitalize urban and village ministries and to plant new congregations. He was greatly moved by the suffering of the poor, undertaking many visits to the sick during various epidemics of Victorian London, at great personal cost. He established almshouses for widows and a large orphanage for boys, consisting of a street of houses rather than the factory-like buildings of many other such efforts (to which one for girls was later added, modelled on a quadrangle). Often these mercy ministries ran short of funds and Spurgeon poured his own money into them. Many children were saved through the Christian ethos and teaching of the orphanages, and some went into preaching and teaching ministries themselves when they grew up. Spurgeon spent much of his “spare” time there and was loved by all the kids. This example of personal involvement, entrepreneurship and organisational leadership, is key – along the lines of what some in the emerging church have suggested about missional church, though one difference now is that in this state-dominated age there is perhaps slightly less room for charities of immediate relief attached to churches in the UK (3). 

In 1887 Spurgeon ‘propelled Baptists into the Down-grade controversy, the most notorious of a series of general scares about the way evangelical doctrines were going’ (4). By standing firm in the face of creeping decay of liberal teaching he provided a beacon to alert many who were indifferent, and a bulwark of evangelicalism against the encroachments of false teaching. For reasons of conscience he (and the Metropolitan Tabernacle) left the Baptist Union, and some other churches followed suit. Although Spurgeon did not doubt the faith of most in the Union he could not countenance fellowship with a wider body that included many who denied essential Christian doctrine (5). This had the knock-on effect of drawing many Baptists away from the Congregationalists who were the mainstream Nonconformists of the later 19th century (6). Today most Congregationalists have joined the URC, a denomination in decline and not known for its commitment to evangelicalism. Baptists en masse are not exactly thriving, but one legacy of Spurgeon’s controversies is plenty of independent baptistic churches that continue to embrace biblical Christianity.

Spurgeon could be imperious or offhand, and he took the virtue of hard work and self-denial to dangerous extremes, but there is much worth copying in his character. Though they are out of fashion in the world and in parts of the evangelical church today, dilligence, love of learning, perseverance, generosity, and commitment to prayer will never go out of business. Dallimore’s rather quaint biography is brimming with vignettes about Spurgeon’s daily activities, habits and character. He worked very hard at his schooling and immersed himself in the Bible and works of great Christian leaders such that he could quote at will from Scripture and many Puritans. He endured tremendous opposition in the press, Christian and secular, much of it based on falsehoods and exaggeration, and he either held his tongue/pen or responded with truth without personal rancour. His health was not good for the second half of his life and he was in agony with incurable gout for decades, yet he did not give up his pastoral responsibilities. That kind of patience in the face of various types of suffering is a powerful example to today’s budding leaders, who, if they’re anything like me, might be tempted to idle hours in front of a computer or moan about minor ailments rather than apply themselves to hard work and finding joy in the Lord even in the midst of real distress. He took no salary from the Metropolitan Tabernacle, but provided for himself and his family only by the income from his books and sermons; one-off gifts to him personally he usually passed straight on to the work of the training college or orphanage. He made no plans for retirement! He was not given to long periods of prayer, but would readily pray about anything and anyone that crossed his path, and the prayers he spoke to lead groups were apparently more inspiring than his sermons.

Finally, in the exploitative and war-torn world of 2008, Spurgeon’s strong criticism of slavery and of political violence are a challenge to contemporary evangelicals the world over. Despite the financial losses he suffered as a result he was open in his hatred of slavery in the USA and wrote against it, earning much hostility in the Southern States (7). He was a lover of peace. Preaching to 20,000 people at Crystal Palace in 1857 he attacked militarism and the British violence in India on the grounds that the gospel should make wars cease to the ends of the earth. In 1870 his anti-war preaching was no less strong (8). He won grudging respect from unbelievers who had initially scorned him because of his personal integrity. A true witness to the transforming power of the gospel in every area of his life.


(1)  Clyde Binfield, So Down To Prayers: Studies in English Nonconformity, 1780-1920 (London: J.M. Dent, 1977), p.26.
(2)  Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985 [1984]), pp.163-64.
(3)  For example, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Peabody: Hendrikson, 2003), pp.135-37. They make many good suggestions concerning and observations of missional church activities, but, oddly, direct mercy ministries are not among them.
(4)  Binfield, So Down To Prayers, p.6.
(5)  Dallimore, Spurgeon, pp.204-10, gives detail on this process of withdrawal, the restrained manner of Spurgeon and the unjust criticism he received when he was too much of a gentleman to use confidential letters to vindicate himself.
(6)  Binfield, So down to Prayers, p.26.
(7)  Dallimore, Spurgeon, pp.96-7.
(8)  David W. Smith, ‘A Victorian prophet without honour: Edward Miall and the critique of nineteenth-century British Christianity’, in Tales of Two Cities: Christianity and Politics, ed. Stephen Clark (Leicester: IVP, 2005), pp.152-83 (p.162, fn.21).

Cambridge Competitive Music Festival

Crumbled a few years ago through lack of interest, entrants, will, whatever...  :-(

But some enterprising veterans organised it afresh this year, and hundreds of people entered! A couple of my students won their piano classes, which was nice, considering the quality of the opposition, and I was hired to be the accompanist for difficult pieces (Rach cello sonata, Brahms C minor Scherzo, etc) at the prizewinners' concert last Wednesday. Which was a great honour. There were some truly delightful performances, lots of young talent, and a real sense of fun and enjoyment about the evening. Even though it went on for three and a half hours!

Several performances made my spine tingle: Shostakovich Piano Trio (1st mvt) by a group of VI formers; Bohm's virtuosic Introduction and Polonaise by a very young violinist; Swavesey Village College St Cecilia Choir in an arrangement of Danny Boy... but all 31 items were satisfying.

It is very encouraging for the state of classical/folk/stage music in the UK to see something like this. And from the front row, too!