Interview with Robin Leaver

Dr. Robin A. Leaver is emeritus professor of sacred music at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and honorary professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has also taught liturgical studies at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, a Bach course at the Juilliard School, New York City, and more recently courses on Bach, music history, and hymnology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He graduated from Trinity College, Bristol, England, and holds a doctorate from the Rijksuniversiteit, Groningen, the Netherlands. Dr. Leaver is a past president of both the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Hymnologie and the American Bach Society. He is the author of numerous books, articles entries in reference works in the cross-disciplinary areas of liturgy, church music, theology, and hymnology, published on four continents, with significant contributions to Luther, Schütz and Bach studies. Recent Bach publications include: Exploring Bach’s B-Minor Mass (Cambridge University Press, 2013), which he co-edited with Yo Tomita and Jan Smaczny; articles in the Bach-Jahrbuch (2013); a chapter in Bach and the Organ: Bach Perspectives 10 (University of Illinois Press, 2016); and The Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach (Routledge, 2017), of which he is editor and primary author.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Dr Leaver several years ago in New York City. I had recently started performing in the US and it was an encouragement and an inspiration for me to converse with such a celebrated Bach scholar. It was his wonderful book J. S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary which introduced me to these unique and endlessly fascinating volumes, the study of which is a continuing source of delight. I caught up with Dr Leaver again last month in Cambridge, UK, when we were contributing to the Bach Network Dialogue Meetings. He kindly agreed to this interview.

Do you come from a musical family? Did you grow up surrounded by music? 

My family was not particularly musical. My grandmother played the mandolin. My mother played the piano quite well. My father played the violin but only very occasionally – birthdays, Christmas, and other family events. He played so rarely that it is not surprising that he had intonation problems! I started singing in the local Anglican church choir at the age of seven and soon learnt to sight-read in singing a whole range of music, some of it really wonderful (Byrd, Croft, Greene, Tallis, Purcell, etc, and Bach of course), but quite a bit of it left much to be desired (Barnby, Stainer, Maunder, and the prolific but not terribly gifted Caleb Simper). But I learned to sing with my ears as well as my eyes. When my voice broke I sang tenor, then discovered that I had quite a good countertenor voice, where I stayed vocally for a long time, as well as occasionally singing bass, providing it was not too low. From the church choir I progressed to various singing groups, including the local choral society, as well as small ensembles singing renaissance polyphony, madrigals, and various part songs. My musical education was fostered by the BBC, especially broadcasts of the Promenade Concerts, which I attended from time to time in the Royal Albert Hall as a Promenader, sometimes missing the last train back home and having to wait for the milk train early in the morning. I experienced an extraordinary range of music.

What are your earliest memories of Bach’s music? 

It’s the BBC again. As a kid I always listened to Children’s Hour on the radio broadcast each day at 5-o-clock. It ran until the 5.55 pm weather forecast before the 6-o-clock news. It was always a live programme and sometimes it finished early and there were some minutes to be filled up before the weather forecast, usually music of some kind. I have a strong memory of hearing what must have been a double-manual harpsichord in full flight that just stunned me. Over the years I have come to realize that it had to have been a recording of Wanda Landowska and the music must have been Bach. I was probably around four at the time. Thereafter, so my mother told me, I was always keen on hearing music on the radio and especially the music of Bach. Later, of course, I sang movements from the cantatas in the church choir, and the Passions and B minor Mass in the local choral society.

What or who were the main influences which contributed to your choice of career in music?

I didn’t choose music. Music chose me, or rather chased me. On leaving school I pursued an apprenticeship in aeronautical engineering at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. It was here that I learned what research is and how it should be written up – valuable lessons that I was able to draw on later. Towards the end of this time I felt called to the Anglican ministry so after the apprenticeship I went off to study theology. But all the while I was reading everything I could lay my hands on about music in general, sacred music in particular, and especially the music of Bach. I also began writing and publishing on sacred music and hymnology, becoming more and more drawn into the music of Bach. This continued after ordination in the parishes I served in London, Chelmsford, Reading, and Witney. In these churches I usually sang with the choirs, and sometimes directed them. In my studies I concentrated on the historical development of sacred music, especially the liturgical contexts within which the music was heard.

In London I linked up with The London Bach Society, founded by Paul Steinitz, especially its performances of Bach cantatas. This was in the 1960s when the BBC was committed to broadcast for the first time all the church cantatas of Bach. At that time there were not many performances available on commercial recordings, so the BBC worked with a few groups, but mainly with the London Bach Society, to record their concerts of Bach cantatas for later broadcasting in the mission to eventually broadcast them all. Being in London I was able to attend these concerts in such churches as St Andrews, Holborn, and St. Bartholomew the Great, and then to hear the BBC broadcasts, which I was also able to record on tape! For a short time I became a vice-president of The London Bach Society which allowed me to attend rehearsals led by Paul Steinitz which were held in south London not far from the parish I served. So I would turn up at the rehearsals with scores in hand.

In Chelmsford (actually Great Baddow) I was able to intensify my research into Bach’s library of theological books, known from the inventory drawn up at his death. I applied to The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for a Fellowship to visit the United States where the only volumes from Bach’s library are to be found. My application was successful and I was able to spend several months based in the library of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, where these volumes are housed. From this research eventually came two books: Bachs theologische Bibliothek: Eine kritische Bibliographie. [Beiträge zur theologischen Bachforschung 1] (Stuttgart: Hänssler-Verlag, 1983), and J. S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985). The Churchill Fellowship had an enormous impact on my subsequent career, for which I will always be more than grateful.

In Reading, a part-time pastoral position to allow me to write and research, I spent as much time as I could in the library of the music department of the university. It was there that I met Andrew Parrott and Emma Kirkby. Our interests overlapped and this contact with Andrew led to my being invited to speak at a number of the annual Swansea Bach Weeks, organised in the 1970s by John Hugh Thomas, and thus came to know such Bach scholars and performers as Stephen Daw, Peter Williams, Jaap Schroeder, Nicholas McGegan, among others, contacts that proved fruitful later. For example, it was through meeting Peter Williams in Swansea that he invited me to write “Bach’s Clavierübung III: Some Historical and Theological Considerations” for The Organ Yearbook he edited in 1975. These were also the early years of Andrew Parrott’s career with his Taverner Choir, Consort and Players. By this time I had published a number of Bach articles in the Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute and the Bach-Jahrbuch. In 1977 Andrew asked me to write the programme notes for a concert of Bach cantatas he was to conduct at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, and then two years later asked me again for notes, this time on Bach’s St. John Passion that was to be the centrepiece of the Early Music Centre Festival in London he organized that year. This in turn led to an invitation to speak about the St. John Passion in the BBC 3 weekly Early Music programme, the notes of which were subsequently expanded to become Music as Preaching: Bach, Passions and Music in Worship (Oxford: Latimer House, 1982), later revised and reissued in America as J. S. Bach as Preacher: His Passions and Music in Worship (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House 1984), and much later translated into Japanese: Sekkyosha to shite no J. S. Bahha, trans. by Shozo Arai (Tokyo: Kyo-Bun-Kwan, 2012). The original encouragement from Andrew in the late 1970s was therefore of great significance to my subsequent career, for which I am extremely grateful.

The appointment in Witney was another part-time pastoral position that allowed me to research and write on liturgy and church music with Latimer House, Oxford, and to teach liturgy and homiletics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (both institutions now somewhat different than they were when I was associated with them). In addition to research already mentioned, I was also involved during this period in editing the translation of Günther Stiller’s dissertation on the liturgical background to Bach’s music, published as Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), an edition that has its imperfections, largely due to the fact that two of its three translators died before the project could be completed! Also during this time I acted as consultant in the setting up of Bach cantatas performed within the liturgical setting of Lutheran Vespers at the church of St. Anne and St. Agnes in the City of London – the Wren church seconded for Lutheran use – a series that still thrives some forty years later.

What is the most stimulating and exciting aspect of being a musicologist?

During my Witney and Oxford years I could be regarded as something of a Bach expert, an hymnologist, liturgical scholar and historian of sacred music, but I could not yet be called a musicologist. That came later, when I moved from England to America. After Erik Routley’s untimely death in 1982 there were conversations among his contacts in England about who was likely to be appointed his successor at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, but I never thought that I would be the one to replace him and teach church music, hymnology, and liturgy at Westminster. Indeed, when the invitation first came, I turned it down. But temporarily in 1984 then permanently in 1985 I moved to Princeton. It was particularly stimulating to teach alongside the truly remarkable faculty at Westminster Choir College at that time. One of the seven full-time organ faculty was William Hays. In addition to his organ studio he also taught a course on Bach cantatas and the masters-level introduction to musicology. I soon joined him in co-teaching the annual Bach cantata course which was based on read-through performances of eight or nine cantatas each time the course was taught. I learned so much from Bill Hays, who had played organ continuo for many years in the Bach Cantata Vespers series at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York City. His understanding of Bach’s music, his firm grasp of theory, and his experience in performing many cantatas proved invaluable to me as well as to the students. On his retirement I continued teaching the course on my own, something that gave me enormous satisfaction and pleasure. Similarly, after Bill Hays’s retirement, I inherited his introduction to musicology course. So perhaps now I could be regarded as something of a musicologist.

I should also add – during my first semester at Westminster I was approached by Greg Funfgeld, a Westminster alumnus who had just taken over as the conductor of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. He asked me to write programme notes for the up-coming Christmas concerts, which I did and then continued to write notes for all the concerts of the Bach Choir, something I have now done for thirty-five years and have no immediate plans to stop doing so!

What are the most difficult and challenging aspects of your work? 

Three main areas that are problematic for Bach studies immediately come to mind. First, is having to deal with eighteenth-century German that can be extraordinarily opaque – even for contemporaries of Bach. For example, the Bach acquaintance Lorenz Mizler complained that Werckmeister’s prose was “disorderly and un-German.” Second, accessibility to original or early sources, though the digital world makes things easier, such as the Bach manuscripts that are now accessible from Bach Digital, and the many eighteenth-century printed sources that are digitally accessible from a consortium of German libraries. Third, keeping up-to-date with what has been published. Here Yo Tomita’s Bach Bibliography, now available online from the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig, is the indispensable tool. However, rather than difficulties and challenges I prefer to think in terms of possibilities, discoveries, and solutions.

What advice would you give those who are drawn to the area of Bach research? 

Even though an immense amount of Bach research has accumulated over many decades, it should not be thought there is very little left to do. In recent years important manuscripts have been discovered that have made us re-evaluate what has been thought hitherto. The whole area of Bach reception, first by his sons and pupils in the later eighteenth century, and then in the early nineteenth century, is still imperfectly known. Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, important as it was, was not the beginning of the discovery of Bach’s music. It was already known in various circles, as we are discovering, and the growing global awareness of his music during the later nineteenth century has yet to be fully charted. There is still much that needs to be done.

‘The study of musicology is excessively intellectual, complex and time-consuming!’ So might say a proportion of performers of early instruments, and a larger proportion of those playing early music on modern instruments. What would you say? 

The statement is misplaced. It should be: ‘The study of musicology is necessarily intellectual, complex and time-consuming!’ And I would add, irrespective of whether the music is performed on period or modern instruments, there must be a symbiotic relationship between musicology and performance. Musicology reveals questions that can only be answered by performers, and performance raises questions that can only be answered by musicologists.

Which aspects of your research, including your publications, are you personally the most pleased with? 

As I look back on quite a long list of my published writings, what pleases me most is that the longer I do this the better I seem to get at doing it. So my more recent publications perhaps mean more to me than some of my earlier ones, such as the recent Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach (London: Routledge, 2017), though I still value my earlier books on Bach’s theological library, as also my contributions to The Cambridge Bach Companion (CUP, 1997), edited by John Butt, and the Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (OUP, 1999). However, what astounds me is that I have written so much over wide areas of research. I can only explain it by reflecting on the fact that I am by nature a nosey person. I look for answers and if they are not readily accessible I start searching and re-searching for satisfactory descriptions, solutions, or further questions.

You have very aptly described Bach as a theological musician and a musical theologian. One of the primary evidences for Bach’s faith is found in his copy of the Calov Bible, and I am grateful to you for publishing extracts from this in your book entitled J. S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary. We’ve talked recently about how you came to be involved in this exciting discovery. Please share some anecdotes, and also describe something of what these volumes mean to you.

I had already begun my research into Bach’s personal library when I read an article on Martin Chemnitz by Arthur Carl Piepkorn in the Concordia Theological Monthly. Bach owned a copy of Chemnitz’s Examen Concilii Tridentini, a work written in Latin. In his article Professor Piepkorn included information that there was a German translation of the work, therefore raising the possibility that Bach could have had a copy of this single German edition. I wrote to Professor Piepkorn to ask for further information, which he readily supplied, and then added a by-the-way comment: did I know that three volumes edited by Abraham Calov, once owned by Bach, were now in the library of Concordia Seminary Library, St. Louis? This was the first I had heard about their existence. From then on I knew I had to get to St. Louis to see them. Hence my application for a Winston Churchill Fellowship. As soon as I arrived at the library in St. Louis I asked the library staff for the microfilm I assumed must have been made for safety reasons. When told that there was no microfilm, I pestered the library staff for the next three weeks or so about the need to have a microfilm made of the three outsized volumes. My main argument was: “What if some catastrophe or fire destroyed the library and these volumes within it? It would be a an absolute disaster!” In the end the library staff gave in and agreed to have the volumes microfilmed. The bi-product was that scholars unable to examine the actual volumes could then have access to the marginal comments and underlining recorded in these microfilms (now of course there is the facsimile of all three volumes). Spending day after day quietly turning the pages and weighing up the significance of the manuscript additions was a great experience. Here one had contact with Bach’s thinking about various issues, reading the markings that were intended for his own use and no one else’s. But it also brought home to me how careful one must be in evaluating the evidence. Bach was not the first to own these volumes and they contain marking in other hands as well as Bach’s. Also as far as Bach’s music is concerned what these Scriptural commentaries contain cannot have had direct influence on the cantatas he composed since the volumes only came into his possession in 1733, that is, after Bach had composed most of his vocal works. On the other hand, these volumes are the only ones that have come down to us that were listed in the inventory of his books drawn up after his death, and they do contain mainstream Lutheran theological thinking that was fundamental to the worship in which much of Bach’s music was first heard.

You are also an authority on Luther. Do you believe that a close knowledge of Bach’s theology is important for a performer of his sacred music? 

You need at least some knowledge of the theological context within which Bach worked. The libretti of the cantatas imply a whole range of theological content which is not always obvious without some research. The congregations who heard them understood the subtleties that simply go over our heads unless we make an effort to understand them. The late Paul Brainard, one of the editors of cantatas for the Neue Bach Ausgabe, taught a Bach course at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Although personally he was religiously agnostic he nevertheless insisted that his students understood the theological concepts that are explored musically by Bach in his cantatas. His line was: You don’t have to believe this but you do have to understand it, because Bach and his contemporaries believed it, and if you do not understand it you will never fathom Bach’s music. Paul Brainard was right. But on the other hand, committed Christians have to be careful not to make assumptions from their own beliefs and practices since they may well be quite different from the Lutheran beliefs and practices of Bach’s day.

Luther looms large in Bach’s life. He owned two different collected editions of Luther’s works, two editions of Luther’s Haus-postille, a copy of the Tischreden, and the Calov volumes were in effect another edition of Luther’s writings, arranged in Biblical order.

Do you have a favourite work by Bach? If so, please share your reasons. 

They are all my favourites! By this I mean that the work I am currently studying in order to write a programme note, or in the context of an article or chapter I am writing, or the work I am listening to, is my favourite in that moment of time. But there are works that I keep coming back to again and again, such as the two Passions, the B minor Mass, Art of Fugue, Musical Offering, many individual cantatas, etc., etc., and especially the eighteen magical movements of the organ trio sonatas. I am continuously astounded by the enormous range of Bach’s music and its ingeniousness that makes its impact ever anew.

What are your current areas of research, and what may we look forward to reading about in the future? 

There are several volumes in preparation in the series of Contextual Bach Studies that I edit – recently moved to the Lexington Books imprint of Rowman and Littlefield – to be published in the next year or so. I have also edited Bach Perspectives 12, jointly published by the American Bach Society and the University of Illinois Press, which will appear in 2018 under the title: Bach and the Counterpoint of Religion. I am thinking about the possibility of creating a volume out of some of the articles I have written over the years. I am involved with a number of editions that have begun to appear from Wayne Leupold Editions which explore the techniques of Bach’s pupils in teaching their organ pupils the art of accompanying congregational singing. When these are done I hope to be able to get to a work that I have been thinking about for quite a time. The provisional title is: A Liturgical Handbook to the Vocal Works of Bach. It will look at each major section of the church year, reveal the propers of the season, which will be given in modern notation, together with a discussion of how the vocal works composed for that part of the church reflect such details. The project is still at the gestation stage.



Bach: The Sea

‘Just walk two steps further back into the water!’ insisted the refreshingly creative, gifted and more-than-slightly eccentric Odradek photographer, Tommaso Tuzj.

‘No, no.’ I smiled. ‘The next wave will push me over and this will finish the entire photo session!’

‘Go back! Go back!’ I took one step. One was enough. After what must have been the fifth wave crashing against my back, I did in fact hit the ground. Onlookers applauded happily… but this was not the average performance. I survived, the tuxedo survived, and Tommaso had his photograph.

The concept of comparing Bach with the sea, or the ocean, has its origin in the famous quote of Beethoven regarding the etymology of Bach’s name. ‘Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sollte er heißen…’ ‘His name should not be called Bach [Brook] but Meer [Sea].’ My experience of Bach’s music has not been unlike this memorable photo session. There I was fully dressed in concert wear, confronted by the force of the sea and witnessing its power, beauty and depth. It swept me off my feet. However with Bach to be utterly engulfed is absolutely essential, and my lifetime musical pursuit has been the acquisition of a state of involvement where I can, indeed, be fully immersed and yet breathing, spending many hours freely exploring without hindrance.

Just as there are a multitude of different and contrasting seascapes, there is likewise much varying imagery which parallels the breadth of Bach’s output. Perhaps the scene may be like that of my album photograph: powerful, sombre, dramatic, and yet with a glowing warmth. Or it may be something with greater brilliance and radiance. Just as any beautiful seascape has immediate appeal, Bach’s music can yield much enjoyment even with a casual, more distant familiarity. But walk into the water and one is quickly aware of the strength of the current. Bach’s music has a power that potentially overwhelms and draws the listener into its vortex.

Now dive below the surface. Witness the hidden depths. Witness the contrapuntal interplay and interdependence of a multitude of living organisms, living and breathing musical notes, the individual beauty of each being enhanced by the presence of the whole. Travel further beyond and experience even greater depths, representing the most profound musical utterances. Perhaps frequenting such terrain may present a certain vulnerability, but one is always conscious of the unending rewards of such experiences.

Whatever one’s personal journey with Bach, there is always the element of refreshment. Many have testified to his music’s restorative, consoling and even analeptic properties. Sea air is charged with beneficial negative hydrogen ions, and more mysteriously, air which is saturated with the sound of Bach’s music can be utterly invigorating, releasing endorphins and promoting wellbeing.

The seas and oceans are no respecters of nations. They join the masses of land which divides. The universality of music is something we all share, and Bach’s music has reached countless people globally across many generations. He would be astonished if he knew how greatly he is appreciated and loved so many years after his death.

‘Furthermore the spiritual message of the music is for all people. The motto Soli Deo Gloria is something Bach embraced, and he openly shared this desire that his music glorify God and therefore serve a higher purpose which could benefit all.

Here, then, is a miniature portrait of Bach, the sea. Every individual can create many such portraits of their own. And what of you? What are your aesthetic perspectives? Are you someone who loves being beside the seaside? Or are you a long distance swimmer? Or a diver? Do you prefer to set sail? Or perhaps cruise? Whatever you are and wherever you are, allow your innate musical instincts to be your navigator, directing you to ever new and uncharted joys.