Learning Bach


Moments of success are rare:
arpeggio-dances, impossible harmonies,
the sound as simple as the wind
yet execution like a fear -
fingers always forgetting how,
only ever stumbling on
success. Evasive moments of
perfect beauty capture souls
yet pass with sudden fumbles and
flustering confusion when
the movement of the hands cannot
so perfectly attune the spheres
as in the neat, transcribed intent.
Still, when all's aligned,
however brief, the sound
sings and motions, like
silence, like heart,
mouth, deed and life in tune,
the dance exact.
The joy remains.

Epiphany: To an unknown painter

Unknown 16th century German painter, Wikimedia Commons
Unknown 16th century German painter, Wikimedia Commons

Too regal:
There were no drapes to hail Him king,
no cherubim in the background, aloft,
casually decking the scene, mid-song.

Yet this is right: if there were crowns,
they would be laid at His feet; and knees,
if wise, would know to bend.

We foresee the pious, in the corners, turned
toward their future king; and a long journey figured
in streets and hills, and horses mounting them.

The light’s far off, yet faces seem illumined.
Only the darker ones lack light: an error, this.
Epiphany brightens most the faces least expected here.

Not contained: the cost, the snorts of Herod,
the proud reflex to kill. All this smarts, demands
pensive faces show contrition to be brought here.

Is there room for us? We have no robes, King.
And yet, if cattle may rest above the frankincense,

we may also bow and drink Your light.

Expectation (The Cornucopia of Heaven)



After J.S. Bach, “Mass in B Minor: Et Expecto Resurrectionem”


We              begin           small:
a kernel        dropping        to soil
a weak          and fickle      seed
a broken        passing         moment
of what           breaks forth
                              in trumpet-shower,
            in polyphonic spring,
                        in vibrant alleluia
                            voices thrumming, harmony
                  from these broken chords
                        in joy!
           What we sow now,    broken,
                        soon we reap
                in harvest plenty,
                        singing where
                            our tears once fell:
                                    Alleluia!                   Expectantly.

Esurientes implevit bonis (After J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in E-flat)


Two women who knew the truth of a God who exalts the humble were Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Both were unlikely mothers, one a virgin, the other barren and ridiculed by her husband’s other wife, Penninah. When Mary heard the news that she was bearing the saviour of the world in her womb, she looked to the song sung by Hannah, the barren mother, a thousand years earlier, to express the topsy-turviness of God’s act of grace expressed in Jesus.

This poem is inspired by Bach’s setting of Mary’s prayer, a beautiful piece which my fiancée (also called Hannah) performed tonight at St Paul’s Cathedral. The movement that inspired it is the setting of these words: “He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.” In his setting, Bach uses two recorders, an instrument used also in his Brandenburg Concerto No.4 to express the lifting up of the humble. I hope my simple words tonight can express something of this exalting grace.

Watch a performance of Bach’s piece

Esurientes implevit bonis

Look: humble Hannah is full;
Penninah goes away hungry.
Grace interweaves a broken fabric;
stillness sings with gentle voice
and fills the earth with noise.

O magnify: the humbled proud
listen as the faintest voice
is heard most resonant, the seed
most small at first soon yields a field
of plenty in this day.

Psalm: Chorale (The Cornucopia of Heaven)

Early on Saturday morning, the fire brigade was called to my church – a 150-year-old heritage-listed building on the corner of one of Melbourne’s most iconic streets, and the building which my fiancée and I recently booked to celebrate our marriage. That day, the Bible reading my church family was looking at in our devotional times was Luke 12:22-34, a passage which I, by pure coincidence, found myself writing about in my poem for that day. No-one could possibly have known how pertinent that passage would be to us. Our church still stands, but we will not be able to worship together there for a year at least. It is a time of mourning for all of us. Yet, when we gathered together yesterday as a whole church community in St Paul’s Cathedral and read Luke 12:22-34 again, we were reminded of the glorious truth of God’s promises to His people. This world’s treasures, even church buildings, will all be destroyed one day. But our Father has been pleased to give us the kingdom. Today I am posting two poems to reflect on this truth. Here is the first.


Psalm: Chorale

After J.S. Bach, “BWV 69: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele”


This morning

I awoke to a harpsichord of birdthrum,

the air alight with strings, a wall

of horns against the trees


and phoenixes in

the distance praised in trumpet-hope.

Toices twirled and twined around

the fretful day, where fire


(and moth and rust)

destroy the treasures of our day.

Singing like the newly born, the birds

cared nothing for death.


Every day new,

they promised what no night will tarnish:

a day of every harmony resolved

and hope that fire cannot take.


From Ashes: Sturm und Drang

Rembrandt - Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
Rembrandt – Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
Out of the storm, He comes,
                        He comes,
clearly, speaking victory –
            comes with calmness in His step
                        and silence for each dread.
Watching mountains quake,
                        they quake
to see such sureness step upon
            these waves of doubting fury; all
                        trembling piques stand still.
And from the storm, He brings,
                        He brings
the resting peace of endlessness,
            the answer which no peace could know,
                        borne here upon the sea.
On through the storm, He reigns,
                        He reigns,
and, sovereign, knows the ebbing tide.
            No wave is wasted in His rule,
                        no feeble vessel lost.

J.S. Bach, Cantata BWV 81, “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?” (Sigiswald Kuljken) – Read text

Concerto No.4 (After Rowan Williams’ “Bach for the Cello”)


Bach’s ‘Cello Suites are for me the supreme example of contemplation in music. They don’t deal with the emotions very much, there is nothing spectacular but just a single line unfolding itself. And I always see it as a kind of silver line in the middle of darkness…

Rowan Williams

As a child, I adored Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, especially No.4. Today’s poem, prompted by Rowan Williams’ poetic tribute to Bach’s Cello suites, takes that magnificent and rich piece as its inspiration – as well as its composer, for whom music existed “for giving honour to God and for the permissible delight of the soul”.


Concerto No.4 (After “Bach for the Cello”)
Polyphony dances the three-in-one’s consummate joy.
Staves undulate, conflicting as the cantor
gathers multiples together.
Where strings’ thrum and wood’s wind intersect,
there the rejoicing ordinary is captured,
beneath manifold sound:
Mourning and marriage run deep together;
necessity, glory, a prince’s pleasure,
all find common, circling breath,
interweaving soft as light,
The soul’s delight.


Bach for the Cello – Rowan Williams
By mathematics we shall come to heaven.
This page the door of God’s academy
for the geometer.
Where the pale lines involve a continent,
transcribe the countryside of formal light,
kindle with friction.
Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals:
under the level moon, desire runs fast,
the flesh aches on its string,
without consummation,
Without loss.
(From The Poems of Rowan Williams, Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2002)

Sprawl: For Les Murray (and Bach)

Kopie vonThomaskirche Leipzig

February is a short month, and so sadly I am having to speed up our journey through Les Murray’s poetry. My final poem for the month is an original work written in response to this interview with Murray from Image (Winter 2009-10) as well as Murray’s own description, in a personal letter, of his visit to a Lutheran church in Leipzig. My poem also draws on a number of Murray’s own poems. I’ll leave the eagle-eyed to find which ones, but the direct quotes from Murray are all in italics, to show they aren’t my own words. All in all, it’s a tribute to a man whose philosophy I do not wholly agree with yet always find compelling.

Sprawl: For Les Murray

God, at the end of prose,
somehow be our poem –
(Les Murray, “You Find You Can Leave It All”)

No pinched-arse Puritan, you could walk, I 
into the church in Leipzig with J.S. Bach 
                              thundering away,
differing perhaps in dogma yet relishing the 
                              plenitude of song.

What did you hear that day in St. Thomas’?
Some mighty Cantata? The gospel set to words, to
set to heart again? The world, you said once,

reverberates with Muzak and Prozac. The mind 
some analgesic sound to cool the air; yet souls 
                              desire organs.
Yours that day resounded with the thump and hum 
                              of what,

when Reformations raged, was controversy:
the heavens, all seemed to agree, will roar with
                           voice and instrument,
yet some still debate where earthly Temple-lines
                              are drawn.

Heaven invades earth as molecules of grace; yet 
                              to you
the Presence has always been Real: enacted in 
passed hand to hand, and in sprawl

of shirtsleeve nobility, giving with no thought 
                              of reprise,
no heed of destiny. Whispered in poetic diction,
felt, danced and dreamed, God breaks the banks

of hearts sunk enough to receive Him, who
enter church, not to proclaim what’s already 
but in desperate, grateful hopes of being wrong.