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  • Rev. Andrew Kirk

Creation, Cross & Everlasting rest

A book review by Andrew Kirk on Robert Bashford's book: Creation, Cross & Everlasting Rest. A Guide to the Message of Three Great Oratorios. Latimer Trust publication May 2023.



Having already written an extensive guide to Handel's oratorio, The Messiah, (also published by Latimer Trust with the title, Focus on Jesus), Bashford has now turned his attention to three more oratorios based on biblical themes, all well known in the repertoire. He calls all three 'great', 'because they excel as musical masterpieces and as clear expressions of biblical truth'. The composer of the first is Joseph Haydn, The Creation, based largely on the text of Genesis 1, but also 'with a glimpse of Genesis 2'. The second, probably the best known of these three, is Bach's St Matthew Passion, and the third is Brahms, German Requiem. Bashford comments, 'the three selected oratorios, individually, open a window on major doctrines of the Bible. Collectively, they represent a panorama of a considerable expanse of the message of Holy Scripture'. He dedicates approximately one-third of the book to an explanation of each of the texts chosen and the musical arrangements that make them into musical treasures.


The description of each oratorio is organised into a number of different headings. First, the author is introduced. This is followed by a general introduction to the history of the oratorio and its structure. The main substance of each is devoted to the chosen text with the author of this book's own further theological commentary on what the text conveys as God's written word. It also includes observations on additional choral and solo material added by way of original 'poetic' reflections on the biblical text added by the composer. The final commentary on each part of the oratorio refers to the interaction between the text and the music, where the latter is used 'to paint a picture for us by its sounds' reflecting the main emphasis of each portion of text.


The presentation of the commentary on the score of each oratorio is clear and concise. The theological reflection provided for each section and scene of the oratorios connects the sung text to a wider survey of its meaning within the Bible's grand narrative. Bashford deals with the interesting question as to why the first two composers chose to leave out some of what might be considered key texts within Genesis 1 or Matthew 26 and 27. The St Matthew Passion was written nearly three hundred years ago in 1727; The Creation between 1797 and 1798. At such a distance, one can only speculate about the reasons for the omissions. However, one's own judgements may be permitted, at least as a question.


In the case of Brahm's German Requiem (whose first complete version was performed in Leipzig in 1869), the text was assembled from diverse passages in the Psalms and the New Testament, and also includes two verses from the Apocrypha. The overall theme can be summed up in the contrast the Scriptures draw between mortality and immortality. The final chorus uses the verse from Revelation 14:13b: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on...that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!' Bashford clarifies that Brahm's Requiem is not to be classified as a Requiem Mass. Its chosen texts do not follow the Roman Catholic liturgy. As Bashford comments, 'instead of being a liturgy for the dead, it is a liturgy for the living'. Brahms grew up within the Lutheran tradition of the Christian faith. His choice of texts is apposite to the main theme. Again, however, there are other texts that might have been even more appropriate. Bashford mentions some of these, that, in his opinion, might have fitted even better.


The book includes at the end five Appendices, of which the most helpful for people without a formal musical education might be the Musical Glossary, the meaning of the technical terms which are scattered throughout the book. Undoubtedly, the book is intended to be read whilst listening to a performance of each oratorio. Hence the advice given at the end of each movement, 'what to listen out for in the music'.


The author has produced a comprehensive handbook to the three oratorios. It is most informative. He concludes the book with what might be called an evangelistic message that draws on the texts of the oratorios and the additional reflections that he provides to press home the good news that in Jesus Christ, salvation from the penalty and power of sin is freely available by God's amazing grace.


I finish this review on a personal note. I have asked my family to please ensure that Movement 6 from Brahm's Requiem is included in the music for my funeral. The sound of the trumpets, rising to a powerful crescendo, that accompany the words from 1 Corinthians 15:52, 'The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed...', is truly magnificent!

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Andrew Kirk is ordained in the Anglican Church. He is now retired from his theological teaching ministry in tertiary educational institutions both overseas, in Argentina, and in the UK. He has also taught courses on all six continents. Since retirement, he has been involved in teaching and supervision in other theological institutions across Europe. He is the author of many articles and twenty three books- some of them can be found here . He is married to Gillian. They have three children and four grandchildren.


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