Samurai Bach And My Chinese Straight Sword


I was in the park last week having a kungfu sword pattern lesson and ever since then I have been thinking about how much I enjoy playing with swords.

I have always liked them, ever since that first childhood plastic one but don’t get me wrong: I am not going to be on the front pages of the newspapers one day as some crazy samurai running rampant at the local supermarket.

No my interest in sword technique is all about the control and nothing to do with running out of control. So you are all safe from me, honestly.

I used to play sword fighting with my brothers of course when we were all little and I took up fencing at University but it has been since doing martial arts, Southern White Crane Kungfu, that I have at last been able to investigate the beauty and precision of swordsmanship.

The Chinese sword pattern is known in China as the “scholar’s pattern” for its subtlety and finesse.

It was just a hint of this that got me going last week in the park.

We were using our metal blades, my teacher and I, in a secluded area sheltered by trees away and from nervous eyes. I was learning how delicate the blade has to be when it is cutting, how relaxed the arm has to remain and how each finger on the hilt hand has to be sensitive to the slightest movement. Then of course the rest of the body has to be balanced and co-ordinated with each move.

I have a long long way to go but that feeling when I got it right was phenomenal – blade on blade, minimum contact with clean unforced stroke and a correspondingly clear image of the line of movement. It had the beauty of a work of art.

I thought of dance and then those wonderfully simple but complex Japanese flower arrangements which look as if someone has just bunged a few sticks in a vase but which is really difficult to emulate.

Then I read an interview in the newspaper with the Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki.

Since the late 1990s I have been collecting his recordings of the Bach Church Cantatas which are being issued at the rate of about three or four a year and which will eventually cover the whole 500 or so works.

What has this got to do with Chinese swords you may well ask.

Well, I get a particular joy from Baroque music, especially the works of Bach and Handel and I am truly excited whenever I hear it played with that uncluttered, airy and cleanly focused style that is characteristic of Masaaki Suzuki.

I was interested then to hear him say this:

“Most of the time what I find beautiful is a very pure, transparent, simple style: not too many embellishments, not too many ornaments….this kind of pure, cutting-through, penetrating strength I love very much. It’s a little bit like the Japanese sword.”

There it was. Not for the first time, my love of music has found an echo in my martial arts training. Both of course are reflections of life and both can inspire us to at least a vision of how sublime humanity can be.

Mr Suzuki is in Britain to conduct Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Edinburgh Festival but sadly I am still not well enough to go. I can though, and shall, play some of those life-enhancing recordings of this Samurai warrior conducting Bach. Find them if you aren’t frightened of getting addicted to the whole cycle of 500 cantatas.For now though, here he is conducting Bach’ s Air On The G-String as if he is doing it with my sword – I might practise a few moves whilst I listen:

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