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Notes on Bach's Music and a Statement of our Purpose
A music director comments on the ability of a musical performance to address religious intolerance.
Bach presented the St. John Passion at least four times after the first performance during his first season as Cantor in Leipzig. Bach revised the work at least four times, and he also began to write-out an “autograph score,” which theoretically, would contain his last word as to which versions of various arias, recitatives, chorales, and choruses he intended for the “final” version of the work. He did not complete this project, so we can only speculate as to what Bach’s “ideal” version of the St. John Passion is, if he indeed conceived of one. The differences between versions most often have to do with orchestration (in other words, what instruments are assigned to play what arias, etc.). In some cases certain arias, choruses, or recitatives are replaced altogether with different music and different texts. We are performing a version of the St. John Passion which culls particular movements from all of Bach’s five versions, in an attempt to realize Bach’s “ideal” version as best as I can guess, recognizing that it does not correspond exactly to any of the versions Bach actually performed.
There are two kinds of texts in the libretto of the St. John Passion. The first kind is the narrative, taken directly from John’s Gospel, Chapters 18-19. In addition, two brief passages from the Gospel of Matthew are included, in the scenes in which Peter weeps after denying he is associated with Christ and when the veil of the Temple is rent in half directly following Christ’s death. Musically, the narrative portions of the libretto are all recitatives (accompanied only by organ and one cello) and sung by the Evangelist, the names characters (Jesus, Pilate, etc.) and the chorus in the roles of the Roman soldiers, “the Jews,” the chief priests, the attendants of the chief priests, the attendants of the Pharisees, and combinations thereof. (The orchestra accompanies the chorus when they sing.) The second kind of text is the commentary, which comprises poems that ruminate on the events in the narrative. Musically, these take the form of chorales (which in the time of Bach were probably well-known by the congregation) the introductory and closing choruses (Nos. 1 and 39), and arias sung by the soloists. Whereas the commentary in the libretto of the St. Matthew Passion (composed four years after St. John) was written by one person, the libretto of the St. John Passion is a pastiche of several sources, including Psalm 8, chorale verses by Luther and others, as well as poems by Christian Postel, Christian Weise, and B.H. Brockes. We don’t know whether or not Bach had a collaborator, or if he assembled the texts himself.
When he moved to Leipzig, Germany in 1723, Bach assumed the title of Cantor of the St. Thomas School and Director of Music for the City of Leipzig. He taught at the St. Thomas More School, and was responsible for the music in all four of the city’s main Lutheran churches. It was the fifth job he had held since his first professional appointment in 1703. He remained in Leipzig for 27 years, until his death in 1750.
The tradition of performing the Passion story “in concerted style” (with chorus, soloists, and orchestra) at Good Friday services had been established throughout Germany in the 17th century, but it was a relatively new phenomenon in Leipzig, having begun only three years before Bach introduced the St. John Passion, his first contribution to the genre, in 1724. Good Friday was the biggest musical day of the church year. A lengthy sermon was delivered in between the two parts of the oratorio-passion, but Bach clearly intended his music to preach to his congregation with a fervor and effectiveness that equaled, if not surpassed, that of the speaking clergy. Michael Marissen observes that before assuming his post in Leipzig, Bach agreed, in writing, to compose music that “incites the listeners to devotion.”
So, what exactly was he preaching to his 18th century congregation, and what is he preaching to us? Unlike the other Gospels, the Gospel of John mentions “the Jews” 72 times. Almost all of these references are negative, and for centuries, John’s Gospel has been used to validate and justify persecution of the Jewish people. Martin Luther was indisputably anti-Semitic, and in countless sermons and publications, he advocated violence against Jews. He justified this position by asserting Jewish culpability for the death of Christ, the so-called charge of Deicide. Bach was a very religious and theologically erudite man who fully understood the precepts of Lutheran theology. He knew his Bible, and he knew his Luther.
We must ask, therefore, whether or not Bach addresses the following question in the St. John Passion: Who, or what is primarily responsible for Christ’s death, “the Jews” of John’s narrative, or the sins of the Christian parishioner? More than half of the libretto of the St. John Passion comprises “commentary” texts. In my view, it is these texts which serve to enlighten us as to Bach’s take on this fundamental theological issue. In order to appreciate fully the various dimensions of this great masterpiece, we must discuss how it answers these questions.
That is why we are presenting this performance in conjunction with a symposium in which a panel of scholars and our audience explore the historical, theological, and sociological context of Bach’s music. We hope that the occasion of our performance serves to stimulate consideration and discussion of religious intolerance, and the role that art plays in both promoting and opposing it. And we hope that in the process of considering these issues, we might begin to arrive at a greater appreciation of the Jewish and Christian understanding of this work, and of each faith.
If we accept as a basic premise the notion that Bach’s music amplifies, illuminates, and enhances the libretto, then we must pay close attention to what he is saying, and what theological position he is advocating. If I believed that Bach were advocating the position that “the Jews” were guilty of Deicide, and therefore deserving, for all time, of intolerance, persecution, and even death, I would not perform this piece. Indeed, many of my colleagues in my profession have come to that very valid, personal conclusion. Richard Taruskin, an eminent musical historian, has written, “When I try to account for the persistence of tolerated anti-Semitism, I cannot shake the notion that one reason must be the reinforcement anti-Semitism receives in so much sacrosanct art that is the product of Christian doctrine. Artistic excellence matters, but there are things that matter more.”
I come down on a different side of this question than Richard. In my view, what matters most is that we understand this work in all its complexity, in the light of history, and in the context of what it can (and should) mean for tolerance of “the other” by people of different faiths. Ultimately, I am convinced by Michael Marissen’s argument that the commentary texts in the St. John Passion “take the focus away from the perfidy of “the Jews” and onto the sins of Christian believers.”
I also agree with Michael that to perform either of the Bach Passions without a serious attempt to air these issues is to miss an excellent opportunity to improve understanding of this great work, and to enliven our appreciation of different (but by no means fully opposed) approaches to faith and spirituality. More than any other music in the repertoire, the Bach Passions must be considered for their repertoire, the Bach Passions must be considered for their religious/theological values as well as their musical values.