J.S. Bach’s Bitter-Sweet Passion

The music in this episode comes from Boston Baroque’s 2015 performance of the Saint John Passion, conducted by Martin Pearlman.

From the great Bach’s hand, two masterpieces of church theater survive. Both tell the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, one from the gospel of Matthew, the other from the later gospel of John.

This St. John Passion, first performed in 1724, is a “mis-shapen, personal and messy” piece, as one of Boston’s great Bach conductors Craig Smith used to say, in exactly the way the story is mis-shapen, personal and messy. It’s the musical account of a sadistic murder of a young visionary—to the howling mockery of a mob of his fellow Jews. Jesus’s sin was presenting himself as the Son of God. For Christians (like Bach) the death of Jesus becomes the redeeming moment in all of time, God’s sacrifice of his son for the sins of mankind.

But in the telling over the ages and especially after the 20th century, that merciless mob, yelling “crucify him, crucify him” in Bach’s oratorio made St. John Passion unlistenable even for many Bach lovers. This week we’re trying to make sense of a Western masterwork that has not just killer rage at the core, but also group labels on it.

The cast of this universal story is nearly all Jewish: Jesus, Mary, the apostles, the gospel writers, the elders of the temple–all but the viceroy Pontius Pilate are Jews in a Jewish outpost of the Roman empire. But in the text Bach set to music, the crowd mocking Jesus, screaming for his death, is identified–not as “the crowd,” or “the people” but as “the Jews.” And there’s the rub for modern minds.

If the Bach Passion is at all disturbing, is at all problematic, it’s only because the Gospels [themselves] are hugely problematic. It’s because, over centuries, medieval and early modern interpretations of that Gospel text added weight to an anti-Jewish core that couldn’t have been imagined by John when he wrote it… That doesn’t mean that these texts are necessarily tainted forever. The question is, how do you take traditions and evolve them? How do we get our contemporary values in sync without throwing out these traditions that are beautiful?… Deanna Klepper.

Martin Pearlman, who has led the Boston Baroque ensemble for 40 years but never put the St. John Passion on his program until this year, was the instigator of this conversation. It is his performance with the Boston Baroque players and singers (from February 27 and 28 late this winter) that runs throughout our radio hour. Our conversation draws also on the mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, who’s sung the great St. John arias and translated its words into English. Robert Marshall at Brandeis, and Deanna Klepper at Boston University are our historians of Bach’s music and the political and religious context of 18th-century Germany.

The ultimate villain of the piece is humanity in general… Everybody was playing a preordained role. [As a young man] I heard ‘the [Jews] shrieking’ and put it in the context of the Holocaust, the Nazis, Goebbels. The German language played a bad role, too. In those days you never heard the German language being spoken unless it sounded like it was being spoken by Nazis, if you go back to the 1960s… I like to think I’m more enlightened about it now. I think, in some sense, it’s something of an exoneration, because the Jews are part of the scenario, but the message being spoken… is a universal message, that we are all part of this crime, this deicide. Am I rationalizing too much?   Bob Marshall.

We’re listening not just for the hard feeling in and around this music but for the heart-rending beauty that’s more memorable in the end. The St. John Passion is a monument to eternal sadness and excruciating suffering rendered in musical language what no other language could. What do you hear in the music? Please, leave us a note in the comments.

Explore this timeline to follow the St. John from Bach’s Good Fridays in Leipzig, through controversy and revision, and into the halls of Boston. Image: “The Taking of Christ,” Caravaggio, c. 1602.The Long Road to Jordan Hal


Guest List
Martin Pearlman
Conductor and music director at Boston Baroque
Pamela Dellal
Mezzo-soprano, translator, and educator at Emmanuel Music
Robert L. Marshall
Emeritus Professor of Music at Brandeis University. Author of The Compositional Process of J.S. Bach and The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Deanna Klepper
Associate professor of history and religion Boston University
Reading List
Bach's Passions were once subject to change
Matthew Guerrieri
Bach often changed the setting of his passion scores; these days his music goes untouched:
To set the scores as if in some idealized 18th-century amber is to amplify a spiritual gap between then and now — as theologian Paul Tillich characterized Martin Luther’s description of biblical writers, 'We must drink from their fountain only because we do not have the fullness of the Spirit'
One man’s passion
Daniel Stepner
Stepner’s 1985 essay, written to accompany his own performances, holds up powerfully. The violinist reminds us of the complicated and conflicting ways in which the Gospels treat the Jews. Centuries turned that complexity into contempt. Though Bach labored in and accepted “a church-sanctioned tradition that had and has a strongly anti-Jewish bias in its background legends,” Stepner says that the St. John Passion transcends:
Each musical phrase speaks volumes.  His message transcends the divisive verbiage of any parochial religion and has the power to unite us all in a realm of pure feeling, the real substance of spirituality.
The wicked irony of Holy Week
James Carroll, The Boston Globe
Carroll casts the Passion, Holy Week, and Christianity itself as deeply human projects. There is no escape from their beauty and their "bugs":
...to read and hear the texts of Holy Week, with their relentless scapegoating of ‘the Jews,’ is inevitably to confront the way in which a movement full of good intentions can go wrong. Wanting to alleviate suffering, the Jesus people compounded it. To reckon with that mystery is to confront a deeper one—that every human project can be complicit with the inflicting of hurt.
Of Bach and the Jews in the 'St. John Passion'
James R. Oestreich, The New York Times
A 1998 concert in Manhattan was an occasion to examine the Johannespassion and the wise nuance Michael Marissen brought to the piece. Marissen, a Bach and Handel scholar at Swarthmore, argued in his book Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion that, more than his peers, Bach was restrained in depicting the Jews. To understand this painful piece, Marissen looked at Bach as a curator and interpreter of several competing sources:
The text is concerned largely with sorting out which words and attitudes in the Passion derive from St. John, which from Martin Luther or later biblical commentators, and which from Bach. What Mr. Marissen finds is that Bach provided his own theological gloss on the text, by tying ideas together musically.
Updating Bach, or defacing him?
Corinna Da Fonseca-Wollheim, The Times of Israel
Perceived anti-Semitism in the St. John Passion leads many modern ensembles to introduce performances with a disclaimer or a discussion. Shulamit Bruckstein Çoruh, who programmed a St. John at Berlin’s main cathedral in 2012, went a step further, replacing some original text with “poetry by Paul Celan and Else Lasker-Schüler, translations of Yehuda Halevy, Rumi’s Rubayyat, and extracts from the Yom Kippur liturgy.” Musical sacrilege, as some parishioners called it at the time? Perhaps, but it takes guts to be that politically correct.
St. John Passion with Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars
Berlin Philharmonic (2014)
When you’re done reading, sit back by the radio cabinet and just enjoy Boston Baroque playing this beautiful music. Then feast your eyes with this rendition, beautifully performed and filmed by the Berlin Philharmonic last year. The stylized staging of Peter Sellars is on display here, as is the Philharmoniker’s slick digital concert hall.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    The stimulating ROS discussion and presentation of
    Bach’s “St. John Passion” raises a two-level question, On the lower level of this
    “double-decker” we look at the question microscopically, close up and we read:

    “Michael Marissen (author of the book Lutheranism,
    Anti-Judaism and Bach’s St. John Passion) argues that Bach softens the anti-Jewish tone of the sources he used for his libretto, including the Gospel text itself.”
    “Michael Marissen’s aforementioned book was born out of a controversy at Swarthmore College, where a group of Jewish students at refused to participate in a performance of
    Bach’s St. John Passion during the same semester that Marissen was
    teaching a seminar on Bach and Lutheran theology there.”

    At the upper level of this “double decker” we grapple with the formulation advanced by Abba Eban (see his TV program of decades ago, “History of the Jews”) where he repeats the
    following tripartite version of Jewish history among the Christians, evolving in these three stages:

    1. you can’t live among us as Jews

    2. you can’t live among us (ie ghettoization)

    3. you can’t live (Nazism)

    Do we want to say that Bach’s “St. John Passion” fits into this schema and then gets worse with Wagner’s “Das Judentum in der Musik” (“Jewry in Music”) which then culminates in the
    This is tempting but dubious to the max since nowhere were the Jews as integrated into society through indicators like intermarriage rates as in Germany. Nazism was partly a panic over this very integration.

    The late Prof. George Mosse, distinguished historian and Jewish refugee from the Nazis, was said to tell the following “counterfactual joke”:

    “Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism in the nineteenth century, falls asleep at the Dreyfus Trial in France and wakes up like Rip Van Winkle in 1945, decades later and learns about the Holocaust without knowing any details yet and exclaims:
    “I always knew that the French were capable of doing of such a thing.”

    In other words, the Mosse quip implies, one must be careful about multicentury causal arrows.

    This is also the defect in William Shirer’s 1960 classic, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” since the whole implied causal scheme of the book is that German anti-Semitism goes from Martin Luther to Hitler via novels and music and Hitlerism is a fulfillment, culmination or ultimate denouement of this megatrend.

    One could also bring in the point that Felix Mendelsohn the Jew triggered the Bach revival and seems not to have seen Bach as a raving anti-Semite.

    One can’t help in 2015 “walking the Holocaust backwards historically” to Bach or Luther or both but that often leads to purblind historical spurious causation.

    Very thought-provoking ROS show.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    This music is awesomely beautiful. The best show to date; ROS you are getting better and better. The commentary, especially Martin Pearlman, but the others as well, makes what could be taken as anti-Semitic in the libretto easier to put into place. So for me it paved an approach with more mental equanimity and so to the music. Oestreich in his review says that one has to deal with the libretto to fully appreciate this work. It seems so.

    I could never understand why Jews are so hated. Weren’t they playing the role they were supposed to play; weren’t they in that time the necessary instruments in the fulfillment of Christ’s mission? So isn’t it so that followers of the Christ who indulge in Jew-hating, anti-Semitisim through the ages either refusing or missing the opportunity to take Christ’s invitation to transcend? Anti-Semitism is in I think then a blockage and a dead end spiritually.

    I am grateful for James Carroll’s essay in the Globe linked above, his own enlightened spirit. Thank you for the youtube clips. I am hoping that this new 2015 performance by the Boston Baroque Ensemble on this podcast will be available in full.

    Thank you for this inspiration….

  • Potter

    Thank you Pete- squawk squad and a fresh cracker! … Kazantzakis is beautiful on this because he transcends for us, he comes to the love part, past the temptation, the impulse, to hate. Thank you!

    Also I have to add to mine above that it was not Pearlman that spoke for most of the hour, it was Marshall. Upon second listening I was struck by the beautiful soprano (still hoping to get this recording) but also Marshall’s own struggle to rationalize in order to get to the music itself. Still, it helped me too to arrive where I did.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    This outstanding ROS show could also be expanded, via poetic license, to ponder the
    rise of classical music which reflects anti-Muslim feelings as well as the
    biblical anti-Jewish ones a la “St. John Passion”, etc.

    Such epics as Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered” led to a parallel hostility to Muslims, reflected in many of the music and operatic productions based on this Tasso epic from 1581.
    Some such works from Bach’s own time are:

    Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel (London, 1711)

    · Armida in Damasco by Giacomo Rampini (Venice, 1711)

    · Armida abbandonata by Giuseppe Maria Buini (Bologna, 1716)

    · Armida al campo d’Egitto by Antonio Vivaldi (Venice, 1718)

    · Armida delusa by Giuseppe Maria Buini (Venice, 1720)

    · Renaud, ou la Suite d’Armide by Henry Desmarest (Paris, 1722)

    · Das eroberte Jerusalem, oder Armida und Rinaldo by Georg Caspar Schurmann (Brunswick, 1722)

    ·Armida abbandonata by Antonio Bioni (Prague, 1725)

    ·Armida al campo by Antonio Bioni (Breslau/Wrocław, 1726)

    ·Il trionfo di Armida by Tomaso Albinoni (Venice, 1726)

    ·L’abbandono di Armida by Antonio Pollarolo (Venice, 1729)

    ·Armida placata by Luca Antonio Predieri (Vienna, 1750)

    ·La Armida aplacada by Giovanni Battista Mele (Madrid, 1750)

    Handel was born in 1685 like Bach and the enormous success of the former’s “Rinaldo” lead to a spate of such works in the Tasso vein.

    Perhaps one could contextualize this musical development like this:

    “Tasso’s choice of subject matter, an actual historic conflict between Christians and Muslims (albeit with fantastical elements added), had a historical grounding, and created
    compositional implications (the narrative subject matter had a fixed endpoint
    and could not be endlessly spun out in multiple volumes) that are lacking in
    other Renaissance epics. Like other works of the period which portray conflicts
    between Christians and Muslims, this subject matter had a topical resonance to
    readers of the period, as the Ottoman Empire was advancing through Eastern Europe.”

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_Delivered

    Perhaps one could say that this is an example of the Edward Said “orientalism” (i.e. “otherization” of non-Europe, masking belligerence), as per his book by that name

    Thus bibles and epics are increasingly used to exclusionary effect, via music, in the case of both Jews and Muslims.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    I have to “gild the lily” here ( at Easter) and risk Chris getting a bigger head ( deserved) but it should be mentioned that the enlightened narrative bridging the music and the guests was the master at his best. He would add, I am sure, the editing and MM’s overall “je ne sais quoi”(aka the “concert master”)

  • Sarastro92

    Bach performances are even more poignant when performed by men and boys as Bach did .

    Some samples:

    Perhaps the most remarkable performances are alto arias from the John Passion
    recorded in the late 80’s by the famous Tolzer Knabenchor led in this
    performance by the legendary Nikolaus Harnoncourt and sung by alto Panito


    Christian Immler


    Also from the Dortmund Choralakademie:
    the “Ich folge” aria sung by Juls Serger


    The wrenching aria “Zerfliesse, mein herze” is sung by Tizian Geyer.


    ” Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears

    The complete John Passion performed can be seen on YouTube with the Tolzers and the Dortmunders.

    To honour the Most High.”

    Notice around 3:40 the anguished proclamation; “Dein Jesus is tot”
    (“Your Jesus is dead”)