November 30, 2017

The Afterlife of Otis Redding

Otis Redding’s five magnificent years in showbiz transformed the sound of soul music. His grainy, growling, and “squawking” voice kept the music rooted in the older traditions of the black church and black life in America. Yet ...

Otis Redding’s five magnificent years in showbiz transformed the sound of soul music. His grainy, growling, and “squawking” voice kept the music rooted in the older traditions of the black church and black life in America. Yet his secularized sound—tempered with the sweetness of Sam Cooke, the flamboyant flair of Little Richard, and the showmanship of James Brown—also ushered in a new era of African American pop in the ’60s.

With a little help from his virtuosic, multiracial band, Redding’s appeal also managed to cross over to white audiences on stage. His show-stealing set at the Monterey Pop Festival led Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to claim, after Redding’s performance, that he had “seen God on stage.” Chris’s brother Michael Lydon, a music journalist at the time, was also there covering the event. He described Otis’s appearance as “ecstasy, madness, loss, total screaming, fantastic.”

Six months later, that Monterey god died in a plane crash. “The crown prince of soul,” the Rolling Stone headline declared, “is dead.”

50 years after this tragic loss, we’re looking back at the living legacy of Otis Redding’s soul.

Jonathan Gould, author of the new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Lifegives us the origin story—tracing Redding’s career from his humble gospel roots in Macon, Georgia to his magisterial turn onstage in Monterey, California. Redding’s death, for Gould, also punctuates the end of one era of soul music.

James Brown (left) backstage with Otis Redding (right)

Larry Watson, who sings and teaches the soul tradition at Berklee College of Music in Boston, hears a slightly different story. For him, Redding represents an ideal model of an unassimilated African voice. As he wrote to us in an email earlier this week:

Otis Redding is a special breed and one of our foremost classical voices. He represents royalty in African-centered, unapologetic musical Blackness without ever uttering one political slogan. His very presence and sound represent our collective ancestral memory. It is the rumblings of God’s unhappiness with the way we continue to treat one another. His sound is Blind Tom, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner. He is also the sound of that vulnerable Black Mother and the Motherless Child. His sound captures what Dubois and Malcolm and King eloquently wrote about. He was one of our main vessels allowing us to mourn and rejoice that we would see another day of life.
For Larry, you can hear everything you need to know about Otis’s technique in the difference between Sam Cooke’s original version of “A Change is Gonna Come” and Redding’s raw re-interpretation.

Janice Pendarvis, one of the legendary back-up singers featured in the documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, takes great delight in performing Redding’s music. She once sang “Dock of the Bay” in a rehearsal for the reggae legend Max Romeo. Still today, she hears Otis’s posthumous hit as a “perfect record,” but in order to really understand the nuances in Redding’s performance style, she says, listen to  “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Emily Lordi is a literary scholar of the soul tradition at UMass Amherst. She wrote a book on Redding’s iconic female contemporaries—from Mahalia to Aretha—and another on one of Otis’s successors, Donny Hathaway. As a scrupulous close reader of this generation of soul singers, she shows us how those little “Tenderness” tricks were later transformed–and in some sense distorted–by Kanye West and Jay-Z:

Ed Pavlic is a poet with a keen ear for the long history of black music in America—much of which he distilled in a book we love, Who Can Afford to Improvise? on the musical inheritance behind James Baldwin’s prose. He take us through the evolution of the Otis style and spirit that came roaring out of the church and is still moving in the world—particularly through younger singers like SZA and Ravyn Lenae. The key for Ed Pavlic is not the sound of any performer, but the sound of a community.

As an added bonus, Pavlic also put together a special “continuous soul” playlist for us. The set of songs traces Pavlic’s history of an evolving tradition. Listen to it here:

Podcast • August 31, 2017

Amiri Baraka: Ennobled by Coltrane

Amiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered ...

barakaAmiri Baraka‘s death prompts me to repost a conversation we had about the music of John Coltrane, which inspired Baraka and ennobled the ambitions of his Black Arts movement. “Trane was our flag,” Baraka remembered back in 2007. “We could feel what he was doing. We heard our own search and travail in the opening of ‘Giant Steps.'”

In the summer of 1957 the poet then known as Leroi Jones chanced to live over the Five Spot in Manhattan when Coltrane and Thelonius Monk had a five-month learning-by-doing gig on the Bowery. Willem de Kooning and Jack Kerouac were also among the listeners and drinkers at the Five Spot. Baraka told me he missed barely a session of the music that culminated in the Monk-Coltrane Carnegie Hall concert in November, 1957 — a Blue Note best-seller only after the Library of Congress unearthed the tapes in 2005. This was early, lyrical Coltrane, at the dawn of the civil-rights era — “the rebellion” in Baraka’s phrasing, then and ever — for which Coltrane became a sort of soundtrack. For Baraka, Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” planted a bomb inside the sentimentality of Richard Rodgers and “The Sound of Music.” The hostility in Baraka’s listening had softened a lot by 2007, but Coltrane was still perhaps his highest representation of black art with social traction. Baraka follows Coltrane to the yowling last recordings — Coltrane’s ultimate showdown with self and life — with a shudder of shared pain. But if that is what Coltrane wanted us to hear, serious devotees have no choice. “You have to listen to it.”

“Ironic thing is,” Baraka said, “when I was locked up in 1967 in the rebellion in Newark, I found I was listening all the time to Coltrane’s tunes. And then late one afternoon, the jailer came by — it was July 17, 1967 — and said ‘your man Coltrane died today.’ When I was locked up. That amazed me!”

This Week's Show •

Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words ...

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.

 

 

This Week's Show •

Good News for Bad Times: Gospel Music from Boston

In transition time, pre-inauguration, was there ever a clearer cue for Gospel music?  “Good news for bad times,” it’s been called. Sanctified music for a broken world. While Michele Obama’s hope is challenged, the giants ...

In transition time, pre-inauguration, was there ever a clearer cue for Gospel music?  “Good news for bad times,” it’s been called. Sanctified music for a broken world. While Michele Obama’s hope is challenged, the giants of rap are owning up to their church roots: Kanye West says his Life of Pablo is a gospel album; and Chance the Rapper is singing re-birth and redemption on Coloring Book: “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.”

Out of slave spirituals like “Down at the cross where my savior died,” Gospel music keeps reinventing itself: It’s akin to the blues, but gospel is never secular, even when it’s commercial. And Gospel has a doctrine under the hand-clapping and shouts: that the least of us deserve better, that victory is coming and God can work it out.

Around the piano in my living room, we’re listening for the balm of tradition. This hour could sound like a party tape or a prayer meeting. The key players are Pastor Michael Haynes, who’s drawn multitudes to the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in the activist heart of African American Boston. Martin Luther King Jr. was Mike Haynes’s co-apprentice at Twelfth Baptist as a Boston University theology student in the early 1950s.

dminrome

Dennis Montgomery performing in Rome

And then in the mid-80s, out of Shreveport, Louisiana came the prize pianist in the room today, Dennis Montgomery III. Thirty years ago when his wary parents delivered him, age 17, to the Berklee College of Music, legend is that eyes met in a Howard Johnson on the Expressway in Boston – parents looking for a church home for their son, pastor Haynes looking for a pianist. Thirty years later, Dennis Montgomery runs the gospel program at Berklee, the biggest music school in the world, and makes big waves in a mighty stream of American music.

We’re hearing from several other local gospel stars, too, including the young Kwame Nkrumah, 22 year old Berklee alum and student of Dennis’s, who plays for us a sublime version of “Over My Head.” See a video of his performance below:

Joining Kwame is Jonathan Singleton, assistant professor at Berklee and current music director at Twelfth Baptist Church, and David Sparr, who’s bringing gospel spirit into his synagogue in Brookline.

July 21, 2016

Billie Holiday at 100

The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of ...

The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of suffering in a 20th-century underground: abandonment and child prostitution on the way to drink, drug addiction, and death at 44. “The most hurt and hurting singer in jazz,” said the authoritative Nat Hentoff.

szwed-profile

But resurrection in art jumps out of the soundtrack here — starting with her breakthrough film with Duke Ellington in 1934, when she sings, at age 19, “Saddest tale on land or sea, was when my man walked out on me.” Then, when we hear Billie Holiday’s recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” from 1944, she has stopped at our table in a small club and started speaking directly to us. There’s no other singer who ever made us cheer and cry at the same time. So Billie Holiday stands less for all that pain than for Hemingway’s dictum that a blues hero “can be destroyed but not defeated.”

In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, the meta-biographer John Szwed (also of Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Alan Lomax) traces the self-invention of an icon and finds the life and art of Billie Holiday running side-by-side with a truth-telling drive that did not quit. In our conversation, Szwed finds that to the end she was “smarter, tougher, funnier” than all but a few knew.

10ed71c309fb14c9d2fce197bacb0816

The Lovers, by Jacob Lawrence (1946). 

Five fine singers — Dee Dee BridgewaterDominique Eade, Marissa Nadler, Janice Pendarvis, and Rebecca Sullivan — are guiding us through their favorite Holiday songs: her vocal tricks and the social, emotional resonances of her music. Re-listening with them, we begin to understand and experience not just the Billie Holiday story, but the atmosphere of Harlem streets, nightclubs, and living rooms. We hear an “unflinching” voice and a “sophisticated” new sound in music.

The greatest jazz singer? The perfect jazz singer? Perhaps the only jazz singer that ever lived.

A Very Brief History of the Microphone


Lady Day not only embraced the use of the microphone, she revolutionized it. By bringing the “Harlem cabaret style” into the studio, she helped introduce a more subtle and restrained style of singing to recorded music. Our guest John Szwed gives us the rundown on how Holiday—along with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, and Johnnie Ray—helped to permanently change the way artists approached the mic. Read the complete story on Medium.

—Zach Goldhammer

Music From The Show

  • “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (1937)
  • “Symphony in Black” (1935)
  • “Solitude” (1941)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1939)
  • “Love For Sale” (1945)
  • “Them There Eyes” (1949)
  • “Strange Fruit” (1939)
  • “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (1935)
  • “Me, Myself, and I” (1937)
  • “No Regrets” (1936)
  • “I’ll Get By” (1937)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944)
  • “God Bless The Child” (1955)
  • “Gloomy Sunday” (1941)
  • “Lover Man” (1945)
  • “I’m a Fool To Want You” (1958)
  • “The End of a Love Affair” (1958)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1957)

You can listen to an expanded playlist here.

December 16, 2015

The Art of Wildness

The quote, from Henry David Thoreau, often goes: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Turns out Thoreau had been misheard. The real line is: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”Our guest Jedediah Purdy, author ...

The quote, from Henry David Thoreau, often goes: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Turns out Thoreau had been misheard. The real line is: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Our guest Jedediah Purdy, author of After Nature, says Thoreauvian wildness is exactly what our post-natural world requires. Purdy likes a new term, the anthropocene, to describe a geological age of our own making — one in which no place is untouched by human activity. And so, Purdy says, this new age needs a new program, beyond the Paris mandates, the carbon offsets, and clean-tech investments. More urgently, we need a radically different sensibility.

thoreau

In other words, we should learn to listen better — cultivate a deeper, more direct way of understanding ourselves and the landscape, toward a more participatory, more global politics. As Purdy says, “We’ve got to create that circuit between inside and outside in this wrecked world that we’ve made, if we’re going to be moved to participate in its healing and its improvement and its change.”

Along with John Luther Adams, the minimalist composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, and Janet Echelman, the world-renowned sculptor and urban designer, we’re re-imagining the environmental crisis in the wake of the accord in Paris. The economists had their turn. Now we’re asking: What would the artists do?

enviro artLeft: scale models of Janet Echelman’s artwork at her studio in Brookline. Right: Chris with John Luther Adams outside John’s apartment in Harlem.

Music From The Show: John Luther Adams

  • Illimaq (with Glenn Kotche) (2015)

Special thanks to Veronica Barron for her readings from Thoreau’s journal. Thanks also to Anne Callahan. Feature image, of Janet Echelman’s “As If It Were Already Here,” a temporary installation over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, by Michael J. Lutch.

 

July 1, 2015

Gunther Schuller, RIP: A Life Inside Music

When he was just a young musician, Gunther Schuller decided on four hours of sleep a night. At 18, Schuller told us, “I figured out, ‘God damn it: if I sleep eight hours a night, I’m ...

When he was just a young musician, Gunther Schuller decided on four hours of sleep a night. At 18, Schuller told us, “I figured out, ‘God damn it: if I sleep eight hours a night, I’m going to piss away a third of my life.’” He then stuck to that regimen for fifty or sixty years of work.

Schuller, who died last week at 89, was a prodigious, captivated, sometimes cantankerous prisoner of every kind of modern music: between Beethoven and Bill Evans, Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Parker, and his own atonal compositions, which he was still getting ready right up until the end. In one of his last interviews, Schuller showed us what he did with the extra hours: refining a taste, and building a biography, that passed through all the musical streams of the past century.

He began in earnest at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s as a teenage prodigy on the French horn, the same horn he played with Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” nonet in the 1950s. Schuller revived the New England Conservatory in the 1960s and ’70s and, inside it, revived the ragtime jazz that became the soundtrack of the Robert Redford and Paul Newman blockbuster movie, The Sting.

We interviewed Schuller at his house in Newton, a shrine to the loves of his life. It’s a home he made with his beloved wife, Majorie, and gave over to a grand piano topped with piles of sheet music, a wall of vinyl records, and hallways full of scores and programs. (You can get a look inside in this short documentary on Schuller recorded last year, amid the melting snow.)

Gunther Schuller was a music writer of the first rank: his histories of jazz are still considered definitive. And the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, thrums with the New York of his youth, what he remembers as, day and night, a “cultural paradise for all the world”: a mélange of jazzmen, artists, filmmakers, curators, African-Americans and German-Jewish emigrés, in a game of endless artistic oneupmanship.

52nd_Street,_New_York,_by_Gottlieb,_1948_crop

So of course it was Schuller, up late with his beloved wife, down Broadway between the Met and the jazz clubs, who went on to decree that “all musics are created equal.” Above a certain level, past which genius “changes the language of music,” it’s all pure democracy, and silly to say that Beethoven was better or worse than Mozart — or Duke Ellington:  “No matter what its label, if something is perfect — well, then, it’s perfect.”

On July 4th weekend,  we’re remembering Gunther Schuller. There was no more passionate guide to the many tones, feelings, and forward leaps of the musical 20th century in America, down to the vibrations in the pit of the Met.

Gunther’s Desert Island Discs

We talked about a lot of music in this hours-long conversation, but our new intern and producer Grant Holub-Moorman assembled a playlist of the best of it. From jazz virtuosos to The Rite of Spring, it’s perfect music born on the cutting edge.

Schuller accompanied his recommendations with opinions, technical observations, and stories — like this one, of a chance encounter at the East Side apartment of the Baroness von Koenigswaerter, one of jazz’s most memorable patrons in America:

…She had this huge apartment near the United Nations building, and that was a hangout for musicians. And by the way, when you walked into that — whatever number of rooms it was — man, you would get high just by being in there: oh, God!

There wasn’t very much furniture in half of that place; there were just mattresses on the floor. And so all the musicians gathered there, just as they wanted to. She did an open house…

Well, one night I went there. I wanted to meet somebody, I can’t remember who. And I laid down on one of these mattresses, and I kind of held my nose and ears. And Bird comes along: “Hey, Charlie!” And he stayed and laid down on a mattress near me. We talked about things, bad and good, in jazz and society and so on…

We lay there for a while, and Charlie said, “Gunther, I can’t stand it any more.” And he started: “I’ve played every kind of music I can play, I’ve played every kind of blues that I can play. I can’t do it anymore, because I know there’s” — I’m paraphrasing, of course — “I know out there there’s other great music, and I so much want to learn it.” And he mentioned, in particular, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which he had heard. I think John Lewis had told him to listen to it. John was doing the same kind of thing: trying to get musicians enriched in the other type of language.

It was terrifying. He started almost crying. He said, “I want to study with you.” And I said, “Of course, of course.” Then it never happened, because (a), one time he said he was gonna come — he never showed up. And another time, his saxophone was in a hock shop, a pawn shop… And three months later he died.

Parker died watching TV on the sofa of the same apartment, on March 12, 1955. The New York Times notice three days later is below. The police and the Times were famously wrong about Bird’s age: at his death he was 34 years old. CP-death

Schuller called our attention to another such melancholy moment, on television: the famous final concert of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, together on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz, on December 8, 1957. The song was “Fine and Mellow”:

…Lester and Billie hadn’t seen each other in a while. I kind of feel that they were in love with each other. Lester was in such bad shape at that time that the producer had begun to decide, “We can’t have him perform; he can’t do it.” Then they had a meeting amongst the musicians and they finally said, “Listen: we cannot do this program without Lester Young. Whatever happens.”

And so then he played. He played only 12 bars. I’m gonna choke up now. And Billie sang it a thousand times. And she stood there looking at him, about ten feet away from him. If you ever saw love expressed on a film, in this music, it was that moment.

June 2, 2015

Whitman at War

The best of American poets and the worst of American wars met head-on 150 years ago this summer in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his reflections on nursing the wounded and dying soldiers of Union and Confederacy. ...

The best of American poets and the worst of American wars met head-on 150 years ago this summer in Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his reflections on nursing the wounded and dying soldiers of Union and Confederacy. This is not the Whitman who celebrated himself and working people in Leaves of Grass ten years earlier, though he is more than ever “the poet of the body and of the soul.” This is Whitman in his mid-forties, crossing like Dante into a mass-murdering inferno of screaming pain, and finding also in the despair an astonishing measure of beauty and love.

The audacious young composer Matt Aucoin, at 25, three years out of Harvard, sets his new Whitman opera in the battlefield hospital where Whitman served as a nurse. Aucoin hears Whitman in a mid-life crisis. He’s gone South in a hurry to find his brother, who’s been wounded at Fredericksburg, Virginia. But Whitman is crossing, with a purpose, not just into a war zone but into an oozing “bloody, black and blue” pit of amputation and agony after battle: 18,000 men had been killed or wounded in the Confederate victory over three days at Fredericksburg. In this setting, Whitman took on his last big mission in poetry: to see and describe what no one, back to Homer, had described before. That is, the comradeship, kindness, generosity, the “adhesiveness”—inescapably the love—that surfaces among men at war.

Lisa New, who teaches American poetry at Harvard, is going to remind us of the Whitman who wandered Brooklyn leading up to the Civil War. And throughout the hour, Ben Evett—actor and artistic director at the newly revived Poets’ Theatre—summons the Whitman of key poems like “The Wound-Dresser.” Here’s an excerpt:

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
The literary critic Harold Bloom chimes in with his ranking of Whitman: great American or greatest American? And finally Lawrence Kramer, the musician and cultural musicologist at Fordham University who edited the 150th anniversary edition of Drum-Taps from the New York Review of Books, will examine the sonic dimension of Whitman’s words.

This Week's Show •

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 ...

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

l

Podcast • March 2, 2015

A Winter Journey with Ian Bostridge

The English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler ...

review-books-nonf_9_210239cThe English tenor and writer Ian Bostridge is happily and articulately fixed on a musical mountaintop: For 30 years he has been singing Franz Schubert’s deathbed song-cycle “Winterreise,” the “Winter Journey” of a desperate traveler toward madness and death. Think of these 24 songs as the first and all-time concept album, written in 1827 by another of those Viennese geniuses in the footprints of Mozart and Beethoven.

These are songs conceived by a 30-year old genius who knows he dying — of syphilis, it is said. Winterreise has the rattle of death in it, like Schubert’s most-played posthumous Piano Sonata in B-flat, and long soaring melodies as well. The cycle has an unearthly ring all through it, the sound of the heavens looking back on natural life. Or so it has often seemed to me. Ian Bostridge sings these Schubert songs as a path that many moderns still find themselves following — Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman come quickly to mind. Ian Bostridge’s omnidirectional book of reflections on the songs chase down a host of implications along the way.

Franz SchubertThe short form on Schubert (1797 – 1828): he was a demigod of musical Vienna in Beethoven time, popular and prolific. Hundreds of songs and chamber pieces, 7 finished symphonies and 1 famously unfinished one. But it’s this set of 24 songs, finished on his death bed, aged 31, that seals his genius. It makes almost any list of the faultless master creations in any category of art—up there with Don Quixote, the Taj Mahal, Moby Dick, My Fair Lady — and Ian Bostridge gets to live inside those songs on stage year after year and now inside this irresistible manual: Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession.

Winter Journey is a punctuated series of cries from the heart of a desperate traveler—sometimes melting, sometimes burning, mostly frozen by snow and ice—hail storms in his heart and a bitter wilderness outside as he plunges toward his own black graveyard. You can feel the frenzy in Bostridge’s sometimes grainy tenor; the standard “Winterreise” in our time has been the majestic, perhaps more stoical procession of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who made it a baritone’s piece. Either way, the piano voice in these songs is as marvelous as the singers, it’s not just accompaniment. And maybe the most distinctive touch in Wintereisse is that each of the 24 links in this headlong adventure — the story possibilities, connections and digressions in art, history, life, love, science, German unification, anything — fan out in every direction. We’re taking up Ian Bostridge invitation to listen carefully and then digress with him.