What do you hear in Bach's "St. John Passion"?
J.S. Bach’s Bitter-Sweet Passion
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
Conductor and music director at Boston Baroque
Mezzo-soprano, translator, and educator at Emmanuel Music
Emeritus Professor of Music at Brandeis University. Author of The Compositional Process of J.S. Bach and The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Associate professor of history and religion Boston University
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'
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.
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.
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.
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.