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