Why the Bach Passions Are Problematic
What is our responsibility as singers and as choruses when historic choral works are offensive, even hostile, to a whole group of people? Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, discusses Bach's St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion.
At Easter time choruses often program a musical setting of the Passion—the story of Jesus' suffering and death. The two settings that are the most performed are J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion. So stunningly beautiful is the music, it's easy to overlook the words.
The text, taken in part from the gospel accounts and sung in German, is heard by many as blatantly anti-Semitic. What is our responsibility as singers and as choruses when historic choral works are offensive, even hostile, to a whole group of people? Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, has pondered this question for many years.
Q: Can you give us a little background on the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion? How did they come to be?
Tom Hall: Bach was required, as part of his job as Kapellmeister in Leipzig, to perform a setting of the Passion for Good Friday. The Passion is in two parts, with a sermon in between. The service was typically long and very solemn, and included music for chorus, orchestra, and lots of soloists.
The settings from Bach that we know today are the St. Matthew Passion, which is three hours long, and the St. John Passion, which is much shorter—about two hours—but in terms of its text it is considered more problematic than the St. Matthew.
Tell us about the problems. Both pieces are based on biblical texts, but the Gospel of John has much more difficult language as far as how the Jews are presented, right?
In both Gospels, the central problem is that of the accusation of deicide against the Jews. Throughout history, Christians have justified violence and persecution of Jews because they accepted the assertion that the Jews killed Jesus.
It's important to remember that in both Bach Passions, there are two sources of the text: the German Bible, and supplementary poetry meant to explain and underscore the meaning of the story. The story is told with texts from the Bible, sung by the evangelist (a tenor in both Passions), and the chorus, which plays the roles of various people and groups in the story—soldiers, Jews, Romans, etc. Bach also set to music commentary poems and chorales that reflect on the events in the story. What the Passions are, really, are musical sermons.
What is the major difference between the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels. The stories in these three books are really consistent with each other and scholars believe that they were written about the same time. The Gospel of John was written about 70 years after the other three. It was written not only in a different era, but for a different purpose and in a different political climate.
The depictions of Jesus presented in the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew are dramatically different. For example, in John there is no nativity story. Chapter one begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is established from the very first sentence as deity and as the Christ, as God.
Performances can be used to bring people together and to understand the history of anti-Semitism and to promote religious tolerance.
By contrast, in Matthew, the human aspect of Jesus is emphasized. He is, for example, somewhat apprehensive about what he knows is coming, and quiet before Pilate. In the Gospel of John he is a totally different person: He is a strong willed, brave figure who understands exactly what is going to happen. He knows when he sits down for the Last Supper how the rest of the evening is going to unwind. He has a totally different demeanor in each Gospel.
The tone of John is very different from the tone of Matthew. The tone of John is considerably more angry and vitriolic toward the Jews as a group, more so than in any of the other three Gospels. The text of John and the overall tone has been the source of great trouble in the Jewish community. There are musical scholars and Jewish thinkers who contend that the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion should not be played—ever—that performances do nothing but throw gasoline on the fire of anti-Jewish feelings that already exist in contemporary society, as they did in ancient society and in Baroque and Classical and Romantic societies.
On the other side of the spectrum are Christians who say, “This is our religious tradition. These are our stories. Don’t take it personally.”
But as performers of this music, what do you think our approach should be to this music?
As artists and musical participants, we need to understand that the words themselves are hurtful to Jews. We should also understand the context in which the Gospel of John was written, and we should understand how it has been used and misused.
There are about 75 references to Jews in Luther’s translation of the Gospel of John and 73 of those are negative. The Jews are clearly depicted as the bad guys right from the start, even before the Passion narrative starts.
With this understood, we as performers of the Passions have three options: 1) Refuse to sing it. You could say, this is great music but it is too hurtful. 2) Change the words, try to clean it up a little bit and soften it. Or 3) Perform it without comment.
And I would suggest a fourth alternative, which is what the Baltimore Choral Arts Society has done since 1991: Perform the Passions with an extensive public discussion about the historical context of the Gospels and Bach’s music. This cannot be done by only publishing program notes. It requires a panel, a discussion, and an engagement with the community and with the audience in a way that helps people understand the context in which the Gospel of John was written, the context in which the music was written by Bach in the 1720s, and the context in which it sits now in the canon of art and in the cultural landscape of contemporary society.
People should understand that, from a Jewish perspective, the Passions have very strong emotional consequences. To ignore that fact is to put your head in the sand. Performers should be sensitive about these issues.
Performances of the Bach Passions can be an occasion to understand the differences in perspective on this text and on this music, from Christian and Jewish points of view. Performances can be used to bring people together and to understand the history of anti-Semitism and to promote religious tolerance.
As singers, how should we approach singing these works?
I suggest that any chorus begin their rehearsal by reading an English translation of the text, out loud, so that singers really understand what they are being asked to sing.
Have you ever had singers who were really concerned about singing these pieces?
I think every singer should be concerned about singing these pieces. Performers have to understand what they are singing and understand what the stories are saying. People should also understand that, from a Jewish perspective, the Passions have very strong emotional consequences. To ignore that fact is to put your head in the sand. Performers should be sensitive about these issues. There are Jewish and Christian singers who have no trouble singing the Passions. And there are others who say, I cannot let these words come out of my mouth.
You can also make the case that Bach’s musical choices in both Passions go a long way toward opposing the argument that the Jews killed Jesus. In the chorales and the arias that surround the biblical text, Bach consistently brings the responsibility for Jesus’ death back on the community of sinners—which includes everyone. Where do Pilate and the Roman authorities fit into this story? How is our understanding of the story informed by the events in history in which this story has been used to justify violence towards Jews? These questions must be grappled with.
Overall, we have to understand that religion matters. It was Bach’s intention to “incite listeners to devotion.” Bach is preaching a particular point of view with the Passions. We need to understand where we might diverge from that point of view ourselves and understand that the music does exactly what he set out to do—to advance that point of view in a very compelling and powerful way.