(As David mentioned, last night I performed Bach's St. John Passion with Emmanuel Music. I wrote up some remarks for a pre-concert talk with our artistic director John Harbison, which I didn't have time to actually recite. That was probably for the best. But you can read what I wrote up below.)
My motivation for speaking tonight is simply to shed a little light on what goes through my mind performing this piece. And since most of the supposedly anti-Jewish ugliness is going to pass my lips tonight, I thought it would be good to speak with my own words. One might well ask what I’m thinking about as I deliver these often quite bitter and damning words – am I really aware of what I’m saying?
I admit that as I perform, I am not thinking of the effect of the words beyond what I imagine to be their original intent. If I think about the words “Jüden” (Jews) at all, it’s in their original sense in the Gospel; that is, the people who lived in Judea. At Emmanuel, in certain cantatas we’ve been known to bowdlerize “den Jüden” into “den Leuten” (“the people”). And in the case of the crowd scenes in the Passion narrative, I think the two are interchangeable.
Honestly, I don’t have the ability to divide my attention away from the drama of the words; and music; and the physical act of singing, in order to think about the effect of what I’m saying. And if I did, it would compromise the entire performance, to no one’s satisfaction. But that is not to say that outside those two hours of performance, questions of artistic intent and effect do not prick my conscience.
Those of us who perform classical music are in a “re-creative” field – rarely speaking with solely our own sui generis thoughts, either in music or words. But of course, we are not ciphers. We are individuals, with consciences and responsibilities to our audiences, and to our neighbors. It is often not clear — either to an audience or ourselves — how much of our text we endorse aesthetically, as means to an artistic end; or how much we endorse literally, woven into our real-world morals; or, none of the above. We may truly believe in Mozart’s sublime essay of forgiveness in Marriage of Figaro, and feel a soul-affirming glow; but do we believe the three scheming men at the end of Cosi fan tutte, when they finally agree that women simply cannot be faithful? And what about Magic Flute’s racism and relentless misogyny? Do we internally scoff? Chuckle? Do we believe it? Quit the business entirely, and become singer-songwriters so that we can say what we really mean?
And then, what if we’re talking about not just culturally hallowed ground, but literally sacred text? Then what?
As listeners, we become aware of an archeology of St. John – Like layers of rock in tectonic plates that have been ground together over time, the piece operates on several temporal layers simultaneously. Is this confusing for an audience? How could it not be?
The first is the gospel text in its own time, as a polemical retelling of events that reflects the religious and political conflicts of the first century. The gospel text itself in its specifics may or may not be literally true and historical; the real history to be gleaned from the text is a theological and cultural history. That includes the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in the first century AD; the bitter divisions between Christian Jews and rabbinical Jews; and cultural conflict between the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds; and the new Christian religion’s inroads into the Gentile world. The gospel text is absolutely enslaved to its own history.
The second is the context of the gospel in Bach’s time. It would not have been surprising for Bach to have inherited much of Martin Luther’s rancid anti-semitism, and indeed it shows up in at least one of his cantatas. Perhaps Bach’s depictions of the crowd of “Jews” – dissonant, violent, howling – reflect his own ingrained anti-Semitic animus. (Or maybe not.) Part of the audience’s journey of the imagination is to imagine how this text would have been heard by a congregation of the faithful in Leipzig in Bach’s time. It is neither a modern, “enlightened” interpretation, nor what was originally intended by the gospel writer.
The third temporal layer is that of our own time, and to my mind, it’s clearly the most troubling of all. Even for those of us who are skeptical of the idea of historical inevitability, it is overwhelmingly easy to see the Holocaust as a culmination of the Christian world’s vengeance for the alleged events in the Gospel of John, and not as some fluke of history. And indeed, even now, that catastrophe has not caused the embers of anti-Semitism to burn themselves out.
But I want to return to the second context – Bach’s time, since tonight’s audience will inevitably been drawn to that first and foremost. I fail to see where Bach nor his librettists added any particular viciousness to the gospel text as it already exists. Indeed, the texts chosen as commentary to the gospel put the guilt of Jesus’ crucifixion on the congregation itself – on the community of listeners. Wer hat dich so geschlagen … Ich, ich(!) To Bach, these events do not indict “the Jews” in particular; rather, all humanity is indicted.
Bach’s Passion is a story of redemption. To my mind, Bach redeems this still-troubled text with his music. Even now, the ugliness in the Passion narrative seems like the grain of sand which is made into a pearl by Bach’s inspiration.
Just yesterday I showed Es ist vollbracht to one of my voice students; and even in my weak, utterly inadequate bash-through on piano, I think she was hooked. I hope she feels some tiny fraction of what I feel every time I hear that aria. And if you sing that aria, you have to do the rest of the piece which makes it make sense. It cries out to be performed, and people will keep doing it.
But both audiences and performers need to go into the piece with open eyes, and ready for a struggle. Grappling with the St. John Passion today is not a passive moral experience, neither for performers nor audience! But it wasn’t intended that way in its own time either, after all. It’s a piece for Good Friday, nearing the end of a long period of atonement. As Leipzig’s congregations were made to ponder their own guilt, so today we are made to ponder the crushing weight of history on our own consciences. Bach’s librettist tells us to “Hurry to Golgotha … for your welfare blooms there.” Go back to where the bad thing happened. And maybe our well-being lies not in trying to ignore the ugliness of our own history, but in revisiting it, and continuing to process it in good faith.