Bach's St. John Passion: Ravishing and Disputed

Thursday, March 22, 2012 - 03:39 PM

J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has always gotten more respect than his other telling of the crucifixion story -- the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew, with its six-part choir and double orchestra, is grander, about 45 minutes longer, and generally more imposing.

But don't underestimate the St. John, which will be the centerpiece of a performance by the French-Canadian chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy at Carnegie Hall on Sunday at 2 pm (WQXR will broadcast it live). Its very compactness gives it a force of its own.

“The St. John’s text is much more direct and burns like a coal,” said Kent Tritle, the WQXR host and director of cathedral music and organist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. “The St. Matthew is much more narrative and takes more time to work out.”

The St. John has also become a somewhat harder sell in an era alert to ethnic characterizations. The work's harping on “the Jews” as the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus has led some people to view it as anti-Semitic. Some orchestras have printed disclaimers in their concert programs. One church in Berlin, Germany is reportedly debuting a “cleaned-up” version this season to some debate.

“The gospel of John is problematic because of the burden it places upon the Jewish people for Jesus,” said Tritle. “There’s a comfort zone issue here.”

Scholars and performers have wrestled with the work’s message over time, but lately it has been suggested that Bach took the St. John's narration and dialogue almost verbatim from the Biblical gospel of John, which grew out of the era in which the book was written -- in A.D. 90 to 130. In those days, Christians were trying to ingratiate themselves with their Roman rulers rather than laying the blame for the crucifixion on the Roman Pontius Pilate. Some scholars, notably Michael Marissen, have also argued that Bach mollified through his music the anti-Semitic tendencies of the text.

Interpretive controversies aside, Tritle says the work is very rich in its formal structure, with the Evangelist’s telling of Jesus’s crucifixion regularly interrupted with timeouts for ruminative arias and eleven reflective chorales. These sweeping choral moments not only portray the crowd -- soldiers, priests, and populace -- but were also the work’s most interactive aspect in its day. “The chorales come at points where the congregation would actually join in singing some affirmation of what has just happened,” said Tritle. “You can imagine that the interaction was rather consistent from beginning to end.”

Weigh in: How important is it to examine alleged anti-Semitism in Bach's St. John Passion? Does it detract from the work in your view? Please leave a comment below.

With additional reporting by Aaron Cohen.

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Comments [2]

Enivel Lirva from New York, NY

What a ridiculous commentary. The text is historical. It is not antisemitic - it does depict a negative act instigated by Jewish people. The man Jesus was crucified at the request of Jews, who brought him to the Roman authorities. Complaining that the historical recording of a past act sheds a negative light does not erase the act, or change the past. Friends, this is the real world. People hold beliefs and convictions which, by their very nature, exclude certain other beliefs and convictions. It is the case that at a certain point Christianity does NOT agree with Judaism, and one is offended by the other. No matter what this obscene post-modernity tells us, no one can accept all world views. We can all get along, and maybe we can all love - but we cannot all agree.

Apr. 15 2013 09:48 AM
Bernie from UWS

I don't find it troublesome because, as mentioned, Bach was simply setting a Biblical text. The Bible has lots of passages that would be deemed offensive today - about stoning women for adultary, etc. What's more problematic are some of Wagner's caricatures of Jews, which were clearly anti-Semitic.

Mar. 23 2012 08:25 AM

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