Bach 360°: The Passions, Ravishing and Disputed

Understanding the St. John Passion's Controversial Texts

Friday, March 29, 2013

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 is getting several performances around the U.S. this season, and is the subject of a recent recording by the Portland Baroque Orchestra led by Monica Huggett (a portion can be downloaded above).

The St. John has been a somewhat harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations, and has periodically stirred heated debate. "The gospel of John is problematic because of the burden it places upon the Jewish people for Jesus,” said WQXR host Kent Tritle. “There’s a comfort zone issue here.”

The controversy flared up in 1995 at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, where several members of the college choir refused to perform the work because they perceived portions of the text as anti-Semitic. The performance made national headlines (though it was never cancelled) and it prompted scholars to explore how Bach handled the biblical verses in text and music.

Among those scholars was Michael Marissen, a noted Bach expert who teaches at Swarthmore, and who in 1996 published Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion. "It’s well known that there’s some challenging language in the Gospel of John,” he said in an interview at WQXR. “There’s the passion story itself which keeps referring specifically to the enemies of Jesus as ‘the Jews, the Jews, the Jews,’ which the other canonical gospels don’t.” Indeed, the word “Jews” appears about 70 times in the Gospel of St. John and appears only once or twice in the other gospels.

“Most of the text of the St. John Passion is Biblical text taken right from John: 18 or 19,” said Marissen. Then, after every two or three verses, the story breaks off and a soloist or the choir sings verses from 16th, 17th or 18th century sources which comment on that part of the story. In this clip, Marissen discusses how the text goes beyond identifying the Jews to labeling them as "liars, murderers and Godless."

Although Bach was not exactly at liberty to substantially change the wording of the biblical text, he could determine what to emphasize. Some have questioned whether the composer’s setting of the choruses is just a little too vivid. But Marissen argues that Bach was relatively restrained when compared with Handel or Telemann in their own passion settings. "Somewhat surprisingly, Bach’s St. John Passion does not take that tack,” said Marissen. “It leaves the Jews alone and harps on how sinful the Lutherans are and how they’re to blame for the death of Jesus.”

For Bach, it was a question of timing. Contemporary Lutheran belief held that the passion season wasn’t an appropriate time to be casting blame. "But before we get too happy that Bach is ecumenical and loving and so on, I’m sorry to say that’s not the case,” said Marissen. Bach’s Cantata BWV 44 Sie werden euch in den Bann tun (They will put you under banishment), Marissen argues, refers to banishing Jews from the synagogues, and other cantatas have been called into question for their anti-Judaic sentiments.

In modern performances of the St. John Passion, a few conductors have substituted terms like "rabble" for "Jews" or even printed disclaimers in their programs. Marissen advises against soft-pedaling the work’s messages. “My own sort of theological view is that in order for the gospels to be significant and meaningful, it needn’t be the case that everything they say be beautiful and wonderful,” he said. “I don’t see why they can’t be important without being tainted by some level of ugliness as well.”

Marissen adds that he wishes the Bach passions “be performed two or three times as often as they are because it would provide an excellent opportunity for having a conversation about meaning and life.” 

Audio: Marissen on the differences between the St. John & St. Matthew Passions:

FREE Download [Expired]: Bach’s St. John Passion ("Betrachte, mein Seel") by the Portland Baroque Orchestra, Joshua Hopkins, bass

The Portland Baroque Orchestra, billed as the fourth-largest period-instrument ensemble in the US, performs the 1724 version of the St. John Passion. Joining the orchestra is Portland-based choir Cappella Romana and baroque specialist, English tenor Charles Daniels as the Evangelist. Monica Huggett, the orchestra's artistic director, conducts this performance (Available at

Programming Highlights for Friday, March 29

2pm: St. John Passion, BWV 245  Recorded Live at Carnegie Hall on March 25, 2012. Featuring Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec, conducted by Bernard Labadie. Soloists include Karina Gauvin, Ian Bostridge and Nicolas Phan (full details)

8pm: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244

12am: St. Mark Passion, BWV 247 (This is a lost work which has been reconstructed.)


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Comments [24]

concetta nardone from Nassau

What arrogance on the part of the snotty elites over at QXR to give us 10 days of Bach. I noticed that the station did not replay any of the angry comments about the programming.
Yes, I do contribute.

Apr. 01 2013 09:07 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Leigh from NYC,

You can look at the comments in this thread and decide that the impression of hostility worthy of challenge is the one you see as coming from me? Sweet.

If I'm hostile, it's toward BS and from my view there's no BS more monumental than religion - whichever religion you choose.

But I'll ignore the religion aspect.

I've no problem with much of Bach's music. No one posting at WQXR's web site has called for the playing of Glenn Gould more than me. NO ONE. And Gould is famous primarily for his Bach interpretations. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Gould's family name was originally Gold but his parents didn't want to be mistaken for Jews and changed it to Gould. Gould himself had no patience for people trying to push religion on him. Perhaps, people like you.

I used to teach. Elementary school and college. I remember the old black blackboards that with time hardened and got shiny. Using hard chalk on those boards often generated a squeal that further generated a resonant squeal from half a dozen people sitting in the room. Now I could have decided that the squealing was an appreciation of the soaring wonder of the sound I had produced, with its resonant arias and that anyone who didn't appreciate the "music" was somehow lacking or "hostile." Instead, I'd break the chalk into small pieces which tended not to screech as readily.

The music Q is playing is not often heard because most people don't like it. It's that simple. If that were not so most broadcast stations would be playing it. Most aren't. The piano has replaced both the organ and harpsichord because people much prefer its sound.

People like me.

Now if you water boarded me to instill some sort of devotion to the spiritual quality of this music and these instruments, with time and a few dunkings, I'd probably "see the light" and listen with a glazed smile (signifying the religious possession). I think that sort of treatment is called an inquisition.

Until then, thanks but no thanks.

Mar. 31 2013 01:50 PM
Leigh from NYC

@Silversalty - you sound like a hostile person. Maybe you should try listening to more Bach, not less. @WQXR - loved having the whole St. Matthew Passion on Friday evening. Truly an amazing work and a real experience to listen to in full. The new St. John Passion recording very beautiful too.

Mar. 31 2013 12:23 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Ahhh. There's nothing like hate in the name of God. Remember, 'demonize' isn't a metaphor to the devoutly religious (or conveniently so) and killing demons is doing God's work.

Thanks Q for this glorious 10 days religious love, ramming it down the ears of your previously regular listeners.

Just don't anyone mention Upchuck or Hope-a-dope or your comment will be deleted.

Happy Easter all.

Mar. 31 2013 10:16 AM

Chris - i can't really tell but you seem to be insisting that Antisemitism is an essential part of your Christianity

Mar. 31 2013 08:11 AM
Rita from Catskill mountains.

A week and a half of of joy! ..How wonderful to stream Bach wherever I am. With stage IV cancer, I have to rest allot. Listening to Bach makes every moment a wonder. Thank you WQXR.

Mar. 31 2013 07:27 AM
Ann Butterfield Coleman from Wichita Falls, TX

Having grown up in New England and having been blessed with parents who treasured classical music, I cut my teeth on WQXR broadcasts. So after more than 50 years of living in the Southwest USA with a scarcity of broadcast classical music, I was elated to discover recently that I can now listen to WQXR on my Android via your app. This discovery has enabled me to become a partaker in your extraordinary Bach 360 Festival, something which I had never imagined and now will never forget. Thank you, WQXR, for a significant and joyful experience!

Mar. 30 2013 08:20 PM
Mick taylor

Bach like Handel are overated composers whose music would not have been possible without the Italians who invented the language, form and instruments of baroque music.Vivaldi, Corelli, Albinoni,and many others were as great as them but due to pro - German music critics have placed them on a pedestal they do notdeserve. Most of handel's music was taken from Italian composers like Corelli and Vivaldi whose messiah chorus and water music were plagiarized from these two respectively.

Mar. 30 2013 07:47 PM
Victoria V schultz from Paris France

I'm listening to your glorious 360 all of Bach (is that possible) in Paris France. I had my internet connenction upgraded just in time to be able to enjoy what I would usually be listening to in NY. All Bach has been my Xmas favorite for decades on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR. I'm glad you follow suite and devote an extended period of time to give us this fabulous music. Also, I went to hear the St. John Passion performed here by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The next day, voila, I heard in again on WQXR. Fabulous!

Mar. 30 2013 10:14 AM
Chris.T from Short Hills, NJ

a) To the Bach detractors above, one can only say that the judgement about Bach by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Toscanini, Stokowski Gould, Casals,Richter, Fischer-Dieskau, just to name a few, is quite a bit more meaningful than your ill informed complaining. Thank you WQXR!!!!

b) As to the St. Johns Passion comments:
fundamentally these are criticisms of the Holy Gospel and thus of out Bible.
As such, they are offending Christianity's holiest Book, and my religion itself.
That is more illegitimate than anything that wants to be seen as offensive. In fact someone of another religion does not have the right to critice another religion.

What about the countless anti-Christian parts of the Talmud, for examplea Jesus being called a basmati?
Or the teaching to spit on the ground when passing by a church, still observed today by many (see Lakers, HI) or prosecution of people missionarizing by handing out the New Testament in Israel?

But one is not supposed to say that, instead one must only listen to his own religion being criticized.

Mar. 30 2013 08:03 AM
Herb Spark from San Diego, CA

Enough with the 24/7 Bach360---
How about 24/7 Bach365?

These past days have been like having Bach as a beloved house guest and my supreme joy is now somewhat tempered by the knowledge that he will soon leave. I eagerly await his return.

One of the outstanding aspects of Bach360 has been that so many works have been presented in their entirety, or at least in reasonable portions. The internet offers at least one all-Bach channel, numerous other single-composer channels, and several all-Baroque channels. The problem, other than annoying commercials, is that snippets are generally played, which respects neither the composer nor the listener (not to mention the performers). If anyone knows how to lodge this complaint with the offending channels, please inform WQXR so they can tell me.

Mar. 30 2013 04:01 AM
Angela from NYC

Thank you so much for these days of Bach. I have jotted down pieces that I will put on hold at the library and then download to my mp3 player.

Re: St John's Passion. If people are offended, then don't listen or participate in the performance.

Mar. 29 2013 11:03 PM
mariop from Seaford, NY

Never tired of listening and discovering new layers and substance in the UNIVERSE OF J S BACH.
Thank you thousand times WQXR

Mar. 29 2013 09:56 PM


Mar. 29 2013 09:51 PM

I am a Bach fan who has become a rabid fan of both Bach and WQXR because of your programming this past week. It was a courageous move and a tour de force. I can only imagine the amount of planning and preparation for this event. I have listened part of every day and also spent time on your very fine web-site. I have learned, been entertained and often overwhelmed by the range of one of our greatest composers. Your on-air talent has maintained a high level of energy and enthusiasm and good humor. They have been worthy companions for this exploration.

I am a recent returnee to WQXR. I believe you will continue to be courageous in your programming in the future. You have demonstrated the organizational ability and talent to take on a major enterprise such as this. You can build, I believe, a new audience for classical music with the resources you have displayed. Congratulations on a job well done.

Mar. 29 2013 06:20 PM
Olivia from Manhattan

I am of the opinion that too many listeners closed their minds to the music of Bach360 too soon, to their loss. Can people really claim that they'd rather hear "The Noonday Witch" or that bouncy Latin piece by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra yet another time, rather than have the chance to hear a Bach cantata, or keyboard piece, that is rarely if ever played on the air or performed in concert? When in your life will you ever again have the chance to delve so deeply into the work of the composer whom many consider the greatest who ever lived?

Yes, this has been somewhat of an intellectual challenge. Not easy listening, but rather, music which demands one's attention, and repays it a thousandfold. This is New York City...I'd think we would have some of the most sophisticated listeners in the world. The negative, often snide, comments (and threats to withhold future donations!) really surprise me.

Mar. 29 2013 06:00 PM
paul from South Orange, NJ

Just voicing my opinion to cancel out at least one of the detractors. These days have been marvelous. I've had a stressful week, and each of the many times I've tuned in has been a revelation and a balm. Bach is the foundation of everything noble in music. I will be a much more frequent listener to qxr now; I usually only listen to WNYC. A brave move on the station's part, and an unalloyed triumph, in my opinion!

Mar. 29 2013 03:52 PM
Jenny Knight from San Antonio, Texas

I, for one, have truly enjoyed the Bach 360 days. Of course, I will enjoy hearing other composers in April, but for now, Bach On!

Mar. 29 2013 02:03 PM
Carolyn from Pearl River from Pearl River, NY

Bach has never been a favorite of mine. These days have given me a headache. I miss the general symphonies and enjoying some of the magnificent music often played on the station. Please release me from Bach!!

Mar. 29 2013 01:10 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Even though I have not been listening to the Bach 360 festival, I will certainly tune in for the St. Matthew Passion tonight. And Jeff Erickson is correct. The use of the term "the Jews" in the Gospel accounts refers to the Jewish authorities, not to the Jewish people as a whole. After all, the first Christians were Jewish!

Mar. 29 2013 10:34 AM
Lancey from Manhattan

To everyone grousing about Bach overload, cheer up! Only 3 more days to go. Even if you feel you just can't stand another minute, try to tune in at 8pm for the St Matthew Passion. I challenge you to listen with attention, an open mind and heart to what I consider one of the pinnacles of Western classical music. I think one of the aims of Bach 360 was to stretch people's boundaries and perhaps facilitate new discoveries. Hopefully in hearing one of his most sublime works, even the less diehard fans of Bach out there will find themselves elated, moved, and in awe of the man's greatness.

Mar. 29 2013 09:56 AM
Charles Dimston

If I don't hear Bach for the next year or two your 360 will have sufficed ...what a bad idea , between fund raising and 360 I'm looking for listening alternatives

Mar. 29 2013 08:45 AM
Jeff Erickson from Washington DC

If we understand that the author of the Gospel of John uses "The Jews" to refer to the collaborative Jewish authorities, the issues is defused. The Romans typically used local leaders to govern their conquests. They were the Quislings of their time - in bed with the oppressors, enriching and empowering themselves at the expense of their own people.

Mar. 29 2013 07:22 AM
Frank from UWS

Wow, and I thought Wagner wasn't a nice guy. This doesn't say much about Bach's judgment. But in his defense, those were the times. Antisemitism was probably commonplace in 18th century Leipzig - perhaps even more than in Germany during Wagner's time. I wonder if Bach ever wrote much about his beliefs in this regard?

Mar. 29 2013 07:20 AM

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