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Bach 360°: The Passions, Ravishing and Disputed

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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.)