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Bach’s “Saint John Passion” in Context

Bach’s music is core to the repertoire of the SPCO and the Saint John Passion represents one of Bach’s greatest artistic achievements. It is a powerful and important work, and we are excited to share it with our audiences.

We want to acknowledge that some of the text for this piece, which is derived directly from the Gospel of John, is troubling in its portrayal of Jews. In preparing to share this music with our community we felt strongly that we must acknowledge this aspect of the text and provide context for our audiences. To that end, SPCO Artistic Director Kyu-Young Kim sat down with Jonathan Cohen, conductor and SPCO Artistic Partner, and Matthew Culloton, director of The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists, to discuss the dramatic force of Bach’s Saint John Passion, the controversial depiction of Jews in this work, and why it’s important that this work be heard by audiences today.

We wanted to draw special attention to this interview in light of the horrific shooting last weekend at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We hope you will read it and that you’ll explore the additional resources cited in the interview that help put Bach’s Saint John Passion in context. Ultimately, we hope that you will be moved and transformed by this music, that it will open up a meaningful dialogue around how we interpret and experience works of art in a changing world, and that experiencing this music with hundreds of your fellow community members will help bring us all closer together.

Kim: When Bach assumed his new post as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, he assured the church that he would not write in an excessively operatic vein, and yet, for his first Good Friday Vespers service in Leipzig in 1724, he unveiled this Saint John Passion, full of drama and vivid narrative force. How operatic is Bach’s Saint John Passion, and how does this inform your approach to the work as a whole?

Cohen: Whether or not you think of it as opera, or whether Bach was thinking of opera, it is up to us the performers to bring out the true nature of the work, and there is no doubt that Bach wanted the listeners to feel the Passion story in a truly visceral way. Think of the Leipzig congregation who hadn’t heard any polyphonic music during almost the whole of Lent, and then suddenly being thrust into the story of Jesus’ crucifixion with this churning opening chorus full of searing dissonances in the woodwind parts, and impassioned cries from the chorus. I remember when we all first discussed this project and we talked about the size of the chorus. This piece really calls for a sizeable chorus to intervene and interject, often portraying a bloodthirsty mob, and we can’t shy away from that aspect of the score.

Culloton: Yes, that means the chorus needs to fully grasp which character they represent each time they sing. For instance, in the angry turba choruses, they play a very different role than when singing chorales or representing the priests. There really are about five different characters that the chorus plays, which is similar to the way opera choruses (and also those in musical theater) exist. At no point is there a Greek chorus-like disassociation from the ongoing narrative.

Kim: Much has been written about Bach’s portrayal of the Jews in the Saint John Passion, and criticism has been leveled against the work as being overtly anti-Semitic. How do we grapple with that?

Culloton: John Eliot Gardiner writes very thoughtfully about this topic, reminding us that the anti-Semitic passages come from the Gospel of John, and ought not be laid at Bach’s feet. As a dramatic narrative, Bach uses the mob as the most important dramatic device of the work, especially when paired with the collective grief found in the chorales that surround these angry scenes. Gardiner points out that having the chorus play both the angry mob and the community of the faithful shows the personal pain of realizing that the persecutors of Jesus whom we detest, are us.

Cohen: It is undeniable that Jews are portrayed in a negative light, both in terms of the biblical text which comes directly from the Gospel of John, but also in how Bach portrays the vehemence and ferocity of the Jews’ call for Jesus’ crucifixion in musical terms. But there are also significant choices that Bach made in assembling the nonbiblical text that support this view that Bach’s overriding message is not about the Jews as villains, but that all humans are sinners, and we all therefore bear responsibility for Christ’s death. The Bach scholar, Michael Marissen, points to Chorale 15 which poses a question, “Who was it, Lord, who struck thee,” and then answers, “I, I and my offenses, in number like the grains of sand found by the sea,” as one of the clearest examples of this.

Kim: It seems like you are both arguing for the transformational potential of Bach’s music, in spite of the anti-Semitic overtones. Why is it important to perform this work for modern audiences?

Cohen: We live in a secular age, and we can’t expect listeners today, especially a non-German speaking audience to have the same kind of experience as Bach’s listeners. But there is something utterly radical and wonderful in this modern age for thousands of people, over the course of our three performances of this work, to shut off the immediacy of their devices, and immerse themselves in Bach’s bottomless music, share in this communal experience, and, we hope, feel the Passion story in a visceral way, as Bach intended.

Further Reading:

Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 2013, pp. 361-362.

Marissen, Michael. Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s “St. John Passion.” Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1998.