Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

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Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 15, 2017 6:22 am

I have to admit I'm completely unfamiliar with this work-as for St Matthew I've only listened to and liked some parts of the music of St. Matthew. As far as sitting down and actually listening to St. Matthew completely with words and music like I would for an opera I've never done that. But St John is a complete blank for me. I wonder if St. Matthew is also controversial--it seems from doing some googling it isn`t? Regards, Len

Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Has More Humanity Than Anti-Semitism


How passing strange. Typically, in the lead-up to Easter, Bach’s surviving Passions, the “St. John” and “St. Matthew,” each attract a performance or two in New York. But this spring, for whatever reasons, brought five major presentations of the “St. John” and none of the “St. Matthew.” And several new recordings arrived in recent weeks, all of “St. John,” as if to drive the point home.

But what, exactly, is that point? True, the “St. Matthew Passion” — first performed in Leipzig, Germany, in 1727, three years after the “St. John” — is a bigger, more complex work, and harder to present, with its multiple choruses and orchestras. On the other hand, it would seem an easier sell, being more majestic and ideologically trouble free.

Almost inevitably these days, the “St. John” courts controversy, with its bald use of the Gospel of John’s words, harping on “the Jews” as the prime instigators of Jesus’ death. All too vividly, it depicts Jesus facing his accusers, and the Roman prefect Pilate becomes an almost sympathetic figure, parrying with “the high priests and servants,” who shout, “Crucify, crucify!” to a frenzied orchestral backdrop, blood lust almost palpable in the sneering harmonies.

Even for those of us who treasure it, the “St. John,” as Alex Ross wrote recently in The New Yorker, “remains a little frightening.” The American choral master Robert Shaw, a secular humanist who loved the “St. John” ardently and performed it throughout his career, summarized the plight of Bachians in 1995: “Many of us never will cease to be embarrassed by its occasional vehement-to-vicious racial attribution regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus. There can be no doubt that its traditional text has added to the waves of anti-Semitism for generations and centuries since its composition.”

As this suggests, and as the musicologist Michael Marissen seconded in a lecture before the vocal group Tenet and the early-instrument band the Sebastians performed the work at the German Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Chelsea on March 25, the “St. John” problem has become ever more troubling in the decades since World War II and the Holocaust. With the horrible potential latent in anti-Semitism ever more apparent, any performance or hearing of this work must be cause for sober reflection, not mere mindless pleasure.

Is the Passion’s savage depiction of the Jews simply the work of a master storyteller? It is surely that, but not simply that. Bach’s own attitude becomes clearer in his music and in the poetry of the choruses and arias with which he surrounds John’s narrative.

An early chorale, for example, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” asks of the wounded Jesus, “Who has struck you so?” The second verse answers, “Ich, ich und meine Sünden”: “I” — we all, that is Protestant, Catholic and Jew alike — “I and my sins.”

Here, as Mr. Marissen notes in his book “Bach & God” (2016), “Bach moves the focus away from the perfidy of ‘the Jews’ and onto the sins of Christian believers.” And the work as a whole moves in an epic arc from turmoil to profound fellow-feeling and consolation, from inhumanity for the sake of effect, as it were, to a humanity deeply felt and registered.

The Tenet-Sebastians production was a riveting example, easily the most compelling of the recent spate of New York performances. It was conceived over a year as something of a group effort, led by Jolle Greenleaf, the performance’s artistic director, and Jeffrey Grossman, its music director. The chorus of 12 was deployed in three quartets that moved independently around the altar space, often making close contact with the audience in this intimate setting, singing separately, or combining for full effect.

To make the essential theological point of shared guilt in that crucial chorale, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” four singers performed the first, questioning verse in an exquisite pianissimo. Then all three quartets joined in full-throated affirmation in the confessional “I, I and my sins.”

Aaron Sheehan sang the tenor role of the Evangelist beautifully and with just the right drama from the pulpit, and Mischa Bouvier was superb as Jesus, with a warm, full baritone. The other stellar singers included Molly Quinn and Ms. Greenleaf, sopranos, and Sumner Thompson, baritone. Mr. Grossman led the terrific orchestra of 18 from the organ.

The performance that most resembled Tenet’s came on Monday, with Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and New York Baroque Incorporated at St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway. (New York Baroque and the Sebastians draw on many of the same players, mostly alumni of the Juilliard School’s historical-performance program.)

As usual, Mr. Wachner, conducting from the organ, whipped up plenty of drama, though he used even smaller forces than Tenet: essentially, a vocal quartet on either side of the altar, doubling as choristers and soloists; an Evangelist (Timothy Hodges) in the pulpit; and 12 instrumentalists. Still, there was not a sense of directness or intimacy like that achieved by Tenet in its peregrinations, and Trinity’s two quartets, widely separated, lacked a comparable unity and force.

I unfortunately missed the first of this year’s New York performances, on Feb. 9, with Ted Sperling conducting MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall. It must have been quite a spectacle, a curious mix of the old-fashioned and the newfangled that could only have suggested the gamut of performance techniques and styles to follow. The performance celebrated the 75th anniversary of MasterVoices, which was founded by Robert Shaw in 1942 as the Collegiate Chorale. But Mr. Sperling used a full complement of 125 singers, as Shaw would probably not have done in Bach, and he set this hefty choir against the period instruments of New York Baroque Incorporated.

What’s more, MasterVoices performed the work in a modern English translation by Michael Slattery, who also sang the role of the Evangelist, and invited the audience to sing along in the chorales — practices that Shaw, who worked on his own translations over the years and favored directness of communication, would undoubtedly have endorsed. (Mr. Slattery, like Shaw, referred in his translation not to “the Jews,” but to “the people.”)

Also working with sizable forces, Dennis Keene conducted his fine Voices of Ascension Chorus and Orchestra at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village in a throwback performance of sorts, on March 30. Though it is no longer what we are used to in today’s mainstream, historically informed accounts, the beefy sound of Mr. Keene’s 37-voice choir and his orchestra of modern instruments offered gratifications of their own, at least for a listener who came to Bach in a different era.

Mr. Keene had a superb Jesus in the bass-baritone Kevin Deas, and a terrific alto soloist in Avery Amereau, the only female singer in the performances I heard to venture the low-lying aria “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is accomplished”), accompanied by viola da gamba. Ms. Amereau is herself something of a welcome throwback at a time when countertenors have all but displaced contraltos in early music.

A performance by the Choir of New College, Oxford, and the English Concert Players, conducted by Robert Quinney at St. Bart’s in Midtown Manhattan on March 28 harked back to a different tradition, that of the English choir of men and boys. This, alas, was not the best display of it: a performance polished enough, but largely lacking in excitement, apart from the strong performance of the Evangelist by Nick Pritchard.

It would be nice to say that a new recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Stephen Cleobury and released by King’s College, better represents the tradition, and it does have, in addition to the excellent Evangelist of James Gilchrist, the affecting Jesus of Neal Davies. But it, too, offers little more imagination and drive than we might have expected from, say, New York’s beloved St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys.

That group somewhat sidestepped the Bach wars this spring, as Daniel Hyde, a former acolyte of Mr. Cleobury in Cambridge, in his first Passion season as music director at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, offered a more modest 1772 “St. John Passion” by Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. C.P.E. was expected to produce a new Passion in Hamburg every year and evidently did so, in eclectic style.

This “St. John” has attractive original music, though nothing involving enough to stir particular consternation at mentions of “the Jews.” And it is all put in the shade when C.P.E. simply lifts the culminating chorus, the magnificent “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), from his father’s work, surely a homage born of desperation.

Among the other new recordings of J. S. Bach’s “St. John,” one is first-rate, a good choice, at least until Tenet can produce something better: a documentation of presentations by Jeannette Sorrell’s ensemble Apollo’s Fire last year in Cleveland and New York. Notable, especially, for Nicholas Phan’s Evangelist, Jesse Blumberg’s Jesus and Amanda Forsythe’s soprano arias, it is a deeply considered account, rendered with consummate skill and artistry.

It was wonderful to hear “St. John” in such variety this year. But next year, maybe also a “St. Matthew”? ... ic-reviews

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Re: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

Post by Marc » Sat Apr 15, 2017 9:59 am

​These links might be interesting (concerning the St. John Gospel and Luther, and their position towards "the Jews"): ... wnsend.htm ... tisemitism

BTW, I like both Passions very much. The music always moves me.
The SMP is more balanced and introspective, whilst the SJP is more dramatic and intense.
Which matches both different Gospels, IMHO.

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Re: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

Post by lennygoran » Sat Apr 15, 2017 7:29 pm

Marc wrote:
Sat Apr 15, 2017 9:59 am

​These links might be interesting (concerning the St. John Gospel and Luther, and their position towards "the Jews"): ... wnsend.htm ... tisemitism
Thanks I found them interesting-also I was glad to find a link where I could look at the work with English surtitles here:

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Re: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Apr 16, 2017 11:41 am

Here, as Mr. Marissen notes in his book “Bach & God” (2016), “Bach moves the focus away from the perfidy of ‘the Jews’ and onto the sins of Christian believers.” And the work as a whole moves in an epic arc from turmoil to profound fellow-feeling and consolation, from inhumanity for the sake of effect, as it were, to a humanity deeply felt and registered.
I would not venture even this much in attempting to divine Bach's own attitude toward the Jews, regarding which the record AFAIK leaves us nothing. (I'm still working on John Elliott Gardner's biography, which I keep putting down and picking back up.) His concern in setting the biblical portions of the Passion was to get them down word for word, and any supposed commentary in the chorales is also a matter of their texts being conveniently at hand to follow up on a reference in the scripture. Even the arias (or in St. Matthew recitatives and arias) are (textually mediocre) poetic commentaries devoid of polemical intent or theological nuance.

As an aside, I can think of one curious exception to Bach's eschewing of theological polemic. It is Cantata BWV 9, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her. The following duet, which is a double canon, is entirely a romp on the dry-as-dust doctrine of justification by faith alone.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ Review

Post by jserraglio » Sun Apr 16, 2017 12:16 pm ... ssion.html
Of Bach and the Jews in the 'St. John Passion'

PASSION season has come and gone, and far from being confined to the week before Easter, it was a long and active one in New York. It was defined here by three major performances of Bach's ''St. Matthew Passion,'' by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, Dennis Keene and Ascension Music, and Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, running from mid-February to mid-April.

Bach's ''St. John Passion'' slipped quietly into the middle, at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. But that work, once virtually on a par with the ''St. Matthew,'' has become a harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations: in this case, the work's harping on ''the Jews'' as the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus.

The most important and lasting item to have emerged from this Passion season, therefore, may turn out to be a little book of great complexity by Michael Marissen, ''Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach's 'St. John Passion,' '' from Oxford University Press. Although the controversy over perceived anti-Semitism in the ''St. John,'' whether Bach's or St. John's, is not likely to be put to rest any sooner than the one over the manner of performance of Bach's choral works, discussed elsewhere on this page, Mr. Marissen, who teaches at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, at least goes far toward clarifying the terms of the discussion. His own conclusion is that Bach was not anti-Semitic, that indeed he mollified through his music the anti-Semitic, or anti-Judaic, tendencies of the text.

In a 36-page essay, Mr. Marissen presents a close and careful argument, as much historical and theological as musicological, laced with qualifications and with footnotes that sometimes threaten to take over the page. The rest of the book consists largely of his literal translation of the libretto.

The text is concerned largely with sorting out which words and attitudes in the Passion derive from St. John, which from Martin Luther or later biblical commentators, and which from Bach. What Mr. Marissen finds is that Bach provided his own theological gloss on the text, by tying ideas together musically. ''The words and the notes together,'' he writes, ''form a sort of polyphony.''

When, for example, Jesus fends off Pilate's question ''Are you the King of the Jews?'' with a question of his own, ''Do you speak of that on your own intiative, or have others said it to you about me?,'' Bach gives some of Pilate's music to Jesus, who is thus seen to be turning the tables on Pilate: in effect, putting him on trial in a test of truth.

Bach's musical text, Mr. Marissen writes, can be ''even more strikingly Johannine than John's actual verbal text.'' But it can also light out in another direction, and it does so, in Mr. Marissen's view, on the freighted issue of responsibility for Jesus' death.

''Bach's 'St. John Passion' proclaims next to no interest in the historical question 'who killed Jesus?,' whether it was Jews, Romans, or Jews and Romans together,'' Mr. Marissen writes. ''It was concerned with theological questions about accountability for Jesus' death.''

Again, Mr. Marissen finds the answers in the music. Whereas in John's Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that whoever turned him over to the Romans has ''the greater sin,'' Bach subscribed to the notion that all humans, as sinners, bear personal responsibility for Christ's death -- especially Protestant Christians. A chorale stanza, ''I, I and my sins . . . have caused you the sorrow that strikes you,'' Mr. Marissen argues, ''with its remarkable dissonance on the first syllable of Sunden (sins), spells things out the most clearly and forcefully of all.''

SUCH summary description cannot do justice to the subtleties of Mr. Marissen's argument. Still, some may find them too abstract, and they are, to be sure, tenuous at times. That ''remarkable dissonance,'' after all, comes right out of the previous stanza, ''Who has struck you so,'' where it occurs on the word ''geschlagen'' (''struck'') with a different meaning.

But Mr. Marissen offers supporting evidence of Bach's personal and theological probity. For one thing, Bach altered an aria text from the contemporary ''Brockes-Passion,'' again changing the focus, relative to wording used by Handel, from Jews (''Achshaph's dens of murder'') to Bach's fellow Christians (''your dens of torment'').

Mr. Marissen makes it clear in any case that a passive listening to Bach's music, anything less than a full involvement with the text, will give only an inadequate notion of his meaning, let alone his genius. Music lovers have long been awed at the notion of Bach's dutifully churning out wildly varied and imaginative cantatas week after week. Who knew that at the same time he might have been engaging in subtle theological argument?

This book provides a model of how to deal with a piece of music grown controversial: not through avoidance, not through bowdlerization but by supplying the richest and most provocative context in which to understand and interpret the work.

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