Study of intolerance, the arts turns on Bach's works

March 26, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

Christian and Jewish religious scholars, musicians and a museum director came together yesterday to announce a concerted effort to teach tolerance through clearer understandings of the anti-Semitism in great works of music and the visual arts.

Joining forces were the Walters Art Gallery, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, an interfaith group of religious leaders and the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.

The principal focus of a symposium they plan for April 25 at the College of Notre Dame will be a Baltimore Choral Arts Society performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," scheduled for May 4 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The New Testament accounts of the trial, suffering and death of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and John were used for centuries to justify Jewish persecution. Especially during Holy Week, performances of Bach's great works based on the texts have been sources of pain for Jews because of the underlying theme that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Christ.

While biblical scholars and church leaders have attempted for many years to correct what they saw as an erroneous -- even a perverted -- interpretation of the Christian message, music lovers have continued to be sensitive to the centuries of anti-Semitism justified by the Gospel texts.

In 1982, Theodore Morrison, founder and director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, canceled what was to have been his farewell appearance as conductor of Bach's "St. John Passion" after deciding at the last minute that he could not, in good conscience, ever perform the work again. Much soul-searching and debate followed, but the choir and its board decided to perform the music with another conductor.

Neither the St. John nor the St. Matthew works of Bach have FTC been performed by the group since 1982, said Tom Hall, currently director of the Choral Arts Society and one of the participants in a news conference yesterday at the Walters Art Gallery.

Mr. Hall called the planned May 4 performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" a fortuitous opportunity "to bring to light a very important, a very crucial social issue."

The Rev. Christopher Leighton, director of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies, called the anti-Semitism so often based on the New Testament "one of the most deadly disorders."

Expressing his hope that the 7:30 p.m. April 25 symposium at Notre Dame would attract wide participation and lead to constructive discussion in the community, he acknowledged that "a disastrous and dangerous image of the Jews was long enshrined in the [Christian] church."

Rabbi Mark Loeb of Baltimore County's Beth El Congregation, who will be the moderator for the April 25 symposium, said, "Sometimes for Jews, Good Friday is not a very good Friday."

He recalled Orson Welles' decision not to play Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" because of anti-Semitic graffiti on a men's room wall. Planners of next month's symposium, he said, would be attempting to separate art, such as "Merchant of Venice," from the anti-Semitic characterizations they might suggest.

Rabbi Loeb drew a distinction between the intentions of artists and of the admirers of their works. "Sometimes art is neutral and in the hands of religion becomes a distortion," he said, adding that the symposium's purpose "is not therapy for the Jewish community or the Christian community" but a deeper understanding of religion and art.

The panelists for the program, entitled "Religious Intolerance in Western Culture, A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Bach's St. Matthew Passion," will include Robert Bergman, director of the Walters Art Gallery; Eric Chafe, professor of music at Brandeis University; and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, who is Sterling Professor of History at Yale.

Mr. Bergman said yesterday that he would be bringing to the symposium new scholarship on the anti-Semitic roots of great works in the Walters collections.

He said the joint religious-musical-artistic study itself would be breaking new ground. Pointing to past, sporadic analyses of anti-Semitism in art, Mr. Bergman said, "There is no overall history of this subject, no synthesis."

What the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies hopes to achieve in the community and more broadly through publication of the symposium's contributions, Mr. Leighton said, are "new habits of listening to music and new habits of looking at art."

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