"The devil does not stay where music is," Martin Luther wrote. Johann Sebastian Bach, a devout Lutheran, would have eagerly seconded that notion. But is it possible nonetheless that a vile devil lurks in some of Bach's music? Could that evil be anti-Semitism, clouding his divinely beautiful sounds? And should a work of art thus tainted be welcome in concert halls?
Those are among the tough questions that will be raised as the Baltimore Choral Arts Society presents Bach's "St. John Passion." A few days before next Sunday's performance, there will be a symposium titled "When Words Hurt: The Gospel of John, Bach's Music and Religious Tolerance." Panelists include Paula Fredriksen, a historian specializing in ancient Christianity and Jewish / Gentile relations, and Michael Marissen, a music professor and author of "Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach's 'St. John Passion' "
The combination of that discussion and the "Passion" itself promises to be a provocative experience.
The musical form known as a "passion" is, like an oratorio, a work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra. It takes its name from the Passion of Christ, the gospel accounts of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus traditionally recited on Good Friday. The musical passion, as Bach treated it, includes "commentaries" in the form of reflective arias or chorales with nonbiblical texts, alternating with the gospel narrative. Originally, passions were performed as part of a church service.
The two passions we have by Bach have been given life outside of liturgical occasions, treated as works of musical art. The "St. John Passion," which he wrote in 1724, has long been the less popular of the two. In 1891, George Bernard Shaw summed up a common view: "It contains some curiously jejune flights of fancy on Bach's part and is, as I presume all the world knows, almost trivial compared with the great 'St. Matthew Passion.' "
In the next century, Shaw's condescending attitude would be replaced by a recognition that even lesser Bach is on an exalted plane. The "St. John Passion" came into its own.
Harshness toward Jews
But in the years since the Holocaust and, more recently, Vatican efforts to remove the ancient charge of deicide against the Jews, some people have felt uncomfortable about the "St. John Passion." One of them is Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.
"The Gospel of St. John has a whole different attitude than St. Matthew," says Hall, who will be on the symposium panel. "It's very easy to see how it's sensitive to Jews. The word 'Jews' is used repeatedly in the 'St. John Passion,' 95 percent of the time negatively. The 'St. Matthew Passion' talks about 'the crowd' or 'the people' instead.
"I can't approach the 'St. John Passion' now without thinking about that Gospel and the hideous history of how it has been used to justify anti-Semitism. You can't just sit there and ignore the words and listen to the pretty music."
Christian churches have been facing the Gospel's harshness regarding the Jews. The New American Bible, for example, an approved Catholic edition, attempts to soften St. John's text with this footnote: "There is a polemic tendency in the gospels to place guilt of the crucifixion on the Jewish authorities and to exonerate the Romans from blame. But John later mentions Roman soldiers and it is to these soldiers that Pilate handed Jesus over."
The coming symposium will attempt to place such a footnote on the performance of Bach's "St. John Passion." But is that enough?
In recent years, respected music scholars and rabbis have been heard calling for the "St. John Passion" to be taken out of the active repertoire and limited to private worship services. Their concern is that the blithe acceptance of such a work subtly perpetuates the virus of anti-Semitism that has caused such havoc over the centuries.
Others argue that true art transcends all external considerations, and to find something harmful in Bach's "Passion" requires an unwarranted imposition of values and expectations.
And there is the familiar argument that people today cannot be held responsible for sins committed in the past, that more trouble is caused by stirring up an issue that doesn't even occur to most audiences listening to Bach's music 276 years after it was composed.
"I try to navigate a course between the extreme positions," says Rev. Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "But there is a huge responsibility for the Christian church to own up to how John's words have worked great evil. And there is no doubt that the Gospel of John was used to sanction all sorts of atrocities."