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S.F. Bach Choir Hosts Discussion of Bach's Music and Religious Intolerance

April 10, 2018

The San Francisco Bach Choir is performing the St. John Passion next month, on May 5 and 6, and its administrators decided they could not face this work without addressing the elephant in the room, the question of anti-Semitism in Bach’s music and its text. In an era of rising anti-Semitism, it’s necessary to understand this matter in its historical context. To that end, the Choir convened a discussion panel, “Passion and Persecution: The Music of Bach, the Gospel of John, and Religious Intolerance,” at the Google Community Space near Rincon Center in San Francisco on Sunday, April 8.

Tom Hall, former music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, moderated the panel and laid out the nature of the problem. The St. John Passion is an unquestioned masterwork of music, “a beautiful, wonderful, complicated piece,” in Hall’s words. Music attached to words has the power to enhance the meaning and significance of those words, whether that meaning be beautiful or ugly. (The text of the Passion is about half Gospel, half contemporary religious poetry commenting on it.) Bach was his city’s music minister: his job in writing this work was to preach the Gospel. We have to accept that, Hall said, and to decide what we think of exactly what message Bach was preaching.

Hall said we have four options for dealing with the work today. First, we can decide not to perform it any more. He cited the eminent Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin, who argues that there are some values more important than maintaining the canonicity of any given work of music. Second, we can treat it purely as a concert work, refusing to engage with the politics. Third, the text can be bowdlerized or softened: in this case, by saying “the people” rather than “the Jews.” Fourth, we can have the conversation that was held on Sunday.

The three panelists who accompanied Hall on stage were all religious historians or theologians rather than musicians, and their job was to provide historical background.

Jonathan Sheehan is a University of California-Berkeley professor on the history of the reception of the Bible. He talked about the Gospel of John and its reception. Unlike the synoptic Gospels, Sheehan said, John is concerned with theology rather than the life of Jesus. John divides the world into an inside group — Jesus and his disciples — and an outside community which did not accept the divinity of Jesus. John calls this community “the Jews” or “the Pharisees,” but at the time John was written, no firm boundary between Christians and Jews had yet been established.

In later years, Sheehan continued, when Christians and Jews were separated, John became the text that enforced that separation, aggravating the problem of the Jews for Christians, a people so close to them and yet so different. For Sheehan, the problem is strictly a religious one. “Bach isn’t the issue,” he said: “Christianity is the issue. Bach makes the conflict visible.”

John Efron, a University of California-Berkeley professor of Jewish history, underlined this conflict by providing a portrait of the world of Jews that Bach would have seen in 1724. German Jews of this time were far from the enlightened intelligentsia that we know from the later days of Mahler, Freud, and Einstein. They were a small, pious, traditional community, living in ghettos, poor and burdened with special taxes, unable even to speak or read standard German. They were burdened also with a legacy of medieval blood libels that left Christians seeing Jews as morally and physically repulsive, forming an assault on Christian sensibility. Few Christians would have known any Jews as human beings. The Jews lived, Efron concluded, in “a world of relentless contempt and anti-Semitism.”

Kirsi Stjerna, a theologian and pastor at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, gave a broader theological perspective. Like Sheehan, Stjerna emphasized that, in Lutheran theology, Christians are as individually guilty of the sin of deicide as Jews are. The theological difference is that Christians, by accepting Jesus as the Christ, are — in the Lutheran view — turning to God for mercy. The Jews’ refusal to convert angered Luther. Christians lost some of that sense of equal sinfulness, which led to a slander of the Jews that became normal in the Lutheran context in which Bach worked.

The question then becomes, Stjerna said, how much Bach challenges this anti-Semitic norm. She cited Michael Marissen, music history professor at Swarthmore, as saying that Bach reads John against the text, placing emphasis on all humans as tainted and sinful, resulting in a reading less anti-Semitic than the original. She quoted a chorister as noting that the temper of the music changes from anger to tenderness.

This led to a fruitful conversation with Hall, who agreed that Bach makes a theological argument that culpability is on the individual sinner. That is why Hall is comfortable with performing the Passion. He cited two particular numbers as illustrating this point. No. 19, “Betrachte, meine Seel,” a bass arioso, uses a clean texture — omitting the full orchestra in favor of a lute or keyboard accompaniment — to emphasize the importance of its message, which is an imperative to look upon Jesus and know that he suffers because of you. No. 32, “Mein teurer Heiland,” a bass aria with chorale, has a text offering individual salvation through Christ, with no mention of the Jews.

In conclusion, Hall said, Bach is trying more to throw water on the fire of anti-Semitism than to feed it. It’s a big fire, Hall noted, and it will not be put out in our time. But he and the panelists agreed that there is room for appreciation of this one problematic work of music.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.