Examining Antisemitism and Bach's 'St. John Passion'

Franz Welser-Möst says no one should expect easy answers about troubling art [Milan Jovanovic / ideastream]
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Examining Antisemitism and Bach's 'St. John Passion' from David C Barnett on Vimeo.

Recent stories of vandalism and bomb threats against Jewish religious sites remind us of the history of antisemitism - in the U.S. and around the world.  One long-standing controversy involves a 200-year-old symphonic work composed by a giant in the world of classical music.  Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion has been the subject of protests and boycotts over the years.  This famous composition with a problematic past gets a rare performance by the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend. 

A Passion is a musical work composed for Good Friday church services, for the purpose of illustrating the last days of Jesus Christ.  As a prominent musician and composer based in Leipzig, Germany, in the mid-18th century, Bach wrote numerous Passions.  But, the St. John Passion carries some cultural baggage.  

"Many people these days don’t know the Bible all that well," says Bach scholar Michael Marissen. "And very few outside of Germany know German, so they’re not listening to the details of the story, they’re just listening for the general magnificence of the piece."

And so, they may miss the part where Roman governor Pontius Pilate asks an angry Jewish crowd if he should set the recently arrested Jesus free. The mob says: “Away with him. Crucify him.”

The St. John Passion is Bach’s retelling of the biblical gospel of St. John which Marissen says is even more controversial.

"A key moment in the gospel is in John: 8, where Jesus is depicted as saying that Jews are liars and killers by nature," Marissen says. 

While Bach’s language never gets that blunt, he says Jews are still cast as villains. 

"I think we have to make a distinction here," says Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst.  

He argues there's a difference "between the person Johann Sebastian Bach and the genius Johann Sebastian Bach."  

He also says that Bach and his work need to be seen in the context of their times.

"And when you look at the history of Leipzig, it’s very likely that Bach never met a Jew in his life," he says. 

Case Western Reserve University music scholar David Rothenberg says there are numerous examples of antisemitism in western classical music --- Richard Wagner being one of the most prominent examples.

"He did not like Jews," Rothenberg says. "He did not like what they did to music, and we have writings of his - penned under his name - about this.  So, it’s a very clear-cut case with Wagner.  And it’s problematic, because he wrote this music that is in many ways great - he was a great dramatic musician." 

In advance of this weekend’s concert, the Cleveland Orchestra organized a panel discussion about the issues raised by the St. John Passion.  Rabbi Roger Klein of Temple-Tifereth Israel suggests such conversations can help modern audiences balance the musical beauty with the sometimes troubling text.

"Look, the first thing to re-affirm is that there are some problems in this piece," says Klein.  "The piece itself tells us the truth, the greatness and the glorious truth of our world, and the deep and intractable problems.  We count upon our artists to tell us the way things are, and not to cover over the parts of the truth which seem problematic to us."  

Welser-Möst says he’s personally grown-up with a problematic truth that can’t be covered-up.  And that experience has reinforced his belief that we must confront and talk about art that reflects some of humanity’s darker impulses.

"With the history of the 20th century, having had the Holocaust - where my home country, Austria, played a big part - that’s baggage we won’t get rid of," he says.  "But, it cannot mean that, automatically, out of politically very understandable reasons, we discard great art."

The Cleveland Orchestra continues the cultural conversation this weekend.  It will be the first time the Orchestra has played the St. John Passion in over 30 years.

Hear the whole panel discussion online.

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