Thoughts on Bach’s St. John Passion

Last week I listened to my CDs of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion. I love the music, but the text is disturbing. The narration repeatedly blames “die Juden” for the treatment Jesus gets, and the choruses representing the high priests and the mob are in a noisy, undignified (yet also kind of fun) style which is a significant departure from Bach’s normal religious music. Pilate gets dignified music and comes off completely clean. The text is all from the Bible and nearly all from the Gospel of John. The theme of blame on the Jews is in John as well, but the person who selected the text for the Passion seems to have picked out all the lines that emphasize it. I grant that the German words “die Juden” used to cast blame have a chill which “the Jews” doesn’t.

Hostility to Jews was widespread in German culture for centuries, with Luther contributing some really nasty remarks. This was only partly a matter of religious doctrine, and by the Nazis’ time religion wasn’t the major factor. Jews were allowed into well-paying jobs that were too sinful for Christians, and not-so-rich people often hate rich people who aren’t of their kind. The German nationalist movement was also a factor, since Jewish ties transcended national boundaries. Wagner’s comments on “Jewish music” bring out this point.

All of Christian Europe shared this hostility, but it seems to have been especially strong in Spain and Germany. In Spain nearly all the Jews were driven out, killed, or converted by the 16th century; the still deadlier event in Germany didn’t happen till the 20th. At least that attitude has since become a minority view that’s generally despised.

It’s the combination of this barbaric cultural idea with the music of one of history’s greatest composers which disturbs me. He probably never thought twice about the text’s piling blame on the Jews; it was all Holy Scripture, and that excused anything. I don’t know if he shared the attitude himself, but it would surprise me if he didn’t. He wasn’t an original thinker outside music, and even musically he favored traditional forms. The ideas of a culture are its atmosphere. It can be hard to notice from inside that they’re there, and still harder to change them. In Germany it took the deaths of millions and defeat in a war.

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