The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music controversy: Is J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion” anti-Semitic? Part 1 of a 2-part look.

March 23, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Yes, it is beautiful.

But is J.S. Bach’s oratorio “The St. John Passion” anti-Semitic?

That ever hot and controversial question — especially during the season of Passover and Easter — will be discussed Thursday night at 8 p.m. during a FREE PUBLIC forum at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive.

The forum is being held in conjunction with an April 2 Good Friday performance (at 8 p.m. in the First Unitarian Society) of the Bach work. Performers include distinguished soloists, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir and period instrumentalists under the direction of Robert Gehrenbeck.

For more information about the forum and the performance, visit:

Panelists include UW-Madison musicologist Jeanne Swack; Rabbi Johathan Biatch of Temple Beth-El; Gehrenbeck of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir; and The Reverend Franklin Wilson of Luther Memorial Church. The discussion will be moderated by Michael Schuler, Parish Minister of First Unitarian Society.

I recently asked Gehrenbeck to discuss the subject of Bach’s anti-Semitism. He did so in an e-mail interview that I will post in two parts today and Thursday. (Wednesday will be, as is customary, Best Bets day).

Q: Is Bach’s “St. John Passion” anti-Semitic?

A: This is one of the main questions we will discuss, if not answer definitively, at our forum. The answer is complex, influenced by the work’s background and reception history, and somewhat dependent upon the perspective of the person who is asking the question.

The way I see it, there are at least four layers to this issue: (1) Are Bach’s libretto and music inherently anti-Semitic? (2) Is the Gospel of John an anti-Semitic text? (3) Have performers and listeners in later years seen the St John Passion as anti-Semitic? (4) What are we to make of all this today?

Regarding (1), musicologist Richard Taruskin would say yes, Bach’s work is inherently anti-Semitic, whereas Michael Marissen (author of the book Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach’s St. John Passion) argues that Bach softens the anti-Jewish tone of the sources he used for his libretto, including the Gospel text itself.

Which leads us to (2): can we shift blame away from Bach, as it were, by holding the Gospel of John to be inherently anti-Jewish? The traditional view is yes, but more recently some Biblical scholars have argued that John’s Gospel represents not a struggle between Jews and Christians, but rather a conflict within first century Judaism itself, in which both the author of the Gospel and Jesus himself are clearly Jewish. But, Bach, of course, had no knowledge of such scholarship.

So perhaps more to the point is (3): how have Bach’s subsequent performers and listeners experienced Bach’s music and libretto? I know of at least one rabidly anti-Semitic reference to the work by a German musicologist from the 1930s, but overall the Nazi’s didn’t seem to be very interested in Bach’s church music.

Closer to home, the controversy surrounding the St. John Passion in the US was sparked during the 1980s at the Boston Early Music Festival when the first violinist for a performance of the work there initially refused to play due to the anti-Jewish tone of the libretto. He later agreed to participate, after gaining permission to write a program note explaining his position.

This educational component has characterized many subsequent performances of the piece — including the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s forthcoming performance). Michael Marissen’s aforementioned book was born out of a controversy at Swarthmore College, where a group of Jewish students at refused to participate in a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion during the same semester that Marissen was teaching a seminar on Bach and Lutheran theology there.

So, regarding (4), what are we to make of these issues today, the best “answer” is: come to our forum and see where the discussion goes between interested parties here in Madison.

Was Bach himself, a devout Lutheran who wrote so much religious music, anti-Semitic?

Again, the answer is complex. Judging from the St. John Passion itself, we might say, “things could have been worse.” One of Bach’s source texts, a passion libretto by Bartold Heinrich Brockes, contains several virulently anti-Jewish passages that were commonly set by other composers, such as Handel and Telemann.

Bach, however, either altered these passages to remove the references to Jews, or avoided setting them entirely. It seems that Bach and the religious authorities for whom he worked in Leipzig were not that interested in the anti-Semetic potential of the passion story.

Instead, Bach’s libretto for the St. John Passion underscores the idea that Christian believers, because of their sins, bear personal responsibility for Jesus’ suffering and death. That is, Bach’s words and music are focused more on Christian repentance than on hostility toward Jews.

But when we look beyond the St. John Passion itself, Bach seems to be more typical of his age. In particular, his Cantata for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei (Look and See If There Is Any Sorrow Like My Sorrow; Cantata 46), includes negative references toward contemporary Jews, unlike the St. John Passion itself. The readings prescribed for this particular Sunday in Leipzig did have a notably hostile tone towards Jews.

So, somewhat surprisingly, it seems that Bach and his Leipzig colleagues tended to express their anti-Jewish views on other occasions rather than during Holy Week.

What part does the mainstream culture or religion of Bach’s time play in the work’s anti-Semitism?

One of our forum participants, Dr. Jeanne Swack, recently made me aware of the following: The most extreme example of hostility toward Jews in the Lutheran liturgy of Bach’s time is the Sunday that was known as Judica in the Lutheran calendar, which occurred two weeks before Easter.

To get an impression of the tone of the readings assigned to this day, read the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, which was the centerpiece of Judica Sunday. But Bach never wrote any music for this occasion because music for voices with instruments was prohibited during this time of year (Lent) in Leipzig.

Other composers, such as Telemann, did set this liturgy, and a sermon for Judica Sunday in the 1730s in Hamburg by Telemann’s colleague, Edmann Neumeister, is known to have incited a pogrom. (Note: See Jeanne Swack’s “small correction” in Comments.) This is the same Neumeister whose cantata librettos strongly influenced Bach during the Weimar period. (It’s important to note that today, the largest Lutheran body in the US, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, no longer observes the traditional liturgy of Judica Sunday.)

So anti-Semitism was definitely alive and well in Bach’s milieu. Most German churches, including St. Thomas in Leipzig, had paintings or windows depicting Jews in a negative light. Finally, during Bach’s lifetime, Jews were banned from Saxony altogether, so it’s unlikely that Bach knew any Jews personally. If Bach had composed a cantata for Judica Sunday, than certainly that work would be the focus of scholars attempting to divine his personal views, more so than the St. John Passion.

Thursday: How does the work express anti-Semitism and why does it matter after 300 years?

Posted in Classical music

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,265 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,362,523 hits
%d bloggers like this: