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


  1. […] because of anti-Semitism in the text. In the 1980′s at a festival in Boston the first violinist refused to play the same work, also citing the anti-Semitism in the libretto. He agreed to play it only after he was granted […]

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  2. […] because of anti-Semitism in the text. In the 1980’s at a festival in Boston the first violinist refused to play the same work, also citing the anti-Semitism in the libretto. He agreed to play it only after he was granted […]

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  7. Fresh from the performance last night in Winnipeg. It was beautiful but I felt uncomfortable reading the lyrics. I do not blame Bach, but the council of Nicea, where a hate-filled individual corrupted the opinions of Christians forever. Before this of course we were brothers in light; now before I see my brother, I must wade through the art of his motives. Very very beautiful propaganda.

    Comment by BARABAS CHARACH — April 24, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  8. If ever there was one, this “controversy” provides a brilliant example of the corrosive effects of religious dogmatism on just about every aspect of life. Please try to put yourself in the place of Bach as he composed this work. He knew his theology, more so than most of the folks who have weighed in on this issue.

    The reason he seemed untroubled by the biblical text was simply that he realized that it described first and foremost a conflict between the rabbinate and the populace within the context of a people subjugated and brutalized by the Roman empire. Moreover, there were several competing “messiahs” at the time-and each clique had its favorite. The Jews must have fully realized that a politically inflammatory anti-Roman agitator, also a jew, would likely cause them even more problems with their oppressors. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that they would have feared Jesus for this reason, and would want to be rid of him.

    You can also make a reasonable case for the Romans, in the person of Pilate, as not wanting to touch this “third rail” politically in order to keep the peace, such as it was. John the Evangelist, after all, was a Jew too, as were nearly all early Christians. This whole issue is just plain silly. If the Holocaust had not happened we would not be having this discussion at all. And certainly the Holocaust was not caused by the “St. John Passion” but by the same kind of twisted bigotry that comes from a total misunderstanding of religion and theology.

    Didn’t Jesus need to be killed, according to the prophecies, in order for us all to be saved? So shouldn’t Christians actually thank “the Jews” for their part in making this happen? Oh, there I go again, expecting people to be rational about these issues.

    Try to just relax, folks, and enjoy this work of art for what it is. Some day a contemporary composer will write an opera in which liberals, or perhaps Tea Partiers are similarly demonized. And I can just imagine the deafening uproar that will be caused thereby, even if the sentiments are perfectly reasonable when viewed in historical context.

    Comment by Andrew Kane — April 19, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

  9. Hi, I’m simply writing a research paper on this specific topic (anti-Semitism in the St. John Passion) and I was wondering what specific choruses (or other parts of the libretto) are anti-Semitic?

    I have poured over Marissen’s book on the topic and a couple others and all they say are ‘choruses’ and my professor wants more examples from the libretto.

    Can anyone shed some light for me?

    Comment by Kauri Voss — March 29, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

  10. It’s also interesting to see what Bach added to the lyrics and the Bible at the end of the Johannespassion:

    “Es ist vollbracht,
    o Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen,
    die Trauernacht
    läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen,
    der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
    und schließt den Kampf.
    es ist vollbracht.”

    Why does Bach emphasize that Jesus is “the hero from Juda”. Doesn’t it mean Jesus is a hero, Jesus is Jewish and comes from the Jewish people and the Jewish land? And all that belongs together? What does Bach want to tell us?

    Second: chosing the last Choral of the Johannespassion Bach took:

    “Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein
    am letzten End die Seele mein
    in Abrahams Schoß tragen,
    den Leib in sein’m Schlafkämmerlein
    gar sanft, ohn einge Qual und Pein,
    ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage.”

    Why mention Abraham the Father of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike? What does Bach want to tell us by choosing this choral?

    Bach was not only Lutheran but also lived during the age of Enlightenment.

    Bach’s sons where friends with jews: C.P. Bach, Bach’s oldest son and Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of the composer Felix who revived Bach in Leipzig) and the Itzig family in Berlin where close friends.

    Comment by Frank Krieger — December 18, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    • Hi Frank,
      Thanks for reading and reply with such intelligence.
      You make good, well informed points with a very knowledgeable comparison.
      I wonder what others think.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 18, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  11. Exactly Jake. From what I have read from Schweitzer and Gardiner, St. John’s Passion is considered the most ill-constructed, musically and textually of the Passions. It does seem that Picander was a major contributer to the libretto, and he was known to contain no religious sense to his poetry. Actually, even I do not care for the St. John like I do the St.Matthew and Mass in B-Minor.That said, until someone can uncover concrete evidence as to Bach’s feelings on Jews,everything is speculation. At least with Mel Gibson we KNOW where he stands on the subject of anti-semitism, and therefore I do not support his films. I have personal issues with Richard Wagner because of his and his wife’s stated issues with Jews. Their own words speak for themselves. With Bach, he could compose music to the Bible and turn right around and compose about Coffee, Peasants and Leipzig Professors. He, though, rarely wrote the texts. He was commissioned, and commissions in Leipzig were slim to none. Now, on THAT subject, we DO have plenty of evidence even from Bach’s mouth. He would grab business when he could to make money. People want to make Bach some super-human-nearly-divine MYTH. I see him as a genius who had to earn a living. Keep listening. Brian

    Comment by Brian Kerr — November 26, 2010 @ 1:31 am

  12. As a Church Musician and Musicologist I am keenly aware that Bach, in many instances, had little to no choice over his texts. If he was commissioned and had little time, he often had to take texts that he himself was not fond. He often complained about the lack of suitable librettists available.

    Some texts in his cantatas excoriate Catholics and Turks, also. Again,was this Bach’s belief, or the fact that in his position he really had no choice but to output or lose a job, with 19 mouths to feed? I find this true of people today who work in jobs that are clearly discriminatory towards others, yet stay because of their own needs.

    I will add that I work in a very liberal Lutheran Church, but there is still a remnant of folks who dislike all kinds of minorities that worship there. I hate to say that, but it is true. I am their musician, and they pay me, but I do not support their minority belief.

    In Bach’s time, Leipzig even hated Dresden et al, because they were all loosely joined together principalities under Dukes etc. I am a minority, myself, so I am very sensitive to any who feel persecuted or marginalized. Who really knows what Bach felt? He was a man of his day and time. Thanks for listening.

    Comment by Brian Kerr — November 24, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    • Hi Brian,
      And thank you for reading and replying.
      You make some very and thoughtful good points, and many of us in many different jobs are called on to do things we don’t agree with 100 percent.
      Who is to say Bach and his church were any different.
      But it is also true that anti-Semiticism has been shown to be historically ingrained in the very texture of mainstream Christianity: The Jews killed the Christ, was the accusation then and, in many cases, now.
      Whether the fault lay with Bach, or the institution is question I don’t ever expect to be settled definitively.
      But at least the music transcends its creator.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 24, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

  13. In the last couple of years I have gradually exposed myself to Classical music and Operas.It has been a very pleasing and enriching evolution and journey. I have never played any instrument and I have no professional understanding in the genre. However I have an aptitude towards the genre and it is a bliss.

    A few days ago I have borrowed from my local library the Bach’s “St. John Passion” and much to my horror read the booklet that came with CD, and found that the text contains explicitly anti-Judaic references. I have decided that I will not listen again to this beautiful music which unfortunately crossed certain red line in my life.
    Sydney Australia

    Comment by eli — September 29, 2010 @ 1:52 am

    • Hi Eli,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      I appreciate your candor.
      And I share your reaction.
      But I also for historical differences and don’t think that certain contextual considerations should inhibit your enjoyment of the music.
      You don’t have to believe the words to accept the sounds.
      But I certainly understand how the anti-Semiticism can deeply affect you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 30, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  14. It has always intrigued me that prior to 1945, and as far as I know even after, this issue has hardly been debated in Bach’s native Germany, although throughout the Bach revival of the nineteenth century, and further on until 1933, Jewish musicians were numerous end prominent in Germany.

    Comment by Albrecht Gaub — March 25, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    • Hi Albrecht,
      I think what you talk about may be the result of a mainstream Christian culture throughout Europe (not just Germany) that was by and large more anti-Semitic.
      But our sensitivity to such a “norm” has been heightened by many factors, including World War II and the success — yes, success — of the Nazi Holocaust, the war on the Jews, if you look at and compare the pre-war and post-war percentages of Jewish population.
      Maybe other readers will have other answers to you or responses for you.
      We’ll see.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 25, 2010 @ 8:05 am

  15. As one singing the Passion next week, I have been very uncomfortable with this entire topic. Our choir is a composed of rainbow of theological beliefs from Judaism to Christianity to atheism, and Bob Gehrenbeck respectfully walks the fine line of explaining the context of this emotionally charged masterpiece without theological bias.

    The chorus in the St. John plays the part of the ferocious “mob” (who happen to be Jewish) screaming for the crucifixion of Jesus in amazing counterpoint, and then all the sudden jumps centuries into the role of the angelic-like, Lutheran choristers in those masterfully crafted Bach chorales. Whatever the theological belief, as a human being, one cannot feel disturbed and uncomfortable.

    Comment by Linda Palmer — March 24, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    • Hi Linda,
      Thank you for reading and writing, and for sharing your candor.
      Perhaps it is not contradictory that Bach’s music makes one agitated and disturbed during the crowd scenes, and then suddenly reassured by the chorales, which act as a kind Greek chorus or observer-narrator.
      Perhaps Bach intends for the anger to resolve itself much the way a dissonant chord can resolve into consonance. That would certainly be in keeping with the traditional Aristotelian sense of catharsis a major dramatic, even theatrical, work like the “St. John Passion” would have.
      Do other readers — or performers and participants — have similar or different reactions?
      I would love to hear from them.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 25, 2010 @ 8:12 am

  16. One small correction: it wasn’t the Judica sermon that caused the pogrom; it happened in the summer, and we don’t seem have the sermon itself, but from Neumeister’s complaint after the event (the Hamburg mayor blamed him for the riot) he had preached for the expulsion of the Jews from Hamburg.

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — March 24, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    • Thanks, Jeanne.
      I put a note in the text to direct readers to see your comment/correction.
      Hope that is sufficient.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 24, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

  17. Thank you for clearly identifying and articulating many important threads in the various arguments pro and con. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s forum, which promises to be epic.

    I’m looking forward even more to next week’s performance of MY FAVORITE PIECE OF MUSIC EVER.

    Comment by Marika F-H — March 24, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    • Hi Marika,
      You’re welcome. Bob is very informed and helpful.
      And I see you will be in the orchestra performing it .
      Congratulations and good luck.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 24, 2010 @ 11:25 am

  18. Thanks for this thoroughly researched and intelligent discussion, Jake. I doubt there’s a better one anywhere.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — March 23, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    • Hi Ron,
      That’s high praise for me but especially for Bob.
      He deserves it.
      Enjoy the performance.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 24, 2010 @ 11:26 am

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