The Well-Tempered Ear

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

March 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

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

That topic so relevant during the season of Easter and Passover will be discussed TONIGHT night at 8 p.m. at 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 famous 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 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 have posted in two parts, today and Tuesday, the day before yesterday. (Wednesday was, as is customary, Best Bets day).

How does the oratorio express or convey its anti-Semitism through the music and the text?

Within the St. John Passion, the turba choruses—the crowd scenes in which “the Jews” clamor for Jesus’ death—stand out as the most troublesome manifestations of an anti-Jewish outlook. Taking his cues from John’s narrative, Bach composed music of great intensity and vehemence. The obsessive text repetitions, the deflections of the harmony towards minor and diminished chords, and the overall level of dissonance in these choruses create a profoundly disturbing effect, regardless of one’s religious background or outlook.

Yet this music is only part of the story. At crucial junctures in the story, Bach interposes other texts—the arias and chorales—that comment on the proceedings. As Michael Marissen has pointed out, early on in Bach’s libretto, when a servant of the high priest gives Jesus a blow to the face, Bach interpolates two verses of a contemporary hymn that read, “Who has struck you so? … I, I and my sins… have caused you the sorrow that strikes you.” On the words “struck” and “sins” Bach again composed intensely dissonant music, but this time the dissonance depicts the anguish and guilt of the Christian in causing Jesus’ suffering, rather than assigning that guilt to “the Jews.”

Those crowd scenes are also interrupted by chorales and arias that re-interpret these passages in light of the Lutheran theology of repentance and reconciliation. Yet Bach’s extremely forceful turba choruses remain disturbing, nevertheless.  Bach no doubt intended this music to jar its hearers.

It’s difficult to ascertain exactly what was Bach’s inner motivation in composing these segments of the work. Perhaps, like many of his contemporaries, Bach harbored genuine hostility towards Jews (or at least the idea of Jews, because he probably didn’t know any actual Jews). But, to me, this view seems overly simplistic. One thing we know for certain is that Bach’s theological views—like his music—were highly nuanced and multi-faceted.

Why is it important to examine anti-Semitism in a work that is 300 years old?

If Bach’s music is still relevant enough to enjoy widespread popularity today, then the ideas that informed his music are likewise relevant, even if some of those ideas are disturbing to Bach’s modern performers and listeners.

Does anti-Semitism detract from the beauty of the work? From its relevance or meaning to today?

From a purely musical standpoint, Bach’s music is obviously complex, and it includes a great deal of dissonance. So it should come as no surprise that the ideas that lie behind Bach’s music are also complex and often dissonant in their own right. My hope is that this discussion of Bach and anti-Semitism can lead to a deeper understanding, even deeper appreciation of Bach, as we attempt to unravel the complexities of these issues.

How should the presence of anti-Semitism change the performance of the work or the performers’ attitudes towards it? Should the work be edited or cut or somewhat altered?

The St. John Passion has been altered in the recent past, most interestingly by the German-American conductor Lukas Foss, who emigrated to the US as a refugee from Nazi Germany. In a performance of Bach’s oratorio that Foss conducted in California, he changed the word “Juden” (“Jews”) to “Leute” (“people”).

I decided to let Bach’s original wording stand, but only in conjunction with our educational forum to address this issue. To hold this forum and to change Bach’s wording would seem to whitewash Bach, which is not my intent. But in the absence of an educational component like this one, perhaps alterations like Foss’s would make sense, as both Marissen and Richard Taruskin have argued.

How should listeners cope with the work’s anti-Semitism?

They should attend our forum or another event like it, or read Michael Marissen’s book, or all of the above! An audio transcript of a forum similar to ours, with presentations by Marissen and first century Jewish historian Miriam Peskowitz, can be found at

What do you hope will emerge from the ecumenical conference about the work’s anti-Semitism? Should it enhance or detract from admiration for Bach’s achievement?

It may do some of both—enhance and detract from Bach’s reputation. Since I planned this event in conjunction with our April 2 performance of the St. John Passion itself, I’m hoping that, on the balance, our forum will deepen our understanding of Bach and his music in a positive way. But I’m honestly not sure how it will turn out; I just felt strongly that it needed to be done.

Posted in Classical music

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