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


  1. The discussion has thus far ignored the point that the object of the Jewish mob’s fury was himself a Jew. The narrative might be seen to avoid the representation of Christ’s Jewishness and perhaps in some measure it is guilty of anti-semitism by omission. Had the mob cried out, ”Crucify this wayward Jew!” the narrative commits itself to the Jewishness of its central character thus recording a conflict of Jews against Jews rather than the implied conflict of Jews against Christians – a group non-existent at the time! Might anti-Semitic sensitivities be placated if while keeping the Jewish mob the hero/anti-hero was made more Jewish?

    It would be hard to better Foss’s “Juden” to “Leute” solution for its economy of means while wholly keeping the integrity of the original narrative. The point of the story is not about Jews versus non-Jews and Foss’s adjustment is a fine-tuning to remove any distraction from the essential point of the narrative.

    Comment by Raymond Lokker, Tokyo — April 9, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

  2. So much brain power, such concern spent. To be sure over certain trauma. But at what loss of proportion and perspective? This world is mad. The next holocaust will bite you from behind your back; you won’t see it coming. Always fighting the last war, stuck in our hurts, nursing them for political gain.

    In fact, there is a holocaust going on right now that’s destroyed the world. And for greed we don’t see it. Instead we struggle over how many angles dance on a pinhead.

    More species are exterminated in a week in our time than in a thousand years of natural world. For what? So we can put another three billion into the world in our lifetime.

    This is the holocaust we should arrest ourselves over.

    Comment by Reflect on your reactions — November 22, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  3. […] text of the gospel itself.  Links from the PBO’s website address the controversy here and here, and are well worth […]

    Pingback by Portland Baroque Orchestra and honored guests deliver a masterful, inspired St. John Passion | Oregon Music News — March 14, 2011 @ 4:10 am

  4. I’m very appreciative of Edith Hines’ post – it’s full of common sense.

    First off, the charge of “anti-semitism” is extremely vague and indirect. If the term is intended to describe a negative sentiment toward those specific Jews who did shout “crucify him” in 33 CE in Jerusalem, then, yes, Bach, the writer of John’s gospel and millions of other people would be guilty of the charge. But why is that wrong? Those specific Jews were genuinely complicit in the killing of an innocent man (whether you believe him to be the Son of God or not… he did not deserve crucifixion). That doesn’t mean that any other Jews, whether in 18th-century Europe or around today, are responsible whatsoever.

    Would negative sentiments toward German Christians who killed innocent Jews in the Holocaust constitute “anti-Christianism”? If so, I’m a “Christian anti-Christian.”

    This whole “debate” lacks nuance and contextualization. Bach and the author of John’s Gospel were referring to a specific group of Jews in a specific context… not “every Jew who ever lived” or “the Jewish faith in general.” After all, the strongest hint toward Easter in the whole Passion is a text that makes explicit reference to a Jewish hero (the B section of “Es ist vollbracht” on the text “der held aus JUDA siegt mit macht”).

    Michael Marissen is right in a way to say that Bach ‘tones down’ any hint of anti-semitism in the gospel text, but I think that misses the point. What Bach does isn’t so much ‘tone down’ some latent anti-semitism in the text itself but extend the guilt beyond those immediately responsible (Pilate, 33 CE Jews in Jerusalem etc…) to any individual listening to the work in the present. One of the best examples is actually found in the Matthew Passion, where the chorale responds “Ich bin’s” to Judas’ question “bin ich’s rabbi?” but there are similar examples in the John Passion, as Marissen points out.

    Comment by Nate Jones — May 19, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    • Dear Nate,
      Thanks for your thoughtful and insight and in-depth replies, including the PS.
      It is clearly a big and still controversial topic, and you add a lot to the discussion.
      I’ll be anxious to see what reactions you get from other readers.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 20, 2010 @ 8:49 am

  5. I refuse to speak to whether or not Bach was anti-Semitic, because I don’t know him personally and don’t want to judge the motives of someone 260 years dead. But I would suggest that for him to set the turba choruses in the vehement way that he did is not a sign of anti-Semitism but rather of excellent musical response to the texts. If he had set those scenes—for which “mob scene” would be an accurate non-technical substitution for “turba chorus”—in a gentler way, the music would not convey nearly so successfully (that is to say, viscerally) the violence of the scene itself.

    That brings us back to one of Bob’s earlier points: is the Gospel text inherently anti-Semitic? Again, I would say no. John was reporting the events as they occurred (the Jews said “____,” Jesus said “____,” Pilate said “____”), and if a later reader interprets his report as anti-Semitic, perhaps it betrays his/her own bias more than John’s point of view. To report a violent scene that makes its perpetrators look bad does not necessarily mean that the reporter hates the perpetrators, much less their whole nation (especially when he is of that nation himself); rather, the scene itself implies that the perpetrators did something so obviously bad that anyone can tell upon a casual reading that it was actually bad! This is true no matter the perpetrators and no matter the reporter.

    All that said, I truly hope that no one reading this comment will read any anti-Semitism into it! As a believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, I love the Jewish people from whom he was born. (And, as the chorale texts suggest, I also believe that my sins were among those that killed him.) I have tried to be as objective as possible in making the statements above.

    Comment by Edith Hines — March 25, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

  6. As a classical musician and a strong feminist (I attended Smith College and come from a family of very strong female role models – for instance, my paternal grandmother was the first female engineer in Hungary, having to go to Berlin to get her degree and return to Budapest afterwards), I have often cringed at what seem to me very sexist lyrics, in hymns and other religious musical works, even while loving the beauty and power of the music.

    What to do? It’s one thing to make egalitarian substitutions, as in the last stanza of Good King Wenceslas: ‘All good Christian folk be sure, life and wealth possessing’ instead of All good Christian men…’

    But what about when not just the wording, but the meaning, is sexist? Hard. I think the more that a work of art is rooted in or tied to any kind of bigotry, then the more limited is its appeal, relevance and worth as art. The great power of art, in my mind, is to help individual humans experience and embrace that which is timeless and universal; eternal truths, so to speak.

    So, yes, we can cultivate text-less or non-programmatic music, but limiting oneself exclusively to that is like wearing musical blinders, I think. I’d rather also include the Bach approach: depict a situation in all its bigoted intensity, and immediately ask the listener to look within for similar tendencies. It’s a musical parable along the lines of “Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    And the Shostakovich Quartet #8 approach: depict a situation in all its inhuman cruelty and tragedy, and hold it up as a testament, memorial, and plea for ‘Never Again.’

    Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them; why not learn through beautiful, powerful music???

    Comment by Marika F-H — March 25, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    • Hi Marika,
      I agree with all you say in your well thought through comments.
      It’s true that I generally like textless music more than music with texts. But that wouldn’t — and won’t — stop me from listening to many Bach cantatas and the Passions or to Schubert songs or to whatever.

      But it does often require me to look beyond the original context or meaning. In literature — my training — we do the same thing all the time. Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and Mark Twain;s “Huckleberry Finn” seem to pose similar challenges for some people. Sometimes you just have to be bigger than the problems or the dilemmas or the ugliness, and look for the greater good, the bigger beauty. One smaller part shouldn’t invalidate the whole.
      However, I don’t agree we can’t have biased art that is good. Take Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot or Celine or any number of others. Unfortunate, maybe, but true nonetheless, even if relatively rarely.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 25, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

  7. Virulent anti-Semitism has been a more or less prominent but central and pervasive element of European culture from the 1st century AD through this morning. Why would one expect Bach, or any artist for that matter, to be immune to its corrosive effects?

    Anti-Semitic values and ideas may or may not inform any given work, and an individual listener or viewer (or scholar or critic) may or may not be able to objectively demonstrate or subjectively perceive its presence.

    The challenge for the individual consumer of art is to be able to experience a particular work in all its beauty and power, whether it depicts, exploits, embraces, transcends or, as is the case for most of Bach’s music, and most great art, doesn’t exhibit any apparent anti-Semitic values or attitudes.

    I have spent a lot of my life consuming magnificent works of music, literature and painting (Wagner, for example) and reveling in their greatness while simultaneously fretting over the conflicted feelings that they sometimes elicit in me. Difficult as it sometimes can be, I often find that I have no choice but to simply accept those feelings, ignore them, “get over it” and then move on.

    Comment by Marius — March 25, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    • Hi Marius,
      Thanks for reading the blog and replying so eloquently and frequently.
      I tend to take your approach and have your attitude. We all live in history, including works of art — which can indeed be anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist, classist, homophobic or whatever, depending on their era and their creator.
      But I also understand why people who are hurt or affected personally by such attitudes may prefer to turn away from works of art or culture that affirm such biases and prejudices.
      But policing art works outside history not only proves futile but also deprives you of some great art.
      Ultimately, it is too bad it when one can’t break though the negatives to reach the beauty. That may be one reason why I myself prefer music without texts or extra-musical meaning.
      I’ll be anxious to see what other readers say.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 25, 2010 @ 7:58 am

      • Random side note, but I’m skeptical that there is such a thing as music without extra-musical meaning. This was attempted by certain Romantic composers (buttressed by the art-philosophy of people like Schlegel and others) under the heading of ‘absolute music,’ but ultimately failed. After all, Beethoven was supposed to be the paragon of what absolute music’s composition looks like, yet extra-musical associations abound in his symphonies (#5 as “fate,” #6 as “pastoral” and so on). For a brilliant book on this topic, read Daniel Chua, “Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning.”

        Comment by Nate Jones — May 19, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

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