Updating Bach, or defacing him?
Unleashing musical passions

Updating Bach, or defacing him?

A new 'inclusive' version of St John’s Passion, featuring Jewish and Muslim poetry and liturgical excerpts, has purists in Germany crying sacrilege

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

The weeks leading up to Easter are traditionally Bach season in Germany, with multiple performances of his passion oratorios drawing otherwise rare crowds to churches across the country. But this year, a new version of Bach’s St John’s Passion is raising heckles among the faithful.

Three Jewish intellectuals — a philosopher, a composer, and a musicologist — have replaced some of Bach’s texts with their own selections of Jewish and Muslim poetry and liturgical excerpts. On Friday, the new version will be performed in Berlin’s Dom, the capital’s cathedral. Some members of the congregation are calling it “musical sacrilege.”

But Shulamit Bruckstein Çoruh, founder of ha-atelier, an interdisciplinary center dedicated to the promotion of Jewish and Islamic cosmopolitan traditions, says the project addresses the Judeo-phobic aspects of Bach’s work which have long made Jewish audiences squirm — even as they are drawn to the beauty and dramatic power of the music.

Like her collaborators, American composer Sidney Corbett and Professor Ruth HaCohen of the Hebrew University, she says, “I always used to sneak into performances Bach’s passions–– even over Pesach. Of course as Jews we were always shocked by the hate-filled tirades of the Evangelist.”

Adds Corbett, “It’s uncomfortable when you’re confronted with a massive Masterpiece and the people you belong to are portrayed as the bad guys.”

The oratorio follows the gospel according to St John with the Evangelist, sung by a tenor, acting as narrator. Dramatic choral passages illustrate the events – among them a terrifying mob scene of Jews baying for the blood of Jesus. Heartfelt solo arias offer commentary and reflection. The revised version focuses on these arias – rather than editing out the offensive passages from the Gospel — using them to broadcast a more universalist and inclusive spiritual message than that of eighteenth-century Lutheranism.

The sources Bruckstein Çoruh mined include poetry by Paul Celan and Else Lasker-Schüler, translations of Yehuda Halevy, Rumi’s Rubayyat, and extracts from the Yom Kippur liturgy. These will be sung in German, to the original music of Bach’s arias. “They are correspondences to Bach’s texts, not contrasts,” she says.

Reactions to the project have been emotional. At a seminar devoted to the project on March 13 at Berlin’s Humboldt University, angry members of the Dom parish said they would rather leave the congregation than tolerate any tinkering with their cultural heritage. Others complained about the intrusion of political correctness into the realm of art.

In the United States, though, some performers have long substituted the word “people” for “Jews” in Bach’s oratorio, a tradition begun by composer-conductor Lukas Foss who had fled Nazi Germany. Other presenters organize interfaith seminars in the run-up to performances of the St John’s Passion. Some musicologists point out that Bach himself softens much of the gospel’s Judeophobia with arias that urge his Christian audience to take personal responsibility for their Savior’s suffering.

The authors of the ha-atelier version look to history for permission. For starters, says Bruckstein Çoruh, “substituting texts in a vocal work is very much part of the Baroque tradition.”

And the modern performance history of Bach passions in Berlin goes back to a Jewish-born composer, Felix Mendelssohn, whose performance of the St Matthew’s Passion in 1829 brought Bach’s oratorios back into the public consciousness. (The St Matthew’s Passion has few explicitly anti-Jewish passages.) “We in the Jewish community never took part in Bach’s works as outsiders — they are our home, too,” she says.

“We weren’t trying to offend anyone, let alone deface Bach,” says Corbett, an American composer who has made his home in Berlin. His own involvement in the revised St John’s Passion stems from his deep love of the work.

“When my father died, that was the music I listened to before going to his funeral,” he says. “That opening chorus with those biting dissonances in the oboes — for me it’s one of the scariest moments in all music. But I adore it.”

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