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Art and Anti-Semitism




Johann Sebastian Bach

The Boston Cecilia

April 5 & 10

Directed by Donald Teeters

For those of us who don't yet have too many wedding anniversaries or funerals to commemorate the demarcations of our own personal histories, holidays offer a rare opportunity for adding a dramatic subtext to the calendar. At Halloween, for example, we sneak about, looking up at the stars, comparing preteen trick or treating expeditions with our current pranks.

A complete understanding of holidays, however, must include more than just abstract drama. While sixteenth century artists like Johann Sebastian Bach certainly had a sincere religious motivation to continue the tradition of setting the Passion--the biblical story of Christ's arrest and crucifixion--to music, they certainly did not fail to take advantage of the abstract drama which secular audiences can easily appreciate.

But the dramatic tropes of the Passion cannot be cleanly divorced from the explicit Christian story the Passion tells, for religious Christians naturally continue to take the story of the Passion seriously (after all, it comes straight from the gospel of John). This becomes troublesome when, as with the Boston Cecilia's Easter-time performances of Bach's St. John Passion, the sacred Christian text contains traces of anti-Semitism.

In a remarkable demonstration of "living in uncertainties", the Boston Cecilia performed Bach's St. John Passion with grace and skill, singing with feeling without appearing tactless. Brave enough not to gloss over the anti-Semitism of the piece with a simple program note or disclaimer, The Boston Cecilia and All Saints Parish presented the panel discussion, "Art and Anti-Semitism: Perceptions of Anti-Semitism in the St. John Passion."

Manned by James Carroll, Boston Globe columnist and former Catholic Priest; Rabbi Sanford Seltzer of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline; Christoph Wolff, celebrated Bach scholar and Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences; and Stephan Jay Gould, a self-proclaimed "agnostic Jew" and Harvard professor of paleontology, the panel neither skirted nor mistreated the issue.

Wolff directed the discussion away from Bach himself, claiming that Bach added little or nothing to the anti-Semitism of the text of the book of John. In fact, the arias that Bach added are far more devotional than accusatory, whereas the gospel texts repeatedly blame "die Juden" for the crucifixion. John depicts the Jews as a vengeful, cowardly mass that appeals to Pilate and Caesar's law to do their dirty work for them.

Even James Carroll, the most outspoken Christian on the panel, was willing to criticize the book of John. He pointed out that it was composed many decades after the events it describes and was more polemical in nature (written for Hellenic audiences) than the three "synoptic" gospels. Carroll also defended John by contextualizing his text as being written before there was any clear distinction between Jewish and Christian religions or ethnicities. Thus, the Passion story cannot be categorized with modern anti-Semitic thought a la Nietzche.

Rabbi Seltzer concentrated on the immediate, practical effects of the St. John Passion. His eye-opening speech revealed the dichotomy between Jewish and Christian impressions of Gospel texts and the symbol of the cross, noting that these key-stones of Christian heritage (and consequently much of Christian liturgy) implicitly blame Jews for the events of the Gospels. Both he and Carroll traced a connection between this unavoidable implication and the history of anti-Semitism in Western and especially German culture that has more or less continuously marked two millennia of Christian tradition.

Where the panelists sidestepped compromising questions, the mostly over-forty audience quickly stepped in. Several audience members questioned the mixed message sent through the frequency and regularity with which the St. John Passion is performed around Easter time. Stephan Jay Gould, whose participation was more appropriate than one would think (he actually sang in the chorus for each performance), eagerly responded that despite the discomfort that both Christians and Jews feel in performing parts of the piece, Bach's St. John Passion deserved to be performed on its artistic merit.

The simplicity of this argument did not satisfy some audience members, but Gould maintained that Bach's St. John Passion was not a gratuitous choice: it is one of only two Passions by Bach, both universally recognized masterpieces. Himself a member of The Boston Cecilia Board of Directors, Gould's argument seemed analogous to the Cecilia's decision to both perform the Passion and to hold the anti-Semitism discussion: Great art should be performed, and when it is controversial, that controversy must be faced. But this seems to be a stop-gap argument. Was The Boston Cecilia primarily motivated by a desire to discuss art and anti-Semitism, or was the panel discussion merely an attempt to ameliorate the controversy of a highly desirable performance?

If anything can incontrovertibly justify The Boston Cecilia's choice, it might be the performance. A fifty-four person chorus, five soloists (including an extremely crisp Narrator) and an orchestra using period instruments performed in one of Boston's more sublime National Historic Landmarks, Jordan Hall (where the floor is radically slanted towards the stage, giving the mezzanine a definite whirlpool effect).

Bach's St. John Passion, more philosophical than the expansive St. Matthew Passion, has an eerie, sonorous sound that plays off of soft, massive murmurs braced against loud declarations by the chorus. The dramatic moments are based on a timing which The Boston Cecilia hits with ease: the narrator will call, "Sie aber sprachen," and the chorus will resound with the answer, "Jesum von Nazareth." The chorus does not back down from the lines which most directly implicate "the Jews". At the proper moments they exhort Pilate to accept Jesus ("Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam") and crucify him ("Kreuzige! Kreuzige!") with dramatic sincerity. These are the lines both Stephen Jay Gould and certain Christian members of the panel audience said made them feel uncomfortable. Obviously, Gould is typical of the performers, for they all seem to "face" controversy with a loyal eye to Bach's artistry. Unfortunately, "facing" controversy can sound a lot like acknowledging controversy without reacting to it.

But while performers may distract themselves with technical and aesthetic tasks, audiences have a more difficult time. Unlike instrumental pieces in which the drama is abstract, the St. John Passion has at its center a highly problematic text, simultaneously sacred and offensive. The audience member, whether he or she is Christian or simply wishes to enjoy the tradition of the Passion story at Easter time, is frustrated by the impossibility of sympathizing with the tragedy of the Passion without sympathizing also with the textual culpability of the Jews. And those who do not attend may be frustrated that it is received so warmly by the community.

Can we perform and enjoy something like this and then simply walk away from it? Even "facing it" with discussion implies that discussion absolves the performers of any damage done. Yet the alternative is to stop performing the St. John Passion, a piece that is moving even to many whom it offends and is based on a story essential to the faith of millions. The panel discussion unearthed a question too horrible to be answered lightly: What do we do with the foundations of our culture when we no longer approve of them? We can't simply throw them out. Out of tradition and aesthetic fashion, Bach's St. John Passion will continue to be performed, and we will be lucky when it is performed as brilliantly and discussed as thoroughly and as responsibly as it was by The Boston Cecilia.

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