Chorale begins work on Bach's turba choruses

Having devoted two rehearsals exclusively to the major choruses which begin and end the St. John Passion, Chorale begins work this week on the turba choruses, the crowd scenes, which give the work so much of its special character, and have caused such controversy in recent years.

J. S. Bach composed no operas.  He was not positioned, or trained, to do so; the Bach family genius, up to his time, had found its home, for several generations, in church music.  Bach did compose a good deal of “secular” instrumental and keyboard music, especially when he was in Weimar; and part of his job in Leipzig was to compose secular cantatas and scenas to celebrate birthdays and other special, civic events.  But not operas—unlike numerous of his contemporaries, most notably Handel, a North German who went to Italy and became one of the outstanding opera composers in Western music history.  There is no evidence that Bach was dissatisfied with the essential outlines of his professional life, and craved an operatic stage on which to display his talents.  Presented with the inherent drama of the Passion narrative, however, he did not hesitate to utilize techniques and procedures then current in operatic composition; and his genius made the most of them, enabling him to illustrate his text in startlingly visceral, emotional, compelling ways.

From a technical standpoint, the extensive turba scenes are difficult because of constantly shifting tempos, frequent transitions, and the interplay of the various vocal and instrumental forces—only the continuo players (keyboard, cello, occasionally violone or lute) play, as the word suggests, continually; everyone else-- soloists, chorus, the remaining instruments—jumps in and out, often with no preparation other than an upbeat from the conductor.  The conductor has to keep everything straight, have a mental diagram of what he wants to accomplish with pacing, dynamics, articulation—and he, in turn, depends upon the cellist and the keyboardist, to keep things moving, and make split second decisions as the performance progresses.  Chorale is fortunate in its continuo players:  Craig Trompeter and David Schrader are among the best players of this sort in town, and their participation places the performance on a sure footing.  While I focus on setting tempos and cueing the various instruments and voices (accuracy here is especially difficult for the chorus), they keep the music moving.

The chorus portrays, by turns, the crowd of soldiers seeking Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; the crowd outside the high priest’s residence, questioning Peter; the crowd urging Pilate to crucify Jesus, which they are not allowed, themselves, to do; the crowd urging that Barabas be freed, rather than Jesus; the crowd mocking Jesus when he is crowned with thorns;  the crowd dividing Jesus’ clothing;  and so on.  The verbal language, as well as its musical expression, tends to be alternately wheedling, mocking, angry, and violent.  And many listeners respond angrily to Bach’s graphic, direct setting of John’s biblical language, which insistently identifies the crowd as Jews, and effectively accuses the Jews of crucifying Jesus, portraying Pilate as a blustering, but weak, character, giving in to their demands rather listening to his doubts and conscience.

Bach sets John’s text brilliantly—and disturbingly.  German anti-Semitism was a daily fact of life, sanctified in the writings of Martin Luther, with whose works Bach was intimately familiar. Bach’s contemporaries would likely have heard his choruses through anti-Semitic ears, and would have identified the screaming, hate-filled crowds with the Jews Luther describes and condemns.  Now, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, performers and audiences alike are sometimes deeply disturbed by the force of Bach’s setting; I personally have participated in three separate preparations of the work which have been picketed by sincere, thoughtful people, and have known singers who refuse to participate in such performances.  A good deal has been said and written on this subject, particularly by scholars Michael Marissen and Robert Marshall; and later on in Chorale’s preparation period, we will post, on this blog, a paper Marshall wrote just last year, in which he lays out as clearly as possible the issues he, both as a musicologist and as a Jew, identifies in performances of this great work, and his thoughtful responses to these issues.  In the meantime, Chorale’s job is to prepare Bach’s music, and text, as faithfully as possible, and follow where he leads us.