Hearing Bach's Passions

Daniel Melamed begins his 2005 book, Hearing Bach’s Passions, by paraphrasing Helmuth Rilling, “who reportedly once said that it was all very well that we have original instruments and original performance practices but unfortunate that we have no original listeners.” Melamed goes on to ask, “Is it ever possible for us to hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed? To put it another way, when we listen to a Bach passion, is it really the same piece Bach wrote in the early eighteenth century?” He then explores and describes the religious, social, musical facts on the ground in Leipzig and the rest of the Lutheran, German-speaking world during Bach’s time, effectively making his case that Bach’s “Great” Passion According to St. Matthew, in its original context, nearly 300 years ago, is indeed not at all the work we hear in concerts today, and that no amount of care for “authenticity” in our preparations for such a performance can change that fact. Bach’s listeners were intimately familiar with much of what they heard in the Passion’s three hours of music. The wealth of hymn tunes (and texts) which serve as the musical and theological foundation of the work, also served as the foundation of German Lutheran religious practice; almost surely, every person in attendance on Good Friday knew each note and word, by heart, and felt “at home” and comfortable when these hymns were sung. Bach’s musical language, though somewhat more complex and difficult than that of his contemporaries, did not come as a bewildering surprise to his parishioners—they experienced it every Sunday, year in and year out, in the cantatas he regularly presented during weekly worship. His performers played, and sang, on instruments, and in a style, which were the everyday norm; no one had to accept sounds or expressions which were outside their normal experience.  Though the words of the Evangelist and the chorales were in a somewhat archaic German, it was still a German which the listeners understood; and the arias were settings of contemporary German poetry. All of the listeners were officially and legally Lutheran, and subscribed to the theology Bach presented; I suspect they participated in annual presentations of the Passion narrative worshipfully and unquestioningly. Twenty-first century listeners might find the work’s length daunting, but this was nothing to his original hearers: they also sat through a two hour sermon inserted between parts one and two, plus a number of motets and prayers, and endured all of this in an unheated church.

Modern audiences, on the other hand, approach these inescapable aspects of Bach’s work from a tremendous distance, and would seemingly face an impossible task in overcoming this distance; to properly appreciate Bach’s accomplishment, one would think, they would need to take on a special, informed persona, an impossible task. Altogether, our current experience of Bach’s Matthew Passion is, as Melamed and Rilling suggest, irrevocably removed from the experience of Bach’s original listeners.

So why present it?

Well, the fact is, we do. People want to hear it. Every year, throughout the world, there are thousands of performances of this work-- and these performances are far more than dutiful recitations of a hoary museum piece of which we are all told to be in awe. Musicians and listeners, alike, keep it alive, year after year, in expensive, imaginative, carefully researched and rehearsed presentations—and it shows no signs of wear, no signs of diminished impact or declining reputation. Despite changing musical tastes, religious constructs, linguistic traditions, technological developments, performance styles—aspects of our material and intellectual culture which come and go with increasing rapidity-- Bach’s Great Passion shines like a beacon over all, strikes fire in some universal human heart, touches and releases some universal soul.

Chicago Chorale’s production will reflect our own “realities on the ground”: the membership of our ensemble, our performance venue, the soloists and instrumentalists available to us, the amount of money we have to spend on our production, the expectations we have of our audience. On the most basic, material level, it will be Chorale’s take on Bach’s Great Passion, not Leipzig’s. But I am confident that the core value of the work will shine through for us and for our audience, as it did for Bach and his listeners. This music is that big.