Bach’s setting of the St. John Passion was first heard on Good Friday, 1724, in Leipzig. This performance was not a concert; it was a liturgical expansion of the Vespers service. All of the text was in vernacular German. Some was Biblical; some was contemporary poetry; some was from hymns with which the listeners were intimately familiar. With the exception of the hymn tunes, all of the music was “modern”—newly composed, much of it specifically for this event. Throughout the rest of his life and career, Bach tinkered with this Passion setting—tried different music, different poetry, different chorales. He never did settle on a definitive version; that which is usually presented today is a thoughtful combination of at least two versions, and was never actually heard during his lifetime. It might have been, had Bach lived longer; we’ll never know.
The point is—this musical setting, in its day, was immediate and purposeful. Bach focused his extraordinary art, invention, and craft, not on creating “works of art, “ but on enhancing the worship life of his community. Nothing about Bach’s performances required reverent, museum-quality reconstruction. And it seems clear, from the casual, offhand way he treated his manuscripts, that Bach never anticipated the interest shown in his liturgical works—masses, cantatas, motets, passions-- after his death. We, who study and perform these works nearly three hundred years later, are not Bach’s target listeners; I expect he would be surprised by our interest. We treat his works with far more reverence, than he did.
I envy those who heard Bach’s works as new compositions-- I imagine their anticipation, their pleasure and satisfaction, week by week, as new cantatas were tried out, and as Bach performed new works, or improvised on old ones, at the organ or harpsichord. Our experience is so different-- we hear these works completely out of context, largely divorced from the religious, as well as the social, worlds, for which they were composed. We hear them as isolated concert works, as “classical music,” something very separate from the music that surrounds us in our daily lives, something that exists in a bell jar, to be appreciated and enjoyed by the enlightened; much as we view paintings and sculptures—once intended for daily use and viewing—in museum galleries. We focus on their history, on informed performance practice, on musical gesture and rhetorical language; we try, through exhaustive study, to get it just right, and through getting it just right, to understand Bach’s genius and still-living appeal, across centuries of change. We can never hear him, experience him, as his original listeners did. No matter how hard we work to duplicate the physical conditions of his original performances, we can never be his original audience. We are at best successfully costumed re-enactors.
So why put such emphasis and care into our performances of this music? I frequently ask myself this, and related questions, when studying and performing music of earlier times. What is it about our contemporary culture that has us always longing backwards, always history-obsessed, while around us everything is barreling into the future? Were Bach alive now, what would he compose? and why would he compose it? A sizable part of me wants to perform the music of now, and support those who compose it, awkward and disoriented though it often seems to be. I am powerfully attracted to the glorious, beautifully crafted music of earlier eras, only to be pulled up short by the realities of my life here and now; it is not healthy, to despise the present while worshiping the past—it leaves one culturally homeless and disconnected.
I do find that, the more I understand, in preparing his vocal music, what I sense Bach wanted to do—to powerfully reach and change his listeners, for the better—the more I am content to embrace much of what “historically informed performance practice” teaches me; his music just seems to work better that way, and to communicate more directly. Nonetheless, there is much in my love of this music, and desire to perform it, which I cannot justify or explain, other than to admit that I just like it an awful lot.