The Living Bach

After three week’s medical hiatus, I am back at this. During those three weeks, I listened almost daily to recordings of Bach’s Matthew Passion; during the third week, I was able to follow along in the score, and actually do some private rehearsing. I had many quiet hours to think about the work, to consider its meaning and relevance for today’s listeners, as well as to marvel at the skill of the performers on these recordings, and try to learn from what they were doing. Art works from the early eighteenth century tend to end up in museums-- or as museums, themselves. We walk through museums, marveling at the incredible skill, art, cleverness of the long dead artists, and of the schools or trends which they represent. We read in visitors’ guides about religious or social movements of the period; we discuss and are at least dimly aware of the iconography which indicates deeper meanings than we see on the surface. But it is all long ago and far away; we don’t paint or sculpt or write that way any more, and most aspiring artists, attempting to define a new, personal identity, would not want to learn how.

Music somehow is different. Even with the high-quality recordings available to us, we require that music sound, and that we musicians of today enable that sounding, actually learn to do what musicians did in the eighteenth century. We put on live performances. Audiences want to hear it live; and we want to perform it live. So we work very, very hard, unlike our colleagues in plastic or verbal arts, to produce museum-quality performances. In the process, we must and do ask ourselves-- Why? Does anyone today believe what Bach was attempting to convince his listeners to believe? We now live in a multicultural, multi-religious, even in many respects nonreligious world; few people, if any, subscribe to the homogeneous religious tenets of 1720s Leipzig. Much of the dogma which served as the underpinnings of Bach’s texts has completely disappeared; some aspects of it have been used to justify acts of barbarism and murder, and deeply disturb modern listeners.

Nonetheless, we continue to school ourselves in the performance of Bach’s music, vocal and instrumental. To a great extent, we do this because it is so good, so monumental, and so gratifying to perform and hear. Few composers yield such rewards. It is a commonplace, worth restating, on which listeners and performers from a wide variety of religions and ethnicities agree: Bach is in a class by himself. His music speaks to us all.   But what is it, that it speaks? Certainly, it speaks brilliance, genius, monumental achievement. Beyond this, though, it speaks of pity, compassion, love and reverence for all creation. The Matthew Passion, following the words and characterization of Matthew’s Gospel, shows us Jesus the man-- loving, melancholy, impatient, sorrowful, in great pain, finally and horribly alone in his trial and death. As the soprano soloist sings, ”He has done only good for us all; he has returned to the blind their sight, the lame he has made to walk again; he drove the devils out, he has comforted the mourners, took the sinners to himself. Only these things has he done; otherwise, nothing.   Out of love, my savior now is dying.” I suspect there is no one who cannot relate to this figure, who does not weep at the horrible calamity of his death. We understand his disciples, from Judas to Peter, who cannot really believe what is coming, and cannot see their own weakness and failing until it is too late. We understand Pilate, intelligent and insightful but helpless, and we understand the fury of the mob. Matthew’s story is the human story, reenacted every day in every corner of our globe.

Each time I read Moby Dick, it possesses me; each time I have sung Winterreise, I have been owned, lock stock and barrel, by Schubert. Bach’s Matthew Passion exerts the same sort of ownership over me. I find myself at the very intersection of the divine and the mortal, where everything on the page and in the air is holy. I hope you will come and share in the fruits of Chorale’s hard work. March 29, Rockefeller Chapel.