Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, Sellars–Rattle, ENO, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation Day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special. Note also his book Playing with history.

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my starter page on Bach!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!” (cf. The ritual calendar).

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version (also from the Proms, with the superlative Mark Padmore (note this roundup). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

16 thoughts on “Passion at the Proms

  1. The BBC Radio 3 Reformation Day celebrations left me perplexed. Luther is a controversial character. His output included significant anti-Judaic rants, even by the standards of the day. His book from 1543 ‘Von den Jüden und ihren Lügen’ (‘On the Jews and their Lies’) was, literally, and incendiary tract, recommending the burning of synagogues and shuls, Hebrew prayer books destroyed, goods confiscated ‘without mercy or kindness.’ The passage is painful to report. VdJ It was specifically used during Nazi rallies in the 1930’s to stir up antisemitic sentiment, and it is hard to then not to see the burnings and atrocities of Reichskristallnacht in November 1938 as having a direct association with Luther’s exhortation. The German Evangelical Church has recognised this dissonance in their preparations for the anniversary of Luther’s Declaration.

    Mark Marissen has discussed at length the relationship between Bach’s St John Passion and Luther’s anti-Judaic writings in his books ‘Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St John Passion’ (Oxford, 1998) and ‘Bach & God’ (Oxford 2016) and elsewhere. Musicians, eager to hear such a superb work, naturally incline to a position that sees no problems, although this rather smacks of Nelson’s legendary quip, when putting the telescope to his blind eye at Trafalgar, to ‘see no ships’. As Marissen describes, it is hard to get round Bach’s attention to the ‘ugly aspects of the story’. He quotes the religious scholar Jacob Neusner’s words, seeing ‘the St John Passion as an occasion to identify and overcome anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism – a work of aesthetic refinement and deep religious sentiment.’

    There was no circumspection to the programming on Sunday. Instead the day ploughed on with ‘uplifting’ contributions and reflections on Luther’s less controversial writing. After a performance of the St John Passion, with all its ferocious vitriol that focusses on the Jews as the agents of Christ’s crucifixion, the audience were invited to join in ‘Now thank we all our God’. In these sad times of religious extremism you would have to ask Luther whose God this might be. The Reformation Day missed an opportunity to reflect on issues of religious tolerance, instead of which it became a middle-class celebration of its good taste. Period instrument performance used to be an opportunity to reexamine music in the light of the culture and experience of the audience of the day, whereas it now seems frequently to represent a certain costume drama, feel-good nostalgia for less complicated times, when issues of faith and community were resolved in much simpler ways.


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