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Listen: Bach Scholar Michael Marissen Discusses Anti-Semitic Undertones in Composer's Work

J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has always gotten more respect than his other telling of the crucifixion story - the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew, with its six-part choir and double orchestra, is grander, about 45 minutes longer, and generally more imposing. But don't underestimate the St. John, which is getting several performances around the U.S. this season, and is the subject of a recent recording by the Portland Baroque Orchestra led by Monica Huggett.

The St. John has been a somewhat harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations, and has periodically stirred heated debate. ...

The controversy flared up in 1995 at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia, where several members of the college choir refused to perform the work because they perceived portions of the text as anti-Semitic. The performance made national headlines (though it was never cancelled) and it prompted scholars to explore how Bach handled the biblical verses in text and music.

Among those scholars was Michael Marissen, a noted Bach expert who teaches at Swarthmore, and who in 1996 published Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion. "It's well known that there's some challenging language in the Gospel of John," he said in an interview at WQXR. "There's the passion story itself which keeps referring specifically to the enemies of Jesus as 'the Jews, the Jews, the Jews,' which the other canonical gospels don't." Indeed, the word "Jews" appears about 70 times in the Gospel of St. John and appears only once or twice in the other gospels.

"Most of the text of the St. John Passion is Biblical text taken right from John: 18 or 19," said Marissen. Then, after every two or three verses, the story breaks off and a soloist or the choir sings verses from 16th, 17th, or 18th century sources which comment on that part of the story. ...

Although Bach was not exactly at liberty to substantially change the wording of the biblical text, he could determine what to emphasize. Some have questioned whether the composer's setting of the choruses is just a little too vivid. But Marissen argues that Bach was relatively restrained when compared with Handel or Telemann in their own passion settings. "Somewhat surprisingly, Bach's St. John Passion does not take that tack," said Marissen. "It leaves the Jews alone and harps on how sinful the Lutherans are and how they're to blame for the death of Jesus."...

Michael Marissen is the Daniel Underhill Professor of Music at Swarthmore College and the author of Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion. He was featured in Bach 360°, a 10-day festival last month that explored how J.S. Bach resonates with contemporary audiences. Marissen holds a B.A. from Calvin College and Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He joined the Swarthmore faculty in 1989 and teaches courses on medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical European music; Bach; a conceptual introduction to the music of various cultures; Mozart; and the string quartet.

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