Friday, October 24, 2014

Bach to Luther

One rarely comes across references to Martin Luther in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, let alone references that are positive and accurate. (One of the last times I recall seeing his name in that setting occurred in connection with an article on the alleged marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The author asserted, wrongly, that Luther was one who supported that view. For criticism of this claim, go here.) But this week's edition (Oct 27, 2014) contains a moving review of a recent set of performances of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" by the Berlin Philharmonic (conducted by Simon Rattle) and the Rundfunkchor Berlin (directed by Simon Halsey), all staged by Peter Sellar. Based on the review by Alex Ross, which you can read online here, I wish I could have accompanied him.

Ross: "Martin Luther, in a treatise on the Crucifixion in 1519, had grim tidings for those of his followers who wished to lay the blame for Christ's death entirely on the Jews..."

Ross is right to point out the probable connection between Luther's 1519 sermon (not a "treatise"), delivered on Good Friday that year, and Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," which was probably first performed on Good Friday, 1727. Ross is also right to note how both Luther and Bach, at least in that Good Friday setting, did not blame "others" (e.g., "the Jews") for the death of Jesus or make outsiders into contemporary scapegoats, as frequently happened in medieval passion plays (almost always leading to persecution of local Jews), but placed the real blame on those who heard the sermon and the Passion.

According to that same 1519 sermon by Luther: "Those who reflect upon the sufferings of Christ in a way that they become angry at the Jews..., just like by habit they complain about other people and condemn and spend their time on their enemies," is the wrong way to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. Instead of blaming others for the death of Jesus, one should blame oneself: Believe and never doubt in the least "that you are the one who thus martyred Christ. For your sins most surely did it. Thus St. Peter struck and terrified the Jews as with a thunderbolt in Acts 2.36-37, when he spoke to them all in common: 'Him you crucified,' so that three thousand were terror-stricken the same day and trembling cried to the apostles: 'O beloved brothers, what shall we do?' Therefore, when you view the nails piercing through his hands, firmly believe it is your work. Do you behold his crown of thorns? Believe the thorns are your wicked thoughts, etc." (Taken from Martin Luther, "Sermon on How to Contemplate the Sufferings of Christ," in The Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983], II:183ff. [translation slightly modified]).

When I teach the St. Matthew Passion, which I will do again next year in the context of my course, "Luther and Bach," I like to point out how the libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici ("Picander"), which was itself likely based on eight passion sermons by the Rostock Lutheran theologian Heinrich Mueller (1631-75), and then modified/used by Bach, makes the same move as Luther's Good Friday sermon. When Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him, they wonder, "Is it I?" And then Bach inserts the following chorale (representative of the entire congregation):

"It is I, I should atone,
bound hand and foot in hell.
The scourges and the bonds
and what you endured,
my soul has earned."

Later, in the Garden of Gethsemene scene, both choirs connect the suffering of Christ with the current listeners: "What is the cause of all this trouble?"... "Alas! My sins have struck you down... I, alas, Lord Jesus, have earned this, that you endure."

The aria and choir (I) then respond:
"My death is atoned for by his soul's anguish;
His sorrow makes me full of joy.
 - Therefore his deserved suffering
must be truly bitter and yet sweet to us."

And then once again, at the very end of the Passion, when Jesus is placed in the tomb, both choirs, singing back and forth, acknowledge:

"See, how I weep over you with repentance and regret,
since my fall has brought such anguish upon you!"

It is not too strong to state that both Luther and Bach "existentialized" and "contemporatized" the suffering ("passion") of Jesus so that the real aim of the preaching of the cross was directed at the congregation. (Note well: The setting of Luther's sermon and Bach's St. Matt. Passion was a congregation of baptized Christians.) One finds this same dynamic in all of Luther's sermons, as well as in the other great passion of Bach, "The St. John": "I, I and my sins... they are what brought Jesus to the cross..."

(The connection between Mueller and Picander/Bach has been nicely demonstrated through the research of Elke Axmacher. See her book, Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben [Stuttgart: Haenssler, 1984].)

Unlike the recent performances of the St. Matthew Passion in New York, which likely ended with much applause and joyful noise from the audience (Ross likened it to a "mountain top" experience), when the Matthew Passion was first executed in the context of the 1727 Good Friday Divine Service at St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Leipzig, the congregants afterward silently filed out of the nave and went home. (They probably wondered what the heck they had just experienced, since Bach literally pulled out all the stops: two choirs, two orchestras, polyphonic sound like they had never heard before, etc.) Whatever joyful celebration those Leipziger Lutherans would have done back then (and we might include even their counterparts today), would have had to wait until the following Sunday.

For other positive reviews of Sellar's staging of the St. Matthew Passion, see:

Wall Street Journal's Review

New York Times' Review

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