Monthly Archives: April 2012

Response to St. John Passion in Broad Street Review

Thomas Lloyd agrees and disagrees a bit with me in the Letters section of the Broad Street Review. We corresponded quite a bit on this, after my article (itself a response) on Bach, the St. John Passion, and the charge of anti-Semitism. Our emails drifted into the area of historical criticism of the authorship of John’s Gospel, but Dan Rottenberg’s editing spared BSR readers from our wisdom on that topic, for now.

Lloyd directs the Bucks County Choral Society, and choral and vocal studies at Haverford College. Bach is in good hands with Tom’s championing of his music, as I also have been!


Now is the Time. #100

This Sunday, Apr 29, 10–11 pm.

Steven Burke. Nervosa.
Dave Brubeck. Strange Meadow Lark.
Dave Brubeck. It’s a Raggy Waltz.
Philip Koplow. Variations on a Hymn Tune.
Patrick Beckman. Stomp.
Denman Maroney. I’m Yours.
Kile Smith. American Spirituals, Book 1.
Eric Whitacre. i thank you God for most this amazing day.

An encore broadcast of our 100th show. In addition to wonderful works evocative of my thoughts on the series, I set the bar lower and play my own music, only time I’ve done this.

Now is the Time, American contemporary music, Sundays at 10 pm. On WRTI-HD2 and on the classical stream at, it’s all styles of concert music by living American composers. Here are the recording details and complete schedule, and because you  really wanted to know, here’s the theme music and how it was written. Tell me what you think (if I can’t take it, I promise to write back), and ask me where to send CDs for broadcast consideration.

Mass for Philadelphia

How hard could it be to write a unison choral piece? How about a piece for unrehearsed singers—not a choir— who get only one shot at it?

Well, that’s much of church music, the congregational singing part of it, anyway. I’ve written many hymns for just this situation, but with those you at least get multiple verses to figure things out. With service music, such as a Mass, you go though it once and, until a week later, that’s it.

The Association of Anglican Musicians commissioned me to write music for the Closing Eucharist of their National Conference in Philadelphia, June 17–22, 2012. I completed it about a month and a half ago, and after field-testing and tweaking, sent the unison congregation part to the printer yesterday for inclusion in the bulletin.

The Mass for Philadelphia will be sung during the Closing Eucharist, 3:30 pm Thursday, 21 Jun 2012, at St. Luke and The Epiphany, Philadelphia. Assisting in the congregational singing will be a massed children’s choir from churches in the greater Philadelphia area. The Mass is for unison congregation, organ, and optional cantor and descant.

Actually, the congregation for this premiere will be mostly musicians, of course, and will include many fine singers (or those like me, who are just bold singers), but we’re hoping for this to be the start of many more opportunities for its use by all sorts of churches, big and small. I’ll also be an exhibitor at the Conference, bringing along lots of my choral music, including full scores of this Mass.

My deepest thanks to Phillip and Heather Shade and the AAM.

Andrea Clearfield, Mendelssohn Club

Looking forward to this Sunday, 29 Apr, 4pm, for the Mendelssohn Club concert (in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Girlchoir) featuring Andrea Clearfield’s fascinating new work Tse Go La.

I’m moderating a panel discussion beforehand, 1:30 at fye, Broad & Chestnut, which will illuminate the work and its background. I know it will be illuminating because of the panelists, who, in addition to Andrea, are anthropologist Sienna Craig, Mendelssohn Club Artistic Director Alan Harler, The Venerable Losang Samten, and Tsering Jurme of The Tibetan Association of Philadelphia.

Also on the concert, the Fauré Requiem. Hope to see you there!

Bach, St. John Passion, Anti-Semitism

[First published in the Broad Street Review 24 April 2012 and reprinted here with permission.]

I’m glad that Steve Cohen has a hard time believing Bach to be anti-Semitic (See “Bach, King Frederick and the Jews“). It’s hard to believe because Bach isn’t. Nor is his St. John Passion, nor is John’s Gospel (which Bach sets verbatim), nor are the churches that read it every year.

This Gospel, like the other three, was written by a Jew, about Jews, for Jewish readers. Jesus, the central character, was of course Jewish, as are most of the people in these Passion Week accounts. Some yell, “Hosanna,” and some, “Crucify.” Some want to worship Jesus, some want to kill him; some weep, some mock. Judas betrays him. Peter promises to die with him, then denies him and slinks away.

All the disciples, these soon-to-be-Christians (including John, the author) are embarrassments. When tested, these eventual leaders of the original Church run away.

Hardly anybody looks good in the Passion. The political leaders are cowards, the religious leaders are venal. With the notable exception of some women, very few—Jew, Gentile, believer, unbeliever—come off well. But the accounts are neither anti-Christian, anti-Roman, anti-religious, anti-political, anti-male, nor anti-Semitic.

They simply report what happened. Some of us believe it, some don’t. Bach did, and he composed the St. John Passion for one reason: He was a church composer. The other Passions rotate yearly in the liturgical calendar, but John’s is required reading every Good Friday.

The Nazi tongue

The Bach scholar Robert L. Marshall, who is Jewish, sees no anti-Semitism. That’s not to say that the work isn’t disturbing, rendered more violent by its shuddering music. Marshall describes his first reaction to it in the early 1960s:

I hadn’t expected to encounter anything like the explicit, relentless, denunciation of the Jews—my own eternally suffering people, after all—that one is exposed to in that composition… in the German language, the sound of which to English-speakers at the time was inextricably associated with ranting tyrants and demagogues and marauding SS troops.… English speakers of my generation effectively never heard the German word Juden, except when it was spoken—i.e., shouted—by a Nazi.… I completely understand why so many people—especially Jews, of course—have a ‘problem’ (to put it mildly) with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion According to St. John—and why many to this day are unable to listen to it, much less perform it.

But fears of anti-Semitism, however understandable, have nothing to do with the Passion itself. It’s a mistake to read contemporary feelings back onto it. Marshall concludes, “Neither that supreme masterpiece nor its incomparable maker—one Johann Sebastian Bach—needs any apology.”

A Lutheran who spoke out

Nonetheless, it’s only proper that our reaction to Nazism inform our thinking. As I noted in WRTI’s classical music programming for Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must never forget what happened. (For my full remarks, click here.)

“Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chants,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed in 1935. The Lutheran pastor’s fight against anti-Semitism grew as the evil grew in Hitler’s Germany. He excoriated the state church (the Reichskirche established by the Nazis), helped to create the Confessing Church, and founded his own seminary.

The official clerics of the Reich dismissed the Old Testament as a “Jewish” book (even harassing Bonhoeffer over his writings on the Psalms). They refused ordination to Jewish seminary students who had converted to Christianity. Bonhoeffer’s own students were hounded and imprisoned; his friends pleaded with him to flee.

Bonhoeffer studied briefly in the U.S., but he itched to return to Germany—to be where, he said, he was most needed. Seeing the Church torn apart by wolves, seeing Jews arrested and beginning to disappear, he saw his path open before him. In America, he told a friend, he “became a Christian.”

Echoes of Kristallnacht

Jesus, elsewhere in John’s Gospel, says, “Salvation is of the Jews.” Bonhoeffer, seeing the Kristallnacht destruction of German synagogues in 1938 as a fulfillment of Psalm 74:8 (“They burn all of God’s houses in the land”), realized, as Eric Metaxas writes in his biography, that “to lift one’s hand against the Jews was to lift one’s hand against God himself.” Rejecting pacifism, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1939, to a plot to kill Hitler and ultimately, to his own execution.

Bonhoeffer knew that twisting the Scriptures to one’s own purpose is an old game. People have mangled Scripture to support slavery, to support the divine right of kings, to blame Jews and, yes, to destroy Jews. But he also knew that Christianity was Jewish through and through. “Driving out the Jews from the West,” he wrote, “must result in driving out Christ with them, for Christ was a Jew.”

Jesus replies

In the St. John Passion, after Jesus is slapped for speaking back to the High Priest, Bach inserts these words for the choir, giving voice to his Leipzig parishioners and to all Christians: “Who has hit you, my Savior?” We cast about, looking for someone to blame. A Jew? Roman? Who has brought Jesus to this moment?

Bach goes out of his way to place the blame right where it belongs, so that no one can miss it. “I,” Bach repeats. “I, and my sins, like the grains of sand on the shore.”

That’s where the blame lies. Bach knows—every Christian knows—who’s responsible. We are.

Now is the Time. United Nations

Coming up Sunday, Apr 22, 10–11 pm.

Emma Lou Diemer. Homage to Paderewski
James Hartway. Holiday in Paris
Harold Farberman. Greek Scene
Rick Sowash. Variations on a Hiking Song
Gabriela Lena Frank. Barcarola Latinamericana

Now is the Time, American contemporary music, Sundays at 10 pm. On WRTI-HD2 and on the classical stream at, it’s all styles of concert music by living American composers. Here are the recording details and complete schedule, and because you  really wanted to know, here’s the theme music and how it was written. Tell me what you think (if I can’t take it, I promise to write back), and ask me where to send CDs for broadcast consideration.

Never forget, April 19

WRTI will honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and join with those in our community who remember them, with special programming throughout the day.

Listen in the 2 pm hour for I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Philadelphia composer Charles Davidson. His best-known work, it’s a setting of poems by children imprisoned in Theresienstadt; only 100 of the 15,000 children there survived. I Never Saw Another Butterfly has received more than 4,000 performances throughout the world, and is the subject of two PBS documentaries. Charles Davidson was the cantor of Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park from 1966 to 2004.

You’ll also hear works by composers that the Nazis considered dangerous to the Reich; music labeled Entartete or “degenerate” was banned, and many of the composers of those works were imprisoned and killed.

Read more here.