Friday, April 22, 2011


Joseph Mailander

I Corinthians
is about sex and love; The Sun Also Rises about sex and impotence; St. Matthew Passion about sex and Christ.

After listening to the work on Good Friday for many years, I finally saw it performed at our own Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Good Friday 2001. I still consult my notes from that performance from that time...and still listen on Good Fridays. I know the work as well as one knows a work by listening to it once a year--which I have to say is really a good way both to come to know a work and to keep it mystical. But while music is best when it remains mystical, the concert hall experience can make things obvious that no recording can.

For me, most notably, the work in the concert hall became highly sexualized. Never on the recordings did this ever become clear. However, with sopranos and tenors and baritones before you (in this happy case, but four rows before me--two late cancellations from the season subscribers, front row dead center), alternating recitatives and arias--a style of presenting music that shares more with Roman rhetoric than with previous liturgical music--you get the feeling even after the first twenty minutes that Christ is someone who must be not just the center of your Lutheran life but the primary object of the direction of Geluste within it.

There is, owing to the nature of the story, which is one of supreme brutality, much S&M in a Passion (I suppose Mel Gibson would discover this soon enough), and in Bach's piece not a lash is spared--it is all there--the whips on the back of Christ recorded in the grinding of cellos, the drops of blood flicking away as staccato scattered notes, the forlorn gasping of the Marys for the departed Christ. You don't especially note these things when listening to recordings, but you note them when you see the musicians frantically sawing away. Bach is ethereal to most, and heady and intellectual, but there is so much in all the Passions that is physical, nude, painful, sexual, real, and it come alive on stage, as it does in another quirkily sublime religious work, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron.

There's a soft uniquely early-Lutheran moment in St. Matthew Passion. Jesu sprach: This is my blood you drink, this is my body you eat. In concert you realize how simple yet teasing this statement is--as teasing as it must have been when someone spoke it. In Bach, there is of course not quite a baroque (in the Catholic sense of the word) presentation about the thunder of this historic moment, but neither are there Protestant trivializings--no, the solution again is sex, another seduction. This moment, the heart of the disputa, presents the offering as Bacchus's cup presented to someone about to be seduced--as is so much of the music, the music of the most sublime dancing, the music of a seducer.

And that is the way I find so much of this piece, though I didn't recognize it until I saw it performed: not liturgical music at all, but the music accompanying a smoldering dance at court, the sexual tensions masked but popping out at last in every aria.

It may turn out scholarship finds that every moment between Bach and Christ is a lusting one. Excepting the few astonishing, nearly sacramental choral moments in this work, especially its whirling, deeply disturbed beginning, St. Matthew Passion is mostly seductive music set to beauteous, longing rhetoric. We are listening to the Evangelist patiently, tenderly, waiting for a climax that never really comes--if it comes at all, in fact, it comes in the first six minutes, precisely where it should, lest we be exhausted by listening.

Though the singers I saw a decade ago were nearly all from Germany and all among the world's top leider performers, including Matthias Goerne, the guy who stole the show was a fellow named Christopher Cock (left), a last minute substitution, a young and very Lutheran fellow with side about him that was akin to Joel Gray in Cabaret, an impish master-of-ceremonies evangelist who is orchestrating the show, not just reporting it, and never mind the perfect assertive voice which held up for three hours from start to finish. Cock is now at Valparaiso, a choral master as well as a tenor, and is a Bach saw it all begin to unfold that night a decade ago.

That night resonates still. Not in the immediate way that baroque perfection drops from the very surface of Caravaggio or from maddening Bernini marble, but perfect in the shocking way that a religion suddenly announces to the world that it is not a heresy after all: by encoding all the tension into a secret subtext, celebrating our sense of deity by keeping our private human mischief percolating just beneath the surface for nearly exhausting but ultimately captivating Tantric hours.

Bach fathered many children--I don't remember how many, just that there were very many, and the second set of them numbered thirteen, with a woman seventeen years his junior. He was 42 at the time he wrote St. Matthew Passion--his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, was 26. Certainly this is evidence enough that his Geluste evidently ran elsewhere, far beyond Christ alone. Yet we also tend to think of him today as a Luftmensch, not only godly in his art but also near to God. Even the most secular among us are willing to see his immense life work a piece of Opus Dei, responsible, impenetrable, saintly.

But sublime is the word that comes to mind also with Bach, and when I saw this work performed for the first time, what struck me was how overtly salacious this best-known Passion was. It made me think that Bach was closer to worldly experiences than the those who have deified him suggest. And far against the present day dour stereotype, I think he expected the most prim and proper Lutheran to be right there with him, lusting their way through life, tacitly acknowledging at least internally that it turns out none of us are very prim and proper at all.

The recording of St. Matthew Passion that has serviced me best throughout the years is the Harmonia Mundi recording featured above, which includes Howard Crook (tenor), Ulrik Cold (basse), Barbara Schlick (soprano), Rene Jacobs (alto), Hans-Peter Blochwitz (tenor), and Peter Kooy (basse solo).

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