Friday, November 30, 2018

J.S. Bach's Saint John's Passion: Intention, Reception, Meaning

[* long and winding post regarding intention, controversies, reception histories and ultimately deep meaning JS Bach's "St. John's Passion" has for me].
A friend of mine administers a page on musicology (my academic discipline) and thankfully posts intriguing announcements and articles from around the world every day. As I am not currently employed in my academic field, his posts give me just enough to keep me intellectually stimulated on a wide range of musicological topics as I just do not have the wherewithal to sit down with the latest JAMS or IMS.

A few days ago a topic emerged regarding anti-Semitism in JS Bach's "St Johns Passion" BWV245. This was freshly on my mind as just a few weeks prior, a beautiful and most musically literate friend of mine attended a recent performance of this work and was herself quite disturbed by the anti-Semitic texts Bach selected. 

These are in fact what I consider serious issues which arise quite often when discussing the works of Martin Luther and especially the writings and music dramas of Richard Wagner.
And while this ethical dilemma continues in my own soul, This particular work has a different meaning for me which I felt compelled to share, so below is my response to this discussion: ***

"I wrestle with meaning, ethics and reception histories; how something which has always been part of joyful memories for me are downright trauma inducing for others. I often think about my home here in St. Paul, Minnesota where I have lived for the past 22 years as a mere 2 miles away from what was the thriving African-American Rondo neighborhood which all but totally destroyed with the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s. A mere two miles almost due east from where Philando Castile was murdered which I drive past nearly every day. - How the land on which my home sits was once home to the Ojibwe and the Dakota. And how one of the wealthiest suburbs in the Twin Cities was built on the nourishing land and lakes of the Dakota.

- But these are things which I dare say most do not even think about. Not understanding how the collective actions of our ancestors enabled our modern privilege.

So on this point, knowing and understanding the anti-Semitic influence of librettist Erdmann Neumeister in early-mid 18th Leipzig upon the culture and the views of Bach in particular is something I consider an obligation.
** On a personal level, I was born in 1970 raised in northeastern Iowa as Lutheran (what became ELCA) family. My parents both grew up in the northwestern Nebraska Sandhills. My father was a professional organist at one of the largest Lutheran churches in the nation (he himself had converted to Lutheranism both for the music and for when he married my mother - who grew up on a homestead in a Lutheran family of musicians/ranchers. - and both of my parents being music educators I grew up exposed to just about every sort of music available since I was very young.

Lutheranism to me, is synonymous with music. I never paid attention to the texts - In fact even when I am listening to pop music, I cannot understand or hear texts unless they are written out in front of me - even when I am singing the texts, unless I am studying them - to me they are always just phonemes (e.g. I love Joni Mitchell, but once I started reading what she was singing about, I really love Joni Mitchell).

My late wife also grew up Lutheran in Northfield, Minnesota. We met in choir at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. While we both started off as music majors she ended up earning her undergrads in Anthropology and History , mine in Philosophy and Classical Languages. 

And despite our strong Lutheran upbringings we by that time had become disillusioned with the BS of religion and describe ourselves as Atheists. But the culture of the chorale Music, organ works, et al and the traditions remain - I brought to our marriage gift exchanges on Xmas eve, Gluhwein and springerle; she brought teatotaling lefse and dancing.

* Now things get a bit dark for me. My wife was killed on June 1, 2017 by a drunk driver. We both had our re-auditions with the Minnesota Chorale that night. She was a contracted singer (a coloratura actually) with the Chorale, and had served as a board member. Her audition aria was, "Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren" from the St. John's Passion. I have many memories of her diligently practicing, perfecting this work for her audition Her effortless coloratura floating those passages; her out of the blue sending me a YouTube link of an orchestra playing on period instruments - knowing I would love it. - it is tied with my joys of our 26 years of singing together, meeting in choir, singing at our wedding... lip trilling this work in the car. I have heard Krista sing so many works, including both Queen of the Night Arias - but the passion and soul she put into this was far beyond anything I had ever heard her sing. Lovely, with effortless control it suited her and I was left with chills. This was her finest voice.
Xenia and Krista singing Karaoke in 1991
She never did get to perform it, the fact is she was leaving her work place were she was a Director of Organization Development and Learning for Hennepin County Medical Center and driving to her voice lesson before her audition. 

Knowing Krista, she was most likely warming up her voice by lip trilling the aria along with her recording when the drunk driver broadsided her blue Honda Fit right in the middle of her drivers side door at 71 miles mph with his SUV at the intersection of Park and 15th in Downtown Minneapolis. In fact her CD remained lodged in the player, though I managed to recover the broken case for her copy of St John's Passion. 

And I will forever associate this work with the last memories of my wife. 

** When it came time for the memorial the following week. Because Krista and I rejected religion - Music was our religion, 80 members of the Minnesota Chorale volunteered to sing at an outdoor ceremony. It was really just a gathering in a park, I had the chorale do a few prepared selections, then for catharsis some of the Middle High German sections from Carmina Burana and a sing through of the 4th movement of the 9th symphony beginning with the tenor solo / march. (Krista was on the Grammy nominated recording of the MN Orchestra just two weeks before our daughter was born). With the prepared works, I had a brief discussion with the executive director of the chorale regarding whether or not the Brahm's selection should be sung in English. - I insisted it remain in Deutsche as the music is more important to convey than any words.

* So I do strongly advocate for the understanding of the text of works selected as well as the intended us for all music. It is also important to understand the reception histories of those works and why they are used and when the new use is at odds with the intention (thinking about how politicians seem to use pop music by artists, only to have those artists speak out against the politician)
Okay, thats all. Thanks for reading."

ANYWAY, I'm attaching the memorial my disguised form

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