I saw Bach's St. Matthews Passion performed this past weekend at Bethany Lutheran Church in metropolitan Denver, feature the St. Matthew's Chamber Choir, the Baroque chamber orchestra (forgive me if I have not gotten the name exactly right, I am writing from memory), a guest choir of high school sopranos and tenors, and expended ranks of chorus and orchestra performers, a director and several solists selection especially for this performance. It was a big production. And, this bow to the deep reformation heritage of the piece was balanced by the modern touch of a recent manga adaptation of the Stations of the Cross blown up into massive posters around the church.
(This was not the only big Passion performance in town. A performance of St. John's Passion, a work of a similar scope and scale was also being performed in Denver this weekend).
The entire 3 hours and twenty minute performance in the original 18th century German covers Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew (based on Martin Luther's translation adapted to the phrasing necessary for a vocal work) which run two to eight pages in a Bible depending on font size and page size covering the four day period from the Tuesday before Easter (i.e. after the events that are part of the Palm Sunday narrative) through "Good Friday", but not the Easter story itself (along with some Lutheran hymns and some devotional poetry).
When it was originally performed in Germany several times from about 1726 to 1846 (my paternal ancestors or their relatives very likely saw it performed before leaving for America), a sermon was delivered in between the first and second part. It would have taken the better part of a day to perform together with a sermon and a presumably longer (perhaps lunch length) intermission.
This quintessentially Baroque Lutheran oratorio is very intense, deeply spiritual, and precisely crafted, but passionate, not so much. Bach was also most definitely not a believer in the show don't tell school of storytelling.
(A footnote: One of my distant relatives grew up in the same town a Bach and would have been a classmate or peer of his with some connection to that family.)
A Police Procedural Narrative Core
Taken so slowly, one of the narrative aspects of the story that struck me was how much it is a police procedural. The narrative Gospels give intense attention of the criminal justice process that went into the crucifixion of Jesus, carefully noting who was to blame and why.
There are prophetic and theological glosses that are thicker in Matthew and Luke and the incomplete (and earliest) accounts in St. Paul's Epistles than in Mark, and thicker still in the Gospel of John and some of the extra-canonical accounts of the Passion, suggesting that much of the material was interpolated and interpreted by later authors from the bare framework that they received to which they added what they felt followed logicially.
Tabor's perspective, in which the important part of the Passion for the Jerusalem based dynastic movement reaching out to fellow Jews and continued by James the Just was the fact of the death, facilitating a succession from hereditarily ordained Jesus (through both paternal and maternal lines) to his brother James, rather than a resurrection attoning for all of mankind's sins, casts an interesting perspective on the story that the Gospel narrative structure does something to support. For them, the key points were to establish that Jesus had indeed died, so that James was entitled to succeed him, and to show the injustices on Earth of a process that they sought to replace.
Echos of Tobit
I was also struck by a detail of the St. Matthew's Gospel which I had forgotten and supposedly fulfilled a prophecy of Jerimiah, that the disciple Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver paid to him to betray Jesus to the authorities by kissing him before committing suicide, and that the Temple authorities reached a consensus that the funds should be used to pay for the establishment of a potter's field.
It was striking to me this time, because one of the few (and non-canonical) religious texts attributed to the Jesus movement shows a striking similarity to the apocryphal Book of Tobit (which I also read recently) and Tobit was distinguished in his piety and charity in particular by securing proper Jewish burials for men who would otherwise not have received them.
Thus, it suggests that this kind of "memorial gift" may have been quite in tune with that of the Jesus movement, even though disposal of the remains of the dead in accordance with Jewish law is mostly something that Gentile Christians following Paul see as part of the Old Covenant to which they were no longer compelled to adhere.
An anti-democratic parable
Another feature of the story that comes up in Bach's retelling is the very anti-democratic political message of the Passion. Saint Matthew's Passion is at its base a vivid case of a man being executed based upon the nearly unanimous popular will of the people who overcome the misgiving of the non-democratically appointed Governor appointed by a distant Roman Empire over a restive, recently acquired territory.
It seems through the mists of time that the Jerusalem Jesus movement was something of a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary monarch who took counsel was a very broad based of leaders in the movement at various levels a bit like a House of Lords or College of Cardinals. But, the leading sects of Christianity, with its insistance on celibate clergy or at least celibate Bishops, took paths of succession that were neither hereditary nor democratic that blended Last Will and Testament models and self-perpetuating board of directors models. True democratic governance of the church doesn't appear until the Reformation and while it surfaces among Calvinists and Puritans and Anabaptists, is not nearly so well established among Lutheran and Anglican components of the Reformation.
The capacity modern Christian conservatives to see democratic capitalism in a religion that has never been democratic and indeed has at its core an anti-democratic parable, and that repeatedly decried the evils of wealth and property, is nothing short of astounding.
Anti-democratic sentitment filters it was into Saint Matthrew's Passion at three levels - the circumstances of the Gospel's author, the circumstances surrounding Bach's composition of the work, and the circumstances surrounding its restoration as a core piece in the classical repetoire after it had been all but forgotten in the early 1800s.
Emperor Augustus, who figures in the Christian nativity story, reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE, was the first Emperor of Rome after five centuries in wihch it was in principle and name, at least, a Republic. Military rule, coups and family influence rather than modern democratic elections often determined who would rule Rome, but before then it had not been formally conceived as a monarchical empire either. Tiberius, whom the Passion story recounts as the Emperor at the time, was the first ruler of Rome to prove that the Empire was more than a mere name by taking office in orderly succession from Augustus. Caligula and Nero, two of the most despised rulers of Rome in all of classical history (tradition has it that Saint Paul, the most notable early evangelist of Christianity to the Gentiles died in prison in Rome during Nero's reign), cemented the capacity of the Empire system of put rulers in place notwithstanding grave personal flaws that would have prevented them from taking office, or at least from holding it, during the Roman Republic. Early Gentile Christians made peace with an unbeatable Empire rather than aspiring to overthrow its temporal power, after a wave of martyrs failed in that revolutionary effort.
By the time that the canonical Gospels were written, the Empire was firmly established with a dozen or more successions of Emperors, and the Rome Empire had been in place for three and a half centuries when the Republic faded to no more than legendary history when Emperor Constantine who took office in 324 CE promptly made Christianity the state religion of Rome (it had become a leading and perhaps even dominant religion in Rome much earlier but was so divided by internal quarrels between Christian sects that it struggled to consolidate power until Constantine decisively backed the strongest participant in those struggles).
Bach was an establishment figure in Lutheran Europe who survived on the patronage of secular and sacred princes before any kind of democracy was in place anywhere but Iceland and perhaps parts of Switzerland and a few pirate villages and free cities.
At the time that Bach composed the Saint Mattew's Passion, the most notable instance of Republican rule was during Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Republic in England from 1649 to 1660 when the monarchy was restored after a decade that displayed purely democratic rule unchecked by the aristocracy and monarchy in a very poor light. In principle, the supremacy of Parliament and the rule of law in England was established in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and English Bill of Rights of 1689, a generation before Bach wrote the Passion, but in practice, the British monarchy and aristocracy had still not completely transitioned into a purely symbolic rule during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) (from whom reigning Queen Elizabeth is only four generations removed).
While the St. Matthew's Passion was composed before the French Revolution, democratic lynchings for political purposes echoing those of Cromwell's England that were commonplace in revolutionary France and these events would have been fresh in the minds of audiences watching it when St. Matthew's Passion was revived in the early 1800s after it had gone unperformed for almost two generations after the initial two or three productions in the years running up to the generallly failed democratic revolutions of 1848. At the time of its revival elite anxiety over a new round of democratic uprisings and mob rule was tangible, and the Republican experiment in the New World was still an unproven and unstable enterprise constantly divided by tensions between the Southern cash crop agrarian, international trade based slave economy, and the Northern early industrial economy.
By the time that democracy was no longer predominantly seen as something other than mob rule to be terrified of, Bach's oratorio was firmly esconced in the repetoire of sacred classics that had lost any political messages they may have had at critical moments in their histories, a torch then passed to nationalist anthems like Finlandia.