Bach to the Bronx
It has been my happy custom over the past years to celebrate Holy Thursday at Sacred Heart Parish in Newton Centre where I reside. Then on Good Friday morning I drive to the Bronx, arriving at St. Theresa’s parish for the afternoon Service. On the way I play Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. John Passion.”
My favorite recording is that sung by the men and boys of New College Oxford, directed by Edward Higginbottom (Naxos), as perhaps coming closest to what was heard in Leipzig in the first half of the eighteenth century.
From the booklet notes of the recording:
Bach’s music played no part in Mozart’s upbringing. He may not even have known of his existence. Johann Christian Bach he knew. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach he knew of. But Johann Sebastian? He might have heard him mentioned in passing as their father … It was not until he was at the height of his career that Mozart first came across the music of Johann Sebastian, and it changed his life.
It has changed the life of many, by no means all, or even most, of them musicians. The universality of experience reflected in Bach’s music far transcends his own profound religious faith. Yet in one sense, and in one sense only, his faith was his sole limitation as a chronicler of humanity’s inner life: it barred him from despair.
Bach was no stranger to suffering, but taken as a whole his music is suffused by joy, and of a profundity beyond the limits of mere happiness. No composer’s music is so deeply imbued with the spirit and style of dance, and his spirituality was matched, and complemented by his robust physicality.
There are dances aplenty even in a work as awesomely serious and harrowing as the St. John Passion, which ends with a sarabande. Yet there is scarcely a work of his, however slight, however light, that is not consecrated in spirit to the glory of God. His overtly sacred works give us perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of religious experience ever achieved.
The magnificent opening chorus seems to me to sum up the distinctive vision of the Fourth Gospel:
Lord our Redeemer, whose Glory fills the whole earth: show us in this thy passion, that thou, the true Son of God, hast in the deepest humiliation, through all the ages, sovereignly triumphed.