In Death On A Friday Afternoon: Meditations On The Last Words Of Jesus From The Cross, Richard John Neuhaus wrote that:
[T]he evangelists do not give us a psychological portrait; they do not, in the manner of a modern novelist, tell us what Jesus was thinking and feeling. The Gospel accounts, especially Mark and Matthew, are disciplined, astringent, almost minimalistic. This happened and then that happened and then something else happened. Vast spaces are left to be filled in by our imagination. In a sympathetic and imaginative reading of the passion narrative, we are invited to enter into the sufferings of Christ.
Two of the most exalted attempts to do this in the history of Western Civilization came from J.S. Bach, in the form of the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion. Bach wrote both as the cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, for use in Good Friday services. Both are settings of the passion, or crucifixion, account in the Gospels according to St. John and St. Matthew, respectively, interspersed with contemporary (for Bach) Pietist poetry. The service would consist of the singing of these “sermons in music,” as oratorios were called, split by a (spoken) sermon in the middle. Conceptually, this is incredibly simple; in practice, it’s as elaborate as—well, as a Bach oratorio.
This Good Friday afternoon (in accordance with recent tradition here at TAI) I listened to a new recording of the St. John Passion, from Apollo’s Fire, a period-instrument baroque orchestra in Cleveland. It’s excellent (and can be streamed immediately if you have Spotify.) The conductor, Jeanette Sorrell, uses a small ensemble and choir, the same resources as Bach had, to great effect, keeping the vocal action moving while giving each voice or solo instrument a chance to shine. The production values are excellent; even on a single speaker in a small apartment, the voice of The Evangelist (i.e. St. John, the narrator), sung by Nicholas Phan, came through with superb and heartbreaking clarity. A day later, I can still hear a section of the narration that ends with the single word, Golgatha, sung as if ripped from the throat of St. John.
So too did the pulsing, but restrained, basso continuo—the cello and organ accompaniment to each aria that throbs throughout the Passion like a heartbeat, rising and falling, breaking and standing still. The album notes, which justify the trouble of trying to find a physical CD in this case, inform me that Bach once told a student, “the aim and final reason of the basso continuo, as of all music, should be none else but the glory of God and the refreshing of the mind.” In its combination of religious piety (the glory of God) and middle-class education (“the refreshing of the mind” of, probably, a Leipzig merchant’s music-lesson-taking son or daughter), this quote is a perfect encomium of the Baroque-era Enlightenment. Bach was the most notable member of a generation that emerged after a century of horrible religious warfare and upheaval to establish a stable, rational way of life that was nevertheless infused totally with religious spirit. It was also an age of stability and yet of upward social mobility.
Right now, these can seem like distant goals for us, particularly on the national and global scales. Yet among the elite, supposedly so modern, parallels to the world of Bach remain. Later on Good Friday evening evening, the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, the gorgeous, cathedral-like Jesuit edifice on the Upper East Side of New York, was packed to capacity for a moving Mass featuring a sung Gospel (although not by Bach.) The continuity between the supposedly buried, supposedly wicked old ways of the Western past and the modern elite—which does not preach what it practices—continues to be remarkable.
But this is a comment for the middle level of thought that is politics. Good Friday exists on the infinitely more exalted level of universal truth, and Bach comes as close to speaking to that truth as almost anyone who has ever lived. The ability to listen to him—on this or any other good recording—is an incredible aid to reflection to anyone musically-minded. “Vast spaces,” wrote Neuhaus, “are left to be filled in by our imagination.” Yes—and by Bach. Happy Easter weekend, everyone.