J. S. Bach never saw the 2004 celluloid cause celebre The Passion of the Christ, yet he managed to conjure up enough creative imagination to write three musical settings of the passion story. Since Mendelssohn's landmark 1829 performance of St. Matthew Passion, these works have created the artistic standard for understanding and contemplating Jesus' sacrifice as told in the gospel narratives. Even after 2004, and the success of Mel Gibson's movie, I believe Bach's musical passions remain the standard.
The fact that this story recounted by Gibson, the story central to Christian faith, could captivate the modern culture of 2004 with such all-consuming focus is fascinating and noteworthy. The public discussion of Christ's passion hit home with particular relevance last February when I was on tour with the Valparaiso University Chorale. One Saturday edition of the Op-Ed page of the New York Times was fairly brimming with articles about Gibson's movie. In this particular edition of the Times, two of the opinion pieces made comparisons between Gibson's movie and the epic setting of J. S. Bach—the St. Matthew Passion. In one of these articles, Edwin Rothstein commented upon the juxtaposition in this way: "After seeing Mr. Gibson's Passion in fact, and suffering through two hours of scourged flesh and pent-up fury, I listened to Bach's St. Matthew Passion with amazement, awe and relief." While I am not in Rothstein's position of making a direct comparison, I would argue that in 2004 the richest understanding of Jesus' passion is still in the deep musical and theological statements of the St. Thomas cantor.
In the year that the Bach Institute at Valparaiso University was inaugurated, I watched with a sense of wonder the spectacle surrounding Gibson's film and the discussion it generated. And in witnessing the interest generated by Gibson's telling of the Passion story, I reflected upon simple questions related to learning about the music of J. S. Bach in the modern world and its relevance for us. For those of us interested in teaching historic repertoire, questions abound as to its relevance to modern persons. This question was illustrated for me in a recent edition of The Cresset in an article by theologian Martin Marty. Marty cited a recent list of the most influential people of the last one thousand years. At number three was the individual who created the foundation of theological thought upon which Bach would build his greatest musical monuments: Martin Luther. Marty noted, "Not many years ago the sixteenth-century professor of Old Testament had been cast on the heap of carcasses labeled DWEM's (Dead White European Males)...." Marty touches upon a theme that is one of the challenges of the work which occupies a considerable amount of my time, energy, and passion. As Marty states vis-a-vis Luther: "Will they grasp the intrinsic relevance of a life interestingly lived long ago in this day when talk-show hosts, therapists, advertisers, and politicians—those only extrinsically connected with their lives—clamor for their attention?"
And so, as I pondered Marty's question, I inevitably wondered: Why Bach? Why at Valparaiso University? Why 2004?
Why Bach? is probably the easiest of these questions to answer. Two hundred and fifty years of legacy don't lie, and the security of Bach's place in the history of music is unquestioned. The birth of the idea of VU's Bach Institute began with triennial performances of his major works. Beginning with Mendelssohn in the nineteenth century, composers and musicians began the process of lifting Bach to his rightful place in the world's musical consciousness. The twentieth-century witnessed an explosion of scholarship about the cantor of the St. Thomas Church. How many composers have enjoyed the scope and complexity of observation and the sheer number of performances that have been lavished upon the music of J. S. Bach? Christoph Wolff's detailed biography of 2000 rightfully claimed Bach as "the learned musician." Wolff has compared Bach's knowledge and compositional skill with Newton's advances in the realm of science. And the list of books examining the import of Bach's theological understanding continues to grow. I can tell many stories of my years as a teacher and a performer and the ways in which this music and its message impact the performer and the listener in powerful and dramatic ways. It is this sum total of the all-encompassing, penetrating quality of Bach's musical, theological, and emotional voice in reaching out to all audiences that gives him a place of importance that remains unsurpassed in western art history.
In 1944, Theodore Hoelty-Nickel gathered a group of musicians on the Valparaiso campus to discuss the preservation of the great musical heritage of the Church. In his foreword to The Little Bach Book, published in 1950 by Valparaiso University, Hoelty-Nickel stated: "There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that Bach is the greatest musician the church has ever known, combining as he does a masterful technique and a profound musical knowledge with a true spirit of humility and service to God." O. P. Kretzmann, legendary president of Valparaiso University, stated in the first chapter of this book, "The massive truths of Christianity were expressed, perhaps for the first time, in a music which, though bound by all the limitations of earth and time, approximated most closely the towering grandeur and glory of their meaning for the hearts of men." It is not only in recognition of this history, but in assurance of the importance of teaching it, that the Bach Institute at Valparaiso University sees its past, present, and future.
As a teacher, I can attest to the challenges of teaching new generations to love the venerable master. The contemporary age does, indeed, allow space to spawn appreciation of this music and its message. Three years before our B-minor performance, we performed Bach's St. Matthew Passion in the Chapel of the Resurrection. We began on a cloudy, breezy winter afternoon, and as the second half of the Passion brought us closer to the moment of Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, the sky grew dark and snow began to fall from the clouds. When the Evangelist sang, "and from the sixth hour there was darkness covering the land," the Chapel was dark with only some natural light of deep hues coming through stained glass. At that moment it seemed that performers and audience together collectively held their breath. Waiting. Watching. Wondering. Wondering anew about this sacrifice. I have been involved in some forty performances of the great Passion, but none have come close to this sense of a palpable understanding on the part of listener and musician.
In considering the question of Bach's relevance to the twenty-first century, I return to the place where I began. Arguably, film represents the most powerful and omnipresent art form of the twenty-first century. And yet, the St. Matthew Passion offers the ultimate means to understanding Christ's sacrifice. Take Bach's passion settings themselves. It has always been noteworthy to me that in settings written for Good Friday, at the very moment the gospel tells of Jesus' death, Bach surely moves his listeners to Easter Sunday. Think of the marvelous dance music found in the bass movement (#32) of the St. John Passion, "Mein Teurer Heiland." Introduced by joyous triplet rhythms in the continuo, the bass sings the words, "My precious saviour, let me ask thee, since you have been put upon the cross and said, 'it is fulfilled.'" And in St. Matthew we are literally lifted up at the same moment in the story by the joyous, leaping Affekt of "Mache dich mein Herze rein" ("Make thyself, my heart, now pure"). In both of these settings, as we ponder the very moment where Jesus gives up his spirit, we are transported into the sublime recognition of his resurrection. In the passion settings of J. S. Bach we have witnessed and felt the scourged flesh, to be sure, but the healing power of these stripes is felt with real presence. For the listener and the performer, it is a moment of profound revelation as the beauty of word and music are joined as one. This quality beckons to our world of the fastest, the newest, and the brightest; this quality of something deep and inescapably true continues to speak to the contemporary world.
Although I have not yet seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I remain unconvinced that it contains anything that the cantor of St. Thomas was unable to teach his congregation and, yes, even our world two hundred and fifty years later. And it is in this spirit of gratitude and appreciation and awe of this great musician that we launch the Bach Institute at Valparaiso University, confident in the need to understand Bach, here in this place and at this time.
Christopher M. Cock is Director of the Bach Institute at Valparaiso University.