God, Bach and Us

Rue de L'église ©Cathy de Moll

Rue de L'église ©Cathy de Moll

The power of music to mix people, events and emotions into a glorious and sometimes disturbing wash of human history is phenomenal. I don't let myself go there often enough. Last night Johann Sebastian Bach's beautiful St. John's Passion was performed in a local church. The singers - younger by decades than the audience - gave extraordinary and nuanced performances of a piece chronicling the circumstances surrounding Christ's crucifixion. I sat in the moment transfixed, but came away with questions (as usual) about God, and thoughts about the remarkable arc of art and history that brought us to that church and that particular experience.

First, God. There is nothing original in the observation that whatever god one believes in, much cruelty and destruction is done in his or her name. We are reminded daily. I don't know how I could have forgotten for even a minute that Christianity's birth was so entangled in one cruel death; the symbols are everywhere. But Bach made it personal and alive. The shouts of the crowd in choral rendering were roiling, the betrayals sharp, the physical torture detailed and the lamentations heart-breaking.  How such acts of infamy relate to, and are repeated in  the name of various belief systems today floated in the air and filled my head even as I gave over to the music. Theology questions and defenses aside, we are a nasty species.

Second, Bach. Our pre-concert lecturer reminded us that the composer was a thirty-something new to his job, tasked with turning out weekly chorales and cantatas for three churches amidst disagreements between the town council and the church elders. He had only a few singers at his disposal and strict limits to his creative license. Compromises to what we now consider creative genius were the daily reality of a man just trying to keep his job and feed his family. In spite of the pressure and constraints, Bach managed to reach back to a sixteen hundred year-old story and retell it in a manner that demanded listeners experience the pain. Christianity had lasted and evolved over nearly two improbable millennia, but Bach made the story new.  No matter the limitations of the mundane, we are a sublimely creative species.

Third, us. In this half-filled church, we each approached the music with a unique ear and a singular point of view. Some used the score to follow along, others got out their knitting. Some came as part of their Lenten tradition; others were just hungry for Bach.  Together, we enjoyed a performance informed by centuries of interpretation and re-interpretation, historical, musical and religious context. But how we heard it was personal; and whether anyone else noticed the majestic historic arc from Jesus to Bach to us, I cannot say.  I, for one, left the hall with questions about the universe and a heart awed by the beauty such music brings. We are a species that sometimes gets it right.