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A Modern Dance Matthew Passion? Why Not?

Posted on: March 9, 2022

A Note from Music Director Maestro James Conlon

“The musical work exists whole and intact before it has sounded and after the sound has finished. It is, at the same time, in and out of side of Time.” —Ferruccio Busoni (Berlin, 1910) 


LA Opera is producing a series of performances in collaboration with the Hamburg Ballet, of choreographer John Neumeier’s renowned production of Bach’s masterwork, the so-called
St. Matthew Passion.  

Right out of the gate, I come to a screeching halt, with a question. Is something wrong with this picture? Is it legitimate for an opera company to present a ballet of a musical work written for a church service, meant to be sung without costumes, scenery and stage action, let alone dancers?  

A purist might say no. And perhaps it might be better for that person to excuse him or herself now and read no further. No hard feelings, I can certainly understand not wanting to “see” one’s favorite musical works, to which we are all accustomed to simply “hearing.”  

But I invite you nevertheless to consider, in the spirit of openness, that a theatrical realization of the Passion would be an emotional response to, an expression of and commentary on a work constructed from a core biblical narrative, that is already itself an emotional response, expression and commentary of its own. Like the expanding concentric circle of waves resulting from a stone dropped into a body of water, it would be a response to a response to that very narrative.   

Let’s start with some background, and why I think that the inclusion of a visual theatrical aspect can be a plus, not a minus, as long as musical values are scrupulously respected.  

Marc Jubete Pablo Polo Florian Pohl SMP Kiran West

Dancers Marc Jubete, Pablo Polo, Florian Pohl and the Hamburg Ballet ensemble in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, in the German state of Thüringen in 1685. Prodigiously gifted, he was known first as an extraordinary keyboard virtuoso, organist and builder of organs. He moved to Leipzig in 1723 at the age of 38 and lived there and performed music for church services until the end of his life in 1750. He produced over 1,000 known works, extensive keyboard works, sonatas, concertos, dance suites, preludes and fugues, vocal and choral music, including some 200 cantatas, both religious and secular. He wrote at least four settings of the Passion, two of which have never been found. His Matthew Passion was first performed in Leipzig in 1727.  

Few musical works have impacted the world as deeply and widely as this masterwork, which, to use its proper Latin title, is “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew.” The meaning of the word “passion” has evolved over time to its contemporary usage denoting strong, powerful, intense and often obsessive emotions: love, hate, desire. (The very stuff of opera.) But its original Latin meaning is “suffering.” Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death make up the central and culminating story from which the Christian narrative and religion began its development. Bach’s Matthew Passion is a monumental, universal piece of music that has left a deep impression on Western civilization and has been transported to all corners of the globe.   

Its universality has far exceeded its very specific origins. Rooted in 18th-century German Lutheran theology, it was written to serve as a religious service, with a full belief system accepted by its authors and the congregation it was instructing. Its roots were specific, but the power of Bach’s undisputed musical genius went on to profoundly touch and inspire peoples of all religions, and even those with no religion at all.   

Musical settings of Christ’s Passion grew in medieval Europe contemporaneously with Passion Plays, which were usually outdoor theatrical presentations. They were essential religious services during the Holy Week preceding Easter. The Passion later became considered a subgenre of the oratorio, a word derived from Latin meaning “place of worship.” The term “oratorio” commonly refers to religious works.   

Aleix Martinez Xue Lin Ensemble SMP Kiran West

Dancers Aleix Martinez, Xue Lin, and the Hamburg Ballet ensemble, in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

One note of clarification: in any discussion of European classical music from the 16th into the 20th centuries, the word “religion” is virtually synonymous with Christianity. This is due to the virtual monopoly that Christian churches held on institutional spirituality throughout Europe, both before and after the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. Though Christianity was to splinter institutionally, the sum total of its power, even divided up into many denominations, was to remain unchallenged for several centuries in Europe and its colonies.  

Much of the text of Bach’s Matthew Passion is drawn directly from the Gospel of Matthew. This brings us to troubling questions concerning this work as well as Bach’s other surviving Passion, based on the Gospel of John: are there passages or references in these works that are offensive to Jews? If so, can and should we perform them, nevertheless?     

All racism, including anti-Judaism, is condemnable. As citizens and as artists, we have an obligation to do so wherever we find it. We have to acknowledge the terrible cruelty and violence towards the Jewish people throughout history, including, but not limited to, Europe and Christian civilization.     

Where do Bach's Passions stand in this greater picture? I suggest that the passages that offend our modern sensibilities are quotations from scriptures, which means that neither Bach nor his Christian contemporaries would or could question them. To the degree that these passages are problematic, the responsibility lies with the scriptural narratives of Matthew and John.    

The literal quotations from the gospels contain a narrative that would appear to squarely place blame on the Jewish people for Christ's crucifixion. Bach's contemporary commentary in the arias, inhabited by the full genius of his music, offers a much more nuanced reaction and meaning to the narrative, as do the chorales sung with the congregation.  

The tenor of Matthew’s narrative is problematic and is exemplified and reaches a climax when the populace cries out "His blood upon us and our children" (Matthew 27:25). These words have been used for centuries to justify Christian hostility towards the Jewish people.  

I wade with trepidation into these waters, as I am neither a theologian nor biblical scholar. There is a plethora of literature that suggests that the interpretation of these (and other) offending passages is extremely complex and resistant to simplistic answers. It is well beyond the scope of this discussion.  

It should be noted, however, that Bach did not invent the story told in the Passions. At the time he was composing, these scriptures were universally considered beyond questioning by Christian authorities and followers. (This is still true today, for many.) In the interests of brevity, let me summarize: the Gospel of Matthew was written in the late first century; the scriptures came to be known through translations, with all the attendant ambiguities of that process; and their aim was to convince people under Roman domination to view a new form of Judaism (which gradually became known as Christianity) as legitimate.  

Ensemble 7 SMP Kiran West

The Hamburg Ballet ensemble in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

The primary goals of these scriptures were, first and foremost, to convert Romans and, second, to stay out of trouble with the Roman authorities to avoid persecution. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, both Jewish and gentile, were under the domination of the Romans, who would have had exclusive authority to execute. Most likely, the authors of Matthew found it in their interest to shift accountability for Christ's crucifixion from the Romans (who were probably responsible) to some portion of the Jewish population in Jerusalem of the time: for instance, the Jewish authorities. This narrative, fully susceptible to poetic license, expanded over time to include the entire Jewish race.  

Bach and his librettist used Martin Luther's German translation of Matthew 26 and 27 for their Passion. Luther both amplified and diminished the responsibility of contemporary Jews, sometimes contradicting himself. His translation confuses the matter further by using the collective words "Das Volk" (the people), not differentiating—as apparently it was in the original Greek—between Hebrew and gentile, or between Jewish bystanders and authorities.    

But Bach, in fact, speaks with his own voice as well, and this is of essential importance. He takes a step in the right direction. The arias and chorales, taken together, emphasize the idea that those responsible for Christ's death were not "they" (those present at the time of the crucifixion) but "we" and "I." All who lived in Bach's time, and we who live today.    

We are the sinners, whom Christ came to redeem. If we (THEY) had not sinned, and do not presently sin, there would have been no necessity for a Christly mission. Bach admonishes us to recognize this sinfulness, to express our regret and sorrow, and to benefit from the blessing of Christ's generosity and self-sacrifice to remove its stain.    

Echoing the words of Ferruccio Busoni: it is the musical essence which is the most important factor. The infinite riches of Bach's music are not restricted to "believers" or to an imagined musical elite. Like all music, it is for everyone, and its beauty has defied any limitation of time and place. It is heard around the world without reference to its specific denominational origins.    

The composer is, if anything, mitigating the full force of anti-Judaism in the gospels, and has opened a path to transcendence through the power of the musical means he has employed.  

The domination of Christianity fundamentally impacted the social development of both oratorio and opera, but the similarities between the two are still overwhelming. Both are large musical forms with soloists, chorus and orchestra. Both genres are built with dramatic narrative, recounted or acted out by singers. Storytelling, some of it in the form of recitatives, alternates with reflective solo arias. Choruses both participate in and comment on the action.   

Marc Jubete Ensemble 2 SMP Kiran West

Dancer Marc Jubete and the Hamburg Ballet ensemble in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

Oratorio was to be sung in a church or concert hall, whereas opera was conceived for the theater. Religion and theater made for uncomfortable bedfellows, not because of their inherent natures, but because powerful authoritative ecclesiastical institutions willed it so.   

Both forms were written for people gathering for a communal experience; one to participate in religious rituals, the other to enjoy the edification and entertainment of theatrical performances. But there was and is a common link, a common essence beneath the surface: drama. Ritual plays a large role in religious service of worship, but even pure ritual is in part dramatic just as the theater involves various modes of ritual. Drama and ritual, operatic theater and church oratorio, are two branches of the same tree. Richard Wagner drew much of his thinking from the presumed unity of Greek theater, a religious ritual festival of music, lyricism, theater, drama and dance. The powerful unity of music, as I hope to demonstrate, towers above all.  

Because powerful church authorities opposed and largely prohibited the depiction of biblical stories on the stage, a need was born. Oratorio developed as composers felt the urge to take those subjects banished from the stage and set them to music. The stories were simply too compelling and numerous to be neglected. Oratorio served as a haven for those many biblical works.   

The divergence of the two forms proceeded, became standardized: oratorio for scriptural sacred stories, opera for secular pastorales, comedies and dramas drawn from Greek and Roman antiquity (and thus, pre-Christian). Handel excelled in both arenas, to my mind, because he saw (and was seemingly untroubled by) the commonality of musical drama in both genres.  

In considering a theatrical presentation of the Matthew Passion, it should be noted that Bach had no reason or motive to write an opera, as there was not yet any significant operatic activity in Leipzig during his lifetime. In contrast, Handel’s life in London, during the same time span, provided for and demanded works in both genres.   

Marc Jubete Ensemble 11 SMP Kiran West

Marc Jubete and the Hamburg Ballet ensemble in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

Amazing though it is to us today, the Matthew Passion remained unknown and, aside from several annual church services in Leipzig, was unperformed for over 75 years after Bach’s death, and more than 100 years after the few performances in his lifetime.  

It was a 20-year-old genius, Felix Mendelssohn, a recent convert to Christianity, who deserves the credit for conducting a first public performance of the long-neglected Passion in Berlin in 1829. That performance revived, initiated and revolutionized a vastly expanded appreciation of Bach’s genius. For almost two centuries since then, the Matthew Passion has stood at the summit of Western civilization’s artistic achievements.  

Bach’s plan for the mammoth work is constructed on a simple principle with three layers.  

The first layer draws its text from the Gospel of Matthew’s 26th and 27th chapters. An Evangelist (Matthew, we imagine), a tenor soloist, tells the story of Christ’s final earthly days leading to his crucifixion. The copious text is sung but with the emphasis on the word more than melodic invention; we know this form well as recitative. The Evangelist is generally discreetly accompanied by a cello and/or bass and keyboard instrument, providing what is known as a basso continuo. Other characters—Judas, Pilate, Pilate’s Wife, the High Priest, Peter, and two maids, for instance—make brief appearances.   

Most importantly, Jesus himself also speaks throughout these recitatives. But he is enveloped in what has always been described as a luminous musical halo of string instruments, a sort of aural beatific light. It accompanies him until his dying words on the cross, where its stark and sudden absence signifies his abandonment and the end of his earthly life.   

Ensemble 3 SMP Kiran West

The Hamburg Ballet ensemble in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

The second layer is the chorus, which, like an ancient Greek chorus, has multiple functions. It alternates between active participation in the scriptural narrative, occasional commentary, emotional response to that drama, and fortifying the chorales sung by the congregants. It occasionally is the crowd (called the “Turba”) interacting, often vociferously and aggressively, with the protagonists.   

It is divided into two separate groups, partially to provide musical variety, producing what in our day became known as stereophonic effect, but which was properly termed antiphonal music. There is a dramatic subtlety as well. The first chorus is identified with the “Daughters of Zion,” an allegory for the Jerusalem of Jesus and his contemporaries, who lived the events in real time. The second chorus is referred to as the faithful, those of us latter-day participants (including Bach’s 18th-century congregation) who hear the story from our contemporary position. The chorus sometimes sings alone, sometimes antiphonally “against” one another, and sometimes in great resplendent unity.  

Both choruses sing 15 four-part chorales, presumably leading and strengthening the congregation. The Reformation, starting with Martin Luther, institutionalized singing hymns, while discouraging any visual art in church. Consequently, the marriage of Bach, Luther and the faithful was theologically coherent. These chorales were often drawn from popular melodies which Bach harmonized, subtly putting them to dramatic and theological use and constantly varied to fit the dramatic context as in the final chorale, sung at the moment of Christ’s passing.  

Through these hymns, time implodes. Spiritually, there is no temporal nor geographic distance between ancient Jerusalem, the protagonists of Christ’s passion, Bach's congregation and us.  

The third layer is represented by four additional vocal soloists who sing 15 arias, ten of which are preceded by richly colorful accompaniments (often of woodwind instruments). These more ornate and expressive accompaniments differentiate them from the dry recitatives of the Evangelist’s narrative. The soloists’ function is primarily to listen, to comment and to react. Their contemplative recitatives and arias are the emotional core of the entire work, providing the expressive tapestry with a wide range of emotions, from sorrow, pain and repentance to joy in the hope of Jesus’ redemptive message.   

The libretto was written by Bach’s close collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the pen name of Picander. There is no question that the two men’s purpose was massively didactic. Both were thoroughly schooled in theology, professed followers of Martin Luther, and wrote to instruct their congregation as if they themselves were preachers. For me, the transcendent power of Bach’s music speaks universally to the spiritual and secular world in a unique way, surpassing any limitations of doctrinal bias, presuppositions or political/religious prejudice.  

In advocating for a balletic/operatic Matthew Passion, I reach back more than a century to ally myself with one of the great musical and cosmopolitan geniuses of his time: Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the Italian-born composer, pianist, writer and critic. He was controversial in everything he touched, but his challenging thoughts and insights are amongst the most mind expanding that I have ever read.   

Xue Lin SMP Kiran West

Dancer Xue Lin in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

In 1921, he created a sketch for a dramatic staging of Bach’s Matthew Passion. He envisioned a stage plot as the view towards the facade of a cathedral, with a chorus seated on the first level above the ground, functioning, as already mentioned, as participant, commentator and congregation. Above that, there would be a walkway connecting the two conventional spires where Matthew’s dramatic text would be enacted. His sketch visualized the inherent musical structural layers which we have just discussed. Busoni writes “Systematic groups… divide…into narrative, action, contemplation and moral; these four groups follow each new event… The moral is announced through the chorus in the four-part chorale, and the contemplation is inserted in the form of an aria.”  

Though Busoni also, rather controversially, suggested cutting and abridging the piece, the essential insight here is that he believed that the Passion could be well served by a theatrical device. In his imagined representation of a Gothic cathedral’s facade, we see a “fixed position for the chorus” which sits “right and left: in the middle pulpit stands the narrator, dominating all, acting as the center from which the threads of the action and score extend, radiating in all directions."  

In another text, arguing in defense of piano transcriptions, Busoni goes way beyond the limitations of conventional thinking. Though specifically beginning his argumentation about the piano, he goes on to attack what he considered limiting, narrow minded, unjust and misplaced hostility toward all musical transcriptions. By the following we will see what he meant, and how vast his vision was. I bear these very important words in mind, while either contemplating or conducting a theatrical performance of the Matthew Passion.  

In 1910, Busoni wrote: “It is only necessary to mention J.S. Bach in order, with one decisive blow, to raise the rank of transcription to artistic honor in the reader’s estimation. He was one of the most prolific arrangers of his own and other pieces… from him I learned to recognize the truth that Good and Great Universal Music remains the same through whatever medium it is sounded.” He cites a second truth “that different media each have a different language (their own) in which this music again sounds somewhat differently” but never destroys the original.   

He continues: “My final opinion about it is this: that notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea. The moment that the pen takes possession of it, the thought loses its original form. The intention of writing down an idea necessitates already a choice of time and tonality…The idea becomes a sonata or a concerto; that is already an arrangement of the original. From this first transcription to the second is a comparatively short and unimportant step…the performance of a work is also a transcription.” He emphasizes that a rearrangement, even a performance, is a transcription and that it can never do away with the original, existing, as cited above, “in and outside of Time.”   

Aleix Martinez Yaiza Coll 2 SMP Kiran West

Dancers Aleix Martinez and Yaiza Coll, and the Hamburg Ballet ensemble, in our presentation of St. Matthew Passion (Photo: Kiran West)

As I understand Busoni’s thinking, the distance between a so-called “pure” Matthew Passion and one with visual, theatrical and dance elements is essentially irrelevant. Let us keep our minds firmly fixed on that word “essence,” and not appearance or form. In his essay The Essence and Oneness [or Unity] of Music, he wrote “The time has come to recognize the whole phenomenon of music as a “unity” and no longer to split it up according to its purpose, form and sound medium. It should be recognized exclusively by two premises, that of its content and that of its quality. By purpose, I mean one of the realms of opera, church and concert, and by form, song, dance, fugue or sonata; by sound medium I mean the choice of human voices or instruments…including the orchestra, quartet and piano, or the many combinations of all of these.  Music remains, regardless of form, exclusively music and nothing else, and it only passes over into a special category through a description …or text to which it is put, and the situation in which one places it. Therefore, there is no music which can be stamped and recognized as being church music.”  

By implication, the polemics of performance practice authenticity, and “original” versus modern instruments, which has dominated the Baroque and Classical music world (including Bach) for the past 40 years, might not even get traction in Busoni’s argumentation. The contemporary impulse to confine Bach’s music (and his spiritual message) to only those who are educated in, or partisan to, “historically-informed” performance practices, would not have found favor with Busoni’s way of thinking, any more than those who might unfavorably view performances outside church and specifically in the context of their original Lutheran theology.  

Admittedly controversial as Busoni was as an interpreter, so are many of his ideas. But they are also staggering challenges to many of our preconceptions. Let those ideas swim around while you listen to, and watch, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in a transcribed operatic/balletic form. If we can liberate ourselves from some of the limiting notions of the word “form,” dismissed by Busoni as irrelevant or insignificant in comparison to the music’s essence, we can open ourselves further to the omnipresent, perhaps omnipotent power of Bach’s music perhaps even to Busoni’s notion of music that simultaneously exists “in and outside of time.”