This is Holy Week in the Western Christian calendar, the culmination of the penitential season of Lent — which has, increasingly, come to be marked by performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions, those large-scale oratorios relating the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. This Lent has witnessed three different Bach Passions in Boston: This Sunday, the Handel & Haydn Society gives the second of two performances of the St. Matthew Passion, while the King’s Chapel Choir offers a reconstruction of Bach’s lost St. Mark Passion; Boston Baroque and Emmanuel Music performed the St. John Passion earlier this month. (WCRB will broadcast Handel & Haydn’s St. Matthew Passion live, followed by Emmanuel Music’s St. John Passion on tape.) The works have become the Lenten equivalent of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas.
That pattern — an established, consistent annual ritual — is, in its modern manifestation, an odd fit with Bach’s Passions. Performances today are largely musically congruous, utilizing standard editions. They are sung in German. Even the notorious anti-Semitic passages in the St. John Passion are left intact: acknowledged and explained, but never changed. The score is sacrosanct.
But Bach left four different versions of the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew Passion, too, is not the fixed thing modern practice might imply. In Bach’s time, passion settings — the centerpiece of Good Friday church services — were rearranged from year to year, from place to place. Bach would take either his own or someone else’s setting (a St. Mark Passion attributed to Reinhold Keiser was a particular favorite) and change orchestrations, cut movements, add music — by himself and others. Passions were curated as much as composed.
We don’t live in Bach’s time; modern performances reflect modern concerns, profound and quotidian. Presenting Bach’s Passions as immutable masterpieces enshrines Bach on post-Romantic terms of classical-music canonization, while asserting a plausible (and marketable) common denominator of musical taste. To set the scores as if in some idealized 18th-century amber is to amplify a spiritual gap between then and now — as theologian Paul Tillich characterized Martin Luther’s description of biblical writers, “We must drink from their fountain only because we do not have the fullness of the Spirit” — but is also a convenience, easing the mounting of such expansive pieces in a landscape more saturated with music than Bach’s ever was.
Bach himself, a thoroughly career-minded professional, wouldn’t have minded the continued performance of his Passions. But he might wonder why we don’t tinker with them more.
The Handel & Haydn Society, conducted by Harry Christophers, performs Bach’s St. Matthew Passion March 29 at 3 p.m. at Symphony Hall (tickets $27-$96; handelandhaydn.org); the King’s Chapel Choir & Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Heinrich Christensen, performs Diethard Hellmann’s reconstruction of Bach’s St. Mark Passion March 29 at 5 p.m. at King’s Chapel (tickets $15-$20; www.kings-chapel.org); WCRB (99.5 FM) broadcasts Handel & Haydn’s St. Matthew Passion live March 29 at 3 p.m., followed at 7 by Emmanuel Music, conducted by Ryan Turner, performing Bach’s St. John Passion.Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.