On March 5 at Hancock Church in Lexington, early-music group A Joyful Noyse performs excerpts from the Passion music of Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739), including the first setting of a well-traveled text: “Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus” (“The Suffering and Dying for the Sins of the World of Jesus”), by poet and politician Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747). Brockes was best known for “Das Irdische Verdnüngen in Gott” (“Earthly Pleasures in God”), nine volumes of divinely directed nature poems — as one commentator put it, “describing spinach and other useful vegetables for the glory of God.” But Brockes’s oratorio text, relating the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, was also popular, being set by dozens of composers, including some of the era’s most celebrated: Mattheson, Telemann, Handel.
Brockes’s version of the Passion was particularly lurid, dwelling on images of pain and blood. It dramatically suited Keiser, a prolific composer for the Hamburg Opera. But it also echoed the fire-and-brimstone preaching that characterized Hamburg's Lutheran churches, such polemics often directed against the city's small Jewish population. Jews faced discrimination across the city-states of 18th-century Germany, but Hamburg, with its unusually powerful (and adamant) clergy, was harsher than most.
No Passion of the time was ever going to espouse ecumenical tolerance, but it is unclear how much the Brockes Passion, beyond its tone, was intended to condemn Judaism. Much hinges on the scene of Jesus’s betrayal: in the gospels, Roman soldiers arrest Jesus while the Jewish high priests look on, prompting Jesus to chide the priests (and their servants), whom he used to teach in the temple. Brockes has Jesus address this not to the servants — “Knechten” in German — but the “Kriegsknechten,” the soldiers, implying that they are not Roman, but Jews, come to murder their former teacher. As scholar Raymond Erickson noted, it could have been an editorial oversight on Brockes’s part but, if not, it would be “an especially egregious example of an unjustified attack on the Jews.”
Though Keiser hardly shied away from anti-Semitism (musicologist Jeanne Swack has catalogued numerous gross Jewish stereotypes in Keiser’s operas), Brockes could have, by the standards of the time, been considered an enlightened intellectual. But perhaps enlightenment lagged in Hamburg; while they have their own troubling moments, J. S. Bach’s Passions (composed in Leipzig) are notably less provocative than the Brockes Passion. When Bach borrowed some of Brockes’s text for his “St. John Passion” he avoided its more inflammatory passages — as modern performances of Brockes Passions often do. But the original remains a vexing reminder of the earthly penchant for turning a promise of salvation into a crude, us-versus-them division.
A Joyful Noyse performs music of Reinhold Keiser, March 5 at 3 p.m. at Hancock Church, 1912 Mass. Ave., Lexington (suggested donation $15; 781-862-4220; www.hancockchurch.org).Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.