Johann Sebastian Bach — anti-Semite? Or simply a man of his time?
Johann Sebastian Bach — anti-Semite? Or simply a man of his time?

Was Bach anti-Jewish? This choir’s performances come with a debate

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion is considered a vocal music masterwork and is performed in churches and concert halls around the world. But it has a dark, disturbing side.

The two-hour oratorio’s libretto depicts a Jewish mob urging the Romans to crucify Jesus. It is based in large part on the Gospel of John, which for centuries has been the basis of anti-Semitism and of attacks on Jews as the killers of Christ.

So when the San Francisco Bach Choir decided to perform the St. John Passion this spring, it scheduled a two-hour panel discussion a few weeks before the concerts to examine whether Bach was guilty of promoting anti-Semitism.

The verdict was mixed. The four scholars who gathered Sunday in San Francisco for the “Passion and Persecution” panel were not sure whether the composer was guilty of intentionally trying to attack Jews through his work.

“If there’s a big fire of anti-Semitic thought, does Bach as a composer throw gas or water on that fire? I think the argument could be made that he’s throwing water, but it’s a big fire and the water is not enough to douse the fire,” said moderator Tom Hall, a former choral director who co-authored a book on Bach’s two Passions, the St. Matthew and the St. John.

The panelists left little doubt about the anti-Jewish sentiment of the Gospel of John, in which Hall said 71 of the 74 references to Jews are negative. They made it clear that Martin Luther, whose writings greatly influenced Bach, was a virulent anti-Semite. And they said Bach’s impression of the Jews was formed by the venomous anti-Semitic tropes of 18th-century Germany.

The St. John Passion was written by Bach in 1723-24 during his first year as director of music for churches in Leipzig, and was first performed on Good Friday.

So was Bach simply repeating the anti-Jewish words of the Gospel of John, which were uncritically accepted by most Christians of that time and by the Lutheran churches in which Bach worked? Or was he an active anti-Semite?

Jonathan Sheehan, co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, pointed out that the St. John Passion traditionally was performed during the week leading up to Easter, a time when Jews were singled out for abuse and physical attack.

“Violence against Jews was often linked to Holy Week,” Sheehan said. “It seems to me that Bach is not the issue, Christianity is the issue.”

Kirsi Stjerna, a professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley and editor of “Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader,” was not as forgiving of Bach.

About 45 percent of the libretto to the St. John Passion, which she called “hate words written with beautiful music,” came directly from the Gospel of John (the rest was from clerical poets of the time). And she pointed out that Bach was very well educated in theology.

“It is not possible to dismiss the words in his music as pure adornments and without meaning,” Stjerna said. “Did Bach ever challenge any of the anti-Semitism in these works?”

It seems to me that Bach is not the issue, Christianity is the issue.

John Efron, a professor of Jewish history at UC Berkeley who specializes in the cultural and social history of German Jewry, argued that Bach was influenced by a society that mostly treated Jews as “Christ killers, godless, superstitious, venal and physically repulsive.”

Jews in 18th-century Germany faced grinding poverty, job and housing restrictions, repressive taxes and rules, and constant verbal and physical abuse. Thousands of Jewish merchants came each year to the Leipzig fair, despite the “relentless contempt and anti-Semitism” they faced there, Efron said.

“This is the world Bach sees, these are the Jews Bach sees when they come to Leipzig every year,” Efron said, “this idea that they are less than people and should be treated as such.”

Hall said the contrast between the glorious music of the St. John Passion and its ugly anti-Semitism leaves arts organizations with four choices: not performing it at all; playing it and letting people decide whether to attend; trying to soften the wording (conductor Lukas Foss, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 from Nazi Germany, changed “Juden,” or Jews, to “leute,” or people, when he performed the libretto); or performing the work and accompanying it with a discussion of the anti-Semitism in the text.

The Bach Choir, which will perform the work May 5 in San Francisco and May 6 in Berkeley, clearly chose the fourth option.

“At a time when violent words and actions against Jews and other marginalized groups are once again on the rise, we feel that such themes cannot be ignored when mounting a performance of this challenging piece,” the group says on its website.

Now it will be up to Bay Area audiences to decide if that was the right choice.

Bach’s St. John Passion, 7 p.m. Saturday, May 5 at Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore St., S.F, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 6 at First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley. $10-$30.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.