Performing Bach Passions for Musical Muggles

I love the Passion settings of Bach.

I love to listen to them during Holy Week.

I don’t know who first called Bach the “fifth evangelist”, but I couldn’t agree more. His large, dramatic settings are inspiring and profound. They are deep examinations of the varying relationship Christians have with Christ. What’s more, the themes of the work are still incredibly relevant to what Christians face today.

However, not a single one of my American music muggle friends (non-music folk) listens to these works, if they’ve ever heard of them.

Even the churchgoers would have little chance of hearing them, as they are usually not performed in church anymore, having been moved to the concert hall as museum pieces. Most modern American performances of these phenomenal works are incompatible with today’s average American music listener, for a variety of reasons:

  1. The musical texture doesn’t make sense to them
  2. It’s in a language (German) they don’t understand
  3. The instrumentation, melody, and rhythms aren’t as easily internalized as the run-of-the-mill pop song
  4. It’s LONG AS HELL with no breaks or just one intermission
  5. It’s entirely “presentational”, with no room or space for audiences to engage in the experience.

Would you be surprised to learn that none of these were impediments to audience understanding during Bach’s time?

The original performances (if we can call a worship service a performance) were in churches in Leipzig, Germany in the early 1700s. No concert hall, no large force of 200+ singers and players. Everyone spoke German, so it was in a language even the illiterate understood. Without the luxury of constant streaming music, aural memories caught repetitive themes more readily in complex textures. The entire Passion was designed to be part of a service, with a break for a sermon and hymns interspersed throughout the work for the congregation to stand and sing. They were participants in the greater experience. Throw in that church services frequently were longer than today’s 45-minute, home by Sunday kickoff affairs, and we can begin to understand why average, everyday German churchgoers in 1723 actually had much more to appreciate from Bach than audiences today.

So here’s the question: can we make Bach’s passions more relevant to today’s worshiper/audience member while still honoring the music and meaning of the original work? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Perform the work in English translation. There are some pretty good English translations out there of this work and other Bach masterpieces. Later in his career, Robert Shaw was a vocal proponent of this method of classical performance. If the original intention of Bach’s passions was for audiences to hear the story in their own language, then American audiences need to hear it in English. No more multi-page translation sheets or spending all of one’s time staring at a projector screen above the ensemble.
  2. Let the audience sing the chorales. Their purpose was to draw the congregation into the action. The work was never intended to have audiences sit and watch others for its entirety. Conductors need to give up control of the technical perfection of the chorales in exchange for facilitating more communal experiences. The purpose of dramatizing the Passion in the first place was to get people emotionally and spiritually involved in the story. Bonus: Letting the audience sing the chorales also gives the rest of the singers a chance to catch their breath!
  3. Bite size it even more. While most scholars believe that the Passions were meant to be performed in two halves with a sermon in the middle, the modern, 8-minute audience attention span is still going to be ill-served by this format. Why not place a few brief pauses in carefully selected locations? Read scripture, recite a poem, display relevant art or media, present movement and dance.
  4. Scale down the forces. Perhaps the only suggestion on this list that won’t make historical purists’ skin crawl, Bach never would have used 85 pieces and 100 singers. Too financially impractical and, frankly, not particularly intimate. I understand that beefing up the sound has its own dramatic advantages, but it also separates the audience from the individual performer, both physically and emotionally. What if there were no more than 40 musicians and fewer than 100 audience members?
  5. Don’t conduct it. Bach didn’t. You think you’re better than Bach? The truth is that conductors bring both an air of formality and a degree of separation between audience and performer. Someone has to cue, but ditch the penguin suit/formal concert gown and let the musicians take a little bit more personal responsibility. Contemporary audiences are also accustomed to watching performances across a variety of genres that don’t prominently feature the conductor.

This is a start. What other ideas do you have?