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Rediscovering Awe: A Musician’s Reflections on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by David Boos

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Rediscovering Awe: A Musician’s Reflections on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

When I was 12 years old, I fell in love with Mozart’s Requiem after watching the (deeply ahistorical) movie Amadeus. For a few weeks, I was obsessed with the work. I immersed myself in the emotional bath of pain; I bought the piano reduction of the Requiem and practiced the playable passages. When I shared this enthusiasm with my father, he answered laconically, “Once you know the St. Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem won’t do it for you anymore.” 

Nowadays I regard this statement as more of an expression of the (legitimate) feelings of a layman than as a binding comparison of different works from different eras. At that time, however, it aroused my curiosity. “Well, then I’ll listen to it right away,” I said and was about to grab the record box. But my father admonished me not to approach the St. Matthew Passion casually. “You have to sit down properly for it and read along with the pocket score,” he said. I immediately realized from his tone that this was not something one could do spontaneously. This was a coming-of-age, a moment of inheritance.  

Little did I know at that time that my father’s reverent approach to the St. Matthew Passion was a leftover of a lost world: the bourgeois culture of the 19th and early 20th century. For two hundred years, this culture supplanted the liturgical environment in which Bach’s contemporaries experienced this music, substituting the concert hall for the church. Via the bourgeoisie, the celebration of cultural heritage became an expression of societal participation—one that both imitated and rivaled religious participation in its significance.

I listened to the St. Matthew Passion a few weeks later. We owned an old record box with Klemperer’s recording, and I read along in our old pocket score by Eulenburg, as my father had instructed. I remember surprisingly little of the music, which far exceeded my musical capacities at the time, but I still remember vividly the preface to the pocket score. In Gothic letters, the first sentence read that “the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B minor, and the Missa solemnis” were the “three primal stones of music history” that “tower above all other works.” 

At the time, this reverence, this enthronement on the altar of Western cultural history, impressed me more than the actual music. It coincided with my deepening experience of literature; soon after, again on the advice of my father (who thought it was “time to read a real book”), I discovered Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg and Doktor Faustus, works in which reverence for the masterpieces of our culture is an integral part of the raison d’être of the educated bourgeoisie.

But as always in life, my reverence could not survive in its youthful form. At about the age of 16, I began to learn about the “early music movement,” as it was then called. This movement, nowadays called “historically informed performance practice” (HIP), relies on musicology rather than tradition to decide how to perform a piece. In addition, HIP uses period instruments and source studies to try to discover how pieces sounded ‘back then,’ when they were first performed. Initially this felt like a breath of fresh air; the recordings of early music pioneers such as Harnoncourt and Leonhardt opened up new perspectives within a relatively stagnant culture of interpretation. But the wind blows where it wills, and this breeze soon began to sweep away the first bloom of my wonder.       

The rise of HIP needs to be understood within a broader societal context. It coincided with the youth movements of the 60s and should be considered a counter-movement to the bourgeois traditions. Many of the pioneers of HIP were more or less hippies, whose central motivation was to challenge the late-romantic traditions that dominated musical taste. By playing on period instruments, in smaller ensembles, with more articulation and usually at a higher speed, they offered listeners new and often surprising insights into how the music might have been performed originally, before the patina of the 19th century accrued around it. Full of youthful zeal for purity, I dove headfirst into this new world of performance practice that strove to be grounded in historical literalism rather than mystery, and wholeheartedly embraced its revolutionary deconstructivism.

With the onset of my professional studies, a certain stagnation set in. The affectations in the St. Matthew Passion, the surprising interjections of the choirs, the modulations–everything became predictable. All the entrances of voices were familiar, all the emotions had already been felt. The awe of the adolescent had given way to an almost ironic detachment. I compared each year’s new recordings only to see which recording came closer technically, i.e. in questions of tempo, phrasing, and instrumentation, to my ideal, grounded in a youthful, confident claim to absolute aesthetic truth. The awe, the reverence, were lost. 

And not only to me. Across the board, the pioneers’ spirit of rediscovery had turned into an aesthetic leveling, supported by an increasingly self-referential classical music market in which comparing recordings under the microscope narrowed the aesthetic scope. What critics celebrated in one year was, often unconsciously, emulated in the next; bold new visions of the music became unheard of. The only real difference was the ever increasing pace of the performances.

The years passed. I began to play Bach’s great passions myself as an organist in performances that followed the technical expectations of the early music movement. But what should have been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream felt more like an uninspired duty, like going through the motions of what we knew was great music, but which could barely touch our souls anymore. 

One evening while I was studying abroad, I happened to meet an old friend, also a musician. We had not seen each other for months, if not years. I dropped by his place, we emptied a bottle of wine, and we talked music. Then, around midnight, my friend asked, “Tell me, have you actually heard Mengelberg’s St. Matthew?” 

I didn’t know it. “Put it on,” I said, leaning back in my chair. I expected a daring new interpretation (and by daring I probably imagined something moving just discernibly faster than last year’s recording). But as soon as the CD started, I heard the digitally preserved crackling and hissing of an old record.

Then the orchestra entered. In my mind I was already buzzing down the highway of modern interpretations, but the first notes hit the brakes so hard that I actually lost my inner balance and did not recover it. The music lifted like a dark mist from silence. The great romantic orchestra enveloped me in a shroud of mystery.

It must be part of the nature of the deceived mind to be amused by its own deception. I had to laugh at the excessive, completely outdated drama, even though that very drama had just knocked me off my feet. Surely, I told myself, this way of performing had nothing to do with Bach’s ‘original intentions.’ I reminded myself of everything I knew about historical performance practices. I expected this to be a nice gag that we would laugh at for a minute or two minutes, then turn off. But after only half a bar (which lasted far longer than in modern recordings), the humor gave way to revelation. There it was again, the awe! With each measure, as the orchestra plowed through the opening chorus like an ocean liner through the sea, it became clear that this was no caricature; this was a vision. 

Suddenly this was no longer the well-known opening bars of a chorus, in which the only question was how fast it should be performed. Instead, it was once again the prelude to the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Evangelist Matthew, a jet-black overture in which orchestra and choir lead the listener down into the world of innermost struggle in the face of torture and death. 

All this happened within a matter of seconds. The entire opening chorus gripped my attention as it had when I was a child. After all these years of musical wandering, awe stepped back into my life with an urgency, grabbed me by the collar, looked deep inside my soul, and asked: “Do you understand now?”

I did. Then I began to read the first thing I could get my hands on: the booklet to the CD. In contrast to modern recordings, there was no musicological text in it, but only a romanticized anecdote of the premiere of the St. Matthew Passion; apparently an elderly lady exclaimed that the music reminded her of an opera, and she did not mean it as a compliment. This text added another layer of transfiguration. Bach’s masterpiece was misunderstood, underestimated, and even despised during his lifetime. Almost like our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

In the weeks and months that followed, I kept reading. I read about Willem Mengelberg, his rise and his disastrous political fall. I read about this performance, recorded live on Palm Sunday, April 2nd, 1939, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. It was, in its way, a time capsule; a few months later the world would explode into war and the bygone era, to which Mengelberg and his great performance of the Passion belonged, would go down in flames.

I also learned about the annual tradition of performing the St. Matthew Passion, which began in Holland but spread around the world. The performance became almost a pilgrimage during the 50 years of Mengelberg’s tenure as conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I learned that not only were the performances of the St. Matthew Passion considered pilgrimages, but the experience of the St. Matthew Passion under Mengelberg turned some listeners into actual believers. And last but not least, I also learned that the concept of historical performance practice is more relative than contemporary academia might suggest; Mengelberg’s use of the large organ to accompany the orchestra is closer to Bach’s performance practice than the use of modern chest organs, which are used primarily for practical reasons.

Through all my reading, my aesthetic field of view changed dramatically. Whereas before, everything musical had moved within an ever-narrowing ‘musical Overton window’ for me, the possibilities once again seemed endless. Along with this aesthetic wonder, I rediscovered true reverence—not skill, not accomplishment, but reverence, which is what makes an experience of the St. Matthew Passion transcend the purely aesthetic and artistic, and is emblematic of this, the central experience of bourgeois culture of the last 200 years.

To this day, myths tell of the musical world’s supposed disdain for Bach after his death, even though it is well known by now that connoisseurs passed down his piano works for generations. It is true that many of his sacred compositions fell into oblivion, though of course performing music by dead composers remained the exception until the end of the 18th century.

It is also true, however, that Mendelssohn’s centenary revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 ushered in an unprecedented Bach renaissance, an artistic and intellectual channel for the religious aspirations of the bourgeoisie in Germany, especially in Protestant areas. These newly middle-class people strove to find ways to tie their religious heritage to the enlightened and intellectual self-image they aspired to. The educated bourgeois canon of music began with Johann Sebastian Bach; all composers who preceded him were considered “Old Masters,” a description which included a certain amount of disdain, since it implied that they were not full-fledged composers but rather were the hardworking predecessors to real artists.

Whereas Beethoven represents the original brooding and searching German composer found in the Bildungsroman of Thomas Mann, Bach became regarded as the theological-mathematical genius of polyphony, a prophet of counterpoint whose art inevitably led to the twelve-tone technique. This aura of Bach’s music spread also beyond the borders of Germany, where attending the St. Matthew Passion became a symbolic link between religious experience and the self-sufficient sophistication of the European bourgeoisie.

It is no coincidence that this reverent approach to religious art climaxed in the first half of the 20th century. The remnants lingering in our times are fragments of a collapsed epoch, rather than a sign of a living tradition. These traditions are no longer rooted in the upper middle class, which has moved on to cultivate other forms of self-expression befitting of the Zeitgeist. Nowadays, the most reverent appreciators of religious art are among the lower middle class, for whom appreciating these cultural assets is part of their aspiration to join a rank of society that is no longer attainable.

After the war, historically informed performance practice catapulted classical music into the modern age. Although performance practice claims to be rooted in the past with its more sober and rhythmic sound ideal, ultimately this is only a fig leaf; behind it there lurks a thoroughly modern aesthetic. The deconstruction of the romantic tradition after World War II became a guiding principle of the ‘historically informed performance practice.’

Such changes affected not only outward parameters of performances, but also the very core of the artistic experience. The St. Matthew Passion in its 19th and 20th century form is a phenomenon of a cultural-religious canon at a time when art acted as a religious placeholder in a society increasingly alienated from organized religion. This was still better than what we have today; now, these works of art are in danger of being completely caught up in a museum-like contemplation of the past, thus losing the last shreds of reverent experience and holy shiver—a danger the pioneers of HIP were actually keenly aware of, but could not save their movement from.

We are inescapably people of our time; we cannot and should not seek refuge in the past, as tempting as it may seem. The demystification of the St. Matthew Passion by the early music movement has also uncovered new approaches that were increasingly buried under a layer of habit. Period instruments gave us insight into a sound-world that challenged our aesthetic preferences, and articulation allowed for new shades of expression that were not possible in the late-romantic tradition. And whether we like it or not, modern aesthetics have become part of our history. Whether in a modern, historically informed version by a baroque orchestra or romantically transfigured, the St. Matthew Passion has never lost its power to touch our souls and bring us closer to sensually comprehending the Passion of Christ. But some of this depends on us; only by approaching it with appropriate reverence will we be able to drink again from the spiritual fountain that is the St. Matthew Passion—not because it needs our reverence, but because we need the reverence it evokes in us.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.