Passion of the Johann
An All-Bach Christmas
Pierre Tristam/The News-Journal, December 20, 2005
There’s apparently a movement out there to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Did someone take the rum out of the eggnog? I have no idea why anyone would want to codify this most intelligently designed of holidays, especially in the United States, where it freely evolves according to whatever you want it to be. What’s Christmas if you always know what’s in the wrapping? It’s an annual gift of endless meanings and occasions (and debt and hang-overs and depression, but Bethlehem wasn’t Nirvana, either).
I’m particularly grateful this time of year, not just because of the luck of my present surroundings. As a child of course it was all about the presents. Childhood gave way to adolescence’s shoe-faced years, when a hard line against happiness might have been a requirement had it not been for a miracle. Someone at WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University in New York , had the heavenly idea of putting Bach back in Christmas. Every year since around 1980, the station has played the music of Johan Sebastian Bach, uninterruptedly, for 150 to 200 hours, from a few days before Christmas until New Year’s Day. Talk about the gift that keeps giving. I left New York years ago, but the Internet makes it possible to still hear the Bach tradition. (Listen to WKCR's BachFest here...)
This year might as well be Nirvana: BBC Radio 3, Britain ’s classical music radio network, has jumped on the all-Bach-all-the-time bandwagon with 219 straight hours, beginning last Friday and running through Christmas Day. (Listen to BBC Radio 3's Bach at Christmas here.) Since WKCR’s festival doesn’t kick off until Thursday, the two events combined add up to about 360 hours of the greatest music ever written (with apologies to Mozart and Willie Nelson). That this is happening at a time when classical music on radio has been reduced — when you can find it at all — to endless replays of Pachelbel’s Canon and Mozart’s Eine Klein-enough already is what makes the occasion such a relief of unadulterated beauty.
So then, why Bach? His life was entirely unremarkable. He worked like a horse, loved wine, was hot-tempered, hated the pettiness of the town council at whose pleasure he served, was deeply spiritual, fathered 20 children with two wives, and died in relative obscurity, at least compared with Handel and Telemann. (It would be a few generation after his death that his name would become synonymous with the birth of modern music.) I can say with complete conviction that I don’t understand his music, only that I couldn’t live without it. But it is virtually impossible to listen to Bach and not feel transcended beyond anything ordinary — “as if,” as Goethe put it after hearing the Well-tempered Clavier, “the eternal harmony were communing with itself, as might have happened in God’s bosom shortly before the creation of the world.”
Writing of a personal love is pure self-indulgence if it isn’t related to something readers might appreciate. Let me try to make that connection. As I wrote this piece, the BBC was broadcasting Bach’s St. John Passion, a two-and-a-half hour work considered, along with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, to be among the greatest achievements in all music. Until recently I couldn’t figure out a paradox at the heart of the works: How can the brutality and cruelty Christ endured be made so sublime in Bach’s Passions; what right do they have to be so sublime? Stupid questions, now that the answer seems so obvious. Whatever one’s religion or irreligion, Christ’s passion inspires and redeems because it is a story of love and humility, of overwhelming forgiveness. To hear Bach’s Passions is to hear that beauty and purity, to feel the sublime in Christ’s message. It is a transforming experience, as close to beauty in the service of truth as it comes. One’s religion is irrelevant precisely because of the message, and the way Bach conveys it.
That, I think — to risk one topical example by way of contrast — is why Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” fails artistically and spiritually: Where Bach’s Passions make music of Christ’s emotions and inner truths, uplifting the listener to impossible heights, Gibson’s Passion misses the point entirely by fixating on the violence that Christ sustained externally, by using savagery to elicit brutal emotions from the viewer on Christ’s behalf — anger, hostility, vengefulness. The very emotions that Bach’s passions transcend, as did Christ of course. Gibson’s movie works maybe as “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Jew-bashing thrown in. But it has nothing to do with Christ’s message, even as it wallows in the incidentals of the passion.
Bach’s music does the reverse in more than 1,000 surviving works. Life’s incidentals are forgotten. What you’re left with is the radiance in music of the beautiful, the true. For those of us fortunate to be able to hear — to be in circumstances that afford us the luxury — how could we not be grateful? Merry Christmas, Bach and all.