Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Harbison on Bach's St. Matthew Passion

On February 29, I attended a lecture by the composer John Harbison on the "St. Matthew Passion." He acknowledged that there were many ways of viewing the work, but he chose to look at it under the aspect of abandonment — that the text suggests that the Christian feels abandoned by Jesus. Of course, on the Cross Jesus quoted the Psalm verse which asks, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" But traditionally we have been invited to sympathize with Jesus' sufferings, and feel sorrow for our responsibility for them, but until now I don't think I've ever heard that we are invited to feel as he felt, especially in that precise moment. (The "Stabat Mater" asks that we feel as Mary felt.)

Harbison played several examples. He started with the opening chorus, with its call to lament (klagen). There are lines such as "Jesus takes leave of us," (Jesus von uns Abschied nimmt) "So is my Jesus captured now," (So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.) "Give me back my Jesus," (Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!) and the address to the faithful as "you forsaken chickens." (Ihe verlaßnen Küchlein) Finally, there is the closing recitative and chorus where the faithful bid good night to Jesus and sit weeping by the tomb.

I find it a startling take on the work as a whole. As Harbison himself pointed out, this is a Passion and therefore it does not include Easter. Furthermore, if it represents the feelings of loss those present at the actual events would have felt, it also includes notions of clinging to Jesus and being rescued by him. Certainly, it seems unlikely that Bach and his librettist Picander would have intended that the hearers should take away from the performance of the Passion an idea that they had been abandoned by Jesus. But it gave an aspect to think about, and as someone who has conducted the work on occasion, Harbison is certainly able to see aspects which are not immediately apparent.

During the question period at the end, a college-age girl asked Harbison what his name was. He responded with name and a very abbreviated bit of background. I wonder how the questioner learned of the lecture and decided to attend without knowing who the lecturer was.

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