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November 6, 2000

Symposium, concert to explore
'St. John Passion'

By Deb Hammacher

It is only fitting that in Emory’s Year of Reconciliation, Johann Sebastian Bach’s 18th century masterpiece “St. John Passion” would be performed—and discussed. Widely considered one of the greatest pieces in Western sacred music, Bach’s work, and other composers’ pieces based on the Gospel of St. John, have been the subject of controversy regarding anti-Semitic sentiments.

A symposium with a panel discussion will take place Thursday, Nov. 9, then the Emory Concert Choir, with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra and soloist Julianne Baird, will perform the work on Saturday, Nov. 11. The symposium will be at 4:15 p.m. in Cannon Chapel, and the concert will take place at 8:15 p.m. in Glenn Auditor-ium. The symposium is free, and tickets to the concert are $10.

Both events are being organized by Emory music professor Stephen Crist, a noted Bach scholar who recently completed a four-year term as secretary of the American Bach Society.
Crist will moderate a panel featuring Bach scholar and Swarthmore College professor Michael

Marissen, author of Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach’s “St. John Passion”, experienced controversy firsthand when the Swarthmore student chorus performed the Bach piece in 1995. Some students refused to perform based on the anti-Semitic sentiments in the work, so the college responded by organizing a symposium to look at the work in context.

According to Marissen’s subsequent book on the topic, while Bach’s libretto consists of Martin Luther’s translation of the Gospel of St. John, Bach’s setting is not a polemical, anti-Semiticrant. In fact, Bach assigns guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion to the fall of Adam and Eve, thereby shifting blame from the Jewish people to all of sinful humanity.

Joining Marissen on the panel will be Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple; Don Saliers, Cannon Professor of Theology and Worship; and Gail O’Day, Shatford Professor of Homiletics, whose research covers the Gospel of John.

“Bach’s setting by no means comes to terms with all ecumenically or socially troubling aspects of John’s first-century text,” wrote Marissen in his book. “However, his music represents a step in the right direction at a time and in a context of extreme contempt and hostility toward Jews. Music has such wide appeal that discussion of challenging musical works may provide one of the best focal points for meaningful dialogue on the various sorts of issues raised by these works.”

“A great work of art shouldn’t be banned because it now has politically incorrect content, but it should be performed with the proper context and commentary,” Crist said. “Having a day between the symposium and the concert will give audience the chance to reflect on what was discussed before experiencing the performance.”

Crist, who also is teaching a graduate seminar this semester on “St. John Passion,” will give a brief preconcert talk to provide the audience with the proper historical context—especially important for those not attending the symposium.

Soloist Baird is critically acclaimed as one of the great interpreters of early music and is in great demand as a soloist of baroque opera and oratorio. Recent performances include appearances at London’s International Lufthansa Festival in solo Bach cantatas, at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall in the Mozart “Requiem,” and Bach’s “Magnificat” in the composer’s own Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany.

Baird also is a scholar in her own right. She has degrees from the Eastman School and a diploma from the Salzburg Mozarteum in performance, and she earned a doctorate in music history from Stanford University. She is recognized internationally as one of the few who can both demonstrate the full range of the singer’s art and explain it. Baird is a professor of music at Rutgers University.

For tickets or more information about the concert, call 404-727-5050.


Back to Emory Report Nov. 6, 2000