We know next to nothing of Jesus until he began his public ministry when he was about thirty. He then came down from Galilee and Capernaum (under the Golan Heights). This rich country then produced fishermen and activists – and religious leaders, holy men (hasidim), healers, wonderworkers, miracle-workers – what would now be called shamans. The politically inclined of these young tearaways might have been freedom fighters or liberators – the Romans would have seen them just as terrorists to be killed as quickly as possible. Galilee may have been a place for the Romans to visit, but hardly a good place to live in.
Jesus began by identifying with another ragged preacher called John the Baptist (later beheaded by an inbred Quisling dictator called Herod). Jesus collected twelve disciples to represent the twelve patriarchs of the twelve tribes for the new Israel. He said that he kept the law, but that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. For Jesus, being true to God meant loving God and loving your neighbour. He preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand and he told his listeners that they should repent. He preached by parables and sermons and sayings. He healed the sick and followers said that he performed miracles. He had what we call charisma and he was getting a following. The problem with the miracles – and it is a problem with all miracles – is that there are never enough witnesses for their reports of the miracles to carry conviction to the world at large.
Jesus was bound therefore to make enemies with either the religious establishment or the secular establishment (the Romans). He was new. He was different. He was a change. He was popular. He was therefore a threat. But above all, he was good. Many people have trouble adjusting to real goodness. It makes the rest of us look terrible, and it can make most of us feel awful. There will always be some who felt like Satan in Paradise Lost when he ‘felt how awful goodness is’. When Milton wrote that Satan ‘thought himself impaired,’ he may have had in mind that chilling remark about Cassio made by Iago, that most evil predator on another’s honour:
He has a kind of beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.
It was inevitable that the religious status quo had to see Jesus as a threat. He was not sent to give them comfort. His mission was to institute a change of management. And if he came to the notice of the Romans, they too might take an adverse interest. You only have to look at the threat to world peace, not just regional stability, from the religious feuds in the Middle East today, not to mention the scary attraction that serial murderers hold for disaffected people of faith in what they see as occupied territories.
That is how things stood when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He was to tell his disciples that he foresaw that he would die in the way he did and at a supper he in substance took his leave from them. He did so with words that have led to the deaths of so many people. He took to the money changers in the temple amid suggestions that he had talked of the destruction of the temple. It would be difficult to imagine a greater assault on the Jewish religion than talking of the destruction of its temple, and his action in clearing it would very likely have got him a conviction for sacrilege and a death sentence if he had done it to a Roman temple. He had in truth signed his own death warrant.
Spinoza described the impact of Jesus in a way that shows that he – Spinoza – would have been too hot to handle in some quarters.
His sole care was to teach moral doctrines and distinguish them from the laws of the state; for the Pharisees, in their ignorance, thought that the observance of the state law and the Mosaic law was the sum total of morality; whereas such laws merely had reference to the public welfare, and aimed not so much at instructing the Jews as keeping them under constraint.
Spinoza too was cast out. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community. Kant had an almost conscientious objection to ritual in any form – he always had something else to do when his university required him to attend at some religious function on an official basis. But Kant never lost faith in the man he referred to as ‘the Teacher’. Kant described Jesus as ‘the ideal of humanity well pleasing to God’. Einstein said that it was impossible not to be moved by ‘the luminous Nazarene.’ The young tearaway Hasid executed as a common criminal has never lacked followers of genius.
The ‘passion’ is the phrase for the suffering of Jesus from his last meal to his death on the cross. This is the sacred heart of the religion founded on his life and teaching. It has been celebrated in words and music. The most notable is Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. Put religion to one side, and this work is one of those Himalayan peaks of Western civilization, like El Greco’s paintings of the Cleansing of the Temple, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or Mozart’s Requiem.
The painting of El Greco at the National Gallery is amazing. (The Frick has a version, too.) Almost all the figures are distorted in the way that became the trade mark of this great artist. The Christ figure is a man on a mission and flowing with energy to that end. The whole thing has the movement of Mozart, but it is movement charged with colour, and behind the head of Christ is an Italian Renaissance background. This is what one scholar says. ‘The money-changers, panic-stricken more by the sudden revelation of power in the suave Christ than by the punishment itself, try to escape, but they cannot. Brilliant is the planned confusion of the detail. The upward-catapulted figures…make a frantic explosive series, away from the Christ and diagonally back into the picture space.’ It is very rare for a picture to be charged with so much energy and movement and rhythm.
Bach, ‘the supreme musical genius of the late Baroque period’, some say of all time, came ‘from the most gifted family in musical history.’ He was born in Saxony. He lost both his parents at the age of nine. He was twice married, and he had twenty children. He moved from town to town in Saxony and spent a large part of his time at Leipzig. He held court or church appointed posts. He was often wrangling with government or his employer. Most work was generated for his employer, and most of it was religious.
He was most famous during his life for his Cantatas (‘something to be sung’) which were sung during the service in church in the ordinary course of that service. He is best known now for the two passions – of Saint Matthew and Saint John – the drama of the passion of Christ according to either gospel and performed with a baroque orchestra and choir and soloists, and the music for piano called The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations, and much other incidental baroque music. People of sense are not deflected from enjoying some of the most beautiful music ever written by the fact that they do not share Bach’s faith, or any other faith. It is the same with the other great artists I have mentioned.
At that time you could see artists trying to break clear of a monopoly by the church on commissions for new art. With Bach, it is very necessary to bear in mind that music then was supposed to serve a purpose. As John Eliot Gardiner says in his recent and marvellous biography of Bach:
In Bach’s day the arts were still expected to impart some explicit moral, religious or rational meaning. It was not until the second half of the century that aesthetic concepts such as ‘the Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’ began to uncouple the artistic from the scientific and the moral.
Then we have to see that Bach was not just the product of a musical family, but a religious family, and one that followed Luther at that. Luther had not just wanted to bring the bible to people in their language – he wanted to bring them their religion in words and music that were at once of the people and lyrical. One of his best known hymns – Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’) – has both music and words by Luther, and expresses his sense of swelling security within God’s many mansions. This is one of the themes of the St Matthew’s Passion. The Bach family sang at meals – as did Gardiner’s – and this vocal participation was easily carried over into the congregation and communion within the church.
Gardiner himself witnessed the survival of old traditions in the region of Thuringia – in the middle of the service, he and his choir were suddenly joined in the organ gallery by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and departed. That must have been quite a show. The German philosopher Herder said that the chorales sung in church retained the moral effectiveness (‘the treasury of life’) that German folk-poetry and folksong had once had. Herder also said that the moment the poet writes slowly in order to be read, art may be the winner, but there is a loss of magic, of ‘miraculous power.’ Isaiah Berlin had said that ‘Language alone makes experience possible, but it also freezes it.’
Luther held that ‘the notes make the words live’ and that without music, man is little more than a stone. He also wanted to know why the Devil should have all of the good tunes.
Yet, notwithstanding this close tie for Bach between God and his music, all of that music, including the two great Passions – especially the two great Passions – is open to all of us. Gardiner quotes William James as saying that ‘religion like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse…adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.’ Gardiner then goes on to refer to some observations of a contemporary European composer, Gyorgy Kurtag, that are at once both sane and mystical.
Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it – as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering of the nails… That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.
I first heard the St Matthew’s Passion of Bach about ten years ago at the church opposite the Astor which I gather is famous for its acoustics and choral work. The drama alone overwhelmed me – it is the drama and the music and a sense of ritual that is still overwhelming as I listen to any of the three recordings that I have of it. The first time you hear it, or, better, see it, you think at times that you might be listening to Negro spirituals with commentary from Joel Grey as the M C from Cabaret. The ending is signalled by a colloquy within the choir one part of which is Mein Jesu gutte nacht (Good night, my Jesus). Life cannot offer much else that is so fine.
My first recording was by Gardiner with his Monteverdi ensemble. The second is a large boxed set by the Collegium Vocale Gent that features Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist. The third, which I have listened to over the last two nights, is a recording with Karajan and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra made not long after the war in Vienna. That morally stained city was a husk and Karajan had joined the party – twice. Yet the sound of this choir is almost unbearably ethereal. So are the tempi of the choruses and the recording techniques then serve to put distance into the choirs. The effect is remarkable.
John Eliot Gardiner concludes what is in truth a frank and dry-eyed biography with these words.
Monteverdi gives us the full gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven. But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God – in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human, and human things divine.
People who shuffle off this mortal coil without getting up very close to Bach’s St Matthew Passion are short changing themselves very badly. This is not a spiritual or Godly age; we have lost our taste for ritual and communion; and those who suffer under the emptiness and vulgarity of what passes for sport in Australia should not pass up a chance as good as this to at least glimpse the mystical.
(This piece draws heavily on two books that are available on Amazon and Apple, Parallel Trials (Socrates and Jesus) and The West Awakes, the third volume of a history of the West.)