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Was Bach a Nazi? Franz Welser-Möst wants to know

January 10, 2017 by norman lebrecht

85 comments.


This is bold and timely. Johann Sebastian Bach used hateful words about the Jews in St John’s Passion and elsewhere. Often, the worst epithets are accompanied by the loveliest music.

So was Bach an early Nazi?

Music director Franz Welser-Möst has convened a debate, long overdue, in Cleveland.

Press release follows.

CLEVELAND – On Sunday March 5, 2017 at 3:00 p.m., Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Most convenes a panel of guest speakers at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood (26000 Shaker Boulevard, Beachwood, OH) to probe the question “Is Bach’s St. John Passion anti-Semitic?”, a lingering claim that surrounds this seminal work. This extraordinarily moving and achingly beautiful telling of the Crucifixion is perhaps Bach’s most daring, forceful, and poetic composition. The panel will explore the context of European history, music, and religion that influenced the creation of Bach’s masterpiece and the intersections of meaning, message, and intent.

In addition to Welser-Möst, the panel includes Rabbi Roger C. Klein, Associate Rabbi at The Temple-Tifereth Israel, and Michael Marissen, Professor Emeritus of Music at Swarthmore College and author of the newly released book, Bach and God. The conversation will be moderated by David J. Rothenberg, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Music, Case Western Reserve University. The event is free, but tickets are required and may be reserved online at www.maltzmuseum.org or by calling the Maltz Museum at 216-593-0575.

Following the March 5 concert preview panel discussion, Franz Welser-Mӧst will lead The Cleveland Orchestra in performances of Bach’s St. John Passion on March 9, 11 and 12 at Severance Hall. 


Comments (85)

  1. Tom Moore says:

    They could/might have/should have also invited Prof. Jeanne Swack from the University of Wisconsin, who is also working in the area of German anti-semitism in this period.

    1. Brian Hughes says:

      Exactly! I enrolled in Dr. Swack’s Bach seminar some years ago and can attest that her knowledge here is probably unequaled.

      1. Michael Marissen says:

        Hi folks,

        I’m Michael Marissen, the musicologist listed on the announced Cleveland panel.

        My good friend Prof. Jeanne Swack is indeed an excellent scholar of anti-Judaism and the music of Bach’s contemporaries, especially Telemann.

        Just wanted to let you all know that four of the seven chapters in the book mentioned in the press release (namely, “Bach & God,” Oxford U Press, 2016) are about anti-Judaism in the Passions and church cantatas of Bach.

        I also published, some years ago, the book “Lutheranism, anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion: with an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto” (Oxford U Press, 1998).

        Both books include extensive discussion of the passion narratives in the Gospels themselves and of German anti-Judaism in the 18th century and earlier.

        1. Peter says:

          You are certainly aware that that “libretto” you translated so literally, is nothing but the Christian bible, available in numerous translations? Good for you, that someone can make a living in academia with such quite redundant musings, as far a practical music life is concerned.
          What do we get next? Someone translating the Oxford dictionary “literally” and analyzing the Anti-Judaism in it?

        2. Peter says:

          P.S. just to be clear. of course there are not only biblical texts in Bach’s passions. But the few bits that spark this academic debate, are all from the bible itself. And the historical context, why these passages are there, is very well documented and researched thoroughly.
          The true intentions of this “debate” now remain mysterious. Is it “composer envy”? A musical variation of Freud’s “penis envy”? It certainly feels like some subconscious calling by some people, who are apparently immune to the beauty and power of the music.

          1. MWnyc says:

            You must not be familiar with Michael Marissen’s work. Of course he’s aware of everything you (so ungraciously) pointed out: he’s made his public career (as opposed to his academic career) telling the general public that, and reassuring them that it’s not, in fact, morally reprehensible to perform or listen to Bach’s St. John Passion.

            Yeah, I get frustrated that this question keeps arising, too, but we have to remember that there’s now a big swath of the general public that knows very little about either Bach or the Gospels, let alone the topics of sin, guilt, and expiation of sin in orthodox 18th-century Lutheranism. They just see “the Jews” being spoken of angrily, and they don’t know what’s Bach and what’s the Gospel, let alone that Bach had no discretion whatever to adjust the words of the Gospel. They have to have it explained to them. (Yes, it’s always amazed me a bit that many people can’t figure out that distinction themselves, but different people are exposed to different things through their lives, and it’s no good sneering at people who don’t happen to have learned the particular things I have.)

          2. Peter says:

            I admit I had no thorough knowledge of MM’s writings. Here in central Europe these questions are of little to no relevance for practical music life, maybe an issue for some scholarly ivory tower debates at best.
            But I think it’s quite alright sneering at people, who should and do know better, but still willingly distort language and meaning, to give a topic their spin, as the opening line of this thread demonstrates with its disposition of reason and lack of scholarly integrity.

  2. Chris Walsh says:

    Your headline should read “Was Bach an anti-semite?” An interesting question, but not the one you posed. There is no reference in the quoted material to Nazism, quite properly as Nazism didn’t exist in Bach’s day.

    Perhaps you could have added “and what did he think of Jackie Evancho?”

  3. Peter says:

    Bollocks.
    Bach was Lutheran.
    Luther was Anti-Judaistic.
    As was the mainstream in Christianity at their time.

    Not Anti-Semitic, anti-semitism is a word creation by Zionists, which was unknown before the second half of the 19th century.

    This is really not news to anyone who passed a decent 8 grades school education.

    Nazi references are just confused nonsense.

    Can we please try to have a debate, at least using somewhat correct terminology and historical perspective? When you think the level of debate can’t sink any lower, you wake up to another day and are proven wrong…

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      Somebody using the term ‘Judaistic’ is questioning our terminology.

      1. Max Grimm says:

        Somebody using the term ‘Judaistic’ is probably a German speaker to whom the term ‘Judaic’ would not come naturally. The German term “Judaistik” is perfectly normal, ie. http://www.univie.ac.at/Judaistik/.

        1. Olassus says:

          Oxford has it dating to “early 19th century”:

          https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/judaistic

          1. Max Grimm says:

            Thank you Olassus. I wasn’t sure about the term’s usage in the English language but knew it wasn’t unusual in German.

    2. Joe Q. says:

      Any evidence that “anti-semitism” is a word coined by Zionists? It may be that a Jew was the first to put it in print, but it was thereafter completely co-opted by anti-Jewish writers and politicians in German-speaking lands.

      I agree that the mainstream of Christianity in Luther’s time was very much against Jews and Jewish practice. Luther “took things up a notch” as his comments about Jews were particularly hateful and violent. I do also agree that tying Bach to Nazism is silly.

    3. Tony says:

      The term ‘anti-semitism’ was coined by the decidedly non-Zionist German agitator Wilhelm Marr. He was a gentile and wanted to find a term to describe his hatred for Jews that transcended religion.

      1. Max Grimm says:

        While the term was popularized by Wilhelm Marr, Moritz Steinschneider, an Austrian Jewish scholar is credited with being the first to use it in 1860.

      2. Peter says:

        Not correct. Marr used the term first explicitly for anti Jewish propaganda.
        But is was Moritz Steinscheider, a Jewish bibliographer and Orientalist, who is on record 1860 for using the term “antisemitic” many years before that. So did other Jewish scholars at the time.
        http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k19903v/f24.image.langEN
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moritz_Steinschneider

        The term was coined by Jewish scholars first, in line with Zionist ideology, which transcended Judaic religion and culture into a folk-nationalist ideology.

        1. Mike Schachter says:

          Steinschneider was a remote ancestor of mine and there was no Zionism in his time. People who claim that there was just support the position that anti-Zionists at the present time are mostly just semi-deodorised anti-Semites. Having said that it is meaningless to call Bach a Nazi, he is just another very great composer who seems to have been an unpleasant human being. A German specialty perhaps.

          1. Peter says:

            You are unfamiliar with the historic realities. Bach quoting the most common scripture and ‘Zeitgeist’ of his time in his ‘libretto’ for the St. John passion makes him hardly an unpleasant human being. Unless you call all devoted Christians of that time unpleasant human beings. And how would that ‘anti-christianism’ then in itself be any better than anti-judaism?

            Also afaik we know of not a single word by Bach personally that could be used to describe him as anti-judaic. Unlike e.g. Martin Luther, who was spewing a lot of anti-judaic polemic.

            As far as Steinscheider and zionism are concerned, he is commonly described as a proto-zionist. The folk-nationalistic concepts that later formed the core of the zionist ideology, were already widely discussed in his time.

            It’s also a bit funny to say zionism didn’t exist yet when Steinscheider lived, but discuss Bach’s potential anti-semitism, when anti-semitism didn’t exist before the second half of the 19th century.

          2. Joe Q. says:

            Many of the ideas that were later referred to as Zionism certainly were present in Jewish thought and writing dating back many centuries, even if the term hadn’t been coined yet.

            Similarly, most of the ideas later referred to as anti-Semitism were present in European discourse over many centuries as well, even if that particular language hadn’t been used.

            To state that “there was no anti-Semitism before the mid-19th c.” seems like a bizarre semantic twist.

            I love and admire the music of Bach. That said, most accounts from the era describe him as a pretty unlikeable guy. This had nothing to do with his opinions of Jews.

            Calling Bach a Nazi is ridiculous, but Hitler and the Nazi leadership did indeed idolize him as a kind of Teutonic musical hero.

          3. Peter says:

            “To state that “there was no anti-Semitism before the mid-19th c.” seems like a bizarre semantic twist.”

            Not at all. It’s an important differentiation.
            Semitism and its antagonist anti-semitism, is an ethno-racial term. (and chosen badly, since Semites are actually mostly not Jews but Arabs, Jews being a minority among the bigger semitic ethnicity or language family)
            Judaism and its antagonist anti-judaic is referring to a religion and its related culture.

            These are very important distinctions. It was only in the 19th century that the transformation occurred from judaism describing a religious identity toward identifying as “semites” or voicing anti-jewish opinions as “anti-semitism”.

            The whole semantic trouble started, because Jews were looking for a new description for their identity in times of post-religious enlightenment, where the self was not primarily a religiously determined being anymore, but a secular subject. Race, as unjustified from a scientific POV it is since Jews are not a race, was one of their only two options for a new identity, zionism was its ideology. The other option was assimilation. Both options were discussed vividly in Jewish circles in the 19th century.

          4. Joe Q. says:

            “It was only in the 19th century that the transformation occurred from judaism describing a religious identity toward identifying as “semites” or voicing anti-jewish opinions as “anti-semitism”.”

            Yes, that’s when the term came into being. But the idea of Jewish people as some kind of evil or contaminating force, irrespective of religion, predates that by centuries.

          5. Peter says:

            I’m not so sure. Since Christian church over the centuries had the doctrine, that Jews could become members of society with full rights, if they converted, then that means it was very much and first of all about religion, and the general humanity of people of Jewish faith was not under question.
            It was only during the 19th century, when Jewish identity shifted from primarily religious toward folk-nationalistic ideas, that ethno-racial undertones, both in pro- and anti-judaic discourse, became mainstream.

  4. Itsjtime says:

    Agreed!!!! Love ya dear Norm…. but, Jesus, that’s the worst,most insipid and ridiculius headline I have ever heard of. Nazis in the 19th century?

    You are better than that 99% of the time. Take some time Norman and put some more thought into this.

  5. Itsjtime says:

    Shit, I didn’t mean Bach in the 19th century.
    Forgive me

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Well, that was the time JSB came into his own, gradually, and when he had the most influence on performance and composition.

  6. Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    “So was Bach an early Nazi?” – well done, Norman. You caught me with this headline, which – again – puts the infamous British Yellow Press to shame.

    The Communists who occupied East Germany from 1945 until November 9, 1989 claimed Johann Sebastian to be their forerunner: Bach was of their “Ur-Revolutionäre”.

    And now here you come, asking whether Bach was a Nazi. Come on, Norman, you are better than that most of the time, but here you sink too low.

    I applaud Franz Welser-Möst in convening learned and wise people to address the question of Bach’s Lutheran anti-semitism. Such undertaking is, as you rightly point out, long overdue (certainly here in the US).

    In addition, it is the appropriate thing to do in this year which happens to be the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s Wittenberg theses, which heralded the Reformation in Western Europe. Luther’s increasingly anti-Jewish stance has been and continues to be under intense scrutiny.

    My only regret is that maestro Welser-Möst has not invited a Lutheran biblical scholar who is known for his/her work on the Gospel of John (someone on the Cleveland Orchestra staff ought to have suggested this and would have no trouble finding a qualified person). I think it would behoove the laudable initiative to shed light on the various and complex backgrounds and theological emphases in John, as well as its influence in the course of history, if only to enrich and deepen the discussion

    After all is said, there remains Bach’s immortal music. Then silence.

    1. Wolfgang Amadeus Museart says:

      Welser-Möst and the “Clev[er]lands” are playing a very risky game. In case they find out that Bach was indeed an early Nazi then they have performed in March music by a Nazi composer. This would be indeed a big scandal! Probably better not to perform this music until we really know whether Bach was a Nazi or not.

      1. Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

        My dear Wolfgang Amadeus, according to the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the Angels in heaven, when in God’s presence, play Bach. Now, following your post, God would no longer be allowed to hear the music of a Nazi. Horrible! Yet, as Barth continues to say: when the Angels are among themselves, they play Mozart. Lucky you!! Maybe God sneaks in to listen… 🙂

        1. Sue says:

          And I presume “Franzi” has gone the full way with his Nazi conspiracy for poor old Bach; thugs, uniforms, conformity, world domination, eugenics…..that sort of thing. Anything less is NOT fascism.

        2. Wolfgang Amadeus Museart says:

          This is a typical Post-Truth Era “discussion”. People, not interested at all in historical “facts” are telling stupid things. It’s so absurd. At least they get their 15 seconds of doubful “fame” by posting fake news. Maybe I should boycott Welser-Möst and Slipped Disc ,-)

  7. Jorge Grundman says:

    The music can’t be anti-anything. Period. The words could be, but the music not. This is a lullaby https://youtu.be/N4kUalVW_Dk but the words not.

    But if you whisper it there are no words. Remember, music is an universal language.

  8. Peter says:

    Question:
    When someone refers to the German ‘Cherusker’ tribe who defeated the Roman army in the battle in the woods of Teutoburg in the year 9 A.D. as “Teutonic Hordes”, is that someone then guilty of Anti-Germanism?

    And is quite similar someone who composes music to a hateful ‘libretto, describing the historic events of people of Jewish confession crucifying his adored religious demigod and Messiah, at about the same time two thousand years ago, is that someone then Anti-Judaic? (or anti-semitic, academic linguistic precision aside)

  9. David Osborne says:

    There’s nothing wrong with seeing anti-semitism as being one and the same with Nazism. I don’t think too many thinking people would have a problem with that. Also, the phrase may not have been around at the time but Luther was definitely what we understand to be an anti-semite. It would indeed be more surprising if Bach was not.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      The concept of ‘antisemitism’ did not exist in the 17th – 18th century, as far as I know. To not like Jews at the time, who were not allowed to mix freely in society, who had to live in ghettos, and who wanted to remain separated and keeping to their own culture in the abstract – without a nation – was common a result of ignorance. Also the concept of ‘human rights’ was developed later in the 18th century, JSB only knew a hierarchical, feudal society and he was a religious Christian, so relating his work to later abberations seems truly unfair – like projecting backwards Hitler’s racist ‘enthusiasm’ into Wagner’s work. At most B must have thought merely: ‘Those stupid people who don’t want to accept the Messiah and don’t want to assimilate’…. like everybody else. But society was very different then. Do we still take offence at Catholicism and Protestantism because of the endless and entirely pointless wars in the 16th century?

      1. Daniel F. says:

        Well-said, JB. Good of you to inject some common sense and rationality into this shrill discussion. The issue came up in Boston in the early-mid 1960’s when Erich Leinsdorf programmed the St. John Passion. A Rabbi had more or less demanded publicly that the piece not be performed. Leinsdorf felt compelled to deliver a short address to the audience before the performance, the details of which I no longer remember, but I do recall the specific words of his justification for performing it: “It is one of the masterpieces of Western Culture.” That was a compelling enough reason for him, as it should be for us. Leinsdorf, of course, was Jewish, as were large segments of the BSO.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Thank you…. I did not know that Leinsdorf story, very interesting. But it is a fact that the darker hues of European civilization in the past also reflected, occasionally, upon its art, how could it be otherwise? We, in the ‘enlightened’ Trumpist era, have to peel away the crusts and protect the core of the inheritance from unfair critique and image damage, without brushing our shame under the carpet.

  10. Paul says:

    Yes, the headline here should definitely be changed. The word Nazi refers to Nationalsozialist or national socialist. And the oxford dictionary defines a Nazi as “A member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

    And the concept of German nationalism couldn’t have arrived until at least a century after Bach’s death: “Unification was achieved with the formation of the German Empire in 1871 under the leadership of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.”

    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/Nazi

  11. Neil van der Linden says:

    Isn’t the grudge against Jews in the St John Passion coming from the scripts, which, although it was predestined and it had to be fulfilled, designated the Jewish congregation, first the religious leaders and then incited by them the people, as responsible for the execution of Christ? (Although the Romans carried it out with a killing method of their own.) But maybe the libretto and the arias add a little to this indictment.
    At a Calvinist school where I went we were taught a poem by the 17th century Jacob Revius, proclaiming that ‘it weren’t the Jewish who killed you, Christ, but I (the common non-Jewish people of the world, or everybody)’, meanwhile leading to a quite anti-Jewish, maybe anti-Judaistic, rant….

    1. MWnyc says:

      “it weren’t the Jewish [sic] who killed you, Christ, but I (the common non-Jewish people of the world, or everybody)” – followed by “and yet you generously sacrificed yourself for me” is basically the sentiment of almost every bit of Bach’s Passions that isn’t a direct quote of the Gospels.

      Michael Marissen has been making this point for 20 years or so now. I guess there is always a new crop of people unfamiliar with the Gospels and/or Bach who need to be told this.

  12. Ungeheuer says:

    Don’t believe anyone has commented that Alex Ross wrote on this topic earlier this month, for The New Yorker.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/02/bachs-holy-dread

    1. Michael Endres says:

      Thank you for the link to that excellent article, which deals with all relevant questions.
      Now over to Bach…

    2. Daniel F. says:

      This is probably the single best piece the sometimes agenda-laden, self-indulgent Mr. Ross has written for The New Yorker. I hope he writes more pieces on this level.

  13. barry guerrero says:

    “There’s nothing wrong with seeing anti-semitism as being one and the same with Nazism”

    What brand of logic is that? If many people in America don’t like having Middle Eastern people about (I’ve liked many Middle Easterners I’ve known), does that mean they want to round them up and kill ’em? It’s greatly a question of degrees.

    If I’m personally not crazy about some Jews that I’ve known over the years – which has actually been the case – does that make me a nazi?

    1. barry guerrero says:

      Regardless, this is a case of looking at history in reverse. Issues between jews and gentiles in Europe were nothing new, were they?

  14. Scott in PA says:

    Creative geniuses are complex people. A trait many seem to share is a keenly discriminating attitude toward all sorts of things and people.

  15. John says:

    Michael Marissen is mentioned in Alex Ross’s excellent New Yorker article. I’m looking forward to reading his book.

    We know little about Bach’s personality or life beyond a few letters and some various documents. However the anti-semitism of the era is well known. Also worth considering is the Gospel of St. John itself, from which these themes were drawn by the librettist of Bach’s St. John. Pretty hard to do a treatment of St. John’s account and leave that out.

    Bach a nazi? Well, Hitler seemed to strongly prefer that fellow Wagner, now didn’t he.

    1. Peter says:

      There is no librettist of Bach’s St. John passion. There are numerous texts from different creators, all biblically inspired, who are put together in the work in a fashion, that suggests that Bach was primarily concerned with the music, the text having to comply with the musical structure.

  16. Robert Holmén says:

    The antisemitism Bach has in the St John Passion is the antisemitism in the Bible. It’s not like he just made it up because he wanted to add some antisemitism to the story.

  17. Sue says:

    Being opposed to Jews is neither fascism nor being a Nazi!! Typical hysterical over-reach of our day and age.

  18. Pianofortissimo says:

    The notably anti-Jewish passage in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, fervently sung by Chorus I & II in Part II (‘Sein Blut komme über uns und unsre Kinder’, or ‘Let His blood be on us and on our children’), is just a literal quotation of the Bible (Matt. 27:25: ‘Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children’). I want to point out another aspect: the anti-Jewish attitude of Martin Luther is opposed to the official position of the Catholic Church (not necessarily the position of all Catholics, especially in old times), for whom the Jews are to be saved (by conversion), not to be persecuted for killing Jesus (an old pray for the conversion of Jews is still in practice). It would be very interesting if in the announced public debate theology experts of Lutheran and Roman Catholic tradition would also participate.

    1. Peter says:

      This is not historically informed, since the catholics were the very worst in their persecution of Jews e.g. in Spain. Jews had been enjoying religious tolerance and prosperity under Islamic rule (!) until the Catholics conquered Spain and Sicily back from the Islamic rule and slaughtered, confiscated and expelled Jews and their properties in before unheard of ways.

      1. Pianofortissimo says:

        My comment is historically informed. The Spanish Inquisition card is as effective as the Nazi card in killing all possibility of intelligent discussion.

        1. Peter says:

          The historical events I’m talking about having nothing to do with the Spanish inquisition. Maybe you *should* check your knowledge of history.

      2. Pianofortissimo says:

        My comment concerns doctrine, not any deviant praxis that was current in some places at certain times. And I am quite convinced that without the participation of experts in Christian Theology the announced debate will be as meaningless as the conclusions are, I fear, predictable: J. S. Bach was a brain-dead, low-pigmented, proto-fascist, cisgender penis-bearer whose work should be subjected to deletive improvements if it is to be performed at all.

        1. Peter says:

          The relevance and truth of a doctrine is always and only in its practical implementation…

    2. Pianofortissimo says:

      I suspect that Franz Welser-Möst is going to use the panel discussion as a motivation to make cuts and text changes in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion. That would be awful. Wait and see.

      1. Stephen Owades says:

        The Cleveland performance will be of the John-Passion, not the Matthew. And it’s inconceivable that they would make cuts or changes as a result of this panel discussion. Here in Boston, several groups that have presented the John-Passion in recent years have convened such discussions, or engaged expert lecturers, to explore the anti-Jewish aspects of the text and the work. As a choral singer and great lover of Bach who is also Jewish, I have sung this work several times, and I end up believing that Bach’s use of chorales and aria texts to “universalized” the story helps to reduce the painful aspects of the John gospel text.

  19. Ian Sutton says:

    This is utterly ridiculous, and bad, inaccurate and sensationalist journalism — though no doubt intentional. Gimmee a break!
    Totally aside from any argument about whether Bach harboured anti-Semitic views, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party did not become an unfortunate reality until the 1930s, more than 180 years after JSB’s death. While I normally enjoy Mr. Lebrecht’s vivid reporting — accurate on all points or not — this again raises questions about its credibility.

  20. Anthony Martin says:

    The Chorale in the first part of the St. John Passion “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” setting two stanzas selected by Bach from Paul Gerhardt’s 1659 “O Welt, sieh hier den Leben”, asks “Who has so struck you, my Savior?” Those who focus on his accusers blame “the Jews” for Jesus’ martyrdom. That is the natural, the human way to react to injustice and cruelty: find an Other to blame, point the finger elsewhere, preferably at some more or less identifiable group. Sorrow at the fate of the victims is easily turned inside out into contempt and hatred for “Nazis”. But, as Pilatus asks, “What is truth?” Who is guilty? Only Nazis? or all Germans? Poles, too? Any willing collaborators? Unwilling collaborators?

    Bach’s answer is provided by the Chorale, the voice of the congregation: “I, I and my sins, numberless as the sands by the sea, have brought this misery and torment down on you.” Good Lutheran Christians acknowledge that they, too, are capable of evil.

  21. Gijs van der Meijden says:

    In an age where the most imbecile hyperbole has appeared to become de rigeur of ‘normal’ discussion and flinging around the most idiotic, even heinous, ‘conclusions’ which have not even the most ephemeral connection to factuality is just about the normal way of attracting attention (usually from that growing by the day crowd of people who seem to have switched what passes for brain for processing and sending on exactly that mind-numbing trash) this title even then stands at the far end reason. The mentioned ‘debate’ isn’t the only one (for those who read German: https://www.welt.de/kultur/article156553771/Warum-Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Antisemit-war.html )

    Bach a ‘Nazi’ because, possibly, the Jews are treated ‘anti-Semitic’ in his Passions? Well, since such texts as are in the Passions as pertain to the acts of the Jews during the Passion of Christ are all, literally, taken from the Bible, then one could conclude that anyone taking the Bible (or at least the New Testament) partly or wholly as guidance in his or her life is a Nazi also. That would thus include all Christians (by definition) and, considering how much of the Bible and Gospels actually found its way in the Quran, the Muslims too. And then there are those who are not Christians or Muslims but still hold to certain aspects of what is in the Gospels.

    If you would wish to condemn Bach as anti-Semitic, how much easier would such be if there was an anti-Jewish aria to be found anywhere in Bach’s oeuvre. Show me one; I won’t hold my breath! And even if Bach would have held negative feelings towards Jews in general, he would not have fallen out in his day, which was pretty anti-Semitic in general. Considering his talents, he easily could have written a thundering aria, if not a whole Cantata, on the subject of ‘Jesus being betrayed by the Jews’. There is none. In fact, the one Jew that, allegedly, did betray Jesus (Judas) gets one of the most moving arias by Bach: ‘Erbarme dich’, showing that Bach was quite capable of feelings of sorrow for what at the time was considered the greatest traitor of all time.

    Bach as the ‘hard-liner anti-Semitic’ Lutherane? Who composed a Catholic Mass in the hope to be employed by a Catholic king? Who had to switch between various shades of Protestantism whenever he switched jobs (and switched jobs never out of religious reasons). Who was apparently ‘free-thinking’ enough to write exquisite music for a homo-erotic aria? Was he an anti-Semite because he owned an anti-Jewish book? (He owned Johannes Müller‘s „Judaismus oder Jüdenthum. Das ist: Ausführlicher Bericht, von des jüdischen Volcks Unglauben, Blindheit u. Verstockung“). Does anyone wishing to read ‘Mein Kampf’ a Nazi? Or could it perhaps be that someone interested wished to know and understand what someone else had to say about something, without such interest meaning agreement? Indeed, what does it mean if they were Jewish books about ‘unbelief, blindness and stubbornness’ of non-Jews? Read Deuteronomy 13, especially from Verse 13 onward ( http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Deuteronomy-Chapter-13/ ); which is about as ‘Anti-non-Semitism’ as you can get. Are therefore Jews themselves Nazi’s? Could it be that such discussion themselves are polarising, generalising and, thus, Nazism? Or could they be hogwash, as one should judge anyone by his or her actions alone, and should try to understand someone within the times and situations he or she lived in, and then be very carefully to judge if you do not have all the facts (and we know very little from the life of Bach!).

    “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.” (Romans 14:13)
    “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24)
    “Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?” (Luke 12:47)
    “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Luke 7:1)

    What Bach did give humanity was an instrument of consolation, of hope, of spirit transcending everyday misery and sorrow (remember how many of his children Bach buried), of resolve in times of upheaval, of self-preservation no matter what is slung against you. In that, Bach is one of the (sadly few) human beings in history that might be an argument for humanity perhaps not being the greatest fault Nature ever provided. His music is perhaps closest to the spirit of the Beatudes. To slander his accomplishment, and his gift to so many people over so many years, perhaps that is Nazism; if not in definition, than in principle. Nazism is all about controversy, defining ‘good’ (me/us) against ‘bad’ (them). If I call Bach an anti-Semite, than I am not one, and thus better, and thus fit to rule. Not fit to be ruled, of course! Name-and-shame calling, gutter-journalism.

    I think Herr Welser-Möst’s ‘debate’ is more a signal of him still not having come to terms with the Nazism in his history than any sensible discussion about Bach and his music. Personally, I care far more for one bar of Bach’s eternal music than Herr Welser-Möst’s dubious ‘debate’.

    1. Gerhard says:

      I do appreciate your post very much. However, the ‘Judas’ aria is not “Erbarme Dich”, but “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”.

      1. Peter says:

        And that it took a long time for someone actually knowledgeable to point that out here, tells us everything we need to know about the quality of the “experts”, who are discussing nothing less than Bach’s undocumented inner convictions and beliefs here. Based on the fact that he quoted the bible in his works in the 18th century. Wow.

      2. Gijs van der Meijden says:

        Err, yes, of course! However, a bit lame perhaps, but you could state that the ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wider’ is about a sinner’s remorse, and the ‘Erbarme dich’ about a sinner’s plea for forgiveness. There are many inner connections (either intended as such by Bach, or perceived by a listener) within the Matthäus Passion!

        1. Gerhard says:

          Agreed, but the sinner in “Erbarme Dich” is Peter, who asks for God’s forgiveness. In “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” it is Judas trying to undo what he did and what can’t be undone anymore. Neither dramatically nor theologically quite the same. But you might be right nevertheless, because it seems rather conspicuous that Bach placed two arias of such different character yet both with an obligato violin in such close vicinity. Perhaps he wanted in fact to point out this parallel you mention by using a somewhat similar instrumentation.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      Good comment. And then, the bible is a rather random collection of religious writing, not a history book, and the new testament is a product of early Christianity and full of ideas and metaphors, not description of facts. The texts of the passions are literary interpretations of ancient religious texts. So, Bach’s passions are based upon literature, not historic, verified facts. They function as a skeleton for musical explorations of great beauty and depth, and that is the main thing, the music is not touched by the ignorance of the culture of its time of creation. Whatever things are in those texts that are unsympathetic to judaism, says nothing of pro- or antisemitism of Bach.

  22. David Boxwell says:

    Is every Baroque Passion setting, regardless of the composer, ipso facto anti-Semitic?

    (Oberammergau has had to wrestle with this question, too).

    1. John says:

      I’d have to go back to my Bible (which I haven’t opened in decades), but I think the St. John account is pretty notorious. Maybe somebody with better knowledge would correct me.

      Bach’s St. Matthew Passion libretto doesn’t have the same vitriol specifically aimed at the Jews. And of course those are the only passion settings Bach did.

      1. Gerhard says:

        Not really. There was at least one after St. Mark of which the music has been lost. A reconstruction has been attempted by matching the libretto to existing music. It is up to anyone’s guess how close to the original one can hope to get that way.

  23. luciano tanto says:

    nazi? christian, the real first jews hater.

    1. Peter says:

      Wasn’t Kain the first Jew hater and anti-semite actually? Academia is split. We demand answers, urgently.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        After ample consideration I came to the conclusion that this is not a silly comment, but of course I may be mistaken.

  24. luciano tanto says:

    Vatican: 18ths. centuries against judaism: Pius VI (1775) “Editto sopra gli ebrei”

    Clausula 1. L’Ebreo che passi una notte fuori del ghetto è condannato a morte.

  25. John says:

    There’s some downright nasty stuff in some of the cantatas that comprise the Chrismas Oratorio. I’d say much nastier than in the St. John.

    1. Gerhard says:

      For instance?

  26. herrera says:

    Bach was as anti-Judaic as Jesus was anti-Judaic.

    1. Peter says:

      Stop, or people in academia get even more silly ideas how to kill time while filling library shelves.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        There is no concrete evidence about the real existence of a person called Jesus Christ, so the academic threat seems not very big. The early idea of Christianity however, treated Judaism as not important since the Christian religion was open to all people from any background. Objecting to the Judaic idea of exclusivity seems hardly a form of antisemitism.

  27. Sue says:

    Franzie W-M was never the sharpest tool in the shed!!

    1. Stephen Owades says:

      Why does organizing a scholarly discussion of anti-Jewish aspects of the John-Passion in advance of a series of performances suggest to you that Mæstro Welser-Möst is not “the sharpest tool in the shed”? I’ve attended several such panels and lectures on this topic here in Boston, and they serve to help the lay audience gain a better understanding of the gospel text, Bach’s use of other texts for arias and chorales to soften and universalize the words of the gospel, and the attitudes of Lutherans in Bach’s time and of Bach himself toward Jews and Judaism. Sounds like a pretty smart idea to me! And it surely wasn’t Welser-Möst who used the word “Nazi”—that was Mr. Lebrecht’s clickbait coinage.

      1. Sue says:

        Because the discussion takes place WAY out of the context of Lutheran Protestantism and has nothing to do with the 21st century perception of Jews. I’m not sure what Franzie is trying to prove – that Austrians and Germans were following a certain line of thought in the 1930s? Anti-semitism has been a part of German life for centuries, but was at its height in the 19th century though, undoubtedly, part of the previous centuries as well. Brahms was anti-semitic; do we need to analyse his work for such content?

        Let’s stop thinking “victim” every day of the week and appreciate the music for its intrinsic beauty and, in the case of Bach, its biblical narrative. That’s my five cents’ worth.

  28. Stephen says:

    Perhaps we should consider the author of “TheMerchant of Venice” as a Nazi too?

    1. Peter says:

      Absolutely!!! And he actually invented and wrote those words, unlike Bach!
      It’s probably the safest to do away with all art from the past. You never know who created it with what potentially sinister intentions. We must be absolutely safe and politically correct.
      Mao Zedong has shown us the way how to do it!
      Long live MAO and the CULTURAL REVOLUTION!

      1. Neil van der Linden says:

        And long live the Gang of Four, who then even destroyed the legacy of Mao.


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