On a gay couple’s wedding cake and Bach’s antisemitism

On a gay couple’s wedding cake and Bach’s antisemitism


norman lebrecht

June 05, 2018

Some reflections from period ensemble maestro Joel Cohen:

As my Twitter feed erupts into a chorus of groans and moans about a newly handed-down Supreme Court decision, I find myself thinking distinctly minority, and surely unpopular thoughts, at least as regards those tweets coming from the left, which I consider my
political/ideological home. (My musical home is with Mozart, and Billie Holiday, just in case you are curious).

Putting Mozart and Billie aside, this was, as we most all know by now, the case of the Colorado artisan-baker who refused, on religious grounds, to custom-design and bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. As I understand the story, he offered to sell them a ready-made cake; it was the idea of creating a special one that provoked his demurral.

Most of the comments I read online this afternoon considers the ruling, though on narrow grounds, as a sort of victory for the right, and for the religiously bigoted, and as a gay-rights issue, incorrectly decided. So why do I think that such a view is wrong? Why do I think that the baker, narrow minded as he may be, needed to be protected in his refusal to act?

It has to do with my profound belief, not, as it would appear, so widely shared on the left side of the Twittersphere, that

a. custom designing a cake is an act of artistic creation/expression, and that
b. artistic expression is a form of speech, and that freedom of speech is constitutionally protected under
our system, and that nothing in the American system means anything without that bedrock protection.

In support of my view, I would like to tell a parable, lightly fictionalized, loosely based on an actual event that took place some years back in a community not unlike our own. Once upon a time, in the city of Fèveville, the Beantown Baroque, a correctly-pitched-at-415 chamber orchestra, decided to give a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, transcendental choruses, antisemitic bits, and all. It was a big deal. Primo Posner, the gifted concertmaster, and a most scrupulous scholar/performer, read the entire Gospel narration just before rehearsals began, and discovered that his idol, J.S. Bach, had willingly set some passages that cast the Jewish people, his people, in a most unfriendly light, imputing to them a collective guilt for the death of mankind’s Savior. Primo was shocked, upset and conflicted. He passed a nearly-sleepless night, trying to decide what to do.

Did Primo then resign from the first chair, refusing to perform such a flawed masterpiece? It would have been easier for my parable had he done so, but instead (and how wonderfully Jewish) he wrote an anguished essay about the issue, seeing to it that the Beantown concertgoers had a chance to receive an offprint of his thoughts prior to entering the hall and attending the concert. They could then read the essay, and get all conflicted themselves about the pleasure they were deriving from the sublime music.

I compare Primo Posner, nonetheless, to the no-can-do baker in Colorado. Both are artisans in the world of the arts, and both are conscious, as we all should be, of a moral/spiritual underpinning to the work they do. Maybe, like Primo, the baker should have accepted the commission, and then written a dissenting essay.

But in any case one cannot, in my view, coerce artistic expression from someone who believes that his or her moral or ethical principles are being violated. Defending the integrity of the arts and of artists is not, seemingly, at the top of most peoples’ priority list these days. But it should be, along with many other grave issues that are more clearly played out in the news of the day.

Your thoughts?


  • Olassus says:

    This has zero to do with “classical music and related cultures.”

    • Mike Schachter says:

      I thought Bach had quite a lot to do with classical music?

    • John Kelly says:

      Agreed, the analogy to the Bach story is contrived to enable publication of a position on a legal case on SD. I could write about the World Cup and mention Shostakovitch would be supporting Russia I suppose.

      Needless to say, the opinion of the Supreme Court was as it was, and all the amateur judges in the world can have at it, but if they read the paper they’ll see what the court decided…..

    • Bruce says:

      It’s Norman’s blog and he can post what he liked on it.

    • Lee says:

      Puts one in mind of the BSO/Redgrave/Oedius Rex/Yasir Arafat fiasco in which the final judgement compelled the BSO to pay Redgrave $27,000 for not performing but awarded no punitive damages for the cancellation, nor did it compel the BSO to put on the show or to advance Redgrave’s speech


  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Just wonder what J.S. Bach would think about that wedding cake.

    • JoBe says:

      He would have said “Friede, Mann”.

    • collin says:

      The question is, what’d Bach think of wedding cakes, period. Wedding cakes are a recent Anglo-American tradition. No other European culture has them.

      And towering wedding cakes with figurines on top are inherently abominations and sins against nature and all married couples who have/had them are destined to hell.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That was what my (German) mother thought, I have always been fearful of marriage, the prospect of a place where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth did not quite appeal to me. That’s why I have never married.


      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Bad Point, Collin, you are just avoiding the question (of course that’s a quite absurd question, but Mr Cohen’s reflections were not that clear, I think).

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I’d love to know which book of the Bible deals with cake decoration.

    • Doug says:

      Which part of the Bill of Rights allows government to coerce a citizen to act against his religious (or non-religioys) beliefs? I’m certain you’re from the Trump is literally Hitler crowd. What if the government were suddenly compel you to fly the American flag at your place of work?

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Verse 7:2 in some of the Biblical apocrypha. Or maybe was not in the scriptures but in a writing by teologen Scotus, I’m not sure.

      • John Borstlap says:

        It was Saint Hilarius (? – 468 AD) who got famous for his suppression of heretics and his prohibition of big wedding cakes with the pair on top, because he fought for the supremacy of the pope. This measure led to troubles in Gaul and Aquitaine where newly-weds refused to put a little effigy of the pope on top. In northern Italy, a majority of the faithful rolled over the ground of laughter because of the stories coming from Gaul, and to compensate for this humiliation Hilarius was eventually nominated a saint.

        • Jerome Hoberman says:

          But the angry mobs who slaughtered Jews in pogroms didn’t slaughter them because their victims were gravely mistaken, but because they were Jews — their supposed actions in New-Testament days were merely a pretext. Yet the Gospel story provided cover, and in doing so became complicit.

          • Jerome Hoberman says:

            Oops — this comment’s proper place is a bit further down the thread…

          • John Borstlap says:

            Yes – an example of grave misuse. Antisemitism is a very dark pool.

  • collin says:

    Musicians should refrain from free lance legal reasoning, for the same reason that Justices Scalia and Ginsburg of the Supreme Court were invited to appear in operas as extras but never as singers: It’s embarrassing to listen to untrained amateurs.

    • Michael says:

      I think Mr. Lebrecht was making more of a policy argument than a legal one. Surely we’re all allowed to have our opinion on policy.

  • buxtehude says:

    I think the OP makes a solid point about the Court decision. Is it, or will it be relevant to the classical business? Possibly.

    Why does J Kelly think that Court decisions are beneath, or above, discussion?

    • John Kelly says:

      Because it doesn’t relate to music. My point is that if this blog becomes a free for all write/post what you like about anything then most folks will just abandon ship. It’s about what the PURPOSE of the blog is – “Classical Music and related cultures.” Football is not a related culture in my opinion, likewise decisions by the Supreme Court of the US on pretty much anything that is non-music or Arts related (if it was about NEA funding it would be related) – this author’s contention that being a baker of cakes makes you an artist in a related culture is pushing it in my view. We could equally discuss the Great British Baking Show…………..

  • Mark says:

    Actually, the Supreme Court disposed of the case on narrow grounds, noting that the Colorado Civil Rights commission violated the 1st Amendment by making expressly anti-religious arguments in its ruling. The Court did not create a far-reaching precedent here, and that’s why the decision is 7-2 (and not the usual 5-4).

    Re: Bach – some scholars (Michael Morissen, for example) contend while using Barthold Brockes’s libretto, Bach refrained from borrowing any of its non-gospel passages that depicted the Jews in the most hostile light. Instead, the passages he added place the blame for Jesus’s death on the sins of all of humanity.

    • buxtehude says:

      They took an easy route. But the headline (for now) is that they let that baker off. And the case raises the topic which the OP wanted to address.

      • Mark says:

        Chief Justice Roberts is something of a minimalist – he tries to steer the court away from the broad and far-reaching precedential rulings (whenever possible)

    • Jack says:

      That’s good enough for me. Marissen’s books, “Bach and God” and “Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah:The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work”, are both scholarly works and are pretty unsparing in their discussion around this topic.

  • Phillip says:

    “Bach’s antisemitism”? Are you/was Primo dense or what? Bach merely set what is in the Gospel according to St. John. Why should he omit what the angry mob said to Pilate? What a load of nonsense. Primo sounds like a hand-wringing, whiny, insufferable neurotic. Much like Mahler.

    • buxtehude says:

      And he set those words very powerfully, giving us the Lutheran POV on this topic full blast.

      The same kind of argument has been made about The Merchant of Venice — that S’s plot and especially the ending reveal nothing about his own POV, rather that he was setting a bad Jew against bad Christians. I dunno.

      • buxtehude says:

        What I’m thinking of is this:


        The name of John Eliot Gardiner’s great Monteverdi Choir suggests what could he his operating slogan: “Connect with the text!” Mark Padmore’s Evangelist certainly does that.

        As to Bach, let me say that I revere him with the best of you.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Exactly. And then, the angry mob who accused Jesus were not bad people because they were Jews, but because they were gravely mistaken. Whatever their motivation it has nothing to do with being Jewish. in the same way a Jewish burglar is not burgling because he is a Jew but because he is a burgler. Communists with red hair are not communists because of their hair colour.

      • Jerome Hoberman says:

        But the angry mobs who slaughtered Jews in pogroms didn’t slaughter them because their victims were gravely mistaken, but because they were Jews — their supposed actions in New-Testament days were merely a pretext. Yet the Gospel story provided cover, and in doing so became complicit.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Indeed. And that is, thus, another thing.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Huh? You can hardly blame the Gospel text for the fact the text was abused at some later date. The Gospel text was written by someone who considered himself Jewish. In fact, the whole of the New Testament was written by Jews; the early followers of Jesus spent their time going to the synagogue trying to persuade their fellow Jews to accept his message (whether non-Jews should be accepted into the Christian community was something they debated intensely during very early Christianity). It was only in the early second century that the mainstream followers of Jesus separated themselves from the Jewish community, and non-Jews came to dominate the Christian community. Those texts attributed to John, including the John Gospel, were written before the two communities had clearly separated.

          Bach was setting the text to music.

  • Dennis says:

    “imputing to them a collective guilt for the death of mankind’s Savior. Primo was shocked”. This is, of course, shallow and sloppy biblical exegesis. The problem of modern, Protestant-derived notions that every man is his own biblical scholar/theologian and doesn’t need the guidance of the magisterium. Nothing is John or in what the Church has taught through the ages imputes “collective guilt” on a particularly ethnic group through the ages (except insofar as all of us humans – Jews, gentiles, everyone – are deemd sinners who are all “guilty” for Christs crucifixion).

    As for the cake baker case, the only guiding principle should be the First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion (that the court didn’t decide it on such grounds is disturbing, as are Kennedy asides that the “worth and dignity” of homosexuals, their feelings, and other such amorphous notions should actually trump genuine first amendment constitutional rights had it been decided on substantive constitutional grounds rather than a narrow procedural one). Freedom of religion is indeed in grave threat in this country, because the Left wont rest until everyone is forced to support its socio-sexual agenda.

    There are any number of bakers this homosexual couple could have gone too (or they could have decorated a cake themselves). This particular baker was also clearly singled out because they new he would refuse (this same baker also refuses to make Halloween cakes by the way, deeming that holiday Satanic), and they and their activist enablers wanted to create a test case.

    • Joel Cohen says:

      We are veering off topic, but I wish to respond to this claim: “Nothing is John or in what the Church has taught through the ages imputes “collective guilt” on a particularly ethnic group through the ages”

      My rebuttal to this is brief, from the Gospel of Matthew: “24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.
      “25 Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”

      But in this forum, I am more interested in the core question of the essay, namely the freedom of artistic speech, and its non-coercibility.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Um…Matthew considered himself to be a Jew. Your reading of the text (e.g. your interpretation) is incorrect. The message is that Jesus, innocent of sin, died to wash away the sins of all mankind. Whether you believe this message or not, doesn’t change what was being claimed in the text. Matthew, a Jew preaching to other Jews, is saying that Christ died for us, even despite the fact we have forsaken him. Even Peter condemned Christ (as did Paul), but everyone can hope for salvation if they accept Christ (“justification by faith”).

        It was only much later, when the Christian community had separated from the Jewish community, when some people used the text to condemn the Jews (and medieval anti-Jewish pogroms are much later still). But this wasn’t what was meant when the text was written and it wasn’t part of the early Jesus community.

  • Tom Moore says:

    No discussion here of the substantive research into the anti-semitic character of the the Lutheran Church in Germany contemporary with Bach and Telemann. Prof. Jeanne Swack (U of Wisconsin) has done considerable work in this area.

    Anti-Semitism at the Opera: The Portrayal of Jews in the “Singspiels” of Reinhard Keiser
    Jeanne Swack
    The Musical Quarterly
    Vol. 84, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 389-416

    her presentation at the AMS (2014):Jeanne Swack (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “‘A Curse and Abomination
    to God and Men’: Erdmann Neumeister’s Anti-Jewish Writings in
    the Context of Early Eighteenth-Century Hamburg”

  • DAVID says:

    He felt he should not be forced to lend his talents to celebrating something that violated his religious principles.

    As a Jew, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

    He told them he would bake and decorate any other kind of celebratory cake for them (birthday, job promotion, etc). Just not a wedding cake.

    • Scotty says:

      The oft-cited extension of which is whether a baker who believes that miscegenation is a sin can legally refuse to design a cake for a mixed-race couple. Does sexual orientation merit the same protections as ethnic origin and race? If Woolworth’s lunch counter can be compelled to seat African-Americans, must it seat Gay-Americans? Do religious-based prejudices deserve protection that generic prejudices are denied?

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Hello, Scotty, the question ca become complex in specific cases, but I think you want to nuance too much – all lunch counters are compelled to seat, say, African-Americans or other identity-groups – but no lunch counter is not to be obliged by law to serve, say, dog meat because some client for whom it is culturally permissible demands it. As for just that wedding cake: why would the gay pair and their guests want to eat a cake made by someone who is deeply convinced that they are evil? – it’s not only destructive activism, it’s dumb too, or at least a lack of the most elementary common sense.

    • Chilynne says:

      As noted, the baker also refused to do Halloween (inter alia?) cakes. Surely, the forgone revenue from those must have greatly exceeded that from same-sex wedding cakes. Not for bigotry but equally not for trying to put someone out of business for something that cannot have caused much harm. Apparently, those wanting Halloween cakes were able to find what they wanted elsewhere or, failing that, weren’t inclined to take the baker to court. As to Bach, the music is what’s important. That said, I find the St. John passion very hard to listen to in places.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Yes, David, you are quite right: Two people tried to force a third person to act against his or hers deep convictions. Moreover, they wanted to make a law of it, they demanded an unreasonably violent action of the State against a third person’s deep convictions. It does not matter what is their driving motive. I am surprised that two Justices in SCOTUS voted for it.

  • Sharon says:

    There is a difference between refusing to do something for people because of who they are as opposed to what they do. The baker was not refusing to sell a cake to the gay couple because of their sexual orientation. For ex. he would have sold a birthday cake; he was refusing to sell a cake that would have been part of the ritual of their getting married.

    As a nurse who believes that a fetus, indeed an embryo, is a person, I would be unwilling to assist in an abortion or even refer for one. I even have serious qualms about giving long acting contraceptive injections which act by changing the uterine environment preventing embryos from implanting and thus killing them. The law gives me the right to continue to practice as a nurse and follow my moral beliefs, as well it should.

    A year ago there was a controversy at the Met over the “Death of Klinghoffer” which portrayed terrorists sympathetically. There WAS a little bit of a disclaimer in the program by printing a letter by Klinghoffer’s daughters objecting to the sympathetic treatment. Should those artists, house musicians, choristers etc. who believe that the opera was rationalizing or excusing political violence and that political violence against civilians is wrong have a right not to participate? I believe that they should have that right.