Year after year, all over the Netherlands, thousands flock to hear innumerable performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. This year 141 were programmed in concert halls and churches nation-wide. Unlikely mixed "congregations" of devout believers side by side with staunch atheists and all sorts of people come together to share a spiritual experience in words and music. The other night my wife sang in the Matthew Passion to a packed-out Concertgebouw, one of ten performances of Passions in that hall alone. The intensity of the shared atmosphere was palpable, apparently fulfilling a common need, regardless of convictions.
Recently, this phenomenon even made it onto a popular Dutch TV channel that nightly attracts 1.8 million viewers, with a talk-show host who is more accustomed to discussing trendy news items with cool guests with the tempo of a machine-gun. Now he was excitedly discussing Bach's highlights (as the only hour-long "news" item) with conductor Philippe Herreweghe, as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra played extracts. On a pop talk-show? The Passions are trending!
Opinions differ about the nature of what happens in the sharing of such music. Some sense a "divine presence", others see it as a pseudo-religious ritual or an alternative church service and yet more discover a rather different "high", swearing that their religion is simply Bach's irresistible music.
In his recent blog On an Overgrown Path, Bob Shingleton writes of the "experience of collective spirituality"... that is experienced in a Sufi ritual, the hadra and that may become an open creative event where a whole range of emotional behaviour is expressed. "A very good definition of Passion, as in Bach", Bob writes.
English-language cultures tend to prefer Handel's Messiah. What wrong with a booklet with a German-English translation of Bach' works? For me, the masterly way Bach combines text and music in this dramatic and moving fashion make the Matthew and John Passion supreme. Whether you believe or not, these are powerful accounts of human nature wrestling with life and death, weakness, hypocrisy, betrayal, guilt, mass hysteria, loss, supreme nobility in the face of torture and crucifixion. The way in which Bach gives us too a form to share all this personally in his Chorales, is brilliant.
(Above) Three kinetic images from Psalm 22 (Luc van Hove), painted live to the voices of the Flemish Radio Choir in 2005. "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") was the very human cry of
one who, in his dying moments, felt that his line to his Father
was severed. Perhaps instinctively, he was quoting the words of his ancestor David, the author of the Psalms. But they could be the words of any of us.
So what is it with Bach's Passion? Jessica Duchen expresses it perfectly in her blog JDCMB: "It offers music that cleanses the soul; even if you approach it as a drama rather than religion, it doesn't seem to mind, and will still work its wonders. It offers too, an oasis of calm, reflection and redemption, along with a massive dramatic catharsis that might be felt especially keenly by anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one."
One of my dreams is to create a performance of one of the Passions complemented by my flowing kinetic colours, painted live and projected all over the performers to intensify the emotional impact. Just as colours from stained glass windows spread over Cathedral performances long ago. I confess that part of my creative motivation is to "make my peace" (before I die) with my neglected Christian heritage. With Bach's help, I could finally discover a deeply felt harmony with my own unique creative performance art. I'm sure it can be done! I'm working on the idea.
I'm currently working hard on another very human story - a struggle between a soldier and "the devil": a reprise of my/Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat on June 17th. for the O/Modernt Festival in Stockholm. Watch this space.