As part of Lenten and Holy Week observances, many listen to Bach’s St. Matthew or St. John Passion cantatas. If you don’t own recordings, you can easily find them on Spotify or Youtube. Because of this tradition, we thought it might be interesting to get an insider’s perspective, a musician who has played both cantatas. Fiona Hughes is professional baroque violinist who plays in many early music ensembles, including the Handel and Haydn Society and the Washington Bach Consort. She is also the founder and co-director of Three Notch’d Road. Fiona attends All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA.
When and where have you played the St. Matthew and St. John Passions?
As a violinist, I have performed Bach’s Passions 10-15 times because I specialize in early music of the baroque era. I have performed the Passions in various locations on the East Coast: Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Oberlin College in Ohio, Staunton Music Festival in Virginia, National Presbyterian in Washington DC, and most recently (yesterday in fact) with the Handel + Haydn Society in Boston’s Symphony Hall, led by Sir Harry Christophers. Though my performances with H+H rank as the highest quality of musical brilliance thanks to the leadership and soloists Christophers brings about, I would say without exception that performances in a church—preferably a high roofed stone structure—are more meaningful than even the most acoustically perfect orchestral hall. As a musician, I am aware that the embodied nature of making music is a privilege, and I count myself fortunate to know Bach’s Passions as well as one does when performing frequently. The trade-off is that, during these spiritually rich performances, I am often mentally distracted by concerns of ensemble, accidentals, balance, not to mention following the conductor’s changing musical interpretation. I also don’t know German well enough to follow the meaning as easily as Handel’s “Messiah” (which Handel composed to be sung in English.) So I do not have the luxury to follow the text of the Bach Passion the way listeners can with translation in hand.
Are most of the other musicians you play with Christians? If not, what do you think attracts them to early music, perhaps Bach in particular?
As an Christian of historical, orthodox, liturgical, Anglican persuasion, I am intensely aware of how fortunate I am to be involved in this rich musical expression of Christianity. My colleagues who specialize in early music tend to study and perform a great deal of sacred music, since this is the majority of most early composers’ output. Bach’s cantatas and oratorios for example he most likely considered his greatest work. Musicians who have lived on Bach for decades might eventually have enough of performing the Brandenburg concerti, but they will tell me it’s the depth and richness of his cantatas—his magnificently rich cantatas—that they never tire of.
With this in mind, it might surprise the audiences to know that most of the musicians onstage think the Bible is an unfortunate example of historical nonsense. I occasionally get the sense that they would like it to be true—they would like to believe there is a meaning as beautiful as the music declares it is. The culture we live in has stifled the imagination of beauty, and unless directly corrected by the Church, even to those intimately aware of sacred Christian music, the truth of Christianity is neither beautiful nor true nor good. Evangelical Christians, take note: more musicians might see the continuity between music’s Beauty, the Church’s Truth, and God’s goodness if fewer churches allow their music to spiral downward into mind-numbing, self-referential cotton candy– even if the teaching itself is true.
Many theologians and musicians consider the music of Bach to be the apex of Christian theology in sound. For example, in The Beauty of the Infinite David Bentley Hart considers Bach to be “the greatest of Christian theologians, the most inspired witness to the ordo amoris in the fabric of being.” He believes that “Bach’s is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation.” How would you say that playing the music of Bach has shaped your imagination in terms of a vision of God and creation?
What a great question. I would open Hart’s quote up to include composers other than Bach, as he certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. Give Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu Nostri” a listen, for example. Without getting into the theory of music, I would attempt a summary of music’s potential as follows: music can bypass our intellect and speak directly to our will via our emotions. God’s nature has many attributes, and a composer such as Bach is able to impart them all through music in a variety of ways—sometimes simultaneously, with different instruments or voices taking on a variety of roles.
How would you encourage families to incorporate early music into their homes (especially if they are not accustomed to listening to this kind of music)?
I highly recommend attending a live performance to kick off your self-education in great music. Watching real musicians laboring away at their instruments, singers breathing the same air you do, helps impart the reality of what is involved in the making of this high art form. Children are sometimes more able to listen and comprehend with the visual aid of puffing wind players and “sawing” bow arms. Who knows, you might even get lucky and attend a performance of St. John or Matthew in which a real, live, viola da gamba player is participating.
And if you can sing and read music, join a community group that is performing it!
If you can’t get to a live version, I recommend versions with Philippe Herreweghe, Masaaki Suzuki, Harry Christophers, or Paul McCreesh at the helm
Is there anything in particular that we should keep in mind as we approach listening to St. Matthew and St. John Passion this Passiontide?
Last week at our concert’s introductory lecture by Robin A. Leaver and Christoph Wolff, I learned more about the historical context in which these pieces were first performed. After 39 days of musical fasting, these Passions would have felt like an explosion of instruments, colors, timbres for Vespers on Good Friday. The Lutherans of Bach’s day, as well as the majority of Christendom throughout history, did not use musical instruments at all during Lent—sung masses only—and suddenly this gloriously colorful musical feast was sprung on the darkest day of Lent. Fr. Glenn, the rector of my church (All Saints Anglican in Charlottesville, VA) has taught us that there is an element of feast—yes, feast!—in Maundy Thursday as the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Thus the darkest story the world has ever heard, the moment of Satan’s seeming triumph, becomes the moment of Christ’s Kingship as he is raised up before humanity. In the opening of Bach’s Passion according to St. John, the violins’ circular note pattern represents the crown of thorns. The oboes in tense, fateful suspension spell all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in the first few moments, and the voices are ushered in with this great acclamation:
Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
Zu aller Zeit,
Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
Verherrlicht worden bist!
In every land is glorious!
Show us, through Your passion,
That You, the true Son of God,
Through all time,
Even in the greatest humiliation,
Have become transfigured!