Bach Festival Brings Emotion

The eighth annual Middlebury Bach Festival included the composer’s musical interpretation of the Passion of the Christ.

Brett Simison

The eighth annual Middlebury Bach Festival included the composer’s musical interpretation of the Passion of the Christ.


Students, faculty, staff, and residents from across Middlebury converged at the Mahaney Center for the Arts last weekend to listen to a 2000-year-old Bible story sung in German to music written 300 years ago. This was the pinnacle of the eighth annual Middlebury Bach Festival. For three days, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was played across the town of Middlebury, from the Mead Chapel Carillon to the Robinson Concert Hall to the four different churches across town that included selections from Bach’s prolific repertoire of church music in their Sunday morning services.

The central event of the weekend’s festivities was the performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. This piece, originally written for the early April 1724 celebration of Good Friday in Leipzig, places the biblical account of the Passion of Jesus Christ in a dramatic musical setting. The two hour oratorio passion is indeed a mighty and emotional tour de force of musical and religious emotion. It was just the piece to celebrate the passionate, awesome music of Bach.

Yet the question remains, why Bach? What about 300 year old German religious music is important to celebrate in 2018 at a secular American college town?

“A lot of what we hear today (yes, even trap [rap]) has origins in Baroque music like Bach’s,” said Middlebury Choir member Spencer Royston ’21 in response to that question. “For us performers, Bach has been an incredible opportunity to stretch our sight reading abilities… as well as hitting those German consonants with oomph”

Yet perhaps the best way to answer this question is with the music itself.

St. John’s Passion starts uneasily. Immediately a turbulent sea of strings and dissonant woodwind calls wavers back and forth, setting the stage for the violent drama to come. “Herr!” The choir shouts, launching into their dark, dynamic first chorale. “Show us, through Your passion, That You… have become transfigured!” Thus they ask, almost demandingly, to learn the religious lessons of the Passion of Christ.

Far from the classical stereotypes one might find in Baby Einstein videos or while on hold with tech support, Bach grabs the audience by the collar and demands their attention. The tense energy flows from the stage, inundating the audience in the drama. “This is important!” Bach’s music seems to be saying.

Bach never lets go. Even at the end of this first chorale, when the music gets gentler and John the Evangelist-Narrator starts reciting the story, the drama stays just as sharp, if not as overwhelming, as before. In part this is thanks to the frequent interjections of the choir and orchestra to underline the most important lines. Yet in large part this effect appears through the craftsmanship of the soloists themselves, including Middlebury student Tevan Goldberg ’18 and alumnus Jack Desbois ’15.5. Although not technically acting, the soloists fully embody their roles, making the story painfully real. The sorrow and grief of the betrayed Christ could almost be seen in Desbois’s eyes.

The ability of all the performers, as well as Bach himself, to pull the audience into the story makes the climax, the death of Jesus, all the more emotional. Reaching this point that the music had been building to since that opening chorale, Desbois, as Jesus, declares, “Es ist vollbracht!” It is finished! A mournful aria on that same theme follows. The emotion here is no less moving than it was at that first performance in 1724.

In fact, experiencing Bach’s oratorio passion today is not so different than it might have been back in Bach’s day. Listeners then, as is true of many listeners now, had no great familiarity with the idea of an oratorio passion. The oratorio passion as a genre, first created only two years before Bach’s St. John’s Passion, combined the religious message and undertones of church music with the narrative and musical style of opera music. The result was music that combined both the emotional importance of religion with the emotional impact of masterfully crafted secular music and narrative. Before motion pictures, the widespread acceptance of popular novels, or even modern concerts, this was about the most emotional experience yet created in its time. Its legacy lives on, not just in performances of old religious oratorio passions, but also in modern concerts and art as well. As last weekend’s guest conductor and University of Glasgow professor John Butt explains, “There is a religious aura about [modern] concerts in general.”

It certainly seems true that there is a transcendent, perhaps even spiritual, quality that people enjoy about any concert (or art in general) once they feel adequately swept away from the cares of the world. After all, why does anyone go to a concert if not, in part, to escape their quotidian reality and get a taste of something more? Bach’s St. John’s Passion is at the crossroads, then, between literally spiritual music and the secular escapism we enjoy in music today.

In the end, perhaps that is why we still celebrate Bach, 300 years later.

“Listening to [Bach’s Passion] brings people an overwhelming sense of awe,” Royston said. This comes to a peak at the ultimate chorale, Royston’s favorite. “The majority of the piece is turbulent and intense, but at the very end with the crucifixion of Christ we hear sweet redemption in the music. Bach is reminding us that things get hard, but it all turns out in the end.”

While we may not all be celebrating the Passion of Christ as Bach’s original audience was, it is just as good a time as ever to remember that there is more to life than our end-of-year struggles and that we too shall come through our trials triumphant in the end.

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Bach Festival Brings Emotion