What to Do When the Words Hurt

A Discussion with Christopher Leighton, Michael Marissen, and Tom Hall

Tom Hall hosts a monthly program on WYPR, the NPR affiliate in Baltimore, MD, called Choral Arts Classics. The March and April 2004 editions of Choral Arts Classics were devoted to the issue of religious intolerance and the Bach Passions. Using musical examples from the Choral Arts Society’s live performances of both the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, Christopher Leighton, Michael Marissen, and Tom Hall discuss some of the thorny issues that arise when we look at the gospels and Bach’s musical settings unstintingly. These broadcasts will amplify and further explain some of the points made in the text. The project also took form as the book The Bach Passions in Our Time: Contending with the Legacy of Antisemitism. 



In May, 1991, The Baltimore Choral Arts Society Chorus and Orchestra gave a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In conjunction with that performance, the Choral Arts Society collaborated with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies to present a symposium called What to Do When the Words Hurt: Religious Intolerance in Western Culture. It appears that this was the first such symposium of its kind. The Choral Arts Society and the ICJS teamed-up again in 2000 for a symposium and performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. We are pleased to note that now, many music organizations use their performances of the Bach Passions as an occasion to have a public discussion about religious intolerance, and that since the 1990s, these kinds of events are now common at many performances of both Bach Passions.

The conversations on these two Choral Arts Classics programs took place in the context of Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, which had been released in February, 2004. The April, 2004 broadcast includes, for example, a discussion about Pontius Pilate, and how the historical record squares with the depiction of Pilate in Mr. Gibson’s film. The release of the movie thrust many of these issues to the forefront of public consideration.

Each broadcast considers issues in both the Matthew and John Passions, with extensive musical examples. What was Bach saying when he set certain passages of Gospel and Commentary in particular ways? Was Bach an anti-Semite? Should the Bach Passions be taken out of the repertoire of choruses and orchestras? What is the difference between the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion? What responsibility do people of different faith traditions have to each other to respect and acknowledge the stories and history of each tradition? These are some of the questions that Leighton, Marissen, and Hall explore in these unique broadcasts.