Power of Music

April 9, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And now the power of the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston reports.

PAUL SOLMAN: As much of the world focused on religious and ethnic hatred this holy season, they were tuning up peacefully at Emmanuel Church, the 19th-century Episcopal sanctum built for Boston’s blue bloods. As usual, Sunday Mass would end with a Bach cantata. (music in background) This is music with a timely, timeless story, the bass line marking Jesus’s step as he treks to Jerusalem for the Passover Seder that will be his Last Supper. The opening duet is an argument about that trek, as Pam Dellal explains.

PAM DELLAL: Jesus is saying, “We go to Jerusalem,” and then the alto soloist says, “Don’t go!” (music in background) “Ach, gehe nicht.” “Don’t go. They’re already preparing the bonds and the whips and the cross for you.”

PAUL SOLMAN: The 200 surviving cantatas of Johannes Sebastian Bach, of the 300 or so he wrote, have anchored Emmanuel for 28 years now. And the music may be why you’re welcome here, wherever you are on your spiritual journey — Protestants of all stripes and Catholics, says the Anglican priest, Bill Wallace -

BILL WALLACE: But I would say 30 percent of the people have done away with any particular religious orientation, and some of those people are our more spiritually alive and spiritually hungry people.

PAUL SOLMAN: To the priest of this parish, both religion and music are spiritual journeys undertaken in community with others. And why have these parishioners joined the journey? Peter Johnson, who first sat in the back for the music, wound up heading Emmanuel’s vestry.

PETER JOHNSON: For me, hearing Bach for 20 years helps me a little bit understand a kind of universe that he created where God is. God exists in his music, and it’s the sort of physical made spiritual.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bernard Greenberg also comes every week. He has a rather different take on Emmanuel.

BERNARD GREENBERG: I’m a very firm atheist. I don’t believe in gods, devils, heavens, hells, saviors, chosen people, torahs, or horas. I do believe in humanity and thought and the power of reason and truth and beauty. And for me, Bach is truth and beauty.

PAUL SOLMAN: Emmanuel Church has been drawing against-the-grain types since abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe came here in the 1860’s. The most notable parishioner these days may be chaired Harvard Sociologist and McArthur Genius Grantee Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, whose family, which includes several priests, is steeped in the Episcopal service.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I love the simplicity of that, the ritual of that, the ceremony of that, the beauty of that, the strictness of that, the purity of that in the way I love all of that in Bach, and it is that conversation between the liturgy and the music that I find so deeply compelling.

CRAIG SMITH: Okay. What’s going to happen, we’re going to start with -

PAUL SOLMAN: The man behind the music, Craig Smith, started here as a scruffy student in 1970. Emmanuel Music is now a world-class ensemble, almost all of whose members belong to the church and, of course, to Bach.

CRAIG SMITH: What an incredibly elaborate web of meaning Bach religious pieces have. I mean, they are not just the words that are sung, but they presume knowledge of certain biblical passages which are not necessarily actually spoken in the cantata. They also presume a certain musical knowledge. Certain hymn tunes appear that everyone would have known.

PAUL SOLMAN: Smith also performs larger works. This season’s centerpiece: Bach’s “St. John Passion,” in which John the Evangelist recites the story of Christ’s death. (music in background) Occasionally, Jesus, Himself, speaks. (music in background) The chorus plays several roles. It’s a crowd of soldiers, citizens of Jerusalem, here of the high priests.

SINGERS: Kreuzige ihn!

PAUL SOLMAN: “Kreuzige ihn,” they scream: “Crucify him.” But often the chorus is the flock, singing very familiar hymns in very complex harmonies. (music in background) Finally, there are solo arias, which react with feeling to the story.

CRAIG SMITH: No, no, no. You can’t put an echo in there, and it needs less vibrato, please, and really icy cold. Icy cold, please.

PAUL SOLMAN: No words yet, but Smith is already interpreting.

CRAIG SMITH: Really forthright. One, two. (Flute playing) (singer in background)

PAUL SOLMAN: Smith’s interpretations aren’t necessarily gospel, but the deeper you dig into Bach’s spiritual music, the more deeply spiritual it can become, as when John says the disciple Peter cried after realizing he’d denied Christ. In German, “cried” is weinete. (singer in background)

CRAIG SMITH: That sort of sighing, crying, you know, shrieking kind of crying, “what in the world have I done?”

PAUL SOLMAN: If some of Bach’s effects are unambiguous, so are the problems with some of his texts. In St. John, Jews are frighteningly, for those who have heard Nazi German, “die Juden.”

CRAIG SMITH: The problem is with most of the biblical stuff, not specifics, but a tone of them versus us, that is — that is really wrong. It’s not only anti-Semitism; there are these dreadful things about the Turks in the cantatas, but, you know, we don’t need to go after the Turks in Boston.

PAUL SOLMAN: But if religion can divide, it can also bring together. That’s why Bach has been performed at Emanuel all these years, and why the story of Christ’s sacrifice for all of humanity may strike so resonant a chord.

FEMALE SINGER: Es ist vollbracht -

PAUL SOLMAN: Christ has died to complete his mission, so es ist Vollbracht, meaning “It is fulfilled.” (Pam Dellal singing) This may be the key moment in Christianity, sung achingly by longtime Emmanuelite Pam Dellal. But her deepest faith is not so much in the Bible as in Bach.

PAM DELLAL: If I’m singing, then what I’m doing is I’m delivering Bach’s perspective of this, and his love or his emotion. (singing)

PAUL SOLMAN: To Reverend Wallace, the essence of religion is the community of all souls; the danger of religion, that devotion can lead to exclusivity despite Christ’s message of universal love.

BILL WALLACE: To say the word “Christian” immediately sets you apart and defines you, and oftentimes in not some — in some not good ways. And you can take that kind of religious rigidity, and it’s a slippery slope, you know. It will slide right down into Kosovo. I mean, it’s — how are we more like our neighbor than unlike our neighbor?

PAUL SOLMAN: At Emmanuel Church in Boston, the journey toward mutual understanding is never over, just as the story is never over in Bach’s cantatas.

SPOKESMAN: Nothing is ever closed. It’s like a prayer wheel in, you know, in Asia. The wheel never stops. By definition, it must never end. We must always keep examining how we feel about these tales.

PAUL SOLMAN: The examining is eternal. In a holy season of religious and ethnic conflict worldwide, it’s a thought devoutly to be wished.