We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

Does that matter? More generally, does it matter that Bach’s music, little known in his time and forgotten soon after his death, has been called back to active cultural duty by a cultural program unrelated and perhaps alien to it? And does it matter that it is now admired for reasons that may have little to do with what motivated it?

Many lovers of the music will have no trouble answering these questions. Indeed, the Bach revival can seem a miraculous salvage operation, hardly in need of defense or excuse. But the “universalization” of music originally created within a narrowly specific cultural context does entail some difficulties, and cannot help raising some problems, especially if the original context was a religious one.

Look again at Ex. 7-15 and consider it from a different perspective. No mention was made the first time around of the fact that the turba in the St. John Passion, following the Book of John itself, is identified not as “das Volk” or “the people” (as it is in the Matthew Passion), but as “die Juden” or “the Jews.” An accusation is being made, one that is no longer supported by responsible historical or theological scholarship, that the Jews rather than the Romans were responsible for Christ’s death. That accusation, now often called the “blood libel,” has had a bearing on a history of bloody persecutions, culminating in perhaps the most horrible page in the history of the twentieth century.

Obviously, Bach had no part of that. Nor was he, as far as anyone today can guess, personally anti-Semitic as the term is understood today, except insofar as he probably subscribed to Luther’s doctrine that the Jews should submit to conversion on pain of punishment. In all likelihood he rarely, possibly never, met a Jew and thought little about them. The St. John Passion was intended for performance before a congregation of Christian believers for whom the Gospel text was … well, Gospel. The insult it contains to Jews was wholly incidental to its purpose.

But today it serves other purposes and is performed before other audiences. Bach is long dead, but the St. John Passion lives on. Jews not only hear it nowadays, they often participate in performances of it, and are sometimes shocked to learn what it is that they are singing. Are they wrong? Does Bach’s music redeem the text? Would it impair Bach’s work from the standpoint of its present social use if the text were emended to exclude the blood libel? And if people disagree about the answers to these difficult questions, on what basis can they be adjudicated?

It is no part of the purpose of this book to provide the answers to these questions. But it is integral to its purpose to raise them, for they crystallize important historical problems—problems of appropriation, universalization, recontextualization—that have arisen along with the practice of historiography itself, and that historiography not only poses but in large part creates. Precisely because these problems are part and parcel of historiography’s essence and its legacy, historiography often remains blind to them, not regarding itself as a part of its own subject matter. But responsible historiography, most historians now concede, must contain an element of reflexivity—concern with itself as a historical entity and with its own potential cultural and social influence, alongside the entities it purports to study.

The problem of the anti-Semitic message in the St. John Passion, from which some people today may actually “learn” the “fact” that the Jews killed Christ, would never have become a problem had Bach never been revived. What was merely a latent message in Bach’s time, stating an accepted truth to which no one would have paid much attention per se, has become a potentially explicit message in our time, and a potentially mischievous one. We have history—or rather the sense of history fostered by romantic nationalism—to thank for that. The peculiarly romantic sense of the timeless relevance of history, called “historicism,” is what vouchsafed the work’s survival. The problem comes in deciding just what it is in the treasured legacy of the past that should be regarded as timelessly relevant.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07012.xml