I got a chance to listen to J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Kimmel Center right here in Philadelphia this weekend. It sets the biblical story of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus to music. The whole performance is over three hours, and was my first experience of its kind.
As a secular person, having just enjoyed a Seder dinner with my mom, dad, and brother an hour before, I was going to this performance with some skepticism, of the kind I feel when a Jehovah’s witness comes to my door with promises of salvation and spiritual liberation. Plus, coming from a classical piano background, I always thought of Bach as a cold calculating composer devoid of passionate melody, for no good reason I should add. I was more into Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, etc.
This was probably the first time at a classical performance that I was moved on an emotional level. To me, this story had nothing to with religion. It was a story of love, hate, and most of all (for me) betrayal. Bach brought the intensity of it out, and made me forget my original skepticism.
The thing that particularly stuck with me for days after was the “God why have you forsaken me” that Jesus exclaims. The feeling of being abandoned by everyone, including your father, touched something with me. I know this story (and the resurrection after) has been at the core of millions of people’s faith in the supernatural, but to me it was a story of simple human suffering of the kind that many of us have or will have to experience in life. Bach may not write a big choral composition for my version of it but it will go on anyway in silence or with a far less beautiful soundtrack.
I am thankful for this experience as it showed to me another way that music can bring out the simple drama of life.
Side note: One very important lesson I learned, is that I will enjoy and understand a performance like this a lot more than I otherwise would if I do research on the story behind it ahead of time. With understanding comes appreciation. I spent a few hours reading about its composition, about the biblical story, and actually reading the relevant chapters from the Gospel of Matthew several times. I’m glad I did.