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HOWL: BACH'S ST. JOHN PASSION
April 10, 2006
 
The first choral entrance of the St. John Passion is a sudden chord of complete terror: now it is time to let go and fall into all that happens in Holy Week, to experience it all. Mine is a fairly old recording of it, one that I have listened to for years -- but I still feel that first chord in the pit of my stomach, like a morning realization that something terrible happened yesterday, something I had escaped in the temporary relief of dreams. Oh, yes, now I remember. And then, Oh, no.

It takes a while to comprehend that something terrible is really real. I watched the World Trade Center burning and couldn't understand, as I watched, that the fact that they were both on fire meant something. Boy, that's a lot of smoke, I said to myself, thinking of the 1993 bombing. But I couldn't understand what all that smoke meant. I was sure that everyone had gotten out. Of course they had. But that sure is a lot of smoke.

Your street after the hurricane. Your town after the earthquake. The place where your house used to be, after the tornado -- amid the splinters of wood and broken glass, you begin to see things: a doll lying in the mud, a measuring cup, a washing machine lying on its side, a rag you think may be your wife's sweater.

The bombing was on purpose and the tornado wasn't. You will think of that distinction later, maybe, and maybe you will get very angry. But, for now, all you see when you close your eyes is the washing machine and the doll. And the sweater, of course, the sweater. And you keep losing what has happened, losing the thread, keep asking yourself if it really did happen. It must be a mistake.

But a chord comes up out of you, a howl, like the choral entrance to the St. John Passion, and you know it did happen. Oh, no.

The words don't convey the horror -- Lord, our Sovereign, whose glory is magnificent in every land! Show us through your Passion that you, the true Son of God, for ever, and even in your worst humiliation, you will be glorified. The words don't howl; only the music. There was a tornado, you tell your brother simply when you get him on the phone, and then you can't find the words to tell him about your wife. He asks if everyone is all right and you say No.

How many are there, in the whole world? How many chords like that, how many howls? There have been so many nobody could ever count them; we have neither words nor numbers enough for the task. The St. John Passion is small, really: human in scale, compared to the great St. Matthew. Too small to sum up human suffering.

But it does contain other things besides its initial howl. We all do, as time goes on from the moment of our own passion: august sorrow, dignified patience. And, at last, the gentle ongoing hope of heaven: Rest in peace, you sacred bones: I will not weep over you any longer; rest in peace, and lead me to peace as well. The grave, like your tomb, is not a place of agony, but opens Heaven to me, and shuts the gates of Hell.
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I am listening to L'Ensemble Vocal & Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, under Michel Corboz on Erato (1978).
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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