The famous eighteenth century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach is probably not the sort of person that you’d usually associate with anti-Semitism. However, his famous 1724 work ‘St. John’s Passion’ has long been the subject of jewish-led boycotts and protests based on accusations of alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ in the text. (1)
The reality however is that Bach was just simply following the Gospel of St. John in his musical retelling of the events surrounding the passion of Jesus Christ that are central to Christianity. If you read Bach’s ‘St. John’s Passion’;(2) it is very clear that it is not written as an attack on the jews – despite their egocentric assumption that it was – (3) but rather a simple reflection of Bach’s own personal and very conventional Protestant religiosity. (4)
This however is not to say that Rabbi Roger Klein, Michael Marissen (5) and James Oestreich (6) are right either in claiming that Bach was ardently opposed to anti-Semitism and that ‘St. John’s Passion’ was a work of anti-anti-Semitism. This is simply because their reasoning is both self-serving – it frees the great composer of this historical context so he can be claimed as a modern liberal rather than the conventional German man of the eighteenth century that he was – and also lacks any cited evidence beyond ‘he talks less about the jews than other similar productions’ of the same type.
This is rather akin to claiming that because Bach doesn’t mention Muslims in his ‘St. John’s Passion’ (or any of his other productions) then he was really a secret admirer of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.
Obviously this is nonsense, but then so are Klein, Marissen and Oestereich’s attempts to claim Bach as a philo-Semitic crusader against eighteenth century anti-Semitism. As evidenced by the fact that his biographers don’t even bother to mention the claim. (7) The simple fact is that to Bach – like to any other Protestant Christian – the Gospels say that the jews bear the responsibility for murdering Jesus Christ and thus therefore they did.
It is that simple and if the Gospel accounts of the murder of Jesus of Christ are ‘anti-Semitic’ then so is Johann Sebastian Bach.
(1) http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/03/10/cleveland-bach-st-johns-passion ; https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/news/local_news/panel-examines-anti-semitism-context-in-bach-s-st-john/article_33b6dbde-0347-11e7-8681-07e02d5d7dbd.html
(2) See: http://emmanuelmusic.org/notes_translations/translations_cantata/t_bwv245.htm
(3) https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/news/local_news/panel-examines-anti-semitism-context-in-bach-s-st-john/article_33b6dbde-0347-11e7-8681-07e02d5d7dbd.html ; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/arts/music/bachs-st-john-passion-has-more-humanity-than-anti-semitism.html?_r=0
(4) Michael Steen, 2003, ‘The Lives and Times of the Great Composers’, 1st Edition, Icon: Cambridge, pp. 70; 72
(7) For example see Hans David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff, 1998, ‘The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents’, 3rd Edition, W. W. Norton: New York and Peter Williams, 2004, ‘The Life of Bach’, 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York