We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
These lines from Little Gidding, the last of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, can serve as a useful guide when approaching a great masterpiece, be it a painting, a novel, a play or a piece of music.
It would make things simpler, of course, if we knew exactly what is meant when we talk about Bach’s John Passion, but there is much that is masked behind assumptions and tradition. Bach himself probably only performed the piece four times and on each occasion he prepared a different version. He also started a thorough revision of the piece in the late 1730’s, however this was left off after just 20 pages and never completed. One thing we do know is that Bach neither heard nor approved the version we are most familiar with.
Since it was first revived in the 19th century most performances of the John Passion have been directed by a conductor, a figure unknown to Bach. Musicians and audiences alike have come to rely on him (and it is still usually ‘him’) to provide an interpretation and it is in the nature of this authoritarian approach to give decisive and clear answers to any questions that arise. Indeed, the piece often comes to be referred to as x, y or z’s John Passion (!), particularly when we talk of recordings.
Historically informed performance has in many ways come about because of dissatisfaction with some of the traditional ‘answers’. In the last 30 years, musicologists and performers have been involved in a continuing process of investigation into how we might perform ‘period’ music and we know more now about the circumstances of Bach’s performances than at any time since his death. (The latest research is neatly summarised in Daniel R Melamed’s recent book Hearing Bach’s Passions.)
Choosing to perform without a conductor is part of this process and means that the responsibility for interpretation is devolved to each and every musician. Decisions about many aspects of the performance will have to be discussed and active participation will be necessary, especially if we are to avoid the dangers either of being scrappy on the one hand or of being safe and boring on the other.
We also have the opportunity with this project to carry the questioning further; although to ask our questions usefully and productively we must be prepared to examine our own prejudices and preconceptions. First of all we can try to be aware of what we don’t know: musical, musicological, theological and historical questions that, due to limited rehearsal time, are all too often ignored or given unsatisfactory answers. We should also scrutinise our piously stated aims: what do we mean when we say we are seeking to be ‘truthful to the composer’s intentions’? Can they ever be discovered and are we sure that Bach himself wouldn’t have altered them again in a different set of circumstances? And if we were to succeed in realising these intentions, what then? Is that the end of the story? Finally, we might include and question our audience. What expectations do they have of us and we of them? What is our role? Is it to entertain, to educate or even to provoke and challenge?
John Butt, in his wonderful survey of historically informed performance Playing with History, quotes Richard Taruskin describing his idea of ‘liberation’: only when we know something about the sources of our contemporary practices and beliefs, when we know something about the reasons why we do as we do and think as we think, and when we are aware of alternatives, can we in any sense claim to be free in our choice of action and creed, and responsible for it
Responsibility for interpretation, the search for meaning, needs to be undertaken by each one of us, musician and audience member alike. A questioning approach and an awareness that there is always more to discover, might lead to a richer, more rewarding experience of the John Passion, one where we are not dazzled by a highly polished surface but invited in to wonder at it.
The lines from Little Gidding should perhaps be understood to be less about knowledge and more about imagination; the reward for exploration will not be certainty but only the lifting of a veil and perhaps the realisation that we always have to start over again.