Jan/Feb 2003

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Hagiography and Passion

Mauricio Kagel. Sankt-Bach-Passion. The Radio-Sinfonie-Orchestra of Stuttgart,
conducted by Mauricio Kagel with various choirs and soloists:
Anne Sofie von otter, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, Roland Hermann and Peter Roggisch.

Montaigne naïve MO 782157(2002)


This two and a half hour long oratorio makes a strong impression. Mauricio Kagel, the Mexican composer, is known for slowly constructed scores of great detail and structural complexity. Sankt-Bach-Passion evolved over a thirteen-year span although most of the work was done between 1981 and 1985. This performance was given in 1995 with superbly prepared and simpatico forces. The two CD set includes the full text, which Kagel himself prepared, using primary documents from Bach's time as researched and published in the Forkel biography. It also includes a conversation between Kagel and Werner Klüppelholz. They discuss Kagel's compositional methods including the relation between the score and any direct quotations from Bach. As it turns out at no point in Sankt-Bach-Passion does Kagel actually quite Bach.

Any listener with much familiarity with Bach, however, cannot but be stunned by the intensity of Bach idiom and feel this music projects. It as if Kagel thinks inside Bach's musical language, indeed inside his very musical universe, but does so while being rooted in a late 20th century musical epistemology. It is parody in the richest and most honorific sense imaginable, but when parody becomes so much the parodist's own thought, what do we call it?

As a result, Kagel gives us a modern passion oratorio that emulates and re-presents Bach's two great Easter passions on the life of Jesus. Choruses, tenor narrator, solos, duets and communal chorales-all reenact immediately recognizable Bach gestures. In the conversation, Kagel makes two comments that to my mind describe Sankt-Bach-Passion as much as Bach himself: Bach has "a heightened expressivity that one might even describe as "baroque expressionism"" (10)-Kagel too has a readily accessible and often hauntingly sweet exparesions-; and "Even today, the amount of emotion contained in a simple Protestant chorale by Bach is a phenomenon I can't explain" (10)-and Kagel too laces hisa work with simple inexplicable chorales.

Make no mistake, this is music about emotion-or to be more precise, about passion. Kagel discusses the double meaning of the word "passion" in relation to Bach's great oratorios. Despite, or probably because of, Bach's elaborately detailed and numerological constructions, his music registers an emotion that some have called the music of a divine and cosmic dance. The passion of Christ's suffering is the emotion of the congregants who attend and perform the Bach passions as he originally imagined them in a liturgical setting. This much has often been described and analyzed. In fact, Bach's conceptualizing of a musical event in which the audience-congregants "feel" and experience not an aesthetic representation of a sacred event but the "feel" and experience of the event as original participants are presumed to have experienced it, is a fundamental epistemological leap that western composers rarely attempt.

Kagel's epistemological leap is even more radical and unprecedented. The musical splendor and the commitment of this performance make this set worth a listener's concerted attention and repeated hearings. But beneath the musical pleasure, Kagel confronts us with the most challenging epistemological conundrum any recent composer to my knowledge has laid down. And I suspect attentive listeners will be wrestling with his conundrum for generations to come, either infuriated by its seeming audacity, or humbled by its remarkable devotion.

Let me attempt to spell it out, with no attempt to solve it. Although western music has adored the Orpheus myth that gives us the musician as a divine being with a power for primary creation, cultural practices rendered the myth as unrealizable fantasy. It was most potent during the Renaissance and Baroque periods when musicians were in reality not much for than servants in the service of autocratic ideological projects.

Both Catholic and Protestant theorists argued that the composer might be a channel for divine dictation, and doubtless from Perotin through Mozart, many a composer and his liturgical audience believed this was true.

Romanticism with roots in Renaissance humanism promoted a view of the composer in his full humanity as a creative origin in some analogous relation to divine origins-composer as prophet. A corollary to this concept of the composer was his suffering at the hands of critics and audiences who were too petty to understand his originality and genius.

All of these conceptualizations of the composer's relation to some sort of transcendent power were mythic fantasies that at times were held with the conviction of an epistemological certitude.

Kagel's text gives us something distinct from these familiar conceptualizations, he gives us (1) a Bach who is quite literally martyred by the bureaucratic insensitivity and philistinism of his patrons and employers-a Bach who (2) in every respect is Christ-like in his "passion," because (3) he is a saint, a divine agent, whose (4) sanctity is revealed through the miracles of his music and his music's passion and emotion, which (5) creates for its audiences a direct communication with God.

This view of Bach and of "the composer" that it proposes is to my knowledge unprecedented in musical representation-or in biographies for that matter.

Kagel's conundrum is this: Saint Bach is either a unique musical phenomenon, perhaps the only instance of such divinely made (not just inspired) music, thus rendering him incomparable and even incommensurable to all other composers, or Bach's saintliness is a possibility that any composer might attain and thus "Saint Bach" is a representation of "the composer" him/herself in his/her fullest attainment. If this is the case, what other composers might Kagel also be a saint? Himself? As I said, Kagel confronts us with the most challenging epistemological conundrum any recent composer to my knowledge has laid down. And I suspect attentive listeners will be wrestling with his conundrum for generations to come, either infuriated by its seeming audacity, or humbled by its remarkable devotion. In any case, some of those infuriated and humbled listeners will return to Kagel's music with a culminating sense of marvel at its emotion and elegant design that will seem at times to be Bach's music itself wearing an astonishingly contemporary garb.


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