Thursday, October 6, 2022

The 'Utrecht Passion' - a faux pas

When historical performance emerged, the ideal was to perform music according to the intentions of the composers. That included scepticism towards the phenomenon of arrangements, unless they were from the pen of the composer himself. With time, performers realized that this was a very common phenomenon. We know this practice from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when some popular songs or tunes appeared numerous times in all sorts of arrangements by different composers. It did not end there: in the baroque period arrangements were also quite common, and this practice continued in the classical and romantic periods, when arrangements were often a way to be able to play music at home that was originally written for a large orchestra.

The word 'arrangement' is a collective term for all kinds of adaptations. Some were made by a composer himself. Bach, for instance, used his secular cantatas for sacred music, such as the Christmas Oratorio. Obviously, such arrangements are very different from that infamous arrangement of Bach's first prelude from the Welltempered Clavier I by Charles Gounod, who turned it into a rather sentimental Ave Maria. The most strict way of adapting a piece is what is known as contrafact: the original text of a piece is replaced by a different text. In a way it is the most easy kind of adaptation, as the music remains untouched. On the other hand, it is not easy to write a text which exactly fits the music. It is this kind of arrangement that was presented at the 2022 Utrecht Early Music Festival as the 'Utrecht Passion'.

What exactly was that about? Let me quote the programme. "The Utrechter Passion is nothing more than Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion with a new libretto. Instead of the suffering of Christ, the story focuses on the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people, who were discriminated against and murdered, nowadays and in the past. (...) Bach's music remains completely intact. Everything sounds the same, except for the words, which completely conform to Bach's melodic lines."

The text was written by Thomas Höft, and as he is not a musician, it is only logical that he left the music untouched. Whether he succeeded in writing a text that fit the music is something I can't judge, as I did not attend the performance. I also can't assess the text itself: I assume that a translation was shown as supertitles during the performance, but I have no access to the (German) text of Höft's adaptation.

We know quite some contrafacta from the renaissance and baroque periods. To mention a few examples: in 1607 Aquilino Coppini published a collection of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi with sacred texts. This allowed the inhabitants of convents to enjoy the music without being confronted with texts that were considered not suitable for their ears. It is not known whether Monteverdi agreed or disagreed. The latter seems unlikely, as he himself adapted his famous Lamento d'Arianna into the Pianto della Madonna. Many German hymns are contrafacta. One of the most famous is O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden: the melody is from the pen of Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612), who used it for a secular text, Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret.

From this angle it seems there is no objection whatsoever against to what Thomas Höft did with Bach's St John Passion. In my view, that would be the wrong conclusion. I have chosen the title of this blog for a reason. I sincerely believe that this project was a serious mistake. I see two reasons for that.

One of the basic principles of historical performance practice has always been that a performance should stay as closely as possible to what the composer intended. And that could become a problem, if the text of a piece as written by the composer is changed. In my view it is not right to use the music of a composer for a text he may not have agreed with. Today's performers are not the owner of what a composer has written. That was the approach of representatives of the traditional performance practice, who performed the music according to their own taste. Precisely that is something the pioneers of historical performance practice wanted to get rid of.

Then the obvious question is: what about the adaptations of the past, as the ones referred to above? First: we may think about them what we want. If we reject this practice per se, we should not perform such pieces, like Coppini's sacred adaptations of Monteverdi's madrigals. However, there is no need to judge a practice of the past. There is a difference between accepting what has come down to us from history as a matter of fact and applying that practice ourselves today.

There is another issue here. If we look at the originals and the contrafacta, they are mostly pretty close, both chronologically and culturally. Coppini published his adaptations at the time that Monteverdi was at the height of his career. Both were devout members of the Catholic church, and that alone makes it unlikely that Monteverdi would have disapproved of those sacred adaptations. The same goes for the other example I used: the first time Hassler's melody was used for a sacred hymn was only a few years after he published his song, when it was used for the text Herzlich tut mich verlangen. As there can be little doubt that Hassler, although he composed music for the Catholic liturgy and for Catholic rulers, was a Lutheran, it is highly unlikely that he would have rejected the adaptation of his song. The reason that original and adaptation were so close in time, is that before the 18th century it was rather unusual to perform music that was considered 'old' - something written earlier than, say, about twenty years or so ago.

And here we have the difference between those adaptations and the 'Utrecht Passion'. There is a gap in time, and with it a cultural gap, between 2022 and the time and spiritual world of Bach. It is questionable whether Bach would have agreed with this kind of adaptation. We can't be sure, and we can't ask him. Therefore we should leave his music as it is, and not misuse it to express views of different people in a different time.

There is another reason why I think this adaptation is a faux pas. If we look at the adaptations of the renaissance and baroque periods, we notice that it was always a secular piece that was turned into a sacred one, never the other way around. Bach used secular cantatas for sacred music, but never turned anything sacred into a secular piece. Secular songs were used for sacred hymns, not vice versa (except perhaps as satire). If such pieces exist, I have not encountered them. This can be easily explained: in a time the whole society in Europe was Christian, either Catholic or Protestant (or something else), the sacred was considered superior to the secular. Turning a secular piece into a sacred work was a promotion. Adapting a sacred work into a secular piece would have been considered a degradation, and even something close to blasphemy. From that angle the procedure Thomas Höft has followed, turning a sacred work into a secular piece, goes directly against the spirit of the time Bach wrote his St John Passion.

The text in the festival's programme says: "We find the rewriting of this passion an exciting experiment within the historical performance practice. It allows us to experience Bach's music in an entirely new way and to rediscover emotions obscured by the patina of the long performance tradition". I sincerely believe they have got it all very wrong. This 'experiment' is basically a violation of some fundamental principles of historical performance practice and entirely anachronistic.

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