Saturday, March 23, 2013


Before this afternoon's St. Matthew Passion rehearsal began, my friend Laura, the orchestra I organist, said "I have something to show you." She reached into her tote bag and pulled out a small green book with "J. S. Bach/St. Matthew Passion" on the cover. She opened it and showed me my father's name, Herbert Gotsch, on the flyleaf, in the unmistakeable large-and-small cap style he used to write his name on books and music. My brand-new blue Bärenreiter Urtext has my name, G. Gotsch, on the cover in a similar large-and-small-caps style. It is a conscious imitation.

The small green book is a miniature score, with a German introduction dated 1929. There are no notes in the score, nothing that tells me how he came to have this or what he may have done with it. Laura found it at Concordia where she works; when Daddy died in 1984, we gave much of his library to the music department there, where he had taught organ for 35 years and had conducted Bach's St. John Passion on a Palm Sunday long ago, when I was in second grade. I remember discovering as I sat through the performance that recitatives were short but arias went on forever. I also remember the fun of sitting on my parents' bed watching Daddy put on tails and all the studs and buttons and suspenders that went with them.

Laura said she would give me the book after tomorrow's performance. She treasured it because my dad was her organ teacher and dear to her, but as she said, he was even more dear to me. As things turned out, she gave it to me after today's rehearsal. She had thought she would use it to follow along on the movements where she wasn't playing, but she decided instead to just listen--and rest.

Somewhere on the shelf in my living room, or perhaps in the sheet music cabinet that was my Grandma Gotsch's and then my father's, is a choral score for the St. Matthew Passion, with my grandfather's name, also Herbert Gotsch, written on the cover. It is a distinctive signature, with a consistent slant and carefully spaced letters. My father's signature looks much like it. The application of the same handwriting method taught in Lutheran parochial schools from one generation to the next? Or another conscious imitation?

Grandpa Gotsch would have sung the St. Matthew Passion with "the old Chicago Bach choir," as my dad always called it. I am singing it with it the Bach Cantata Vespers choir at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest tomorrow afternoon at 4:00. Laura is the orchestra I continuo organ. Steve Wente, another  student of my father's is at the part II organ. Up in the balcony, playing organ with the soprano choir singing "O Lamm Gottes," the chorale tune in the first movement, is Dennis Zimmer, yet another former student of my dad's.

I'm sure there are many other interwoven stories that could be told about the singers and orchestral musicians in this performance, as we take our place in a tradition extending back through the centuries to Mendelssohn and ultimately to Leipzig.

The Matthew Passion is a very emotional piece of music. This became especially clear to me when I watched a DVD of the Berlin Philharmonic performing the St. Matthew Passion "ritualized" by Peter Sellars. Sellars is an opera stage director and the video recording of the performance is deeply moving. The physical movement of the chorus and the soloists reveals much about Bach's poetic structure. Their faces reveal the emotion.

There is lots of suffering in this Passion. Jesus' suffering, yes, of course--but the words of Jesus are limited to the actual gospel text. It's the arias that intensify the sense of suffering--the expressions of the believer's grief at Jesus' suffering. And the arias go on forever, just as they did when I was a child. They are, however, tender; Jesus suffering invokes compassion as much or more than guilt in believers.

For a while at this afternoon's rehearsal, I was thinking about why this piece seems to be so focused on suffering--not on theologies of redemption or justification related to the cross, not on heaven or life eternal. Duples and appoggiaturas, oboes d'amore, violins, and especially the alto solosist say over and over again, "my beloved Jesus, it's unfair that you suffer," and "I will care for you and suffer with you." And to what end: ultimately in the last bass aria, "Make my soul pure in you."

Suffering was surely a more obvious, unavoidable part of life in the 18th century. People were much more likely to die before reaching old age. Women died in childbirth. Children died. Death happened in homes, not hospitals. People died or were horribly injured in accidents and in war. So many things that science and medicine fix now could not be alleviated then. So people needed a Jesus who suffered with them, and people accepted a Jesus who suffered and lost his life.

In our time, we hide suffering, and we hide from it. There's a chorus setting of Matthew's report that people mocked Jesus by saying "If he's the king, why doesn't he come down from the cross? And then we'd believe in him." I think there's a modern version of this false belief. It's the one that goes "I can't believe in a God who allows children to suffer. If God is so powerful, why doesn't he do something about that?"

Bach shows us a God who suffers, and who suffers and dies with us, and in whom our sin and suffering is transformed into faith and righteousness. As I sang the stanza of "O Sacred Head" this afternoon whose text prays for Christ's presence at our death, I thought of people I know who are facing suffering in the weeks and months ahead, and painfully, of my own children and the hard times inevitable in their futures. Tomorrow I'll carry my dad's miniature score with me and think of how cancer weakened him and robbed him of his life. I'll think of my grandfather's dementia, and my husband's. And maybe even of my own death--sure to come someday.

And I'll bless a God who in Jesus is present in all of that anguish, and who transforms it to peace.