No Comment — March 21, 2008, 10:01 am

The Passion According to Johann Sebastian Bach

emil-nolde

Occasionally I made an effort to imitate him, concentrating my will on an objective in a manner calculated to achieve it. I had desires, but somehow they never quite seemed pressing. But I could never bring myself to discuss them with Demian. What I wished for myself, I would never manage to confess to him. Neither did he question me.

My faith in religious questions had in the meantime developed some holes. Nevertheless, I was in my thinking thoroughly under Demian’s influence and stood quite apart from my fellow students who rushed to display their complete lack of faith. There were many of them and they frequently uttered phrases to the effect that it was ludicrous and unworthy of humans to believe in God. They held stories like the trinity and the belief in the immaculate birth of Jesus to be laughable and they considered it scandalous that people walked about with such nonsense in their heads today. I did not share this perspective. Even when I had doubts, still I knew from the totality of my experience as a child enough of the truth of a pious life, such as my own parents led, and that this was neither something unworthy nor hypocritical. To the contrary I continued to harbor the deepest respect in the face of religion. Yet Demian had led me to approach and understand the stories and parables in a freer, more personal, playful and more imaginative fashion. In any event, I followed the interpretations that he advanced with interest and pleasure. Much of it seemed crude to me, such as the story of Cain. And once during confirmation class he surprised me with a view which was still more clever. The teacher had spoken of Gologatha. The Biblical account of the suffering and death of the savior had made the deepest impression upon me from my earliest childhood. Often as a small boy I had, after my father had read the story of the passion on Good Friday, lived in this painfully beautiful, pale, ghostly and still powerfully living world of Gethsemane and on Golgatha. I had experienced it listening to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, it had flooded me with the somber, powerful tones of this mysterious world, with its mystical drama. Even today I find in this music, and in Actus Tragicus the essence of all that is poetical and of all artistic expression.

And then at the end of class, Demian said something to me brimming with thought: “Something about this story seems wrong to me, Sinclair. Read the story again and test it on your tongue, something rings false about it. It’s the story of the two thieves. It’s terrific the way the three crosses are left together on the hill. But then this sentimental tractate story of the two thieves! First he was a thief and commited crimes, heaven knows what, and now he melts into this picture and celebrates a tearful act of improvement and contrition! What should we make of this act of contrition two steps from the grave, I ask you? This is a pathetic priest’s tale, saccharine sweet and dishonest. It’s filled with cheap sentimentality and its message is too simple. If you today were to win one of these two thieves as your friend, or had to decide to which of the two your would render your trust, then assuredly it’s the one who has converted in a veil of tears. But no, for me it would be the other–he’s the one who shows some character. He says to hell with your conversion, which in his case would be a cute little speech, he carries on his path to its logical conclusion and does not rid himself of the devil who has helped him up to that point in a cowardly manner. He is a man of character of the sort that these Biblical tales make short work. Perhaps he’s even a descendant of Cain. What do you think?”

. . . But Demain’s new thought struck me as fatal and threatened to overthrow my faith, the basic beliefs upon whose truth I felt a need steadfastly to hold. No, it wasn’t right to leap around with such fantasies, certainly not with things which were so holy.

Hermann Hesse, Demian. Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend, ch. 3 (Der Schächer) (1919) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 3, pp. 154-55 (1957)(S.H. transl.)


Listening Recommendation:

Johann Sebastian Bach, The Passion According to Matthew (Matthäuspassion), BWV 244 (1727). Best recordings: Karl Richter and the Münchener Bach-Chor with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Archiv)(1957); Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent with Ian Bostridge (Harmonia Mundi)(1998).

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata No. 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“Actus Tragicus”), BWV 106 (1708). Best recording: John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir (Archiv)(2000).

Today is the 323rd birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Amount traders on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange can be fined for fighting, per punch:

$1,000

Philadelphian teenagers who want to lose weight also tend to drink too much soda, whereas Bostonian teenagers who drink too much soda are likelier to carry guns.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today