“It’s unheard of to combine opera with a rock theme, my dear,” Queen’s Freddie Mercury told Circus Magazine in 1977. Mercury was referring to the critical reaction to the band’s operatic single, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ The song was slammed by some critics, as Mercury saw it, because “they couldn’t put their finger on us.”
Such reactions can be found throughout the history of musical innovation. Genre-benders make us uncomfortable.
This was certainly the case with Johann Sebastian Bach. According to the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the clergy of Bach’s day “didn’t want him to compose music that was in any way operatic or theatrical.” Why? The churchmen had a general anxiety, Gardiner writes in his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, “about religion borrowing the clothes of secular theatre.” Moreover, the church was threatened by drama insofar as it lifted a religious text beyond church dogma and brought about conversations “between characters, between two voices, between several voices, between an instrument or several instruments and a voice,” Gardiner says.
And so one might say of Bach’s time, it’s unheard of to combine opera with a religious theme, my dear.
And yet, Bach’s church cantatas and Passions are full of drama, internalizing and dramatizing “the situation of the individual believer, spectator or hearer.” According to Gardiner, the new form of Baroque music-drama that Bach created answers Gottfried Ephraim Scheibel’s rhetorical observation: “I do not know why operas alone should have the privilege of squeezing tears from us; why is that not true in the church?”
“With never an opera to his name,” Gardiner writes, Bach will be the one to work his way towards uncovering and releasing a dramatic potency in music beyond the reach of any of his peers.”
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