Sunday, 19 February 2012

Fast Work

The conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg, or rather his butler, rings to say his employer is on the line to talk to me about his Lent performance of Bach’s St John Passion this Friday 24 February in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. Zu Guttenberg is bringing his Klangverwaltung (Department of Noise) Orchestra with whom he toured Britain in 2008 and his Neubeuern village choir, which comes to the UK for the first time. Members must demonstrate residency of the Bavarian Alpine village or one of its neighbours round Lake Chiem where zu Guttenberg holds a music festival every year.

I ask the Baron if he has a particular feeling for the St John Passion and he tells me there are two things. One is that it was the piece with which his career began 45 years ago; the other is that this debut coincided with his father’s death after a long illness during which he began fully to comprehend the implications of the text Es ist vollbracht – It is fulfilled – which the alto sings at the climax. Zu Guttenberg’s father was the son and nephew of Twentieth-of-July men, members of the cabal which tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler. The uncle was tortured and executed as he had also been responsible for publishing the Weiße Blätter, or White Papers, an anti-Hitler magazine of the 1930s. The Baron, having devoted his life to music, is an exception among his ancestors who devoted theirs to politics. Even his son followed the majority of Zu Guttenberg males, and was Merkel’s Minister of Defence until last year when, like his great-great-uncle, a publishing enterprise of his own became notorious, this time for plagiarism, and forced him out of government.

The Baron talks of the fulfilment of destiny, which Christ was aware of. He compares the St John Passion with the St Matthew and says they represent contrasting theologies. ‘In the St Matthew, it is the Son of Man who comes to earth without being recognised as such until after his agonising death when he has cried out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In the St John, it is exactly the opposite. Here it is a God-King who comes, fully cognisant of the victory he is to achieve. The text is an explanation, a discussion of his mission. It has been my life’s work to clarify this difference,’ says Zu Guttenberg of his own modest destiny. ‘My ambition is one day to perform the two passions side by side on consecutive days.’

Although the start of St John’s gospel plays no part in the Passion, its profound philosophy, the idea that ‘in the beginning was the Word’, this wrenching departure from the opening of Genesis, resonates throughout the text. The Jews and Romans argue about what should be printed on the cross above Christ’s head. The word that lies outside creation is unpronounce-able, unknowable since to utter it would be to limit the infinite. Publication of the Word has always brought trouble of one sort or another. One’s heresy is laid bare. Zu Guttenberg’s Festival on the island of Herrenchiemsee this summer (17-29 July), in a palace built by King Ludwig II as bigger-than-lifesize replica of Versailles, including toilets which the French original lacked, is based on the theme ‘The Music of Words’ and examines how the subversive, political, philosophical, poetic Word has inspired music. 

‘The talk in John’s gospel is always of love,’ says the Baron. The disciple whom Jesus loved skips the sentimental birth and cuts straight to the central issue: God so loved the world in chapter three. Perhaps, the Baron seems to suggest, that’s the Word that predates the universe itself, Love. John alone understood.