"Mache Dich mein Herze, rien" has been my favorite aria for almost 30 years. For my twenty-second birthday, I went to the Carmel Bach Festival to hear my first performance of the St. Matthew Passion. At the time, I was a secular humanist dabbling in Eastern philosophy. But when this three hour musical drama arrived at this song, my heart cracked open. All that autumn, I sat in in the listening library of the San Francisco Conservatory, pressing repeat to listen to this song over and over while tears poured down my cheeks. "Make clean my heart, " is the translation of the lyrics first line, and indeed I felt a huge catharsis begin to occur, softening and opening my heart in a way I had never imagined.
"Myths" have been described as events that are always true, regardless of whether or not they happened. If we approach St. Matthew's Passion as an archetypal mythic journey, it requires us to confront some excruciating truths: how a man can suffer and be tormented to death while a crowd of bystanders looks on with eagerness and encouragement; how political leaders and religious authorities can conspire to create injustice and horror; and how family and friends can be broken apart by grief as they helplessly witness tragedy unfolding. This is the archetypal pattern we are witnessing with Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others
We are living in a moment where we are watching so many of these themes play out before us on a daily basis. As the institutionalized inequality and racism of America is exposed and the callous brutality of our systems is laid bare, many citizens are reaching for the word "atonement" to describe what might be needed as a response to the centuries of horrors perpetrated on the Indigenous People of this land and the Black citizens of our country -- not to mention the daily crucifixions of our environment.
What continues to give me hope in the face of the relentless assault of fresh horrors is to remember how much beauty is still possible even in the face of catastrophe and injustice.
As but one example of the indomitable capacity for resilience of the human spirit, I invite you to marvel at the performance below of Bach's aria by Thomas Quasthoff. Listen to the depth and richness and majesty of this voice and let it reach into the depths of your heart. And then, I invite you to google other youtube videos of this extraordinary singer. What you will discover is that this unbelievable voice belongs to a man who was born with severe birth defects due to in utero thalidomide exposure. A mere 4 foot 5 inches tall, Mr. Quasthoff has severely malformed arms and legs. Because he does not have typical hands, he could not play piano and was denied entrance into the musical conservatories of Germany. But passion and perseverance triumphed, and he became a Grammy Award winning baritone-- and a professor at the very school that denied him admission as a student.
Lauded as the finest Lieder singer of his generation, he was beset by illness and family tragedy that conspired to make him lose his voice prematurely and he retired from the stage in his fifties. Yet, once again, resilience triumphed, and after a few years of seclusion, he took to the stage again to conduct. The piece he chose for his debut? Bach's St Mathew Passion. Read more about his journey here