What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Easter? Many people will think of chocolate eggs and bunnies, but if you’re from the Netherlands, chances are you’ll think of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Every year tens of thousands of Dutch – including a who’s who of politicians and celebrities – set aside their reservations about classical music and religion and listen to this early masterpiece – and enjoy it! Or at least, they seem to. But every year I ask myself – even as a classical music lover – why?
Going back in time
It all began back in 1829 when the German composer Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. His legendary performance of the piece triggered a huge revival of Bach all over Europe.
In Calvinist Netherlands, where the rather strict Protestant Churches actually gave Bach the thumbs up, this revival took on almost mythical proportions – and continues to do so today.
Tradition in Naarden
The Amsterdam Concertgebouw first hosted the annual performance back in 1899 under the famous conductor Willem Mengelberg. This tradition was soon taken over by the Netherlands Bach Society. They believed it didn’t belong in a modern concert hall, so they started to perform the work in a church in the picturesque village of Naarden.
This year the Netherlands Bach Society is celebrating its 90th anniversary and still the annual Good Friday performances continue. The event has become the “place to be” complete with VIPs (all members of the cabinet get a special invite) and prime time TV news coverage.
But let’s be honest, the Passion isn't a light piece of entertainment.
Every time I go, I hope I'm going to suddenly "get it" and enjoy the performance from beginning to end. But then I get there. And the bench is hard, the church is freezing and, to be honest, I’ve never much liked the gruesome story. And if the first chorus begins off key, you know you’re in for a long one...
So I start looking around. And I can't help wondering: Are all these big wigs really here for the music? Or are they just there to be seen, or to make it look like they are high culture buffs all year round?
I know I’m treading on thin ice here; if you tell a Dutch person that you don’t like Bach, you’ll be frowned upon... tell them you don’t like the St Matthew Passion and you’ll be - ahem - crucified.
For years I’ve tried to understand this Dutch passion for passions. And the only explanation I can come up with is that the Dutch, no matter how atheistic they like to think they are, enjoy this story because it taps into some deep-rooted Calvinist feelings.
For me the St Matthew Passion will never be more than a fine piece of music (that in my opinion would be greatly improved by ditching the story). But to many Dutch it is much more: an emotional journey that brings tears to the eyes, a journey that is worth taking every Easter.
I won't pretend to understand it. But I'm happy to go along with my Dutch husband and watch him enjoy it.