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The Digital Bach Project: St. Matthew Passion

Many people around the world will observe Good Friday today. And for some, there will be a specific piece of music associated with it: Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion. It's a dramatic 3-hour oratorio about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and for centuries it's been performed on Good Friday. But with concert attendance dwindling in recent years, some in the classical music world are hoping to recruit a younger, more tech-savvy audience. Tim Smith is a music theory professor at Northern Arizona University and he's co-developed a website called The Digital Bach Project. It's a multi-media, multi-lingual site focused solely on St. Matthew Passion. Tim Smith spoke with Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl about the project.

TS: One problem that we have today is a compressed attention span. And this work, being nearly 3 hours in length, which in its original context had an additional hour-long sermon; these people had a phenomenal staying power that they could sit for 4 hours. But, unfortunately we don't have that today. So, in order to try to make it more parsible by today's audience, if you click the candle and you click the crucifix here, you have a study plan for hearing this over 5 days, using the stations of the cross as sort of a rubric to follow.

GFK: Was Bach's music almost all spiritually-oriented?

TS: That's a very good question and I'll preface it this way: If we look at the music that is played today, the top 10 works...3 of them are in the category you just described. What we would call liturgical works. But if you look at what he actually spent his time doing, that proportion is quite reversed. Three-fourths of what he wrote was written expressly for the Lutheran Church.

GFK: It's a dramatic story. It must be exhausting to translate it again and again in different languages and listen to it every day for almost a year when it's supposed to be listened to once a year.

TS: Yes, it's personally exhausting because you see in it the sadness of the world and the cruelty we inflict on each other. But, fairly recently I felt a release from all that because I began to see the bigger picture and the bigger message of this work which is how do we end the cycles of violence? How do we stop them? And there's this wonderful moment in the St. Matthew Passion where Jesus knows he's going to be arrested and the crowd comes to take him. And Peter steps forward with a sword and slices off the ear of the High Priest's servant. And Jesus says, 'put away the sword. For those who live by the sword will die by the sword.' So there's this self-sacrificial giving where you say the violence is going to stop here and I will not retaliate. That's the only answer for today's problems, I think.

GFK: Are you able to tell how many people have hit this site? Can you track how many people are looking at it?

TS: Yes, I can. It's been a good response, a very good response, an international response. In fact, this morning I just got permission to incorporate a Polish translation, so I'm excited about that.

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.