“Do you know this performance of the St. John Passion conducted by Karl Richter?” a friend wrote. “Good for Lenten reflection, I think.” The message arrived on March 5, the one-year anniversary of the death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt—the Austrian conductor whom I had long favored over Richter, his rival.

In fact I had grown up on Karl Richter and loved his Bach recordings: the Christmas Oratorio, the Passions, the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, and so on. I went to a number of concerts with Richter and his group in Salzburg, which was a short distance from Richter’s base in Munich. I remember in particular an organ recital he did in the main hall of the Mozarteum.

I became aware of the clash between Harnoncourt and Richter, right around the time when my own musical taste became more mature and critical, at age fifteen or sixteen. I was a Richterian; Harnoncourt struck me as harsh and uncouth. A friend from Vienna, ten years older than I, had attended many Harnoncourt concerts in Vienna and become a partisan. We argued vigorously, and I did not yield. But when Harnoncourt, beginning to be well known, was hired by the Mozarteum, I attended his opening lecture—a critique of Richter’s approach to Bach. It changed my aesthetics.

Harnoncourt argued that Richter was unreflectively following the default mode, which is to play on modern instruments according to the musical techniques and aesthetic standards that happen to be dominant in the musical conservatories at the present time. Richter’s instruments, techniques, and standards were those of the late-Romantic instrumental, vocal, and esthetic tradition.

The late-Romantic aesthetic differs from the Baroque in a number of ways. It emphasizes strong regularity of rhythm—like steady walking, a mill turning, a motor—whereas the Baroque emphasizes slowing down and speeding up, the way we do in speech. It seeks complete rhythmic agreement among all voices, except where the composer has built in a tension—whereas the Baroque favors the rhythmic independence of voices, which follows from the internal rhythmic variation of each voice. It seeks evenness of tone, whereas the Baroque favors emphatic increases and decreases of tone, again as in speech. It exhibits a general use of vibrato and tremolo in string playing and voice, whereas the Baroque uses these only on some tones, for special effect. It employs large melodic units, like wide-spanning arches—whereas the Baroque favors the internal articulation of melodies in which question and answer, voice and echo, often contrast, a point closely related to rhythmic variation and tone push-and-pull. In short, the aesthetic of the late-Romantic age was the fruit smoothie; that of the Baroque the fruit salad.

Harnoncourt argued that, while the results of the late-Romantic mode are often beautiful, particularly for people who are familiar with that idiom (I felt personally addressed), the mode is anachronistic when applied to productions of the Baroque period.

The problem with anachronism is not per se the coexistence of things from different ages.

Some things, like bread and wine, belong to many ages. The problem, in this instance, is that the late-Romantic mode prevents us from experiencing many aspects of the richness of Baroque music. The rhetorical forms and devices of Baroque music are documented in treatises by Baroque musicians and musicologists, whom Harnoncourt had studied in detail. These rhetorical forms were suited to the instruments produced at the time, and to the instrumental and vocal techniques documented in pedagogical manuals.

Richter had not studied Baroque performance practice in such detail, and consequently he scanted much of the power and beauty of Baroque music. Harnoncourt illustrated his argument by playing snippets of Richter’s recording of the Bach orchestral suites, compared with the recordings he had made with the Concentus Musicus.

I became fascinated with Harnoncourt and attended his classes, where he worked with small ensembles and explained in more detail what was at stake. He spoke often about the religious expressive depth of Baroque music, which the study of documented performance practice can help us discern. At the same time, he warned against historicism. The attempt merely to reproduce a musical piece as it was heard many years ago leads to musical sterility. It will not be music now, but a supposed representation of music then. At each concert—Harnoncourt put it somewhat paradoxically—each work should be a première. The pieces should be played as if for the first time. This can only be done if the expressive depth of the music is alive in one’s own heart.

I see in retrospect a parallel between this approach to music and the hermeneutics Benedict XVI calls for in biblical studies, and which has been a guide in my own work. Careful historical research is needed, but the text should not be locked in the past:

It is a great danger … in our reading of Scripture that we stop at the human words, words from the past, … and we do not discover the present in the past, the Holy Spirit who speaks to us today in the words of the past. In this way we do not enter the interior movement of the Word, which in human words conceals and reveals divine words. Therefore, there is always a need for seeking. We must always look for the Word within the words.

I became a follower of Harnoncourt. When I heard his recordings of the Christmas Oratorio and the Passions for the first time, I was transfixed by their power. But his name was dirt in the musical establishment. Herbert von Karajan kept him absolutely out of the Salzburg Festival. Eventually it became painful for me to listen to the Richter recordings that I once had loved. I heard their flatness. It was like eating cotton candy with artificial vanilla flavor.

Later, Harnoncourt marched straight through the repertoire from the Baroque up to the high Romantic period and applied similar principles. His approach to Beethoven is documented in this video, which is fascinating especially for what Harnoncourt says about the end of the Sixth Symphony, where the simple piety of a child is expressed by Beethoven “with infinite beauty.”

A few decades after the controversy over Baroque performance practice, Richter had disappeared from the music scene, dissolved like a fog bank into nothing. Nobody listened to his recordings anymore. People still listened to Karajan and similar musicians for Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, but for Baroque music Richter lost his audience. I don’t know whether that had become clear to him before his death.

When I listened to the recording my friend had sent, after these many years, I had a very different impression. Though I still hear the flatness of some passages, I am less irritated by it. I hear more of the beauty. I see the excellence of much of the musical training people received at the conservatories at that time. The late-Romantic age was not all bad, even if it decapitated itself after Mahler in Schönberg and Berg. Of course, the scintillating Peter Schreier is a marvel to hear and see. Richter had the best soloists at his disposal.

I am glad my friend made me listen to Richter again. I see from a distance with more equanimity how much good there is in his approach to Bach. Harnoncourt gets us more directly to Bach’s way of representing the Passion, but the St. John Passion performed in any style leads a good Christian heart to the person of Christ.

Michael Maria Waldstein holds the Max Seckler chair of Theology at Ave Maria University.

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