Raymond Erickson (Music) continues to accumulate academic distinctions in his retirement: He recently received an Emeritus Professor Research Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The fellowship will support Erickson’s study of attitudes toward Jews in Leipzig during the era of Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived there from 1723 until his death 27 years later.
Like so many projects, this one was inspired by an accidental discovery. While preparing a lecture on the St. John Passion, which Bach wrote in 1724, Erickson read about a fascinating Gutachten, or learned opinion, issued a decade earlier by the theological faculty of Leipzig University. Ordered to assess the validity of blood libel—the accusation that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes—the authors systematically disproved the charge. Issued by prominent Lutheran scholars at the behest of the king of Poland (a Catholic convert whose territory included Saxony, in what is now East Germany), the Gutachten represents a surprising degree of religious tolerance in a time and place not noted for it. The document also creates a context for Bach’s oratorio passions, which, unlike choral compositions by his contemporaries in other German cities, eschew anti-Semitic language.
“Bach comes out OK,” says Erickson, who has already transcribed and translated a copy of the Gutachten he found in the Saxon State Archives in Dresden. This fall he will travel to Europe to look for the original, identify and explicate some of its sources, and delve into related issues. His neutrality equips him for a project that ventures into sensitive topics. “I’m not German, Lutheran, or Jewish,” he says with a laugh.
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