St John Passion - Johann Sebastian Bach  (1685 - 1750)


Passion according to St John BMV 245

From 1723 until his death Bach was employed as Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. It was a prestigious but demanding post, requiring him not only to teach at the school but also to play the organ, train the choir and compose the music for the city’s two principal Lutheran churches, Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, as well as supervising and training the musicians at two others. Despite this heavy workload and frequent disputes with his employers, Bach composed some of his greatest music during this period. His choral compositions alone include such enduring masterpieces as the Mass in B minor, Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, and the St John and St Matthew Passions. The St John Passion was first performed in Leipzig on Bach’s first Good Friday there: April 7th 1724. Altogether it was heard four times during the composer’s lifetime, each time with substantial alterations as Bach strove, as ever, for perfection.

          In post-Reformation Germany the ancient Good Friday tradition of reciting the Passion story in Latin to unaccompanied plainchant developed into a more extended form, still unaccompanied and with a strictly biblical text but now in a vernacular translation. By the close of the 17th century, though, the oratorio-Passion was rapidly taking over. This was a far more elaborate affair with choir and orchestra, soloists with named roles, and with hymns and meditative arias to non-biblical texts interpolated between the sections of the Gospel narrative. It was this type of dramatic Passion, only recently adopted by his conservative predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, which Bach used as the model for his greatly expanded St John and St Matthew Passions (the only two extant examples of the five Passion settings it is believed that he composed). These majestic works are truly remarkable achievements: whilst they amply fulfil their liturgical function as extended ‘sermons in music’ they are at the same time fully integrated music dramas, unprecedented in their scale and power.  

          In comparison with the immense St Matthew Passion, scored for two choirs and two orchestras and lasting nearly 3½ hours, the earlier St John Passion seems much smaller and more intimate. It is, though, a considerably more dramatic work than the St Matthew. Although harmonically and rhythmically complex, the St John has a concise, clearly defined structure built around five distinct elements.

          The first of these is the Gospel narrative, sung in a series of recitatives with accompaniment provided by a small continuo group of instruments. The central figure is the Evangelist, with roles for Jesus, Pilate, Peter and other minor characters. Because of their sparse accompaniments it would be easy to regard these recitatives as simply a narrative device. In fact, with his exceptional sensitivity to every inflexion of the words, Bach’s recitatives are much more than that; they are always profoundly expressive and on occasions full of pathos, as for example when Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’.

          The crowd scenes provide the second element. These choruses, a number of which are extraordinarily ferocious, vividly portray the intense emotional atmosphere surrounding Christ’s trial and crucifixion, with intricate vocal writing supported by a busy orchestral texture.                                                             

          Thirdly, there is the almost operatic splendour of the arias, when the narrative pauses and a soloist meditates on the significance of the unfolding events.

          The fourth element consists of the chorales. These Lutheran hymn-tunes, melodically simple but richly harmonized by Bach, would have been extremely familiar to the Leipzig congregations. Whether they actually joined in with them is unclear, but they certainly provided the people with regular moments of re-assurance and reflection, and the opportunity for a personal connection with the performance.

          The final components of Bach’s carefully devised musical architecture are the two monumental choruses which frame and support the entire musical edifice.

          Thus we hear first-hand accounts from the principal individuals and groups at the centre of the drama, thoughtful commentary from anonymous bystanders, and the general response of the congregation. These different levels of action and commentary give the work considerable musical variety and an unmistakably theatrical dimension as the perspective shifts from one viewpoint to another.

          The congregations at Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche would have been generally familiar with the various musical styles and genres heard in Bach’s Passions, and they would have expected the instrumental forces to be enlarged for this momentous occasion in the Christian calendar. However, the sheer scale and dramatic intensity of Bach’s music, the virtuosity of his instrumental and vocal writing, and the extraordinary expressiveness of his harmony, must have been of an utterly different order from anything that they might previously have experienced.

          The imposing opening chorus, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (Lord, our Master), establishes the underlying theme and mood of the work; over a restless orchestral accompaniment the choir sings in praise of Jesus and the universal significance of his Passion. The story itself begins with Christ and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, and moves on to his betrayal by Judas and his arrest. Then comes Jesus’s appearance before the High Priest, and Peter’s denial. Breaks in the narrative occur with the chorales and with moving arias for the alto, soprano and tenor soloists, the texts of which are carefully chosen to reflect on a particular aspect of the Gospel. For example, after the Evangelist has sung the words, ‘Jesus was followed by Simon Peter’, the soprano soloist, speaking for the people, delivers her radiant aria, ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ (I follow with joyful footsteps). The jagged rhythms and nervous energy of the tenor aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ (Ah, my soul), which comes after Peter’s third denial, powerfully convey the disciple’s shame and anguish. The ensuing chorale, which concludes Part One, makes it clear that Peter’s experience holds an important lesson for all believers.

          In Part Two the drama gathers momentum and becomes increasingly intense.  Jesus appears before Pilate, who argues at some length with the crowd about the prisoner’s alleged guilt, after which Jesus’s scourging is graphically depicted by the Evangelist in a long, tortured melisma.

          In this section of the work the chorus plays a crucial role as the frenzied mob, with vicious chromatic lines driving their way relentlessly through the complex textures. Bach’s varied repetition of choruses with similar musical ideas is carefully calculated to ratchet up the tension. In complete contrast, the solo arias for bass and tenor consist of delicate instrumental textures and images of heavenly grace. Pilate finally gives in to the crowd’s insistent demand that he release Barabbas, and Jesus is led away to be crucified. The Gospel narrative then tells of Pilate’s inscription of the words ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ on the cross; the soldiers’ casting of lots to decide which of them shall have Jesus’s clothes, colourfully illustrated in a chattering chorus; and Jesus’s concern for his mother. Eventually Jesus utters his last words, ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (It is accomplished), set to a descending phrase which is then echoed by the viola da gamba in one of Bach’s most unusual arias. It begins as a despairing lament but this is abruptly interrupted by the triumphant image of ‘the hero from Judah’. The lament returns and the aria ends in sombre mood with the alto soloist repeating Jesus’s last words. Mirroring the opening movement, the work approaches its conclusion with an extended valedictory lullaby, ‘Ruht wohl’ (Rest well), which must surely be one of the most poignant choruses that Bach ever wrote. The closing chorale is a triumphant affirmation of faith and trust in the Resurrection.

          The Johannes-Passion is a challenging work that makes considerable demands not only on the performers but also upon the listeners, as indeed it was always intended to do. Despite the harrowing events so graphically depicted in Bach’s intensely dramatic music, the Johannes-Passion’s overriding message is one of compassion, hope and ultimate salvation.


 John Bawden


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