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


Passion according to St John BMV 245

‘…whoever meditates thus upon God's sufferings for a day, an hour, yea, for a quarter of an hour, we wish to say freely and publicly, that it is better than if he fasts a whole year, prays the Psalter every day, yea, than if he hears a hundred masses. For such a meditation changes a man's character and almost as in baptism he is born again, anew. Then Christ's suffering accomplishes its true, natural and noble work, it slays the old Adam, banishes all lust, pleasure and security that one may obtain from God's creatures; just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.‘ (From ‘A Good Friday sermon on how to contemplate Christ's Holy Sufferings')

Thus, Martin Luther affirmed his conviction that profound contemplation of the sufferings of Christ in his trial and death was the only route into faith, and into a clear conscience. Other forms of religious observance, such as attending mass, were still valuable, but to contemplate the cross was the most important and necessary way for mankind to seek and experience God. Perhaps in consequence, the passion of Christ became a central theme in the devotional art of the German Baroque, in passion plays such as that from Oberammergau, as well as in the rich musical tradition of passion settings for the Good Friday liturgy. This tradition reaches its zenith in the music of J. S. Bach, the supreme Lutheran musician.
On 22nd May 1723, Bach and his family arrived in Leipzig. He was moving from his position of Kapellmeister at the small, provincial court of Anhalt-Cöthen, about 30 miles to the north west, to take up the post of Cantor of the Thomasschule – the school attached to St. Thomas's church, one of the two main churches in Leipzig. At the time, Leipzig was a city of about 30,000. It was a thriving commercial and cultural centre, and its university was one of the leading intellectual institutions in Germany. As well as teaching music and Latin to the 50 or 60 boys at the school (he normally delegated the Latin teaching to a senior pupil), Bach was responsible for the music at four Leipzig churches: those of St. Nicolas, St. Thomas (to which the school was attached), St. Peter and St. Matthew. Bach's musical forces included the schoolboys, who were divided into four choirs, a few professional instrumentalists, and a number of university students, some of whom studied music with him privately.
In a much-quoted letter from 15 years earlier, Bach described his life's goal as the creation of “a well-regulated church music, to the glory of God”. As soon as he arrived in Leipzig he threw himself into this task with extreme energy. In the first year in his new post, Bach composed a complete liturgical cycle of sixty cantatas, one for each Sunday and major feast day. These were complex, multi-movement works lasting up to half an hour, and were performed between the gospel reading and the sermon in the main Sunday service. They were performed by his principal choir, which alternated week by week between the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicolas; the second-, third- and fourth-string musicians performed simpler music in the other three churches. Over the next three years Bach completed two further cantata cycles – a barely believable outpouring of musical craftsmanship, which must have made formidable demands on his performers, and probably on his listeners too.
There were two breaks in the annual cantata cycle, in Advent, and Lent, so it seems likely that Bach spent most of Lent in 1724 preparing for what was the biggest musical occasion of the liturgical year, the passion service at Good Friday Vespers. Sung passion settings are an ancient tradition in Christian liturgy – there are accounts of visitors attending them in Jerusalem in the fourth century AD – but they were a novelty in Leipzig, having been introduced by Kuhnau, Bach's immediate predecessor, in 1721. Passion settings came in many forms, but the central element was normally a musical setting of one of the gospel accounts of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. In Protestant Germany, there would also be chorales – Lutheran hymns. From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, composers started to interpolate arias and choruses employing non-biblical texts, as well as instrumental sinfonias, so a church congregation in a large musical centre would be accustomed to seeing expanded instrumental forces in a Good Friday service, and to hearing music in modern styles alongside the traditional hymns and gospel reciting tones. Against this background, Bach's St. John Passion, which was first performed in St. Nicolas's Church on 7 th April 1724, would not have seemed like a radically new type of piece. However, a listener familiar with Good Friday music of the time would probably have noticed the supremely inventive, expressive harmonizations of the hymn tunes, the virtuosity demanded of the soloists and orchestral players, and the highly dramatic musical setting of the gospel text.
Although the gospel accounts of the crucifixion are an unchanging constant in Western culture, interpretations of what they mean are far more diverse. Bach does not change the text of John's gospel, although he does add two dramatic episodes from Matthew (Peter weeping after he hears the cock crow, and the veil of the temple being torn in two after Jesus' death). However, he constructs his interpretation of the passion story by his choice of extra texts to insert, and by the positioning of the breaks in the gospel narrative. The textual interpolations come in the form of chorale verses, of which the words and melodies would be familiar to Bach's congregation, and solo arias. Bach's choices of aria and chorale text are often triggered by details in the gospel story. These movements provide points of reflection, and challenge the congregation to respond personally. Thus the whole is designed as a ‘meditation [which] changes a person's character', after Luther's enjoinder.
The opening chorus sets the tone. Dissonant oboe and flute parts are woven above constantly undulating strings, setting up the work's distinctive sonority. The choir offers praises to Christ on behalf of all nations, and asks to be shown, through his passion, that he is the true Son of God. After this, the passion story begins in the garden of Gethsemane with the arrest of Jesus. Most of the gospel text is sung by the Evangelist, or narrator, in a recitative style that gains expressive richness from its wide-ranging harmonies and complex melodic shapes. Dialogue is sung by individual soloists, notably the words of Jesus and of Pilate. The words of the various crowds are sung by the choir, often in complex polyphony with vivid orchestral accompaniment. The account of the arrest is broken up by two chorale verses. Both are prompted by words spoken by Jesus: ‘Now let these men go', leads into a chorale which affirms his selfless love, then ‘Shall I not drink the cup which now my Father hath given me', is followed by a chorale which urges acceptance of God's will. Longer breaks in the narrative come in the alto and soprano arias, which likewise reflect and elaborate on themes which appear in the gospel text (for example ‘Simon Peter followed Jesus afar off” leads into ‘ Ich folge dir gleichfalls '). Next comes the dramatized account of Peter's denial of Jesus, which is lamented in an impassioned tenor aria. The chorale which follows this makes clear that all believers should share Peter's intense shame at their sins.
In the Leipzig Good Friday liturgy, Part One of the Passion setting would be followed by a sermon lasting approximately an hour. Part Two begins with Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, being led by the Jewish leaders to Pilate. The trial before Pilate is depicted dramatically, with the choir singing the part of the baying mob. After the scourging of Jesus, the narrative pauses for a bass arioso and a tenor aria, both of which offer the thought that his sufferings were for the good of all. The narrative resumes, and the mob gradually persuades Pilate to crucify Jesus. As he is led to crucifixion, a bass aria urges all weary souls to follow him there, to Golgotha. The narrative then describes the crucifixion, and finally the death of Jesus. The alto aria ‘ Es ist vollbracht ' , and the bass aria ‘ Mein teurer Heiland ', come on either side of a single sentence in which the Evangelist describes Jesus giving up the ghost. Bach's choice of texts here makes it clear that he regards the crucifixion as a victory of good over evil, and of redemption over sin. However, he is not content with crude theological triumphalism, and the movements for tenor and soprano which follow are full of genuinely human emotions of grief and loss. The final act of the passion story is the burial in the garden tomb, which is related by the Evangelist alone. The concluding chorus and chorale reiterate Bach's central theme, that the death and sufferings of Jesus are both lifegiving and transforming for all.
Bach sets his interpretation of the story to music of intense expressive depth, and enormous stylistic range. The recitative settings of the gospel, and the polyphonic choral settings of the crowd, lie within the mainstream of Lutheran liturgical music, although the richly complex harmonies and contrapuntal elaboration of Bach's music are exceptional. Similarly, in the chorales Bach's harmonic genius enriches an established tradition of sacred music. The arias are influenced more by modern secular forms and styles, including the Sarabande rhythm of the tenor aria ‘ Ach, mein Sinn ', and the Minuet of the closing chorus ‘ Ruht wohl '. Bach was under stern instruction to avoid sounding too operatic; it almost seems in places that he had conveniently forgotten this. The instrumentation is a mixture of the archaic and the avant-garde: new and fashionable instruments like the transverse flute and the oboe d'amore appear side by side with archaic (although secular) ones like the lute and the viola da gamba. Bach uses the solo arias as opportunities to vary the instrumental palette: the vocal soloists are accompanied variously by obbligati for oboes, flute, strings, lute and gamba, with the full orchestra accompanying the choral movements.
The St. John Passion can be heard as a dramatic story of universal human emotions, as a theological exposition, as a challenge to amend and improve our lives, as a masterpiece of musical craftsmanship and invention, or as any combination of the above. There is no record of the reaction of the first audience in 1724, but they must have had some sense of how extraordinary a composition it is: how the supreme technical accomplishment of Bach's music is allied to an expressive purpose of complete sincerity and enormous profundity, which is still gripping, nearly 300 years on. It is never an easy work to listen to; it demands concentrated engagement from the listener, and was always meant to challenge and disturb. Approached like this, and despite the sometimes stern aspect of its faith, Bach's passion setting comes across as a deeply compassionate and optimistic story, where the crucifixion is an act of redemptive love, and the resurrection is awaited with certainty.

Peter Foster