Bach: St. John Passion Program Notes

The tradition of reading, reciting or performing the story of the passion of Jesus Christ, according to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, during Holy Week, is ancient. Centuries ago, the long gospel tales were recited or chanted by a single clergy member in a declamatory, narrative style. But with all the different characters in the story, often in dialogue, a better method was devised where the pace of recitation was altered to distinguish the words of the characters, like Christ or Peter or Pilate. Eventually different clergy members, each with a different vocal register and timbre, were assigned separate roles. As the new forms of opera and oratorio established and developed in the early 17th century, other elements were added, including instruments and chorus, and the Passion oratorio was born. It rose to prominence in Lutheran Germany during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This musical telling of the story of the crucifixion of Christ was used as a theological tool during Holy Week to help worshippers share in the suffering of Christ. A narrator or Evangelist told the story, singing in the new form of narrative – recitative as used in opera. Some of the principal characters were assigned to singers and the choir was sometimes used to represent the interventions of the bystanders with their cries for “Crucify Him!” Arias and choruses were used to reflect expressively on the story, and existing chorales or hymns, probably sung by the congregation, hit the message home. In essence, the Evangelist told the story while the other singers and the choir offered commentary. The Passion oratorio became very popular across Germany and any Lutheran composer worth his salt felt an obligation to contribute to the growing repertoire. J. S. Bach’s colleague and friend G. P. Telemann (1681-1767), for example, wrote well over forty Passions.

After various stints in mid-size German cities like Arnstadt, Weimar and Köthen, in May, 1723 J. S. Bach moved to Leipzig where he was to remain for the rest of his life, dying there in 1750. Among other things, as the new Cantor, Bach was responsible for the music at the four Lutheran churches. The tradition of performing Passions during Holy Week had been established in Leipzig by Bach’s predecessors, and he was expected to continue. So for Good Friday, April 7, 1724 (Bach’s first in the Leipzig job) he put on his own version of the Passion According to St. John at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. The Lutheran Good Friday service would have started just after one o’clock in the afternoon and ended just before 6 o’clock. The Passion was performed in two parts, preceding and following the sermon. It was Bach’s first large-scale choral work for Leipzig and he performed it on several subsequent Good Fridays in Leipzig, as well as Passions by other composers like Kaiser, Graun and Telemann. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion dates from the late 1720s and there is a St. Mark Passion from 1731, but most of the music has been lost with only the text remaining. The full score has not been seen since the 18th century. To complete the cycle would require a St. Luke Passion. The manuscript of one, partly in Bach’s hand exists from around 1730, but the music is not his. He may have performed it in Leipzig, or at least intended to.

Of the two surviving Passions by Bach then, the St. Matthew is immediately the more impressive. It’s scored for double choir and double orchestra with a boys’ choir, and it’s more reflective and contemplative. It deals more with the impact of the crucifixion on our lives than the grisly events themselves. The St. John Passion is the more dramatic – not as comforting and consoling. Bach never composed an opera but this is about as close as he came. The text comes mostly from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel According to St. John (in Martin Luther’s German translation) and some excerpts from St. Matthew, as well as text from a Passion poem by the contemporary Hamburg writer, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680 -1747). Who compiled and adapted the libretto is unknown. New to Leipzig at the time, and therefore unfamiliar with the local poets and literary types, it may have been Bach himself. The St. John is the more stark and painful evocation of the Passion story, and, coming earlier, is sometimes viewed as a lesser work than the St. Matthew. But it is merely a different approach or intent – a different way of telling the same story. The St. John Passion by Bach is no less a masterpiece than the St. Matthew and ranks right up there with the greatest choral works ever composed.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and tour guide.