J.S. Bach—Passion According to St. John — Mar 2008

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Program Notes

J.S. BACH: Johannes-Passion

The tradition of setting to music the crucifixion story (“passion”) as recorded in the Gospels to music is a very old one. By the early Middle Ages, special recitation tones were developed for intoning the passion, and beginning in the 13th century it became common to divide the text among three singers representing the narrator and individual characters. In the 15th century, polyphonic settings of some or all passages for the crowd (Latin turba) or individuals began to appear. This practice resulted in the responsorial, or “choral,” passion, where monophonic sections (one or more singers on a single musical line) alternated with polyphonic ones. This type of passion was widespread in 16th-century Italy. A second common type of passion was the through-composed, or “motet,” passion, where the complete text, including the Evangelist’s part, was set polyphonically. Initially, neither of these types of passion included instruments.

In Lutheran Germany, we find both the choral and motet passions, with the most vital development of the genre occurring in the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially the composer remained responsible for the polyphonic sections only, with the traditional recitation tone being used for the narrative of the evangelist. Examples of passions from this period are Heinrich Schütz’s three Dresden Passions, although these passions contain the composer’s own highly expressive recitations. In 1650, north German composers began to insert instrumental passages and new madrigal-like verse and hymns into their settings, giving birth to the “oratorio” passion. The recitation tone was replaced by recitative, and instruments accompanied throughout (at least in the form of basso continuo). In the first part of the 18th century, the oratorio passion was the type most commonly used, as it was closer to Lutheran devotional requirements. This genre reached its zenith with J. S. Bach’s settings of the Gospels.

Bach’s obituary, written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and student Johann Friedrich Agricola, listed among his unpublished works “Five Passions, of which one is for double chorus.” Of these, the St. John and the “double-chorus” St. Matthew survive in complete form. Only the text remains for the St. Mark, although Bach reused some of its music in other works. Bach did not compose the St. Luke referred to; probably it was listed because a score was found in Bach’s hand containing additions he had made (it was by an anonymous Thuringian from about 1710). Thus of the five passions attributed to Bach only one remains to be accounted for, and recent research on the two that survive suggests that some of their movements must have originated in a passion setting from Bach’s pre-Leipzig days, possibly in Weimar.

Bach’s St. Matthew, St. John, and St. Mark Passions are all representative of the oratorio passion. In this type of passion, the entire Gospel text is retained and assigned to soloists (the Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, and so forth) and to the choir in its function as turba (crowd) in the story. Interspersed throughout the text are non-biblical verses, in the form of either contemplative responses to the biblical text in arias and ariosos, or traditional words of Lutheran chorales. In Leipzig it was required that on Good Friday the biblical text be followed without changes— no gaps, paraphrases, or summaries. Hence readily available libretti that did take such liberties, such as that by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, could not be used. Bach faithfully adhered to this local requirement. The libretto for the St. Matthew Passion was written for the occasion by Bach’s favorite poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander (1700–1764). The source of the text of the St. John is not certain, but it is widely believed to be by Bach himself.

The narrative text of this Passion consists of Luther’s translation of John 18:1 to 19:42. The narrative is divided into two sections; in Bach’s day these were separated during performance by a sermon. Each group of verses from the Gospel alternates with either a chorale from the Lutheran tradition or an interpolated section of free poetry. There are also two interpolations from Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 26:75 is appended after John 18:27 in No. 12, and Matthew 27:51–52 is the text of No. 33. Some of the free poetry is an adaptation of parts of the passion text by Brockes, a well-known version set to music by many composers. You will read elsewhere in this program a statement about the possible reading of anti-Semitic content in Bach’s St. John Passion. It should be noted that, as Michael Marissen points out in his study Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion, Bach evidently removed from his paraphrase the overt anti-Semitic parts of Brockes’ original.

Bach’s St. John Passion has had a varied history, with the result that it comes to us in multiple versions. In Leipzig it was traditional to perform a passion on Good Friday, alternating each year between the St. Nicholas and St. Thomas churches. When Bach was hired in Leipzig, he immediately set to work on this obligation, and the Johannes Passion BWV 245 had its first performance on Good Friday, 7 April, 1724, at St. Nicholas. The next year it was performed again in St. Thomas, with a few revisions. It may also have been heard in 1728 or 1732, and it was performed in 1749, after a planned performance in 1739 was cancelled. This latter incident is documented by a town scribe, who reported that when he went to tell Bach that his Passion was not to be performed on Good Friday (we don’t know the reason), Bach angrily responded that it was all the same to him, since the performance would burden him anyway.

These multiple performances are the reason we have four different versions of the work, and there may well have been more. None of the extant versions is “definitive,” like the St. Matthew in a clean copy produced by Bach towards the end of his life. The version of the St. John usually performed, and the one chosen for the new critical edition of Bach’s works (Neue Bach Ausgabe—NBA), stems from the 1724 performance, with the inclusion of selected later changes by Bach himself. No autograph of the entire work survives. A later copy, probably for a performance in the 1730s, shows the first 20 pages (up to the middle of recitative No. 10) in Bach’s hand, including incorporated revisions. However, the rest was completed years later by one of Bach’s scribes (“copyist H”) and includes only a few revisions by Bach, nothing as extensive as the earlier part of the manuscript. It may have been copied from the composing score, by then illegible, as the preeminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff suggests. The “1724 version” heard today incorporates the later autograph changes. It also includes the account of the earthquake at Jesus’ death taken from St. Matthew in later versions, an event found in the other three Gospels but not in St. John.

The biggest differences between the version of 1724 and version II, from 1725, are the opening and closing choruses. In 1725 Bach replaced No. 1 “Herr, unser Herrscher” with a choral fantasia on the chorale “O Mensch, bewein” and the final chorale, “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein,” with another concertato chorale movement on the Lutheran Agnus Dei, “Christe, du Lamm Gottes.” The former was later removed from the St. John and is now the concluding piece of Part I of the St. Matthew Passion. Wolff surmises that in 1725 Bach took it from a now lost St. Matthew, which could be the fifth passion mentioned in the obituary, and eventually returned it to its previous context for the reprise of his two-choir St. Matthew Passion in 1736. The 24 stanzas of “O Mensch, bewein” represent a condensed version of the entire passion. The opening stanza, all that Bach uses, is a sort of statement of purpose. The present No. 1, “Herr, unser Herrscher,” instead captures immediately the focus of the St. John Passion and its substance, with its fiery violin figure and the sorrowful suspensions of the woodwinds.

Scholars believe also that Bach may have eventually discarded the more grandiose “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” in favor of the simple four-part chorale (No. 40), because something lighter was a more appropriate sequel to the deeply affecting lullaby preceding it (No. 39, “Ruht wohl”). At least three more pieces were inserted in 1725. These were included, along with all other revisions and variants that survive, in the appendix to the NBA volume. Wolff posits a version III , prompted perhaps by the composition of the St. Matthew, which lacked the new No. 1 and all the interpolations from the Gospel of St. Matthew (including the earthquake scene), as well as the final chorus. This supposed version ended with “Ruht wohl,” i.e. with the burial, as do other oratorio passions, including Brockes’ and Bach’s own St. Matthew. In version IV (presumably for the 1749 performance) Bach mostly returned to the first version but with an enlarged orchestral group. This is the version that completes the 20 autograph pages mentioned above.

The Passion narration, and thus Bach’s St. John, is traditionally subdivided into five “scenes” (corresponding to the classical “acts”): 1-Hortus (what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, Nos. 2–5, No. 1 being an introduction, or exordium); 2-Pontifices (the hearing before the church officials, Nos. 6–14); 3-Pilatus (the trial before Pilate, most emphasized in the Gospel of St. John because it is the demonstration of Jesus’ innocence, Nos. 16–26, No. 15 being the exordium to the second part); 4-Crux (the crucifixion, Nos. 27–37), and 5-Sepulchrum (the burial, Nos. 38–40). The narration is entrusted to the Evangelist, or Gospel narrator, and the dialogue to the main characters, including Jesus, Pilate, and Peter, to some minor characters like servants, and to the “crowd.” The choir represents both the crowd, who contribute to the action by interrupting, asserting, and responding, and the congregation in attendance at the service, who muse upon the scene with thoughts expressed in the chorales. The Evangelist is the main voice. He is always a tenor, a custom derived from the medieval tradition of chanting the passion on a relatively high pitch. Jesus is traditionally a bass. Wolff suggests that Bach may have composed first the entire Evangelist part, and then all the rest. This is shown by many musical elements, such as the fact that the recitatives taken together follow a coherent musical path, including starting the journey with the first recitative in a clear c minor, and ending with the last one in the same key.

A recurring theme in discussions of Bach is his meticulous attention to architectural structure and musical symmetry. So, for example, the central portion, both liturgically and musically, of the Mass in B minor, the Credo, is symmetrical around a central axis, the movement dealing with the crucifixion. The astute observer will notice a similar symmetry in the central portion of the St. John Passion, the trial scene. This portion, the Pilatus, is also (leaving aside its opening exordium) centered symmetrically on the chorale No. 22 “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn,” in which the faithful express their realization that Jesus’ sacrifice has delivered everyone.

St. John Architecture

The meditative pieces for the soloists portray a variety of emotions and include features taken from the operatic world, such as da capo arias. These arias have a first part that introduces the aria’s mood and establishes the main musical elements, a contrasting middle section that is often in different tempo and meter, and a return to the elements of the first part. In the last section, the singer was allowed and often expected to add embellishments. This is the closest Bach ever came to opera, the only major genre absent from his oeuvre. To enhance the drama and to sustain the emotions being expressed, the solo pieces are often accompanied by fitting instruments. For example, the sorrowful alto aria No. 7 about the bonds of the sins is paired with the lamenting sound of two oboes. Even more strikingly, in the other alto aria No. 30, the two contrasting emotions are represented side by side in a dramatic alternation of styles and forces: the initial mood of mourning (the alto starts with Jesus’s last words and descending music, on “Es ist vollbracht,” “it is accomplished”) is conveyed by very slow music, broken lines, and the solo accompaniment of a viola da gamba and basso continuo. When, however, the text mentions the battle won, the entire string section comes in with a war-like quick figuration, the tempo becomes vivace (very fast), and the meter triple. The piece then returns to the initial phrase (“Es ist vollbracht”), and with it the initial music (the descending line), meter (duple), tempo (adagio), accompaniment (viola da gamba), and affect. In Part II , at the interpolated text about the earthquake (the tenor arioso No. 33 and the soprano aria No. 34), subtle references are made to the event by repeated 32nd notes in the strings, and by the general mood of the aria, accompanied by winds only.

The chorus is an important element of the Passion, taking, as a Greek choir would have done, several different roles. In the chorales, the choir speaks for the congregation, the sinners. In the turba choruses, the choir is the people on the streets, the onlookers, but also the priests, the soldiers, the disciples of Jesus, the unruly and mocking crowd. Consequently one finds a variety of styles in these choruses, from the most elaborate fugue to the simplest chordal sequences. These latter in turn range from the sweet lullaby accompanying the bass (No. 32) to the forceful ejaculations of the crowd, such as “Jesum” or “wohin?” (Nos. 2b, 24). The opening movement is the most elaborate of the choruses, and it is scored for the entire orchestra. Here the woodwinds produce a string of sorrowful dissonances in a series of suspensions, while below them the strings (imitated later on by the voices) follow an anguished and tumultuous pattern. The piece is also in da capo form (ABA): the turmoil seems to subside, but soon starts all over again.

Some of the choruses convey fury of the mob. Most of these are found in the trial portion at the beginning of Part II , like the choruses of priests in No. 23. In the vehement No. 27b, “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen,” (“let us not divide”), the chorus of soldiers decides against cutting up Jesus’ garment in favor of casting lots for it. Perhaps the fiercest of the choruses is the “Kreuzige” (“Crucify!”) No. 21d, an expansive moment for the entire ensemble of voices and instruments, in which the sole word “crucify!” is fervidly shouted over and over again. In the “mocking” category one can certainly number No. 21b “Sei gegrüsset, lieber Jüdenkönig,” in which the crowd of soldiers ridicule Jesus in front of Pilate singing “Hail beloved King of the Jews” in tortuous and sinuous lines of disdain.

The penultimate number, No. 39 “Ruht wohl” (“rest well”), stands in a class by itself. It is one of the most moving pieces in all of Bach’s masterful output, a lullaby of intense love and passionate contentment, arguably more poignant even than its parallel in the St. Matthew Passion, the sublime “Wir setzen uns.” More than one person in audience and choir (and this writer) has been known to shed a tear at its strains. The descending lines in the orchestra accompaniment (woodwinds in unison with the first violins) underscore the mood of deep sorrow and affection. The hypnotic iteration of the phrase “ruht wohl,” as though of a mother at the cradle, becomes even more touching when at the end of the B section, before the reprise of the opening measures, the phrase is entrusted to the higher voices without the bass.

In the chorales, the choir is reflective, meditative, often sad, speaking for the congregation and, in Bach’s time, with the congregation, which would have joined in the singing of these familiar tunes. In Bach’s time, most chorale tunes were in what is called “bar form,” meaning that they consist of a first section of music (including from two to five phrases) which is repeated with a second set of words, followed by a different section of music (often longer), creating thus the bar form: AA B. However, Bach included only three such chorales in this Passion (Nos. 22, 26, and 40), which is just as unusual as the fact that both of his monumental choruses (Nos. 1 and 39) are da capo.

Bach’s St. John Passion, his first work of this magnitude for Leipzig, may not have as cogent a libretto as the St. Matthew, or as monumental an ensemble, but it is high time that it be judged on its own terms, not always in comparison with its counterpart. It is a work that offers the most sublime music, the most varied emotions, the most terrifying outbursts, and the most poignant and sorrowful utterances. Without a doubt this is a masterwork, one that offers something for everyone, and for most an intense encounter with a pinnacle of musical expression.

—© 2008 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

Christoph Wolff, J. S. Bach: The Learned Musician (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Alexandra Amati-Camperi, personal notes from a graduate seminar held
by C. Wolff on the St. John Passion (Harvard, Spring 1991)
Alfred Dürr, Die Johannes-Passion von Johann Sebastian Bach (Kassel: dtv/Bärenreiter, 1988)

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.