Composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a giant among his Baroque era contemporaries and is revered today as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music.  His catalog of works contains over a thousand entries comprising cantatas, motets, masses, passions, oratorios, chorales and small vocal works, fugues and canons, organ and lute compositions, and chamber and orchestral works.

During his 1724 job interview for the position of Cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Germany, Bach was quizzed extensively on his knowledge of the theological underpinnings of Lutheran thought.  He was instructed to compose music that was in accord with Lutheran theology, and further, would distinguish itself as specifically Protestant. To this end, he was told that his music must always serve the specific biblical text and should not, at any time, let the music and musical message overpower the theological message. Of particular importance was that the music should never sound like, or imply opera, which to his prospective employers’ ears was the sound of degenerate papist thought conveyed through music.

With this imposing and restrictive introduction, Bach began his life as the Cantor of St. Thomas, where his duties included teaching Latin at 6 AM several mornings a week, in addition to being the church organist, conductor of the choirs, and composer of music for church events and holy days. His first major assignment was to write an oratorio for Holy Week based on the passion, or suffering and death of Jesus, as told in the Gospel of St. John. The result was Johannespassion, or St. John Passion.

(Note: Oratorios are large works for orchestra and solo and choral voices, usually on religious themes, performed in a concert setting without costumes or staging – though some 21st Century productions of St. John Passion have been effectively staged, notably that of the Berlin Philharmonic.  Within an oratorio, narration of the main story is done via recitativo or “recitation” sung in a vocal style that imitates speech, while highly melodic arias for solo voices emphasize particular themes and choruses for skilled choirs often represent “the people.”  Some oratorios contain chorales, simple settings of popular tunes, usually hymns.  Some well-known oratorios include Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, as well as Bach’s own Christmas Oratorio and St. Matthew Passion.)

His employers gave Bach strict instructions that the vocal recitatives in the work must be based exactly on Martin Luther’s 1522 German translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Ancient Greek.  The chorales, which were to be sung by the congregation, in addition to the select singers of the choir, were to be traditional hymns familiar to the audience, while the arias and choruses were largely based on contemporary biblical commentary, frequently that of Barthold Heinrich Brockes, whose rewriting of the Passion story was enormously popular at the time – probably because of its colorful focus on the more sordid and violent parts of the story. (The composers Telemann and Handel both have a “Brockes Passion” in their catalogue).

Bach was dutiful in being extremely strict and literal in his biblical settings, but he was characteristically less compliant in the request to make the music strictly subservient to the words, and to avoid anything that sounded remotely operatic. In fact, the music and choices of non-biblical texts throughout the work suggest words carried along by the music: The opening chorus “Hail, Lord and Master” has a very limited text but almost ten minutes of atmospheric, relentless music that underscores the tragic and grim nature of the story.  A number of the arias have a contained intensity and musical word painting that verges on the operatic. It was clear that Bach was not only telling the thrice-familiar story but also creating an internally consistent, musically interesting, and varied work that could stand on its own outside of the original need for a Passion on Good Friday of 1724.

MusicaNova’s Production of St. John Passion

In an effort to be more approachable for our audience – and its members who will be singing along with the Chorales – we’re performing the work in English, using the Novello New Choral Edition of 1999.  The Gospel text sung in English by the Evangelist is taken from the King James Bible and made to fit Bach’s original vocal line as closely as possible. Other text is from modern translations of the same sources Bach used.  The Novello editor describes the English text as using Bach’s breathing and phrasing throughout, “good open vowels for high-lying phrases,” and respecting the original German rhymes, so “the meaning of the text comes through more clearly.”

We’re recreating the Passion as it would have been heard during Bach’s day — without the sermon — by using period instruments in the orchestra and a small chorus of outstanding singers that includes all the soloists.  And unique to MusicaNova, we’re inviting the audience to sing along with the hymn-like chorales.

What to listen for

St. John Passion is divided into five sections, the first two comprising Part I, while the last three comprise Part II following the sermon – or, in our case, the intermission!  Three primary characters appear throughout, all singing in recitative: The Evangelist, narrating the story and introducing each aria and chorus, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and Jesus Christ.

The first section, consisting of the first 9 numbers, is about the arrest of Jesus, ending with the chorale “Thy Will, O God, be always done.”

The second section, numbers 10 through 20, refers to the denial and betrayal of Jesus, ending with the chorale “Peter with his faithless lies.”

The third and longest section, numbers 21 through 52, ends with the chorale “Thy name, O Lord is shining.” This part is concerned with the trial of Jesus, with dialogue between him and Pilate, and is the most philosophical and complex part of the Passion, framed centrally by the bass arioso “Come Ponder O Soul” and the following tenor aria “Behold Him” which interrupts the course of the trial with the central exposition of the Christian idea of “Christ suffering for your sins.” Located at the central point in the entire Passion, it is the binding force of the entire story.

The fourth section, numbers 53 through 65, deals with the crucifixion and death of Jesus and ends with the chorale “Help us Christ, God’s only Son,” while the short fifth and final section, numbers 66 through 68, are a brief recitative, Chorus, and Chorale that deal with the burial and concludes the work in a mood of contemplation and serenity.

From the structure it becomes plain that each of the types of music serve different purposes within the overall work. The Evangelist, giving the recitatives, with additional comments largely from Pilate and Jesus, moves the story along. The choruses are the voices of the people, of those observing the action of the Passion and commenting upon it. The arias are largely philosophical reflections on aspects of the story, the individual responding to what is happening and thinking about the nature of Christianity. The chorales are the voice of the congregation, the voice of the faithful, of those who know the story and have accepted it. Critically, each section ends with a chorale: ultimately, the significance of the story is its relevance to the congregation, and the congregation always gets the last word.

Given Bach’s delight in symbolism and intellectual games, many have tried to understand his St. John Passion as structurally taking on the shape of a cross, but it also has a definite arch form, with the much longer central section forming the top of the arch, with the central exposition of faith in the bass aria at the top, the expression of desire to understand in the first Chorus and the coming of understanding and acceptance in the final Chorale.

In conclusion

Quite apart from its structural and symbolic significance, St. John Passion is a treasure trove of gorgeous music. It is often considered less polished than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, but that also reflects the cruder and more violent telling of the story in the Gospel of John. It is also unique in Bach’s oeuvre in that each of the four performances of it in his lifetime required him to make significant changes to the score, reflecting local conditions and necessities. Therefore, there is no “definitive edition” of the Johannespassion. The version we are doing is closest to the version of the first performance, which likely reflects Bach’s preferred thoughts about the work.

Any performance of the St. John Passion is an event. It is a long and complex work, theologically and intellectually intense, but it is also a uniquely personal statement. That we are inviting the audience to take on the role of the Congregation and sing the Chorales along with the Chorus is one way of underscoring the “event” nature of the music, and also a way to bring today’s audience closer to the experience that this vital and extraordinary music had on the congregation that attended St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday in 1724.

— Warren Cohen, February 2018; edited by Bob Altizer