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Bach's St John Passion, a spiritual journey

Portrait of J S Bach
Posted By : John Challenger Friday 28th March 2014

An undoubtable highlight of Holy Week in our Cathedral this year will be Bach's St John Passion, which will be performed on Wednesday 16 April at 19.00. Our Cathedral Choir and Cathedral Chamber Choir will sing alongside the period orchestra Charivari Agréable; the soloists come from within the choir. I could advertise this event in the capacity of a music lover, which I am, but today I am considering the work primarily as part of a spiritual journey towards Easter.

 

It helps to give the work some background. Bach's St John Passion is an oratorio lasting around two hours, and will be heard in more of a 'concert' context when performed on 16 April, rather than its original liturgical context. The beginning of the 18th century saw a growing trend for musical Passiontide settings in Saxony, a format originating from the meditations that accompanied the sermon at Vespers on Good Friday. This particularly important service in the Lutheran year traditionally coupled the sermon with vivid poetry and devotional writing on the Passion, much of it set to music. Bach's town, Leipzig, was no exception to this trend. In 1717, for example, the Thomaskirche was upholding the tradition of performing the setting of the St John Passion now attributed to Johann Walter (1496-1570). Meanwhile, Bach was deputising for the resident court-composer at the Castle Church at Goltha a few miles away, the occasion upon which it is supposed that Bach’s now-lost St Mark Passion was performed.

 

Thus, the 'Passion Oratorio' was a long-established tradition by 1723, the year of Bach’s appointment as Kantor of the Thomaskirche and Thomasschule in Leipzig. Between 1723-4, Bach wrote his first complete annual cantata cycle (part of his responsibility to provide an appropriate cantata for each Sunday and Feast Day) and was hence already displaying his capabilities as a Church composer to his congregations and superiors. It should not have been unexpected that on Good Friday, 1724, he presented the congregation of Leipzig’s Nickolaikirche with a Passion account hitherto unmatched in its dramatic, vivid, and highly intimate portrayal of John’s account of the Passion - largely the same work that we will perform on 16 April.

 

Bach's St John Passion sets Chapters 18 & 19 of the Gospel of John, following Luther’s translation. The compiler of the libretto is unknown, though there are borrowings from several pre-existing Passion works by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, Christian Weise, Christian Heinrich Postel and Salomo Franck. The kinetic elements of the story are told through recitatives sung by the tenor Evangelist, and choruses sung by the full choir; in contrast, ariosos and arias provide reflections on the story. The work is interspersed with chorales, selected from pre-existing hymns by several writers, including Luther himself; these would have held particular importance to a contemporary Lutheran congregation, being well-known and sung by all. In such a way these ‘islands of sanity’, as described by John Eliot Gardiner, would have brought the story into relevance for each worshiper, and provided respite from the action and drama.

 

Bach’s setting of John’s account is closely linked with the theology of the Gospel. The figure of Christ is central, in comparison with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) which focus more closely on the human elements of Christ and his suffering. By contrast, John’s Gospel depicts Christ as the eternal ruler with full knowledge and control of his destiny, accomplished on the cross at the final utterance of the words ‘It is fulfilled’. The huge inevitability of this destiny is clear in Bach’s pacing of the story: the end of Part I (traditionally the point for the Good Friday sermon) occurs relatively early, allowing the full account of Christ’s trial and death to flow with relentless momentum in Part II.

 

Bach communicates John’s portrayal of Christ as eternal ruler through the opening chorus, which calls upon Christ as ‘Lord and master’ to show us his glorification through the lowliness of his Passion, the only means by which humanity can be saved, and a strong message in John:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14: 6)

 

Humanity’s redemption through Christ’s suffering is alluded to elsewhere: the outer sections of the aria ‘Es ist volbracht’ (It is finished) lament Christ’s death, while the middle section portrays Christ as victor; the chorale appearing at the centre-point of Christ’s trial – ‘Durch dein gefangnis’ (Through thy imprisonment) – expresses how, through Christ’s captivity, we receive freedom.

 

Unlike Bach’s later St Matthew Passion, to which few changes were made, the St John Passion was subject to several major revisions, and it is for this reason that the work we perform on 16 April is not quite that of the original. On the Good Friday in the year after its first performance, Bach repeated the work, but replaced several of the movements with alternative chorale-based settings, suggesting he may have wished it to fit more closely with the cantata cycle of that year. Around 1730, Bach returned to the first version, but omitted two passages which are borrowed from Matthew’s Gospel: Peter’s remorse, and the tearing of the veil of the temple - these do not appear in John's account. Bach’s decision to remove these passages for this third performance may well have been surrendering to pressure from his clerical superiors.

 

Regardless of these additions from Matthew’s Gospel, the treatment of text is unmatched in its relentlessly vivid nature and operatic style. Christ and several other figures are characterised by soloists, while the chorus largely assumes the role of the mocking, jeering and bloodthirsty crowd, bringing an element of brutal realism to the work. The hasty journey to Golgatha is dramatised by the fleeting appearances of the chorus, weaving in and out of the bass solo line with the relentless question: ‘Wohin?’

 

The work is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, four-part choir, two flutes, two oboes (and oboes-da-caccia), strings and basso continuo. In addition, Bach scored several unusual solo instruments: in the original version, a lute accompanies the duetting violas d’amore in the bass aria ‘Betrachte meine Seel’ (Consider, O my soul...the bitter anguish of thy heart's affliction). In the desolate aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (It is finished) the sparse scoring of viola-da-gamba is used as obbligato solo instrument, while in the following arioso, the rich scoring of oboes-da-caccia, flutes and strings gives intense dramatic effect to the depiction of the tearing of the veil, earth-quakes and the parting of graves.

 

In contrast to Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which offers no sense of reconciliation in its final chorus, we are offered a glimpse of this in the St John, which concludes with a chorale following the final chorus. While the first half of this chorale concerns humanity’s last hour, the second part looks forward to the day when Christ will awaken us all from death, and appear before our eyes in fullest joy. This work is a chance for us to partake in such a journey.

 

Ah, Lord, when comes that final day

may angels bear my soul away

to Abram's bosom take it;

let then my body's anguish cease,

my soul to wait the day, in peace,

when Thou again awake it.

Ah, what a joy it then will be

the very Son of God to see,

to gaze upon His holy face,

my Saviour on the throne of grace!

Lord Jesus Christ, oh hear Thou me!

Thy name I praise eternally!