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St John Passion BWV245

J.S. Bach: St John Passion

A Historical Background

According to his obituary, Bach composed five Passions. Only two of these, the St John and St Matthew, have survived intact. Of the St Mark Passion (1731), only the text remains and the Passion according to St Luke (BWV 246), long thought to be genuine, is now know to be a copy of another composer’s work prepared by Bach for a performance in Leipzig in 1730. It seems likely though, given what we know about Bach’s love of symmetry and completeness, that having set the other three Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion he might also have composed his own setting of St Luke. The fifth passion mentioned in the obituary could well refer to a single- choir arrangement of the St Matthew which appeared in an inventory of the library of Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. On the other hand, recent investigations into the pre-history of the St John and St Matthew Passions suggest that some of their movements may have originated in an earlier Passion setting, perhaps dating from Bach’s Weimar period (1708-1717). Whatever the case, Bach’s output still appears slender when compared with the remarkably prolific Telemann, whose 46 Passions were produced at a rate of one a year between 1722 and 1767.

Of Bach’s two complete surviving Passions, the St John is the earliest. It was first performed at the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig’s principal church, on 7 April (Good Friday) 1724, shortly after his appointment there as Thomaskantor. Planning for the St Matthew Passion may have begun as early as the following year, and recent research suggest that is probably received its first performance at Leipzig’s other major church, the Thomaskirche, on 11 April 1727. After 1730 Bach wrote progressively less new church music, due partly it seems to his growing disenchantment with the conditions of his employment at Leipzig and in particular the difficulty of achieving reasonable standards in performance. Not surprisingly, in view of this, the music for his next passion, the St Mark, consisted chiefly of parodies of earlier works, in particular cantatas 54 and 198. Thereafter, for the annual Good Friday performance, Bach relied on revivals of his earlier passions and, with increasing frequency after 1740, on Passion settings by other composers (Keiser, Telemann, Handel and Graun). Something of Bach’s ambivalence towards his Holy Week obligations in these later years can be gathered from a report made by a member of the Leipzig Town council in March 1739.


Acting on the instructions of Y Widsom’s Council, I went to Herr Bach of this two and informed the same that the Music intended by him for Good Friday next should be postponed until he had received official permission for it; whereupon he made answer: it might be cancelled altogether, so far as he cared, for he got nothing out of it, and it was nothing but an onus…

The surviving sources for the St John Passion contain evidence of at least three revivals of the work after 1724: one in 1725, another round 1730 and at least one more near the end of Bach’s life (c1746-9). Rather like Handel’s practical ‘cut-and-paste’ approach to Messiah, Bach too revised and refined both the St John and St Matthew Passions each time he performed them. Some of Bach’s emendations to the St John are essentially cosmetic: minor improvements made while preparing a fair copy of the score in or around 1739. However, for the second performance of the work, on Good Friday 1725, he considerably reshaped it, replacing the original opening chorus with a new chorale-based movement (O’ Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross’), adding an additional aria (between nos.11 and 12) and replacing two others, possibly drawing the new material from an earlier Passion (now lost) written at Weimar. In later years Bach seems to have reverted to the basic re-employed it when revising the St Matthew Passion in 1736, where it replaced the simple chorale which had originally ended Part 1. The present recording, based on the New Bach Edition, follows Bach’s own later practice by returning in all major essentials to the original 1724 version, though incorporating many of his mature second thoughts in matters of fine detail.

The Text

Unlike the later St Matthew Passion, for which Bach enlisted the skilled literacy collaboration of the Leipzig poet G.F. Henrici (alias Picander), the text for the St John Passion was compiled from several difference sources. The narrative sections were of course taken directly from Chapters 18 and 19 of St John’s gospel, but for added drama, the account of Peter’s weeping, and the rending of the veil of the temple, the earthquake and the rising of the saints from their graves were added from St Matthew’s gospel (26:75 and 27:51-3). For moments of contemplative repose Bach made use of verses adapted from the popular poetic Passion libretto of B.H. Brockes (1712) Der für die Sünden de Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (Jesus, martyred and dying for the sings of the world), which had been set complete by major composers such as Keiser, Telemann and Handel; Bach’s text also drew on a St John Passion libretto by the Hamburg poet C.H. Postel (c.1700). In addition to the Gospel narrative and free poetic verse, a third, congregational, element was traditionally supplied by the inclusion of well-known Lutheran hymn texts.

Even to the casual listener, the St John Passion may at first seem to lack the supreme dramatic and musical balance which distinguished the later St Mathew Passion. Why, some may ask, are most of the choruses squashed together at the beginning of Part II? And why is there a bunching together or arias towards the end of the work? The explanation has much less to do with Bach’s narrative itself. The unequal spread of dramatic incident in St John’s account made if hard for composers to achieve an even distribution of musical ingredients in their musical settings. It was for this reason that St John’s account was much less popular with eighteenth-century passion composers than the other Gospels.

One of the most acute problems facing composers was that they were required to divide their setting into two halves to allow for the preaching of a sermon in the middle. While St Matthew’s account breaks naturally after the arrest of Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane, St John’s somewhat different version of events (with no mention of the Last Supper and little of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane) cannot be divided into two parts of roughly equal length and interest without interrupting Christ’s long and highly dramatic trial scene. Bach therefore had to settle for a short and rather uneventful first half ending with Peter’s denial and the small but dramatically powerful detail of Peter’s weeping which is necessary to borrow from St Matthew. The lack of dramatic incident reduced the opportunities both for contributions from the chorus (representing the Jews) and the introduction of meditative interludes. Thus Part 1 contains just three crowd choruses and three arias, compared with eleven crowd choruses, five arias and two substantial ariosi in Part II. On the other hand, St John’s lengthy and vivid account of Christ’s trial before Pilate, which opens Part II, Jesus and the Jews, building into a scene of graphically effective power. Yet this concentration of the drama into one main episode causes difficulties with the musical balance of Part II as a whole. For while the account of Christ’s trial provides for a preponderance of crowd choruses (nine in rapid succession), its very immediacy precludes the interpolation of many contemplative digressions (there is just one aria preceded by arioso). ST John’s more static account of the Crucifixion, however, allows for only a single comment from the chorus, thus opening the way for the introduction of numerous reflective poetic movements, and so to a bunching together of the three arias and an arioso which occur one after the other. It is a tribute to Bach’s remarkable musical genius that he was able to overcome such apparent problems with music of stark dramatic impact and remarkable emotional insight. Indeed, it was precisely because Bach remained so close to the timeless Gospel texts that his settings have outlived those of his contemporaries, such as Telemann, who relied wholly on freely invented poetic libretti which have proved much less durable.

The Music

Musical settings of the passion story, performed in church during Holy Week, date back to the Middle Ages when they were sung in Latin, initially just to plainchant, but from the fifteenth century with the addition of polyphony. This type of Passion, though with a text in the vernacular, took root in Germany mid-way through the sixteenth century which with a few modifications (including the introduction of chorales) it remained in use until the middle of the following century, most notably in the three Passions of Heinrich Schütz. By this time, however, a new form of ‘oratorio Passion’ had begun to supplant the older type. Although still based firmly on the words of the Gospel, the oratorio Passion gradually incorporated elements from the oratorio (or opera), most notably the inclusion of recitatives (replacing the plainchant), arias and choruses with specially written poetic texts, and also the use of accompanying instruments. It was this species of passion which, during the 1720s, culminated in the monumental settings of Johann Sebastian Bach.

With its unique fusion of devotional and dramatic elements, the oratorio Passion could present the Gospel accounts of Christ’s betrayal, capture, trial, crucifixion and burial on a three-dimensional plane which went beyond what was possible in either standard liturgical music or contemporary oratorio and opera. The three main levels on which it operated were: firstly, the New Testament narrative (set as recitatives and crowd choruses), secondly, a contemporary and personal contemplation of these events (the arias), and thirdly, a devotional and corporate response (the chorales); the powerful opening and closing choruses of the work unite both the contemplative and devotional levels.

In the St John Passion the words of St John himself are sung by a narrator (the Evangelist), but when, as often happens, he quotes verbatim the words spoken by Jesus, Pilate or Peter, these are allocated to separate soloists, and outbursts from the Jews are sung by the chorus. Bach follows the well-established tradition of assigning the Evangelist’s part to a tenor and that of Jesus to a bass, but, (unlike the St Matthew) does not highlight the words of Christ with the customary accompanying ‘halo’ of strings. Bach’s recitative is always powerfully dramatic in its setting of the text, occasionally flowering into expressive melismas and flowing without break into the dramatic crowd choruses. Here he conjures up the highly charged atmosphere of a large, malevolent throng, with terse, argumentative counterpoint and urgent scalic or arpeggiated figures in the accompaniment.

On a contemplative plane, the arias (with texts by Brockes and Postel) reflect upon the events related in the Gospel narrative. One of the most moving is surely the alto aria which immediately follows the account of Christ’s death. Here Bach takes the simple descending phrase with which he had set Christ’s final utterance, ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ (It is finished), and works it into an aria of penetrating emotional beauty. The St John is on the whole a rather less lyrical work than the St Matthew, with virtually half the number of arias which hare generally less evenly distributed. However, the instrumental accompaniments are remarkably varied, and no two arias employ precisely the same scoring. Several in fact make use of what were at this time virtually obsolete instruments: a lute, two violas d’amore, a bass viol and two oboes de caccia.

The use of familiar hymn tunes (chorales), skilfully harmonised by Bach, provides the passion with the devotional or congregational element so central to the Lutheran liturgy. Indeed, Bach lays greater emphasis on chorales in his passion (II in the St John and 13 in the St Matthew) than did most of his contemporaries. Their choice and position were to some extent traditional, generally introduced at significant moments in the story helping through the appropriateness of their texts, to involve the congregation in the drama and elucidate each new step of the narrative. When, for instance, Jesus exclaims ‘If I spoke, why strike me?’ this is immediately followed by the chorale ‘O Lord, who dares smite Thee?’. In ‘Mein teurer Heiland (My dear Saviour), aria and chorale are more closely united. While the soloist for the meaning of Christ’s death, the choir reassuringly sings the chorale ‘Jesus, you were dead and now live for ever, bring me in death’s extremity, nowhere but to you who have paid the debt I owe to God’. Although it is uncertain whether Leipzig congregations actually joined in the singing of the chorales, the fact that both the texts and tunes were familiar must certainly have helped to draw them into the Passion both on a dramatic level and as a corporate act of worship.

In Bach’s Passions the opening and closing choruses took on monumental dimensions. The imposing choruses which frame the St John to convey to the listener the profound gravity of the Passion story. The opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (Lord, our Master) is a large-scale da capo movement of uplifting and majesterial pathos. ‘Ruht wohl’ (Rest well) is a customary closing chorus of parting and burial, with a nostalgic refrain and the gentle lilt of a sarabande. The work ends, though, on a personal and optimistic note, with a simple chorale which celebrates the hope embodied in Christ’s Resurrections.

(c)1990 Simon Heighes

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