Director of Music, Alex Patterson, explores the features of J. S. Bach's St John Passion ahead of the Cathedral Choir's upcoming performance on Saturday 7 March 2020.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) left the royal court of Anhalt-Köthen in May 1723 to take up his duties as Kantor (Director of Music) of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. As part of his role as Kantor, Bach had resolved to compose liturgical cantatas for every Sunday of the church’s year, and it was during his first year in the post that Bach composed the Johannes-Passion (St John Passion). It was heard for the first time on Good Friday, 7 April 1724, at the nearby St Nicholas’s Church, due to a last minute change of venue.
The St John Passion is set in two parts: Part 1 concerns the arrest of Jesus and Peter’s denial, and Part 2 covers the questioning by Pontius Pilate, the Crucifixion, and the death and burial of Jesus. In the original context of the Lutheran Good Friday liturgy, a sermon would have been delivered between these two parts, most likely of considerable length (lasting several hours). Bach takes the main text for the Passion from chapters 18 and 19 of St John’s Gospel, yet he includes two moments not found here, but rather in the Gospel according to St Matthew: the weeping of St Peter after his denial, and the tearing of the veil of the temple.
The Gospel narrative is led by the Evangelist in sections of recitative, using near-speech rhythms, accompanied by cello and organ. Soloists take on the roles Christ, Pilate and Peter, and Bach intersperses the story with arias sung by soloists, which reflect on the action just heard. In contrast to his St Matthew Passion composed a few years later, the St John Passion has a stronger sense of urgency and dramatic drive. There are fewer arias than in the St Matthew Passion and, as a result, there are fewer moments of leisurely contemplation. Instead, the St John Passion features frequent interjections from the crowd (sung by the chorus), constantly pushing the action on, as if the narrative is being driven by forces outside of Jesus’s control. The dramatic spirit of the narrative pervades the recitatives and Bach gives important textual passages more prominence through expanded and striking musical ideas. Notable passages include Peter’s lament at the end of No. 12: ‘weinete bitterlich’ (‘wept bitterly’), and the whipping of Jesus at the end of No.18: ‘und geißelte ihn’ (‘and whipped him’).
At the heart of the work are the chorales, meditating on the story at key points. These hymn tunes and words would have been familiar to Bach’s contemporaries and, as such, would have been designed to put us next to Jesus in the story.
‘The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.’
- J. S. Bach
‘Herr unser Herrscher’ (‘Lord, our Ruler’), the dramatic opening chorus, is a striking and unsettling beginning to the St John Passion. The movement is full of dissonances and an overwhelming sense of pain and despair, despite being a hymn of praise. By contrast, the penultimate movement, ‘Ruht wohl’ (‘Rest well’), which mirrors the opening chorus in terms of scale and depth, is an affecting lament full of falling figures suggestive of the lowering of Christ into the tomb.
Throughout the St John Passion, Bach casts the chorus into the roles of the crowd, servants, High Priests, and soldiers, with sudden and often brutal choral outbursts. When the Jews are calling for Christ to be crucified, there is a sense of coercion; the crowd is not necessarily the majority, but those that are louder and angrier than anyone else pressurising others to follow their lead. Bach’s setting of the text is often intensified using similar musical motifs for related texts: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (No. 2), ‘Crucify him’ (Nos. 21 & 23) and ‘Greetings to you, dear King of the Jews!’ / ‘You should not write: “King of the Jews”’ (Nos. 21 & 25).
The arias of the St John Passion follow the operatic convention of exploring the emotions felt by individuals at various points in the narrative. Again, Bach brings us right into the core of these moments of contemplation, which often feature musical material that is in some way symbolic or holds pictorial significance. No. 7: ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ (‘My Saviour allows Himself to be bound’), elaborately weaves the tangled oboe lines with the alto soloist. In No. 9: ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ (‘I, too, will follow you - with joyful steps’), the flute line ‘follows’ the soprano in close succession, with a stumbling bass line, perhaps intended to imitate our own stumbling footsteps to follow the way of the cross. There is the overly pictorial representation in No. 24: ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ (‘Hurry, troubled souls’), with its compelling running line illustrating the words, ‘hurry to Golgatha’.
Symbolic instrumentation is used to great effect in several arias: a pair of violas d’amore in No. 19: ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ (‘Look, my soul’), reflecting on the whipping of Christ, and in the following tenor aria, No. 20: ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ (‘Consider how his blood-stained back’). Always keen to experiment with unusual sonorities, Bach followed standard convention for funerals by using the solo viola da gamba in ‘Est ist vollbracht’ (‘It is completed’), its delicate timbre giving an otherworldly quality at this pivotal point in the Passion.
In addition to the choruses, which are central to the narrative, Bach has the choir singing contemplative chorales throughout the St John Passion. As Sir Simon Rattle remarks, ‘the only place of order and safety is the chorales – the haven of peace in the Passion’.
The congregation at the time of the first performance would have recognised the tunes and words of the chorales, which were used regularly in private devotion as well as in church services. As many of the chorales in the St John Passion sit in an unsuitable range for untrained voices, or are complexly harmonised, it is uncertain whether the congregation would have actually sung these chorales aloud but they certainly would have recited the words quietly to themselves during the performance.
The closing chorale is a triumphant affirmation of faith, ending with optimism, trust in the Resurrection, and a resolve to praise Christ forever.
Tickets for the Cathedral Choir's performance of the St John Passion on Saturday 7 March are still available online.