The Other Great Passion Bach's First Year in Leipzig
By Thomas May
The Romantic image of the composer as an isolated genius struggling to create immortal works for posterity is an undeniably powerful one. This was the mindset from which the Beethoven cult drew inspiration, and it had its parallel in the rediscovery of J.S. Bach that Felix Mendelssohn helped to spearhead through his epochal revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829.
But it’s also an anachronistic notion that ignores the real-life circumstances of Bach’s early Leipzig years, when he composed his two great Passion settings that have survived: St. John in 1724, followed by St. Matthew in 1727. He was writing for a community of fellow worshippers in response to the pragmatic needs of the liturgical calendar — and, ultimately, from his own point of view, for “the glory of God alone.” The truly remarkable phenomenon is that, in the process, Bach created towering masterpieces that indeed do transcend time and move us today.
The St. John Passion (SJP) marks the culmination of Bach’s first year as music director of the main churches in Leipzig. He had taken on the new job in 1723, at the age of 38, and — despite unpleasant tensions with both the municipal and church authorities who oversaw his post — remained there until his death. From the start, the composer set out to accomplish the almost superhuman artistic feat of providing annual cantata cycles of his own for each Sunday and feast day liturgical service. The exquisitely varied and expressive Magnificat (in its first version, for the Christmas Vespers in 1723) afforded Bach with his first opportunity since starting in Leipzig to work on a grand scale, drawing on the experiments in color and balance he had been pursuing in the cantatas. Written for the ensuing Easter season in 1724, the SJP represents a quantum leap in terms of ambition and design.
“Never before had Bach been in a position to engage in such a showcase performance,” writes Bach expert Christoph Wolff, “one
that needed to be exceptionally well prepared and that greatly advanced his experience with large-scale compositions.” Sung versions of the Passion were in themselves already a well-established tradition in Lutheranism (the practice dating back long before the Reformation). Initially such liturgical dramas were based solely on the Gospel accounts (with perhaps a concluding chorale), as in the St. John Passion setting for unaccompanied chorus by Bach’s great predecessor, Heinrich Schütz.
But the middle of the 17th century also saw the introduction of a more multilayered type of Passion. This so-called oratorio Passion interpolated meditative arias and choral numbers as commentary alongside the scriptural narrative, with instrumental accompaniment to fill out the musical texture as well. In 1712 the Hamburg-based poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes published a Passion libretto that took this form of devotional commentary even further: Gospel text itself is paraphrased in the form of devotional verse of the type used for such “commentary” sections. The success of Brockes’ text (which was set by Handel and Telemann, among others) signaled the growing popularity of this modernized oratorio Passion — that is, the narrative mixed with reflections on it — as a means to reanimate faith.
Bach’s Leipzig bosses, however, had until shortly before his arrival resisted the trend as too theatrical: too close to the secular world of opera and thus overstepping the bounds between the worldly and the sacred. Johann Kuhnau, who held the post of cantor at the Thomaskirche immediately before Bach, was finally allowed to introduce a full-scale musical Passion there in 1721, setting a model for his successor. The Passion narrative itself had to be told using the original Gospel source (in the vernacular German) rather than a poetic paraphrase, as in Brockes’ libretto. This narrative served as the backbone for the contemplative interludes of arias and choruses that set both familiar hymn texts and newly written verse. Later, for his St. Matthew Passion, Bach collaborated with the poet Picander (a fellow Leipziger) and thus benefitted from a unified libretto. The sources for the non-biblical texts in the SJP are far more heterogeneous, possibly compiled by the composer himself from a variety of devotional sources.
The SJP clearly held a special significance for its composer. For the next quarter century, until just before his death, Bach periodically revisited the score: first, for a revival in 1725, the year after its premiere (making changes that anticipate further experiments in the St. Matthew Passion of 1727); again in the 1730s (he also abandoned one attempt at a large-scale revision of the entire score at the end of this decade); and, in 1749, to restore the structure he had originally envisioned in 1724 while enlarging the scope of forces involved. For this performance, Music Director Grant Gershon has chosen the Bärenreiter edition created by Arthur Mendel in 1974, which essentially follows the order of the first and final versions and includes some alterations that did not make it into any of the complete versions.
With his SJP, Bach was embarking on the most ambitious project of his career to date as a composer of sacred music. It gave him a chance “to show on a large canvas what modern music — his music — could do towards defining and strengthening belief,” as conductor John Eliot Gardiner has observed. The modern oratorio Passion format, with its intersecting dimensions of past and present, juxtaposes the biblical template with its contemporary resonance: the ancient story fulfills a function comparable to that of myth for the Romantics. And along with Bach’s determination to bolster faith, the SJP’s complex structural organization allows him to explore the universal implications of guilt and grace underlying this story of suffering and death.
That story itself follows the straightforward dramatic momentum of the relatively brief account in St. John’s Gospel (chapters 18 and 19), which is about a third shorter than St. Matthew’s Passion narrative. It comprises the following major episodes or changes of “scene”: the arrest of Jesus, his appearances before Annas and the high priest Caiaphas, and Peter’s denial (Part One), and then the tribunal directed by Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and death, responses to his death, and his burial (Part Two). The compactness of the narrative even led Bach to interpolate two details from Matthew’s account: Peter’s reaction to the painful truth of his denial (an unforgettable example of the emotional power Bach could wring from the most economical recitative context) and the earthquake following Jesus’ death. Although John represents Jesus as a kind of Übermensch aware of what is to befall him, the SJP imparts a distinctly dramatic and human sense of the suffering of life. This narrative (which is drawn from Luther’s German translation of the Bible — see sidebar) is conveyed through a mixture of recitative and “crowd choruses,” with singers assigned to such roles as the narrating Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, and Peter.
But amplifying this narrative layer of the well-known story are several other layers. While the first takes place in the biblical/historical past, the series of intervening chorales shift to the devotional perspective of the worshipper in the present moment. They introduce a comforting musical familiarity, via instantly recognizable hymn tunes, that parallels the narrative familiarity. (The chorale melody ending Part One, commenting on Peter’s denial, is given special prominence.) Along with their dramaturgical aspect — encouraging identification with the present community — the simplicity of the chorales plays a structural role as a counterweight to the intricacy and elaborateness of the arias.
The latter (two for soprano, two for alto, three for tenor, and three for bass) bridge the realms of past narrative and present identification: here, in the score’s most emotionally wrought moments, Bach actually seems to melt away all distinctions of time and place. Thus the longest aria, the tenor’s “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (“Imagine how his blood-bespattered back”), serves as the pivotal center of the work. Later, Bach makes this role explicit as he segues directly from the movingly direct arioso setting of Jesus’ final words (“es ist vollbracht”/”It is finished”) to the alto’s aria of the same name. The arias moreover employ a remarkable variety of instrumental colors, calling for a continually changing palette of such characterful instruments as the lute and viola da gamba (an instrument “closely associated with Lutheran sentiments about the sweetness of death,” according to Malcolm Boyd).
In addition to these layers, in which reflection and devotion interrupt and enhance the narrative momentum, Bach explores the central theological paradox of the SJP throughout in the non-biblical interpolations: the paradox of suffering as the path to salvation or enlightenment. The two pillar-like choruses that frame the work dramatize this musically. The roiling, restless momentum of the opening one (“Herr, unser Herrscher”), charged by dissonances and magnificent “surround-sound” choral effects, immerses us at once into the world of struggle, of Samsara. Set in da capo form, the return to the beginning has a tragic circularity. Tellingly, Bach juxtaposes the words “Niedrigkeit” (“lowliness”) and “verherrlicht” (“glorified”).
At the point of Jesus’ death, he further explores the Passion’s central paradox in the aria “Es ist vollbracht,” which contrasts the dejected
line of the opening B minor melody with imagery of the “hero from Judah” as a warrior in a D major middle section. Elsewhere, negative images become transformed: the blood-stained body into a rainbow (the tenor’s “Erwäge”), prison into the source of our freedom (the chorale “Durch dein Gefängnis”). The final chorus, singing of the grave as the opening of heaven, converts the tragic waves of the opening chorus into a gentle sarabande. The phrase “ruht wohl” (“rest well/in peace”) applies not only to the wish for Jesus at this stage in the Passion story but to the listeners/congregation as well, in a kind of transference: requiem becomes lullaby. To this (unlike the parallel moment in the St. Matthew Passion), Bach appends another simple chorale, mediating from the epic level of the framing choruses back to the simple and every day.
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Is the St. John Passion Anti-Semitic?
In recent years, this troubling question has become part of the debate around the legacy and interpretation of the SJP. The issue involves John’s portrayal of the Jews in his Gospel narrative, particularly as reflected in the German translation by the notoriously anti-Semitic Martin Luther which Bach set to music. As musicologist Michael Steinberg aptly observes, Bach “could not very well choose to edit or censor the text of the Gospel.” Some performances of the SJP in English attempt to glide over the issue by explicitly substituting the word “people” for “the Jews.” Yet according to Michael Marissen in his classic study of this question from 1998, Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion, Bach implicitly accomplishes what amounts to the same strategy by introducing reflective moments into the non-scriptural commentaries that are meant to shift the blame for Jesus’ death to all of humanity.