by Jon Washburn
The twentieth century has returned the St. John Passion to small choirs, to the great delight of us all. It was Mendelssohn who started performing Bach's extended works again in the nineteenth century, after they had lain dormant for several generations. But Mendelssohn's Oratorio-ideal meant large choir and large orchestra, and so he started a long tradition of Bach performances in "choral society" fashion. However, modern musical scholarship has re-affirmed the basic chamber music proportions and qualities of Bach's vocal works. Bach's own performances of these works involved very modest resources. For instance, in his famous 1730 memorandum to the Leipzig Town Council, Bach said:
"Every musical choir should contain at least 3 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and as many basses ... (N.B. Though it would be still better if the classes were such that one could have 4 singers on each part and thus perform every chorus with 16 persons.)" He then sets a proper orchestra at 18 players, mentioning "2 or even 3 for the first violin"!
Modern performances of Bach's Passions with similarly small performance forces are becoming very frequent, for despite the undeniable pleasures of the large choral society with its great weight and power of numbers, many performers feel that Bach's music speaks even more eloquently through the taut rhythms and transparent textures of the smaller ensemble. After all, Bach was not only a great genius, but also a very pragmatic craftsman, and he did compose the St. John co make its proper effect through his own modest performing resources. It is also this practical side of Bach's situation which gives modern performers some leeway in regard to various instrumental choices - such as lute or harpsichord, and so forth. Similar to Handel, who left many different performing versions of Messiah, Bach has left records of four different versions of the St. John Passion, leaving it to the performer to use what seems best for each particular occasion, the same as he did.
Perhaps the most incongruous aspect of a modern performance is that it so often takes place in a large concert hall before a concert audience, so foreign to the church and congregation for which the music was intended. However, Bach's genius is uncanny and his music can transform hall into sanctuary and concert into worship if you allow it (or will it) to do so.
As an introduction to the work itself, I offer the following excerpts from Wilfrid Mellers' fascinating book Bach and the Dance of God. In a few sentences, he outlines the elements of a passion and compares Bach's works to Baroque Opera and Greek Tragedy:
"Since the passion in Bach's St. John Passion is the human joy and suffering in our pilgrimage on earth as well as Christ's sacrifice, it is logical that the heart of the experience should be in recitative ... Bach's recitative is unambiguously operatic, growing from the spoken inflections of the German language, reinforced by the stabilities or tensions of the continuo's harmony. We live through the story with a (sense of) physical and psychological immediacy ... The arias, on the other hand, though an operatic convention, are seldom operatic in effect, but rather lyrical reflections on what has occurred in the recitative and narrative or dramatic choruses ... The arioso sections ... are a halfway house between secco recitative and the melodic fulfillment of aria ... Arioso effects transitions between the mundane and the divine. Jesus habitually sings in arioso - speech heightened to lyricism and usually accompanied by instruments additional to the continuo; other characters do so when under stress that at least holds a promise of benediction (for instance Peter's weeping).
'The threefold interrelationship of recitative, arioso and aria in the solo vocal music is roughly paralleled by the relationship between the three kinds of choral music which Bach employs. Just as recitative evokes the immediacy of the personal life, so short, naturalistic outbursts of the turba (crowd) are the public life in immediate action: people's music, 'common' in being the utterance of men unredeemed. The large-scale polyphonic choruses, on the other hand, present the experience of mankind rather than that of men and women at a particular time and place. They usually start from physical gestures that are topical and local, but become arioso-like aces of transcendence, impersonal in their spacious polyphonic unfolding. The turba choruses are thus present action; the big polyphonic choruses are simultaneously action and reflection; while the third type of chorus - the originally congregational chorales - remains outside the historical context, being meditations here and now ... Allied to this is the fact that the chorale melodies are literally 'people's music', public property in the sense that Luther gathered them together for domestic use... By way of his four-part harmonization Bach changes the character of the chorale melodies in rendering them expressive, even subjective, so that we sense the words' relevance to himself and to ourselves as worshippers. Yet despite this romantic introversion the popular and communal nature of the tunes - created not by Bach but by a people and a Church - is not relinquished; and this ability to function at once historically and mythologically suggests a parallel between a Bach Passion and a Greek tragedy. In both the audience is also a congregation which participates in story and action vicariously; both tell the tale of a Dying God in terms that are simultaneously dramatic and sacramental; both intensify speech to chant or song since human beings, in a cosmological context, may become 'larger than life'; both relate the hero's destiny to that of a people, interrelating personal drama (dialogue, monologue, recitative-arioso-aria) with public action and commentary (the varieties of choric writing)."
by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Five Passions are attributed to Bach in his necrology. Of these only the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion have survived completely. The St. John Passion was begun at Cothen, in preparation for his pending transfer to the Cantorship at Leipzig, where it was completed and first performed in Saint Nicholas Church on Good Friday, April 7, 1724. Bach made numerous revisions to this Passion, some necessitated by the circumstances of subsequent performances, others to enhance the Passion's unity and dramatic quality. In the latter instance he interpolated texts from St. Matthew's gospel. Bach also provided in later versions for augmented performing forces. He completed the final version of the St. John Passion in the last year of his life, 1750.
By way of contrast, he commenced the St. Matthew Passion's composition about 1722. It was first performed in 1729 and essentially completed in 1736. While considerably shorter than the St. Matthew Passion, the dramatic element in the St. John Passion is more vehement, attaining a dramatic violence that is pure music drama.
Since John's account provides considerably fewer opportunities for the dramatic composer than Matthew's account does, Bach inserted into John's narrative Matthew's account of Peter's denial and remorse, as well as recounting the earthquake and the opening of the tombs of the dead at the moment of Jesus' death.
Paul Steinitz offers a significant evaluation: "Bach's music throughout both Passions is of such overwhelming beauty and power that we can readily apprehend the synthesis of liturgy and oratorio - or even an opera - that he achieved in them so infinitely more compelling than did his contemporaries." (The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. 55 p. 654.)
In truth, Bach's Passions did not spring from his supreme genius without falling heir to the traditions behind that genre. Evidence points to his interest in the form as early as 1714 at Weimar. He no doubt studied numerous examples of both early and contemporary settings of all four accounts of the evangelists by such as Schlitz, Selle, Sebastiani, Keiser, Handel, and the prolific Telemann who alone composed 44 settings in his lifetime, 1681 - 1767. The Passion of Bach's day had grown out of the simple unaccompanied chant settings of the medieval liturgies for Good Friday in which three clerics of the rank of deacon and priest sang the roles of the evangelist (a middle range voice), of Jesus (a bass voice), and all other individuals (a high Johann Sebastian Bach voice), while a choir or accomplished congregation took the part of the turba or crowd. However, this basic form was subsequently embellished and elaborated by polyphonic settings of the 15th and 16th centuries. In Germany by the 18th century two forms had achieved relative permanence. One was the oratorio Passion established by Thomas Selle of Hamburg in 1643; the other the Passion oratorio, which in its elaborated form had arrived in Leipzig in 1721 and been performed by Kuhnau, the Cantor.
The oratorio Passion followed the original structure of the chant passion, but the evangelist's narrative was interrupted through the insertion of reflective poetic episodes, instrumental sinfonia, parallel biblical texts, and madrigal-like verses or hymns. The Passion oratorio, the text of which was often a completely original one, exhibited a florid operatic style. It exercised its influence on Bach's Saint John Passion, essentially an oratorio Passion, through musical allusions to Bohm's setting of Christian Postel's Saint John Passion libretto. This influence is also seen in two texts selected from that work and in eight texts selected by Bach from Brockes' famed libretto (used by Keiser and Handel) Der fur die Sunden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende jesus (Jesus martyred and dying for the sins of the world). As in other compositions in other forms, Bach brought the Passion to perfection.
Bach never lost sight of the fact that the Passion formed the core of the Good Friday liturgy. Quite special to his Passion setting are the 14 radiantly simple and devout four-part chorus chorales of his own selection and 12 lyric stanzas for the choruses, arias, ariosos that he harmonized with consummate artistry and inserted unerringly into the fabric of the Passion. In whatever physical setting the Passion is performed, its essentially religious and liturgical orientation must be kept in mind, if we are to probe Bach's insights. The meditative ariosos and arias furnished him an opportunity to express elements of Lutheran Pietism current at the time i.e. the lamentations of the symbolic "Daughter of Zion." It is, however, in the evangelist's recitatives and in the words of Jesus and the turba that Bach conveys, with exquisitely deft touches of word painting and emotional nuances of voice and instrument, the essence of his faith and inner conviction in the reality of Christ's redemptive suffering. In the closing chorale, "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein," he thrusts us toward the vision of Resurrection, which alone makes the whole previous drama comprehensible.
The Saint John Passion is scored for two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo realized on the harpsichord and organ. While all the choruses but one (No. 5) utilize the full orchestra (in which the winds seldom achieve independence) the arias manifest more individualities of color including the use of the viola d' amore, viola da gamba, and lute (occasionally replaced by the harpsichord).
Basil Smallman in his book, The Background of Passion Music states by way of summary: "The greatness of the Saint John Passion lies in the vivid, visual realism of its dramatic presentation of the story. By means of sharply drawn contrast between the fanatical fury of the crowd and the spiritual calm and detachment of Christ, Bach achieves a powerful and imaginative interpretation of the Gospel tragedy in which a strong link is retained with the religious dramas of medieval times. Disunity in the musical structure arises, as we have seen, mainly from the composer's attempt to make an unsuitable text conform entirely to the conventions of the contemporary Oratorio style with its bipartite construction and its liberal use of meditative commentary ... the Saint John Passion represents an idealized form of the ancient liturgical Dramatic type: of Passion." (pp.43f)