The Passion According to St. John

March 31, 1990, 08:00 PM
John Currie, Conductor
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
St. John Passion Johann Sebastian Bach
Paul Johnson , Tenor
William Fleck , Bass
Cynthia Westphal Johnson , Soprano
Brian Asawa , Countertenor
Edward Levy , Baritone
Kevin Dalbey , Bass/Baritone
Barbara Hancock , Soprano
George Sterne , Tenor
Patrick Ridolfi , Tenor


Of the passions which Bach wrote, only two survive, the St. John and the St. Matthew. Both are works of unique quality and greatness, and both show Bach as a creator whose taste, technique and feeling for the movement of the dramatic narrative place him above his contemporaries.
As the basis for his text, Bach uses, in the St. John Passion, the poem by Brockes, a Hamburg councillor, as previously set by Mattheson, Kaiser and Handel. But Bach, with sure literary and musical taste, rejects Brockes' metrical version of the narrative, substitutes the less puffed-up words of Luther's Bible, and even incorporates some of the more dramatic gospel incidents which occur in Matthew, but not in John - the crucifixion earthquake, the rending of the veil, and a particularly poignant portrayal of Peter's weeping. Brockes, modified, is retained for the arias.
Musically, the St. John Passion is more intimate and less dramatically violent than the St. Matthew. The meditative arioso (Betrachte, meine Seel) and the beautiful tenor aria with two violas d'amore (Erwage) have no equivalent in the St. Matthew. The character of Christus is gentler, more introverted and less ritualistic in conception. There is no Last Supper scene in the St. John.
But what the St. John does share with the St. Matthew is the superb dramatic flow, in which words of gospel narrative suddenly spark off the first lines of pietistic chorales. (Christ: Why do you strike me? Chorale: O Lord who dares to strike you?).
The St. John Passion was written for Bach's normal resources: a tiny orchestra with a small ensemble of singers. Many effective performances may be given with larger resources, skillfully used, but tonight's performance is given in the spirit of Bach's original, bearing in mind the acoustic of this large secular auditorium. But there will be no attempt to define "roles" in the operatic sense and, as in Bach's performances, both the Evangelist and Christus will sing arias as well as recitatives.
In his necrology five Passions are attributed to J.S. Bach. Of these, two, the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion are complete. A St. Mark Passion survives in eight fragments culled principally from Cantata 198 the Trauer Ode, from Cantata 54, and one movement revised for the Christmas Oratorio. The only known manuscript of the work was destroyed in World War II.
The Saint John Passion was composed during Bach's first year as Cantor in Leipzig during Lent of 1724. Normally, Lent was a "tempus clausum," that season which prohibited in the liturgy concerted music. The Passion was first performed on Good Friday, April 7 of that year in the Saint Nicholas Church. In subsequent performances in 1725, 1730, and between 1746 and 1749, Bach made numerous revisions of the work. In 1725 he interchanged, for example, the opening and closing choruses and added some arias which may seem to have been derived from an earlier Saint Matthew Passion composed in 1717 at Weimar. Interpolated texts from the Saint Matthew gospel were removed from the 1730 performance, being replaced by a now lost sinfonia. In his fourth and final revision Bach restored the original sequence of numbers but provided for augmented forces.
The Saint Matthew Passion, by way of contrast, he commenced in 1722, performed it first probably in 1727 or 1729. By 1736 it was essentially complete.
The words of Paul Steinitz pertain equally to both these works. "Bach's music almost throughout both works is of such overwhelming beauty and power that we can readily apprehend the synthesis of liturgy and oratorio or even opera that he achieved in them so infinitely more compelling than did his contemporaries" (The New Oxford History of Music, vol 5, p. 654).
In truth Bach's Passions did not spring from his supreme genius without reference to their antecedents. Evidence points to his interest in this form as early as 1714 while at Weimar. He no doubt was familiar with numerous examples of earlier and contemporary settings of all four accounts of the evangelists by such composers as Selle, Schutz, Sebastiani, Keiser, Handel, and Thiemann. The latter alone composed in his lifetime four-four settings. Moreover, Bach's predecessor, Kuhnau, had introduced the Leipzig congregations to concerted Passions.
The Passions of Bach's day had grown out of that simple unaccompanied chant setting of the medieval liturgies for Good Friday in which three clerics sang the roles of the Evangelist (a middle range voice), of Jesus (a bass voice), and one for all other individuals (a high voice), while the choir or an accomplished congregation took the part of the Turba or crowd. This chant form, still heard in essence in Catholic churches today, found embellishment and elaboration in the polyphonic forms of the 15th and 16th centuries. In Germany, subsequently, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, two Passion forms had achieved relative permanence. One was the oratorio passion established by Thomas Seele of Hamburg in 1643, the other the passion oratorio. This latter form was the type Kuhnau had introduced into Leipzig in 1721.
The oratorio passion adhered to the original structure of the chant passion but the evangelist's narrative was interrupted through the insertion of reflective poetic episodes, instrumental sinfonias, parallel Biblical texts, and madrigal-like verses or hymns.
The passion oratorio, exemplified by Keiser's The Bleeding and Dying Jesus, possessed an original libretto, exhibited a florid operatic style, and was in no way different from his successful operas. It abandoned all use of Scripture in favor of a poetic rendition of the story's episodes sung aria-fashion by male and female soloists. It exercised its influence on Bach's Saint John Passion, essentially an oratorio passion, through allusions to Bohms' setting of Christians Postel's Saint John Passion libretto, in two texts cribbed from that work, and in eight texts selected by Bach from Brockes libretto, utilized by Keiser and Handel.
Obviously, though considered by contemporaries an insufferably old-fashioned composer, Bach did not disregard the best developments of his day. As Herz notes, "Loyal to the cantus firmus (the basic traditional melodies) and the scriptural words, Bach opposed the sacred opera as a species of music that in liturgical retrospect had become shallow. By preserving the Biblical text and inserting Lutheran hymn verses, Bach returned the Passion to its liturgical substance. By using both the old and the new Bach created a synthesis which, viewed solely from the textual side, wants to be regarded as religious service rather than poetry."
Bach never lost sight of the fact that the Passion formed the core of the Good Friday liturgy. Quite special to his Passion settings are the numerous chorales, solo and ensemble, which he harmonized with consummately sensitive artistry and inserted with unerring fitness and skill into the fabric of the Passion. One may assume that since these chorales constituted the substance of the congregation's musical repertoire, the people participated explicitly in the singing of them or reverberated them to the depths of their souls in spiritual harmony with the singers.
The congregation on that Good Friday of 1724 had been summoned to Services at the St. Nicholas Church by the tolling of the Church bells at 1:15 p.m. The singing of the Passion was interrupted by a lengthy sermon, after which it resumed. Having been together for about five hours, the congregation then reverently returned home.
In whatever physical setting the Saint John 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 opportunity to express with intellectual control elements of Lutheran Pietism current at the time, for example, in giving voice to 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 with exquisitely deft touches of word-painting and emotional nuances of voice and instrument conveys 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 the Resurrection which alone makes the whole previous drama comprehensible.
The Saint John Passian is scored flutes, oboes, Oboe d'amore, Oboes da caccia, bassoon, strings and continuo. While all the choruses but one (-5) utilize the full orchestra in which the winds seldom achieve independence, the arias manifest more individuality of coloring.
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 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."

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