RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J., Ph.D.
Five Passions are attributed to Bach in his necrology. Of these, two, only the Saint John Passion and the Saint Matthew Passion are complete today. A Saint Mark Passion, after the only known manuscript of it was destroyed in World War II, survives in eight fragments culled principally from the Trauer Ode, Cantata 198.
The Saint john Passion was composed during Bach's first year as cantor in Leipzig in the season of Lent, 1724 (not 1723), a "tempus clausum" when in the Church's liturgy figured music was prohibited. It 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 the opening and closing choruses and added some arias which may have been derived from an earlier Passion composed at Weimar. Interpolated texts from Saint Matthew's gospel were removed for the 1730 performance, being replaced by a now lost sinfonia. In the fourth and final revision, Bach restored the original sequence but provided for augmented performing forces.
The Saint Matthew Passion, by way of contrast, was commenced about 1722, first performed on Good Friday of 1729, and was essentially complete in 1736.
The numerous revisions which the Saint John Passion underwent highlight the fact that it is a flawed masterpiece. Difficulties confront the composer arising out of the nature of John's account. Unlike the Saint Matthew's Passion narrative, which in the first half includes several dramatic scenes such as the decision of the chief priests to destroy Jesus, the anointing of Jesus with precious oil, Judas' plan for betrayal, the Passover preparation, the Last Supper, and the Agony in the Garden, John's account provides many fewer opportunities for the dramatic composer. His story commences with the arrest of Jesus. Hence, to enliven the dramatic content Bach inserted the scene of Peter's denial from Matthew's agitated narrative of the Passion "and he went out and wept bitterly.'' He also included Matthew's words concerning the earthquake and the opening of the tombs at the moment of Jesus' death.
Flawed though it may be in comparison with the Saint Matthew Passion, the words of Paul Steinitz are singularly pertinent: "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 compellingly than did his contemporaries.'' (The New Oxford History of Music, Vol. V, p. 654.) .
In truth, Bach's Passions did not spring from his supreme genius without falling heir to the traditions of the Passion 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 Selle, Schutz, Sebastiani, Keiser, Handel, and Telemann, who alone composed forty-four settings in his lifetime.
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 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 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, 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 Bohms' 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 für die Sünden 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 settings are the numerous chorales, solo and choral, which 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 opportunity to express elements of Lutheran Pietism current at the time, in giving voice, for example, 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 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 individuality of color including the use of the viole d'amore, viola da gamba, and lute, on occasion 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.)