NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
Passion According to St. John
The custom of singing on four days during Holy Week the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s sufferings was widespread in the medieval church. The narrative of Matthew was sung (in Latin) on Palm Sunday afternoon, of Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, John on Friday. In medieval usage, Jesus’s words were chanted by a bass at slow speed, the evangelist's words by a baritone at moderate speed, the words of the reviling crowd by a tenor, fast. Around 1450 composers began to set the crowd utterances (called the turba sections) in three- or four-part harmony with the plainsong melody in the tenor. Renaissance composers who excelled in this type of Passion included Claudin de Sermisy (1534), Francisco Guerrero (1585), and William Byrd (1607). During the 16th century some Italian composers also harmonized the words of Jesus. Other composers beginning with Longaval around 1510 began composing Passions in which all the words of the scriptural narrative (a mixture of the four Gospels) were set polyphonically.
In Germany, Johann Walther composed a Passion (St. Matthew) in the vernacular as early as 1550. During the 17th century the new devices associated with opera such as recitative, aria, and orchestra were applied to the German Passions of Thomas Selle (1643), Christian Flor (1667), Johann Sebastiani (1672), and Johann Theile (1673). Shortly after 1700 the exact words of German Scripture were replaced by poetic paraphrases that could on occasion be extremely extravagant in their rhetoric.
As in so many other phases of his stupendous art, Bach therefore fell heir to several centuries-old traditions when he wrote the five Passions (three are lost) that Mizler mentioned in his necrology. It was Bach's unique glory to have climaxed all those traditions. Only his vast command of Biblical literature, rhetorical figures, musical architecture, and passionate emotional language could have resulted in the two sublime works premiered respectively on Good Fridays of 1724 and 1729, the Passions According to St. John and According to St. Matthew.
Bach's text for his earliest Passion, the St. John, being heard this evening, incorporates some sections from the passion poem published in 1712 by the Hamburg lawyer Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) , Der Für die Sünden dieser Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesu- this being the poem already set by such well-known masters as Reinhard Keiser in 1712, Handel and Telemann in 1716, and Johann Mattheson in 1718. However the four arias, one arioso, and final chorus for which Bach was indebted to Brockes for their text (nos. 11, 48, 60, 62, 63, and 67) have all been reworked sufficiently to give them an individual literary flavor. Spitta, the greatest of Bach's 19th-century biographers, suggested that Bach was himself responsible for not only the alterations of Brockes's texts but also for inserting two dramatic bits from Matthew's agitated narrative of the Passion to liven up John's rather contemplative narrative. In the recitative at no. 61, the earthquake scene illustrated musically with down rushing 32nd-note scales and shuddering tremolos is not in John's narrative, nor is the episode of Peter's going out and weeping bitterly when he remembered that Jesus had prophesied his threefold denial (inserted by Bach in no. 18). Also it was Bach himself who apparently unaided chose the chorales with which are interspersed the Scriptural verses from John 18 and 19 that the Evangelist sings.
The whole Passion is divided into two large Parts, the first comprising 20 numbers ending with a chorale, the second consisting of 49 numbers, again ending with a chorale. Each of the chorales that Bach intersperses at numbers 7, 9, 15, 20, 21, 27, 40, 52, 56, 60, 65 and 68 is harmonized with consummate skill in four parts. The top melody in numbers 7 and 27 is the same; so also is the chorale melody in 20, 56, and 60. Another pair sharing between them the same chorale melody are 21 and 65. However, the texts always differ even when the top melody is the same. Consequently Bach changes the harmonizations- thus imparting to each repeated chorale melody an entirely new flavor, appropriate to the individual sentiment of the text. The chorale melody for 7 and 27 is by Johann Cruger (1640), for 20, 56, and 60 by Melchior Vulpius (1609), for 21 and 65 by Seth Calvisius (1598). The other composers of chorale melodies used in this Passion were Martin Luther (9), Heinrich Isaac as adapted by Cruger (15), Johann Hermann Schein (40), Melchior Teschner (52), and Bernhard Schmidt (68).
Arthur Mendel who in 1951 edited the version of the St. John Passion sung this evening again edited it in 1973 for the new Bach complete works definitive edition now in the process of publication by the firm of Barenreiter. The new Bach edition contains facsimiles of the 1739 autograph. Also, the historical data regarding first performance at St. Nicolai Church in 1724 rather than at St. Thomas in 1723 is Chotherein confirmed. The most recent detailed study of every number in the St. John Passion was published in 1963 by the Professor of the History of Music at the Sorbonne, Jacques Chailley (Les Passions de J.S. Bach), pages 133- 259.