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Bach’s St. John Passion – Program Notes

February 22, 2015

Program notes by Martin Pearlman

Bach first performed his St. John Passion on Good Friday of 1724. Written three years before his St. Matthew Passion, it was the climax of his first full season of cantatas in Leipzig and his largest work to date. His obituary tells us that he wrote five settings of the passion story, but we only know for certain of a lost St. Mark Passion and the two works that have come down to us: the St. John and the St. Matthew. In many ways, it is unfortunate that these two surviving works — both of them towering masterpieces — are the only passions from earlier times that are generally performed today. They are in our repertoire almost without context, despite the fact that there were a great many passions written by other composers, some of which are very fine works.

The St. John Passion was one of the few works that Bach revised and revived intermittently till the end of his life. It was a work on which he clearly placed a high value, but until recent times, it was often thought of as a lesser sister to the St. Matthew and was performed less often. That attitude has changed somewhat in recent decades, but the work did have early advocates: Robert Schumann, who conducted the John Passion in 1851, considered it “more daring, forceful and poetic” than the Matthew Passion. In our time, John Eliot Gardiner has called it “the more radical of Bach’s surviving passion settings.” To be sure, the Matthew Passion is even more massive than this large work and requires larger forces. But what is sometimes seen as simpler construction in the St. John also makes it more directly dramatic, more focused on telling the story. Because the structure closely follows the drama, it is more irregular than the methodically planned St. Matthew, giving it a more “operatic” feel, especially in the extraordinarily intense trial scene.

The drama is played out on multiple levels. Arias take us outside the tragic narrative at strategic points to reflect on the action, and chorales bring us forward into the present day to focus on the congregation and each member’s relation to the passion story. The chorales, in particular, provide moments of stability; although the congregation in all likelihood did not sing them along with the choir, the simple harmonized melodies would have been familiar and reassuring to them. Thus, at the end of the whole work, a chorale is placed after the last chorus to end with a strong affirmation and to return the congregation to the present day. In a concert performance, such as this one, it is akin to turning up the lights in the theater at the end of the evening.

The passion music is in two parts: Part I to be performed immediately before the sermon and Part II after it. Bach’s anonymous librettist drew on poetry from various writers for the aria texts. The gospel narrative is, of course, from St. John, but, to heighten the drama, Bach inserts two dramatic episodes from the gospel of St. Matthew — the crowing of the cock after Peter denies knowing Jesus and the earthquake that follows the crucifixion.

“It’s just as if we were at an opera!”

For its time, the St. John Passion presented its story in a relatively new and still somewhat controversial style. Already in the previous century, composers and their librettists had begun to augment the original gospel text of the passion with contemplative poetry and familiar hymns, so that the narrative, sung mainly in recitative, could be interspersed with arias and chorales to reflect on the story. By Bach’s time, some settings even paraphrased the story of the passion entirely in the words of the librettist. The most famous example of this type was that of the Hamburg poet and senator Barthold Heinrich Brockes, which was set to music by many composers, including Handel and Telemann.

This kind of “passion-oratorio,” with its interpolated arias and chorales, was popular in some parts of Germany, but it was not always welcomed by more conservative Lutherans. One writer who criticized the practice claimed to have overheard a woman exclaim, “God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at an opera.”

In conservative Leipzig, it was a mere two years before Bach took up his post there that this newer, more dramatic type of passion music was introduced into the Good Friday service. It would be fascinating to know the reaction of the congregation to the heightened drama and expanded scope of Bach’s first passion, to know whether it was an unwelcome shock or was well received. Unfortunately, we have no direct comments on the event, although, as noted below, the city council did force Bach to make some changes for subsequent performances.

Instruments

Throughout the St. John Passion, colorful orchestration intensifies the sense of mystery and drama. The work opens with a magical sound: a restless, turbulent accompaniment in the strings with anguished dissonances in the winds, all of it leading up to the cry of the chorus at its first entrance.

But the sonorities in this work are striking throughout, particularly when Bach calls for unusual instruments: a solo viola da gamba at the moment of Jesus’ death, two violas d’amore together with a lute in the arioso and aria, Betrachte, meine Seel / Erwäge, or the ethereal sound of the wooden flute and oboe da caccia in the tragic Zerfließe, mein Herze. Of these instruments, the oboe da caccia was a newcomer; this curved tenor oboe with its peculiar brass bell had only recently been developed, and Bach was one of the first composers to write for it. The viola d’amore, part viol and part violin, with seven bowed strings and seven more strings vibrating sympathetically beneath them, creates an intensely introspective sonority at the scourging of Jesus.

We presume that a harpsichord would have been used in addition to the organ, since Bach insisted that the church repair its harpsichord before the premiere. However, not having any indication of exactly where the harpsichord would have played, that decision must be left today to the performer.

For a special holiday such as Good Friday, Bach was able to combine the musical forces of the Thomas and Nikolai churches into a larger ensemble than normal. With his augmented forces plus special instruments, such as gamba, lute and harpsichord, Bach had to insist that the church provide more room in its choir loft for the premiere.

Versions

There are four versions of the St. John Passion, written for four different performances. No version is generally considered the final, finished form of the piece, although Bach did revert for the most part to his original version later in his life.

Version 1 was written for the premiere in 1724. The score to this original version is lost, although some of the parts for individual musicians have survived. Nonetheless, most of it can be reconstructed, since it was used as the basis of a manuscript started 15 years later by Bach, who made some minor revisions, and was then finished by a student.

Version 2 comes from the following year, 1725, when Bach repeated the work on Good Friday. This time, there were major changes. Perhaps he did not want to present it in exactly the same form two years in a row, but it is more likely that the changes were demanded by the city council, which often acted as censor for the parts of the text that were not directly from the gospel. Here the opening chorus was entirely replaced by a new one, O Mensch, bewein dein Sünden groß. (Bach later restored the original chorus and inserted this new one into his St. Matthew Passion.) Some of the arias and chorales were replaced, as well.

Version 3 from 1732 took out all the new material from Version 2 and reverted to the original form of the piece. It did, however, remove the two insertions from the St. Matthew gospel, including the dramatic earthquake. Perhaps this was at the insistence of the city council. How Bach patched up the resulting holes in the drama we will never know, because those inserts have been lost. We do know that an orchestral sinfonia substituted for the earthquake. He also replaced the distinctive color of the lute and violas d’amore with organ and violins, perhaps because players of these special instruments were not available.

In 1739, there was supposed to have been another performance, for which Bach began yet another revision, but, because the city council again insisted on changes, he angrily cancelled the performance.

In 1749, the year before he died, writing in a shaky hand, Bach created Version 4. Perhaps knowing that he had not long to live, he was working to complete his Mass in B minor, evidently trying to preserve both that work and this passion in a finished form. Under the circumstances, he seems to have been less worried about the city council and more concerned with putting the passion into the form that he really wanted, restoring the instruments and the music from his original version. The only concessions he seems to have made to the council are a few changes in the lyrics to soften some of the imagery. Just two months after Version 4 was performed, the city advertised for a successor to be hired in the event of Bach’s death.

Our performance follows the critical edition of Bach’s complete works, which looks at his later revisions in an attempt to deduce his final thoughts on the piece.

Controversy in our time

In recent decades, many people have been uncomfortable with the St. John Passion because of its depiction of the Jews. Much has been written about the issue, and performances now often carry “warning labels” in the form of pre-concert discussions or notes. Our own Friday performance has a distinguished panel of scholars discussing the issue, which can also be heard online at the Boston Baroque website (www.bostonbaroque.org) after the Friday performance.

It is beyond the scope and expertise of these notes to go very far into the matter, but it does seem that many scholars see the controversy as being about the source text, rather than Bach’s musical setting. Some suggest reasons why John would have shifted the blame from the Roman rulers onto the Jews, even though the trial and crucifixion were typical Roman practices. Be that as it may, Bach was given the pre-existing gospel text to set to music for the Good Friday service, but he himself may well have had no personal experience with Jews, since they were not allowed to live in Saxony at that time. He does appear to have shown a sense of religious tolerance. Not only did he work for a number of years for a Calvinist prince and also write a Catholic mass, but his markings in his personal copy of an annotated bible emphasize passages in the notes that are favorable toward Judaism, passages about the importance of Jewish writings and of King David as a source of the art of music.

A great work such as the St. John Passion speaks to our time, as well as to Bach’s, and therefore it encompasses whatever may trouble our modern sensibilities, along with all its profound and magnificent music. That is part of our modern experience of this work, just as it is for many great works of literature from the past. But a masterpiece of this level is much more than these concerns and offers a profound experience to all of us.

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