Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Hierarchies and continuities
in televised productions of Bach’s Passions

by Uri Golomb

Bach’s Passions are often perceived as the closest he came to opera; and several directors have attempted to create theatrical versions for them (see, for instance, my review of Deborah Warner’s St John’s Passion). Even a visual representation of an “ordinary” concert or studio performance, however, can affect our perception of Bach’s music, and here I will attempt to show this through an examination of two filmed versions, based on performances of the two Passions by the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra under the direction of Karl Richter. The two film directors, Arne Arnbom and Hugo Käch, project similar views of the works; but their conception of their own role as film directors, vis-à-vis the musicians, are strikingly different.

My topic therefore lies at the intersection of at least two subjects:
1. Bach reception and performance;
2. The way film directors can affect our perception of the music and its performance.

This latter field is in its infancy: the most comprehensive work known to me – a study of Beethoven symphonies on film – is a recently-completed dissertation by my compatriot Edith Shulman.2 It is partly her project that inspired me to look into the visual representations of Bach performance, as an adjunct to my own research on Bach audio recordings.

My title should have been, perhaps, “Hierarchies and discontinuities”: my primary focus is on two films which project a highly stratified, “terraced” view of these works. This view is now recognised as being far removed from Bach’s original conception; but its impact on the works’ reception history is undeniable.

Bach’s solo singers – his “concertists”, who sang both solo pieces and choral movements – formed the backbone of his choir. Even those scholars who reject the hypothesis that Bach’s choir consisted, in most cases, exclusively of concertists, accept that Bach did not employ soloists in the modern sense, who sung only arias and duets and fell silent during the choruses and chorales. In the Passions, the implication is clear: the gospel narrative, the Lutheran chorales and the “modern” poetry of the choruses and arias – all these were sung by the same people. Bach Scholars – including several of the keynote speakers in this conference – are now coming to grips with the significance of this basic unity; and performers (even those employing a “traditional” choir) are beginning to take this into account.

For a brief illustration of this, here is an excerpt from a recent live concert performance directed by Masaaki Suzuki. Suzuki adopts some of the Rifkin/Parrott findings: he uses a choir, but the soloists (except for the Evangelist) are part of it.3 His style of performance creates a clear sense of continuity between and within movements. The excerpt I’m about to play clearly shows the bass Stephen MacLeod singing both Christus and the first notes of the chorale; the discrete “numbers” continue into one another, and this sense of flexible flow and continuity can also be felt in the internal shaping of individual movements.

1:46 into

In most modern performances, however, soloists only sing recitatives and arias; they do not take part in choruses. In the Passions, there is a further separation: the Evangelist and Christus do not usually sing any of the tenor or bass arias (unlike their counterparts in Bach’s own performances).

The result is a clear separation between the various genres incorporated into Bach’s passions. The Evangelist and others narrates a story; the arias represent personalised responses by individual believers. Chorales represent the traditional prayers of the community,4 and are viewed as essentially different from the turba choruses (which are part of the story) or the “madrigal” choruses which, like the arias, are part of the more modern, personalised response to the story. The fact that the same choir sings all three is seen as largely coincidental.

Karl Richter was one of the primary representatives of this approach. Unlike some his East German mentors, he did not advocate a non-expressive style of performance; but he did preach – and often practice – uniformity of affect: once a movement’s basic parameters (such as tempo, articulation, timbre, dynamics) were established, they were hardly altered – except for the abrupt changes known as “terraced dynamics”. In his performances, arias are frequently freer and more flexible than choruses; and chorales are often treated with even greater internal uniformity.

In the early 1970s, Richter made two films of the Bach passions: the Johannes Passion in the Klosterkirche Dießen, Ammersee, directed by Arne Arnbom, and the Matthäus Passion in the Bavaria-Studios in Munich (München-Geiselgasteig), directed by Hugo Käch.5 In different ways, both directors intensified the strict, hierarchical distinction between genres which is already articulated in Richter’s performances.

The basic impression in Arnbom’s film is of a continuous performance overlaid with extraneous visual images. It’s as if the musicians just “did their thing”, without the director’s intervention;6 Arnbom’s added interpretation lies in the images surrounding the film. The narrative portions are shown as in filmed concerts; but chorales and arias are given a more distinctive visual treatment.

Here is the same portion we’ve seen in Suzuki’s performance as presented by Richter and Arnbom. Richter’s stratified conception is intensified by his adherence to the tradition that separates Christus from the rest of the narrative: Richter plays harpsichord throughout the narrative – except when Christus sings. The isolation of the chorales (clearly evident in the long pause between Christ’s words and the beginning of the chorale) is highlighted by Arnbom’s decision to present all of them with slides showing the text – as if inviting the audience to sing along. The static visual impression in the chorale is complemented by the similarly static character of Richter’s musical interpretation.

the recitative is on

the chorale is on

This division doesn’t allow viewers to appreciate the length of the silence between the two, clearly apparent when watching the DVD in sequence.

It should be noted that all the chorales in this film are treated in exactly the same manner: the choir is seen during the first and last lines; during the rest of the chorale, we see a slide with the text.

In the arias, Arnbom shows visual images, mostly drawn from The Gospel Book of Otto III (Germany, c. 1000). The images match (coincidentally or otherwise) Richter’s stark view of Bach’s music. They usually present the narrative scene that preceded the aria, thus reminding the audience exactly what the aria is supposedly commenting upon.

In Part One of the passion, Arnbom allows us to see the musicians as well as his added image. In “Ach, mein Sinn”, for example, he films Richter as he rises from the harpsichord after accompanying the recitative (which refers to Petrus’s weeping as he hears the cock crow and realises that he has betrayed Jesus), and starts conducting the aria. The visual images are only shown after the singer’s first phrase, and alternate with images of the musicians.

The aria is on

For the image of Richter rising from the harpsichord to conduct this aria, see the end of

The images’ presence increases as the film progresses; in several arias in part two, the musicians are never shown – not even once – and instead we are repeatedly shown the relevant Gospel Book images.

See, for example:

There is a didactic feel to Arnbom’s direction. In the chorales, the audience is reminded of the words; in the arias, the audience is reminded of the story.7 The musicians are increasingly marginalized. However, when they are shown, the film is not different from conventional filmed concerts, or from the many standard studio productions that Unitel produced during the same period.

The Matthäus-Passion was directed by Hugo Käch. Like Arnbom, Käch isolates the three genres from each other – but does so in a strikingly different manner. He shows the musicians throughout, and creates the separation by re-positioning the musicians themselves and through the employment of filming and lighting techniques. He thus shatters the illusion of sequential performance, which Arnbom still retains.

The cornerstone of Käch’s conception is white-dominated stage set by Fritz Gabriel Bauer created (I assume) especially for Käch’s production, and probably inspired by Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross; this can be clearly seen by placing the two images side by side:

Salvador Dali: Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951)

Fritz Gabriel Bauer: Set for Hugo Käch’s Matthäus-Passion

The huge cross dominates the proceedings, the one permanent spatial feature in a film which otherwise has a disorienting tendency to blur the spatial distribution of the musicians. The “still” picture shows a panorama of the performing forces as they appear in the opening chorus: the orchestra in the front, above them the two choirs – clearly separated from each other – and above them, the boys’ choir. The soloists are nowhere to be seen.

In the next two numbers – the first recitative and the first chorale – Käch already reveals a clear tendency towards strict separation. The Evangelist is seen in front of an organ – it is not clear where he is in relation to the orchestra or choir, or where exactly the harpsichord that accompanies him is situated. Christus sings his first statement in near-isolation – we can see that there is a choir behind him, but they are blurred, and so is their position relative to them.

The chorales present yet another jump. In all of them, the two choirs stand together, as one group, and are shown in isolation: the orchestra is heard, but not seen. The choir becomes a congregation. It is not clear where exactly they are placed; my guess is that Käch placed them in the uppermost balcony, where the boys’ choir stood in the opening and closing choruses of Part I.

It is a fair guess that all the chorales were filmed in one session, or one series of sessions, and then slotted into their appropriate places. Perhaps this was done in the filming of Arnbom’s Johanens Passion as well; if so, Arnbom took pains to disguise this. Käch, on the other hand, exploits the discontinuity of a typical studio session, turning it into a dramatic device. He sometimes even goes so far as to simulate an extra degree of discontinuity. Thus, in “so ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”, the two soloists obviously stand between choir and orchestra – and at first that’s visibly obvious. Yet soon afterwards, Käch makes it seem as if they’re standing behind a darkened curtain which we know isn’t actually there: that is, as if they were filmed separately from the choir and orchestra.

Käch’s cinematic concept also allows him to present certain scenes almost in terms of theatrical staging, despite the lack of alternating decors or of any costumes. Thus, in the agony of Gethsamene, we see the gradual isolation of Christ, achieved through changes in lighting and filming angles (Schramm’s actual position vis-à-vis the choir does not change). In No. 27, for instance, Schramm is shown in way which clarifies his position with respect to the choir – and emphasises the distance, pitting him as an individual against what seems like a distant block.

About 5:30 into

And towards the end of No. 34, the flight of the Disciples is reflected by a gradual darkening, clinching Christ’s isolation.

The last minute in

Käch’s approach blurs the continuity of Bach’s original conception, in which the narrative drama was arguably subordinate to the psychological drama of the “present-day” believers. The separation between soloists and choir is not Käch’s invention, of course; at the time, it was simply taken for granted. Käch does accentuate it, however, and creates a distinction which did not exist even in standard concert performances at the time – that between the choruses and chorales; and thus negates the sense of identity between the believers and the dramatis personae.

A particularly striking example is the scene where the crowd calls for Barabbam’s release and Christ’s crucifixion, where the crowd’s cries of “let him be crucified” are interrupted by the chorale (“How miraculous indeed is this punishment”). In the notes to his recording, Gardiner comments that, in this case, “the two choirs are required to change from vindictive mob to the community of adoring believers within a minim rest”. In Käch’s film, the effect is strikingly different. Pilate’s isolation from the chorus is strikingly depicted,8 and the chorus and chorale were clearly filmed separately. The example I’ll show also includes the beginning of the soprano’s recitative “He has done good to us all”, which is also in itself typical: the gleaming-white performance stage is darkened, creating the illusion that these arias were filmed in a different location from the rest (though, if one looks closely, one can notice moments where the empty choir stalls are visible in the background).

This example starts about 7:20 into

and continues into

Throughout Käch’s film, there is a mismatch in many details in terms of the relationship between what we see and what we hear. For example, the orchestra is heard but not shown in the chorales; the organ behind Schreier is not the Choir I organ that accompanies him, but the organ of Choir II.

But there is a degree of complicity in the overall view: the sense of hierarchical separation between participants and genres, of stratified discontinuity, is common to both, as is the isolation of certain dramatic moments. Both Richter and Käch, for example, respond to the tradition of viewing the words “truly this was the son of God” as a moment of special symbolic, even mystical significance:

0:54 into

Incidentally, Richter is shown here standing next to the harpsichord, which he played in the preceding recitative – whereas in the arias and choruses, we see him conducting from an empty podium. This illustrates, yet again, that Käch took no trouble to disguise the discontinuity of the performwhich created this film.

Overall, these two films show very different conceptions of the film director’s role. If Arnbom interfered with the musicians’ actions and spatial positioning, he disguised this; Käch flaunts his creativity. Both, however, promote the notion that Bach’s Passions are constructed from discrete, contrasted units – reminding one of Glenn Gould statement that “Bach was a director who thought in terms of cuts rather than dissolves” (“Art of the Fugue”, in The Glenn Gould Reader, p. 22).9 In this sense, performance style and filming style seem to arise from similar visions of the music’s meaning and structure.

© Uri Golomb, 2009


Films referred to in this lecture

Johannes Passion: Karl Richter/ Arne Arnbom
Münchener Bach-Chor / Münchener Bach-Orchester
Tenor [Evangelist]: Peter Schreier; Bass [Jesus]: Ernst Gerold Schramm; Bass [Peterus, Pilatus]: Siegmund Nimsgern; Soprano: Helen Donath; Contralto: Julia Hamari; Tenor: Horst R. Laubenthal; Bass: Kieth Engen
Unitel / Deutsche Grammophon Sep 1970
Recorded at Diesen am Ammersee, Klosterkirche

Matthäus Passion: Karl Richter/ Hugo Käch
Münchener Bach-Chor / Münchener Bach-Orchester
Tenor [Evangelist]: Peter Schreier; Bass [Jesus]: Ernst Gerold Schramm; Bass [Judas, Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate]: Siegmund Nimsgern; Soprano [Arias]: Helen Donath; Contralto [Arias]: Julia Hamari; Tenor [Arias]: Horst Laubenthal; Bass [Arias]: Walter Berry
Unitel / Deutsche Grammophon May 1971
Filmed at Bavaria Studios, Munich, Germany.

Johannes Passion: Masaaki Suzuki/ Shokichi Amano
Bach Collegium Japan
Tenor [Evangelist]: Gerd Türk; Bass [Jesus]: Stephan MacLeod; Soprano: Midori Suzuki; Counter-tenor [Alto Arias]: Robin Blaze; Bass [Pilate]: Chiyuki Urano
NHK/EuroArts Suntory Hall, Tokyo, July 28, 2000.



1 This paper is based on a lecture I gave at the CHARM/SMA Study Day “Representing performance: Musical recordings in culture” (Royal Holloway, University of London, October 30, 2004; and at the SMA Study Day on “Bach’s Passions” (University of Glasgow, April 24-25, 2009; ).
2 I have learned, more recently, of a similar project on the filming of Beethoven’s symphonies, undertaken by Gaia Varon in Italy.
3 In arias, they move from the chorus to a special platform. Stephen MacLeod sings Christus from within the choir, but the two bass arias from the platform. Only the Evangelist, Gerd Türk, consistently stands apart from the rest.
4 As Dorottya Fabian notes, several scholars
        regard the chorales [as] congregation hymns for communal singing and advocate a simple, straightforward performance that is not overtly 
        emotional or ‘artistic’ (Bach performance practice, p. 105)
They also advocate a slow-to-moderate tempo of crotchet = 60 (Blankenburg, quoted ibid).
5 The Passion films were part of a larger series, which also included films of Brandenburg Concertos and the B-minor Mass, made in the late 1960s.
6 The spatial relation between soloists, choir and orchestra not always clear (the Evangelist, in particular, is almost always shown in isolation); the organ is never shown except from a distance. However, a few accidental shots do allow the careful observer to reconstruct the entire layout.
7 Not always the “correct” story, though: some of the images that Arnbom shows are not mentioned in the text that Bach set to music, since they are drawn from other gospels – not St. John’s.
8 This one feature is, incidentally, historically accurate: Bach did assign the role of a Pilate to a separate singer, who wasn’t part of either of the two choruses. I doubt, however, if Käch or Richter were aware of this – just as I doubt that they were aware of the fact that Christus was meant to take part in the choruses and sing two arias.
9 Shokichi Amano’s film of Suzuki’s performance represents a more documentary approach to music filming. Its more rounded, continuous image is created, in no small part, by Suzuki’s historically-inspired decisions on spatial positioning.


Contributed by Uri Golomb (September 16, 2010)

Uri Golomb: Short Biography | Articles: Text, music and performative interpretation in Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) | Sellars Staging | The St. John Passion on stage | András Schiff/Philharmonia Orchestra: Johann Sebastian Bach, 2000 | Hierarchies and continuities in televised productions of Bach’s Passions


Back to the Top

Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 14:19