St. John Passion
by Audrey Wong and Norm Proctor
Bach composed his Johannes-Passion during the early months of
1723, intending it as a Good Friday service for Thomaskirche in Leipzig,
where he was expecting to be appointed Cantor. During this period, Bach
worked without a poet-collaborator, choosing texts from existing passion
poems and altering them, if necessary, to fit his concept.M/p>
To appreciate Bach's St. John Passion, it is useful first to compare it
to his St. Matthew Passion (composed 1736). Both are large works that set
two chapters of the passion story in recitative. The tenor is the
narrator, the voice of the evangelist, whether John or Matthew, and the
other soloists sing the words of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and others who
participate in the story. Whenever the crowd, the soldiers, or another
group of people speak, Bach gives their words to the chorus with more
elaborate settings than in the solo recitatives.
The chorus and soloists have a second role as active listeners to the
story, who express the sentiments of the Lutherans for whom Bach wrote the
passions. The soloists' arias and the chorales of the chorus are placed at
telling points in the scriptures where their modern (to Bach) texts serve
as an appropriate commentary. The chorus also sings long and complex
numbers to open and close the passions.
The instrumentalists play a significant role as well, especially in the
commenting movements. An aria may really be a trio for one singer with two
oboes, flutes, or violins. And in choral crowd scenes, the orchestra
typically adds still more voices to an already intricate counterpoint.
Though a big work by most standards, Bach's John Passion is much shorter
than his grand Matthew Passion. Bach takes his cue from the difference in
the texts. The account in John is less dramatic than in the other gospels.
Accordingly, Bach makes of it a subtler, more personal, more intimate
John's version strips the passion story of its mission, fulfillment, and
promise, omitting many of the symbolic, portentous, and stirring events.
John relates so many of Jesus's teachings at the Last Supper that the scene
cannot be included at all. Absent as well are the agony in the garden of
Gethsemane, the death of Judas, the ominous dream of Pilate's wife, and
even the crowd's final acknowledgement that "truly he was the son of
Some of the omissions John makes were apparently just too much for Bach.
He borrows from the gospel of Matthew for Peter's lament and for the
earthquake, both of which are colorfully set.
All the cuts, as Bach clearly recognizes, help to focus the drama on
Christ's trial before Pilate, a political, psychological and emotional
conflict, but one without obvious good-guy and bad-guy roles. In those two
chapters of John, Christ is not a particularly strong character. He does
not claim to fulfill scriptures, nor does he make prophecies. And in the
end he dies quetly. Pilate on the other hand has great presence though he
can be interpreted as either a sympathetic figure or a smooth, crafty
Notes on the John Passion always feature the ingenious, palindromic
structure of the piece. (See tables next page.) The work is flanked by
two massive choruses, the opening Herr, unser Herrscher, a complex
and compelling invocation, and the ending Ruht wohl, a sweet and
lingering graveside parting. Within this framework Bach transcends mere
sequence of individual numbers by arranging musically similar choruses
symmetrically around a central chorale. Nine choral movements, the last
four mirroring the first four, revolve around the pivot point in the drama,
the height of the psycho-emotional conflict, when Pilate searches for a way
to release Christ while the high priests scream for Christ to die.
Here and throughout the work, Bach pairs off choral movements that share
similar texts or sentiments. The music with which the soldiers mockingly
hail the King of the Jews reappears when the priests demand that Pilate
"write not that he is King of the Jews." A more ironic pairing is Bach's
choice of the same chorale tune to contemplate first Peter's thoughtlessly
denying his master and then Jesus's thoughtfully providing for his mother.
On an even larger scale, Bach takes the grating chromatic notes with which
the oboes pierce the dark turbulence of the opening chorus and repeats this
harsh, sinister sound in the choral cries of "crucify him" and in the
frenetic, agitated orchestral accompaniments of five other angry-mob
With so much attention paid to Bach's "formal concept of genius," not
enough is said about his word and tone painting, examples of which appear
The evangelist, who relates the very dry narrative, has opportunity to
emote on many pictorial words (for instance geielte, "scourged," takes
three whole measures) and phrases ("Simon Peter had a sword, he drew it
forth, and struck at the high priest's man") The chorales, though based on
familiar hymn tunes, are characterized by exceptionally rich harmonies -
poignant, sinister, or glorious - which highlight significant words or
phrases. The complexity of the chorales makes it obvious that they were
not meant to be sung by a congregation.
Solo arias are characterized by their intricacy in form and wealth of
imagery. The alto's Von den Stricken, "From the tangle of my
transgression," is an elaborate weaving of vocal and instrumental lines.
In the tenor aria Erwäge, "Consider," the words for "waves of water"
are sung in undulating phrases and "rainbow" is one long rhapsodic arch.
Ich folge dir, "I will follow thee," has a flute line that "follows"
after the soprano line. The bass Eilt, "Hasten ye," is a compelling
"running" line of eighth notes.
Bach's St. John Passion is gloomy, stressful, highly emotional, and
powerfully meditative. Its depth comes from its subtlety. There is no
noble hero, no mustache-twirling villian, no hummable tunes. As difficult
as it was to work within the confines of John's text, Bach was able to
create a moving work with musical, spiritual, and psychological unity of
SYMMETRY OF THE CHORUSES
#1 Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord, our rules)
#2b Jesum von Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth)
#12b Bist du nicht (Art thou not)
#2d Jesum von Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth)
#16b Wäre dieser nicht ein beltäter (If he were not a
#27b Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen (Let us not rend it)
#16d Wir drfen niemand töten (It is not lawful for us)
#18b Nicht diesen (Not this man)
#21b Sei gegret (Hail)
#21d Kreuzige, kreuzige (Crucify)
#23f Wir haben keinen König (We have no king)
#21f Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have
#23d Weg, weg mit dem (Away with him)
#22 CENTRAL POINT: Durch dein
Gefängnis (Through thy prison)
#23b Lässest du diesen los (If thou
let this man go)
#25b Schreibe nicht (Write not)
#39 Ruht wohl (Rest well)
PAIRINGS OF THE CHORALES (same tunes)
#3 O groe Lieb (O great love) and #17 Ach, groer König (Ah
#14 Petrus, der nicht denkt (Peter...did not think) and #28 Er
nahm alles (He took care of everything)
#15 Christus der uns selig (Christ...made us blessed) and #27 O
hilf, Christe (O help us, Christ)
Baroque Choral Guild,
P.O. Box 19043,
Stanford CA 94309,
Contributed by Stevan Vasiljevic