J.S. Bach: Passio secundum Joannem (Saint John Passion), BWV 245 (1724-49)


BORN: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)

DIED: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

COMPOSED: 1724, drawing on some work from earlier years, and then revised on several occasions before it reached its final form in 1749. Its text is drawn principally from the Gospel of John, Chapters 18 and 19 (in Martin Luther’s German version), augmented by brief quotations from the Gospel of Matthew, selections of devotional poetry (some drawn from or modeled on originals by Barthold Heinrich Brockes and Christian Heinrich Postal), and various Lutheran chorales

WORLD PREMIERE: April 7 (Good Friday), 1724. Bach conducted at Saint Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche) in Leipzig

US PREMIERE: June 5, 1888. J. Fred Wolle conducted the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, PA

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1949. Hans Leschke conducted. MOST RECENT—March 1999. Herbert Blomstedt conducted with soloists Malin Hartelius, Ingeborg Danz, Herbert Lippert, Stanford Olsen, Berthold Possemeyer, Peter Mattei, and the SFS Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo tenor (Evangelist), solo bass (Jesus), vocal soloists (soprano, alto/mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone/bass) for the various arias and also portraying the characters of Pontius Pilate, Peter, a Servant, and a Maid; also a 4-part chorus and an orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes (doubling oboes d’amore and oboes da caccia, the mezzo-soprano and contralto members of the oboe family), bassoon, strings, harpsichord, and organ.

DURATION: About 2 hours and 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY Modern audiences approach the Saint John Passion as a concert piece, but for listeners of Johann Sebastian Bach’s time it was first and foremost a Passion, which is to say a church-service recounting of the story of Jesus’s final days, culminating in his death by crucifixion at the command of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. These events are memorialized annually in Christian churches, culminating on Good Friday (with the sequel, of course, beginning two days later, on Easter Sunday). Special musical and dramatic presentations relating to the Passion were already popular in the Middle Ages, and with the onset of the Reformation the Roman Catholic observances were adapted for use in Protestant services. By the second quarter of the sixteenth century, two Passion settings by Martin Luther’s own musical collaborator, Johann Walter—one based on the story as related in the Gospel According to Saint John, the other derived from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew—became standard in the liturgy of Lutheran Germany. In succeeding generations many other settings were put forward, including Passions by such notable figures as Christoph Demantius and Heinrich Schütz that advanced incrementally beyond the strait-laced models of their forebears in which text chanted by the leaders of the service alternated with straightforward hymns offered in response by the congregants.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Passion settings began to display a musical richness that earlier generations had soberly avoided. Instruments were pressed into service to provide colorful accompaniments to the voices, and the singers themselves began to inject passages of almost operatic opulence. The traditional texts were expanded through the inclusion of chorales harmonized more creatively than one might expect in a simple hymn, as well as movements built on texts that were not necessarily Biblical, such as newly penned devotional poetry. We know that Bach led a performance of one of the best of these new-fangled “Oratorio Passions” in Weimar in 1713—the Saint Mark Passion by Reinhard Keiser, which he copied out personally. By the time he moved to Leipzig, in 1723, worshippers at that city’s Neukirche had already been treated to a modern-style Oratorio Passion (by an unidentified composer, perhaps Telemann) in 1717, and then, in 1721, parishioners at the Thomaskirche heard a Saint Mark Passion by Johann Kuhnau, whom Bach would succeed as Kantor of Leipzig’s Thomasschule.

When Bach assumed responsibility for the music-making at the principal churches of Leipzig, the performance of Passions therefore came with the job, though they were a relatively recent addition to local cultural life. Large-scale Oratorio Passions were given at Good Friday Vespers, alternating annually between the city’s Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche. The substantial obituary that appeared in the periodical Musikalische Bibliothek four years (!) after Bach’s death (authored by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola) stated that he had composed “five Passions, of which one is for double chorus.” The double-chorus piece is surely the Saint Matthew Passion, probably begun in 1724 or 1725 and brought to provisional completion in 1727. Of the other four, Bach’s Saint John Passion, unveiled in 1724, is the other that comes down to us. The existence of his Saint Mark Passion (apparently from 1731) is confirmed by a surviving libretto; although its musical score has disappeared, at least he recycled some of it in other compositions. A Saint Luke Passion once attributed to Bach is widely viewed as spurious. He and C.P.E. copied it out, probably for a performance in 1730, and Johann Sebastian may have touched up some of its orchestration; but, apart from that, it is not his composition. Perhaps one of the Passions referred to in the obituary was that spurious Saint Luke Passion; and the other may refer to a piece he is thought to have written during his years in Weimar (1708-14), a work long lost (assuming it existed) but to which a few movements in the Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions may trace their ancestry.

In fact, it is problematic to speak of the Saint John Passion as a single piece. After it was premiered, in 1724, Bach revived it for performances in 1725, in 1732 (it seems), and in 1749. He also set out to lead it in 1739, but that performance was called off. For each of these he effected alterations in the score, including very notable replacements and excisions of complete movements. Some of these changes probably involved practical matters (like the availability of certain singers or players), some probably reflected Bach’s evolving aspirations with this score, and some may have reflected political pressure; the cancellation of the 1739 performance, for example, may reflect pushback from the Pietistic faction of Lutheranism, then ascendant, which looked askance on overly fancy church music. Interpreters today have no fewer than five complete or partial versions of this work to choose from, all of them connected to performances realized or projected by the composer. This performance uses the edition prepared by the scholar Arthur Mendel for the Neue Bach Ausgabe, a persuasive version that mostly follows the final text from 1749 while incorporating some of the musical ideas from the score left incomplete a decade earlier. The death of Jesus is recounted with some different details in each of the four Gospels, but the Gospel of John goes in a distinctive direction, striking a more philosophical, theological stance compared to the narrative, historical approach of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John (if the attribution of his authorship is correct) also has the distinction of laying responsibility for Jesus’s death most squarely on the Jews—a position that is difficult to align with the testimony of other authoritative sources, which consistently report that he was condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (who was a Gentile), that he was executed by Roman soldiers (who were Gentiles), and that although a few Jews collaborated directly in the process, the Romans were the operatives in power. This stance of John’s certainly played a part in the anti-Semitism that escalated during the early Christian era and that was incorporated into tradition by the time of Martin Luther, who wrote appalling things about the Jews—ideas that have been widely repudiated by modern Lutheran churches. (Even Luther, in his commentaries on John, expressed that what was often termed the “crowd of Jews” who were stirred up to move the condemnation along were not in fact Jews, but rather Romans.) Still, it was John filtered through Luther that provided the basis for the libretto of the Saint John Passion, and the piece has faced serious criticism for giving voice to anti-Jewish sentiments. Probably most of us can agree that people of other times and places harbored assumptions and beliefs that may conflict with ours—for better or (often) worse. And we can probably accept at least that Bach ought not to be held responsible for the anti-Semitic touches in the Saint John Passion. His task was to set the Passion account as given by John via Luther, without taking liberties with it, including passages that distress us today. Whether this issue was of concern to Bach we do not know, but it may be relevant to point out that the choruses and solo arias—which is to say the sections over which Bach did have textual control—do not reflect the anti-Jewish hostility of the Biblical portions.

THE MUSIC That Gospel text forms the heart of Bach’s score, where it is delivered in recitative. Most of the text is sung by the Evangelist, a tenor, who provides the thrust of the narrative; but when other characters are quoted in the biblical telling, their words are given to other soloists—three baritones or basses (respectively portraying Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and Peter), a tenor (as a Servant), and a soprano (as a Maid). Their music is descriptive to the extent that it invariably underlines the expository and emotional content of the text, but it is nonetheless restrained in spirit. Its job is to tell the Passion story clearly, at a “spoken tempo,” without musical elaboration that might ever obscure its words. Occasions when syllables of these solo texts are stretched into expressive melismas are rare. All of these singers rendering Gospel text do so supported by a basic recitativo secco accompaniment, consisting of underlying harmonies provided by the continuo group. In the Saint Matthew Passion, which would follow a few years later, the passages intoned by Jesus are enveloped in what is often described as a halo of strings. Not so here. In the Saint John Passion, his speeches are unadorned by such touches of orchestration.

Sometimes recitative dialogue is interlocked with more elaborate responses from the chorus, which lends vivid drama to the scenes involving the assembled crowd—the only passages where Bach endows the biblical text with intricate polyphonic writing. In other exchanges, however, the chorus’s stance can be essentially the four-part equivalent of the soloists’ recitative delivery.

The second musical component of this work consists of the independent choruses and arias that are built on sacred poetry rather than Gospel text. These essentially echo the style familiar from Bach’s church cantatas, a genre with which he already had considerable expertise and that he was developing at a jaw-dropping pace. Writing music for church services was among his top priorities in Leipzig, and in his first years there he composed five annual cycles of church cantatas, each consisting of about sixty works (not all of which have survived). In his first two years he wrote a cantata-plus per week, but he was able to squeeze in the Saint John Passion during a five-week period (roughly corresponding to Lent) during which Lutheran services eschewed special music. To say that Bach’s choruses are spectacular is to state the obvious. Right at the work’s outset, he grips the listener with the prayer “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our ruler), presented in the standard late-Baroque da capo structure: the principal material, a contrasting central section (here at “Zeig uns durch deine Passion”—Show us, through your Passion), and then a literal repetition of the principal material. Bach summons up the rhetorical power of late Baroque style to define an ominous atmosphere. Orchestral strings simmer in nervous rhythmic repetitions, woodwinds utter harmonically dense outcries far above, and the bass line edges forward in relentless pulsing notes—all this as a scaffolding through which the chorus interweaves its beseeching pleas.

The arias break from the action to provide opportunities for reflection of a more personal sort. They are less numerous here than in the Saint Matthew Passion, but those that Bach works into this score can prove deeply moving. Most of them are obbligato arias, the particularly enchanting mode of writing in which the vocal soloist is joined by an instrumental soloist or a pair of spotlighted instruments. Thus do we find the soprano joined by two flutes (playing in unison, apparently to inflate their volume) in the delectable aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (I follow likewise), which provides an oasis of optimism in what by that point is emerging as a score rich in high anxiety. Or the tenor contrasted with the haunted sound of a pair of violas d’amore (or, alternatively, muted violins) to underscore the macabre imagery in the aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider, how his blood stained back). Or the almost unbearable mournfulness of the contralto soloist and the obbligato viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished—or achieved, or come to fruition); its extraordinarily slow tempo (notated as “Molt’adagio” ) is emphasized by the sudden urgency of its middle section (Vivace), and the return of its open material as a da capo shocks all the more by being curtailed. . . by the death of Christ, no less. “And he bowed his head and departed,” the Evangelist states, lest the point be lost on anyone. Sometimes there is no obbligato partner to the singer—in “Ach, mein Sinn” (Ah, my soul), for example, where the tenor’s tortured contours suggest the troubled emotions to a strictly orchestral accompaniment. At the other extreme, Bach’s imagination can extend to mixing solo aria and chorus—for instance, in “Mein teurer Heiland” (My precious Savior), where a choral hymn is superimposed over the baritone’s solo line, or the unusual “Eilt, du angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tempted souls), where the baritone soloist urges companions to follow him to Golgotha—which they apparently do after interrupting him with queries for directions. The latter may not be exactly operatic—the Leipzig Town Council had expressly advised Bach that he was not to write operatic music—but it is certainly dramatic, playing out in the theater of the mind rather than on the theater of the stage.

The third musical element in the Saint John Passion would be the self-standing chorales, familiar Lutheran hymns already imbued with tradition by Bach’s time. Eleven of these are distributed within the work’s forty movements, and they serve to connect this telling of the Passion story to real life, to the here-and-now world of listeners. They break through “the fourth wall,” making listeners participants. In Bach’s time, the congregation would have joined in singing these chorales. These hymns do not require the choral virtuosity of the other choral movements, but they, too, offer profound musical rewards. Their melodies are not original to Bach. He inherited them. But his chorale harmonizations are superbly crafted, and they stand as the models against which all ensuing four-part harmony and voice-leading has been judged. The chorales punctuate important points in the narrative, separating the chapters of the Passion story: the arrest of Jesus, his investigation by the high priests, his trial before Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion, and his burial. These chapters are accorded uneven space in the Saint John Passion, but they unroll with compelling dramatic flow. We would do well to remember, however, that the way we experience this work today, in a single span, is not how the congregation experienced it during Bach’s lifetime. It was presented not as a concert but rather in the context of a long church service, and the Saint John Passion was performed in two uneven expanses, the second much longer than the first, with other music before and after and with a sermon falling between the Passion’s chorales “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” and “Christus, der uns selig macht,” at the juncture of the investigation and the trial.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(March 2019)