Exultate’s Festival Choir and Orchestra performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion. Bach believed that music and text are intricately entwined and should be sung in the language of the people. Exultate performs this iconic work sung in English – the telling of the crucifixion story using the Gospel of St. John text. The drama of the characters, the involvement of the “turbo” choruses and the arias and recitatives present the story with incredible force and tenderness from Bach’s very personal viewpoint.
See biographies for information about the soloists on this recording.
Thoughts from the conductor on the St. John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach:
In the spring of 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach became the new Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. He was not the first choice for Cantor, not even the second or third choice. The coveted position was offered first to Bach’s friend Georg Philipp Telemann, who would later become the godfather to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, one of Johann’s sons. Telemann simply used the offer to increase his own salary in his present position and therefore declined. After several others declined, the position was offered to Johann Sebastian. The minutes of the church council indicate that, “since no good candidate could be found, a mediocre one would have to be hired.” Of course, Bach proved them all wrong almost immediately and he remained at St. Thomas for the next 27 years until his death in 1750. He was in charge of the music at the four main churches in the city and taught classes at the St. Thomas School. He began a flurry of compositional output which dazzled those who heard his music. During the first year, in addition to cantatas, Bach composed his Magnificatand his St. John Passion. Before this time he had already composed his Brandenburg Concertos, the compositions for unaccompanied violin and cello, the two- and three-part inventions, the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and dozens of exquisite church cantatas.
Work began on the St. John Passion setting when he was 38 years old. On April 7, 1724, the Passion According to St. John was performed at St. Nikolai Church in Leipzig. (Bach would later write his St. Matthew Passion as well as a St. Luke Passion and a St. Mark Passion, neither of which has ever been found.) Bach planned to perform his new work at St. Thomas, apparently unaware that a passion setting was performed each year, rotating between St. Nikolai Church and St. Thomas Church, and in 1724 it was St. Nikolai’s turn to host the Passion. By the time he realized he would have to move the performance from St. Thomas to St. Nikolai, the programs had already been printed! He was concerned there was not enough room in the balcony for all the performers and the harpsichord was in need of repair. With only a few days to go, a printed flyer was made noting the new location and the balcony and harpsichord were readied for the performance. Surely Bach must have been a bit nervous with the last-minute preparations.
What is a Passion setting? A Passion tells the story of the last days of Jesus using the text from one of the Gospel accounts, most often St. Matthew or St. John. The story is set to music – at least partly choral. The musical form had several different styles throughout the years, but by the 17th and 18th centuries, the Passion became a sacred oratorio that used Biblical text augmented with newly written poetry. In the case of Bach, he uses familiar Chorales (hymns from the period) as points of reflection for the audience and complex choruses sung by the full choir to depict the crowds involved in the story (turba chorus). Arias sung by soloists portray the emotional state of those experiencing the story told by the Evangelist and the effect the story has on us, the listeners. For Bach’s St. John Passion, he used John 18 and 19 of the Luther Bible with the Evangelist singing the text unchanged from the text of the Bible. The additional poetry is a combination of Bach’s own writing and text borrowed from other Passion settings. In addition, Bach adds text from St. Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 26) reporting on Peter’s remorse after his third denial of Christ and also the rending of the temple veil and earthquakes (chapter 27) following the death of Jesus. These two events are not recorded in John’s Gospel and Bach felt they were important enough, especially for dramatic effect, to add them to this Passion.
The most important aspect of Bach’s Passion setting is the fact that this Biblical event was very personal to the faith of the composer. He took great care to be sure the story touched the hearts of those who experienced it. He was a devout Christian and it was important to him to tell the story accurately and make it part of the listener’s faith walk. Often called “the Fifth Evangelist” (behind Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Bach preaches the Gospel through music and text and wanted those who heard his music to be moved emotionally and spiritually by the experience. As in all of his compositions, this was an offering and was presented to edify those in the pew.
There is evidence throughout the St. John Passion where the musical portrayal of the text helps the listener understand not just the events of the last days of Christ, but also the intimate meaning of those events from a faith perspective. Nowhere is this more clear than in movement No. 40, known as the “heart piece.” In it is the summation of the entire crucifixion story. Surely it gets to the “heart” of the matter when the choir sings:
Our Lord, in prison cell confined,
Releases us from prison.
And through His throne of grace we find
Our freedom has arisen.
Had He not worn these bonds before,
Our bonds had lasted evermore.
Pointing directly to the Biblical text from 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain,” Bach sums up the importance of the death and resurrection to the faithful in attendance. After all, the Passion setting ends with the death and burial of Jesus and only here is the resurrection revealed. Bach makes this central summation even more clear by using an architectural form involving many movements in the Passion. If movement No. 40 is at the center, then the movements before and after are musical reflections of each other creating a visual palindrome (reads the same backward as forward) of musical movements pointing to that central movement. The listener will generally not realize this even though the music is very similar in each pair of movements. It is the composer’s stroke of genius to make his personal faith a witness to those who would later study his compositional form. Without the listener being aware, Bach infuses into the soul the symmetry of faith with Christ’s death and resurrection being the central point of that faith.
Dozens of other examples where the music tells the story of the text can be found throughout the work. These subtle tone paintings of text serve to help the music infiltrate and move the soul. From dissonances on the word “pain” to the use of the tritone (the “devil in music”) on texts which talk of sin and going against God’s purpose; from the use of major and minor keys to the pulsing of the beating heart (cello part) in movement No. 31 to the 16th notes in movement No. 54 depicting the shaking of the dice as the soldiers cast lots for the robe of Christ, Bach strives to make real and relevant the story and its meaning to his listeners. The genius of this composer surpasses complete understanding upon a first hearing and the layers of thought and meaning run deeper and deeper with each hearing of this work, and any other work he composed for that matter. Ah – Bach! –TDR