J. S. Bach: St John Passion

Program notes

Rows of small lit candles in a dark space


…in the St John Passion the dramatic element is always foremost.


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245

The chronology of the composition of Bach’s works is a notoriously difficult area of study. This is largely because there is very little discernible development in the composer’s musical voice – no clear ‘early period’ or ‘late period’ in the way that may be distinguished in the output of many, if not most, other composers. Bach seems to have defined his mature style quite early, and to have explored that style with great consistency throughout his career.

Bach’s two surviving Passion settings, on the other hand, offer many striking points of contrast, not so much in terms of style as of scope and approach. This is all the more remarkable since they are known, from independent evidence, to have been composed within a few years of one another. It might be observed that Bach’s Passions are so much more elaborate than any of their possible models that they virtually constitute a new genre; hence, Bach may have felt free to experiment to an extent that was much less likely in a well-defined, clearly established genre like the concerto. The later of the two, the St Matthew Passion of 1727, is hugely more ambitious, with its unified poetic text, integrated tonal plan and antiphonal structure; but it can also be characterised as a fundamentally lyrical work, whereas in the St John Passion the dramatic element is always foremost.


The effect is to cast the crowd as the real protagonist in the drama…


There is a certain irony in the fact that a setting of this most mystical and profound of the Gospel Passion narratives should emphasise the drama to such an extent. (Interestingly, Bach actually borrowed two snippets from St Matthew’s Gospel in order to include potent dramatic incidents missing from John’s account: Peter’s tears of remorse (No. 12) and the earthquake after Christ’s death (No. 33).) It is tempting to speculate on external reasons for this approach. The first performance of the St John Passion is believed to have taken place in Holy Week 1724, Bach’s first Easter season as Cantor at St Thomas’ in Leipzig. Because music was not permitted at services during Lent, all the musicians’ energies could be directed towards preparations for Holy Week, which was thus habitually the musical high point of the Church year. Maybe Bach, ever a shrewd career musician, was deliberately making the most of this first opportunity to impress his new employers with a work of great power and direct appeal.

Bach’s Passions combine aspects of Lutheran tradition with the more modern concept of the
‘oratorio Passion’, intercutting the Gospel narrative with two layers of commentary: chorales
(verses of hymns in four-part harmony, possibly intended for congregational participation) and solo arias on more personal poetic texts. The balance between the three elements is quite different in the two works. In the St John Passion the narrative itself is the focus of attention, largely because of the length and importance of the ‘turba’ choruses (those setting the words of the crowd). The turbae in the St Matthew are often of epigrammatic brevity, whereas many of those in the St John constitute substantial movements. Sometimes the texture and material of one turba section is continued in another, so that the two may be considered as one extended piece (e.g. the first two turbae in Part II, ‘Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter’ and ‘Wir dürfen niemand töten’). The effect is to cast the crowd as the real protagonist in the drama, especially in the trial scene which occupies the first half of Part II.

Indeed, the St John Passion is overall much more dominated by the chorus than the St Matthew. The total number of chorales in each work is roughly the same, but the considerably greater length of the St Matthew means that they are spread much more thinly. The St John Passion’s chorales also assume a more prominent structural role; the end of both Parts and the beginning of Part II are marked by simple chorales, in contrast to the elaborate framing movements of the St Matthew.

The most far-reaching difference is in the role of the arias, which constitute the real centre of gravity of the St Matthew; together with their introductory recitatives and ariosos, they comprise no fewer than 25 of the score’s 68 numbers. The St John, on the other hand, contains only eight arias – two allotted to each voice – and two ariosos. Their comparative rarity, however, makes the placement of each one more telling.

The distribution of the commentary pieces in the St John Passion is particularly interesting. Whereas the three layers of the St Matthew are woven into a seamless continuum, in the St John the balance changes as the work progresses. Broadly speaking, the chorales – responding for the most part to the words of Jesus – predominate at the beginning of each half, gradually giving way to arias – identifying with the other characters or reflecting on Jesus’ fate – towards the end of each half. The placement of the arias also results in some striking manipulations of the rate at which the narrative unfolds. In particular, time seems virtually to stand still at the moment of Jesus’ death, with three arias and an arioso in close succession. 

While the pacing of the dramatic flow on the local level is always handled with a great deal of care, strategies for coherence on a larger scale are less obvious, but there are numerous examples of cross-reference between movements. As in the St Matthew, the use of the same chorale tune at different points is a means of making structural connections, albeit not on nearly the same scale as in the later work. Nos. 3 and 17, the first comments on the narrative at the start of Parts I and II respectively, share the same tune; so do Nos. 15 and 37, which frame the action of Part II. More interesting is the reappearance of the melody of No. 14 in No. 28, linking Peter’s abandonment of Christ with Christ’s refusal to abandon his mother. The same melody is used again in No. 32, as a prayer for Christ to stand by his flock; this piece brings together chorale and aria for the only time in the work.

The linking of turba sections through common material, as a means of building larger musical units, has already been mentioned. Most of these are straightforward, reflecting repetitions or similarities in the text, but some are more thought-provoking. The very first turba chorus, ‘Jesum von Nazareth’ – the mob’s answer to Jesus’ question ‘Wen suchet ihr?’ (Who are you looking for?) – is restated when they reject Jesus in favour of Barabbas, and again when they reject him as their King in favour of Caesar. In a nice ironic touch, the crowd’s derisive acclamation of Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’ (in No. 21) uses the same music as the indignant response to Pilate’s use of the same title on the Cross (in No. 25); far more disturbing, however, is the resemblance between this music and the opening phrase of the soprano aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ (No. 9), which is even in the same key. The innocent joy and faith of Jesus’ disciple is twisted into savage mockery.


…the most powerful use of the orchestra is in the very opening chorus …soaring woodwind suspensions, restless semiquavers in the violins, and a pulsing bass line.


As was thought suitable for the Lenten season, the orchestral palette of Bach’s Passions is subtle and restrained: pairs of flutes and oboes, strings, and continuo. In the St Matthew Passion this entire line-up is doubled, and the resulting potential for variety in texture, weight and colour is fully exploited. In the St John Passion, on the other hand, the directness of utterance is enhanced by a much more sparing deployment of the available timbres, particularly in the arias. For example, the two oboes are featured in the first aria (No. 7, ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’) and the two flutes in the second (No. 9, ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’); but after this woodwind colour does not reappear until the final arioso and aria (Nos. 34 and 35), which combine flutes and oboes da caccia (on their only appearance in the work).

The five intervening arias, accompanied by strings alone, nonetheless offer an amazing range of nuance in colour and mood, from the anguished tutti dotted rhythms of Peter’s despair (No. 13) to the eloquent viola da gamba solo of No. 30, which is the only response to the words of Jesus – his last – to take the form of an aria rather than a chorale. Nos. 19 and 20 introduce two delicate timbres absent from the orchestra of the St Matthew: a pair of violas d’amore, and a harpsichord (or lute). The demisemiquaver viola figuration in the slow 12/8 metre of No. 20 is a literally graphic counterpart in the score to the text’s extraordinary imagery of Christ’s blood shining as a rainbow in the heavens.

Perhaps the most powerful use of the orchestra is in the very opening chorus, which stands apart from the rest of the work as a self-contained prologue. Three distinct layers – soaring woodwind suspensions, restless semiquavers in the violins, and a pulsing bass line in quavers – combine to give the music a great motive energy. The chorus’ arresting appeal to Christ sets the tone for the drama and forthrightness of the whole work.

Elliott Gyger
© Symphony Services Australia 1996

Reprinted with the permission of Symphony Services Australia

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