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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Bach's St John Passion: a short introduction

Does the St John Passion need any introduction?  Isn’t it one of those universal works of art that speak for themselves?

Let me speak personally for a moment.  The St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since come to appreciate is that in the long history of biblical interpretation, Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a theologian of the first order.  Albert Schweitzer, scholar both of Bach and Bible, said that ‘if we have once absorbed a biblical verse in Bach’s setting of it, we can never again conceive it in any other rhythm’.

To appreciate any of Bach’s religious works – cantatas, motets, masses, passions - we need to understand their libretti.  In Bach, the relationship between text and music is as inextricable as it is in Schubert’s Lieder or Wagner’s music dramas.  In the case of Bach’s two surviving Passions, it is clear that Bach had carefully studied the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and reflected their distinctive insights in his music.  The difference between the St John Passion and St Matthew is not principally Bach’s musical and artistic growth as a composer, as if the St John were merely a sketch for the later, larger and greater St Matthew: for only three years separate the two works.  No, the difference lies primarily in the kind of texts Bach was engaging with.  The passion accounts of St John and St Matthew are entirely different both as literature and as theology and spirituality.  So they naturally drew out of a composer finely attuned to the sensitivities of texts settings that are equally different and true to their unique sources. 

While both passions were written for the same liturgical context, they do evoke a different aesthetic and religious response.  St Matthew, focusing on the lonely agonised suffering of Jesus paints a tragic figure to whom we respond with a sense of keen sadness; we feel the tears in things, as Virgil put it.  His narrative with its changes of scene and pace allows for frequent pauses for reflection, and Bach takes full advantage of them in the chorales and arias.  St John, however, wants us to see in the cross the victorious consummation of divine love; his sufferer, while humiliated, is always majestic and noble, and this quality suffuses Bach’s setting throughout.  The narrative is faster and more relentless than Matthew’s with fewer opportunities for meditation – so there are only eight true arias; but on the other hand there is more scope in John for exploiting the dramatic possibilities of dialogue and the tension between the individual protagonists and the ever present malevolent crowd.  (We should however acknowledge that in two respects Bach filled out John’s narrative with episodes from St Matthew: the repentance of Peter after denying Jesus, and the rending of the temple veil and the earthquake after the crucifixion.  It is interesting that both of these Matthew episodes segue into exquisite arias that are reminiscent of the great contemplative arias of the St Matthew Passion, Ach mein Sinn and Zerfliesse mein Herze.) 

Let me try to illustrate how well Bach understood his text.  The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  In all four gospels, great emphasis is laid on the passion, so much so that they have been described as passion narratives with introductions.  In John’s case, the passion story proper begins not with the betrayal scene in chapter 18 but with Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in chapter 12.  This means that more than one third of the book, 8 out of 21 chapters, is given to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The St John Passion is a musical setting of only the last part of this story.  This follows the medieval tradition in which those chapters, culminating in the death and burial of Jesus, were sung to plainchant in the Good Friday liturgy.  But this has to be understood in the light of the central themes of St John set out in what has gone before, particularly in chapters 12 to 17.  These are: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion will make it clear how Bach the theologian informs Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus, ‘Herr unser Herrscher’.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  It is important to recognise that this text is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’, with its cognates Herrscher, ‘sovereign’ and verherrlicht, ‘glorified’.  This threefold reference to glory in two brief sentences is the clue both to the music of the chorus and to the work as a whole.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive idea.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ he says at the beginning: Herrlichkeit in Luther’s Bible, a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus. 

So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the orchestral bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion.  It is telling that this was not Bach’s first choice of opening chorus.  He originally placed here his great setting of the Lutheran chorale O Mensch bewein dein S√ľnde grosse: ‘O man, they grievous sin bemoan’ which concludes part 1 of the St Matthew Passion.  Bach decided that this hymn text, focusing on sin and repentance, did not sufficiently reflect the principal theme of John’s passion narrative.  The chorus he replaced it with, that we now have, is entirely right for the work it has to do in the St John Passion. 

My second example is the work’s climactic event, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  Bach’s setting of those words in the St Matthew Passion is perhaps the most agonised music he ever wrote.  In Luke, Jesus dies the serene death of the obedient martyr: ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias which Bach excelled at, where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant 12/8 D major aria for bass and chorus, Mein teurer Heiland. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of contented release joy.  All this is entirely different from the way Bach treats the equivalent scene in St Matthew, but only because those gospels depict the scene in sharply contrasting ways.   For John, Golgotha is a not only a place of pain but – and pre-eminently – a place of transfiguration.  This is what Bach so marvellously captures. 

Let me offer one final comment on the work as a whole.  The artistry with which the recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales are worked into a coherent whole is Bach’s great achievement.  He recognises how John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action oscillates between personal encounters on the one hand, and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay in the passion between private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts and souls is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for pause and meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us for the engagement not only of mind but heart.  When the citizens of Leipzig came to church on Good Friday 1724, and heard the first, extraordinary notes of the opening chorus, did they realise that music had crossed a new threshold in its power to turn spectators into participants?  It is in that spirit that I invite us to listen to the St John Passion tonight. 

The Sage, Gateshead, Easter Eve 2011



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