St John Passion
The St John Passion (in German: Johannes-Passion), BWV 245, is a sacred oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach. The original Latin title Passio secundum Johannem translates to "The Suffering According to John". During the first winter that Bach was responsible for church music at the St. Thomas Church and the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, he composed the St John Passion for the Good Friday Vespers service of 1724.
The St John Passion is a dramatic representation of the Passion as told in the Gospel of John, constructed of dramatically presented recitatives and choruses, with commentary in reflective chorales, ariosos, and arias, framed by opening and final choruses, leading to a final chorale. Compared with the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion has been described as more extravagant, with an expressive immediacy, at times more unbridled and less "finished."
Originally Bach intended that the St John Passion would be first performed in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, but due to a last-minute change by the music council, it was first performed in 1724 in the St. Nicholas Church. Bach quickly agreed to their desire to move the service to St. Nicholas Church,
but pointed out that the booklet was already printed, that there was no room available and that the harpsichord needed some repair, all of which, however, could be attended to at little cost; but he requested that a little additional room be provided in the choir loft of St. Nicholas Church, where he planned to place the musicians needed to perform the music. He also asked that the harpsichord be repaired.
The council agreed and sent a flyer announcing the new location to all the people around Leipzig. The council made the arrangements requested by Bach regarding the harpsichord and space needed for the choir.
Architecture and sources
Bach followed chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible, and the tenor Evangelist follows exactly the words of that bible. The compiler of the additional poetry is unknown. Models are the Brockes Passion and a Johannes-Passion by Christian Heinrich Postel. The first scene is in the Kidron Valley, and the second in the palace of the high priest Kaiphas. Part Two shows three scenes, one with Pontius Pilate, one at Golgatha, and the third finally at the burial site. The dramatic argument between Pilate, Jesus, and the crowd is not interrupted by reflective elements but a single central chorale (#22).
1. Coro: Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!
- 2a. Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern über den Bach Kidron
- 2b. Coro: Jesum von Nazareth
- 2c. Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus spricht zu ihnen
- 2d. Coro: Jesum von Nazareth
- 2e. Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus antwortete: Ich hab's euch gesagt, daß ich's sei
3. Chorale: O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße
- 4a. Evangelist, Jesus: Auf daß das Wort erfüllet würde
5. Chorale: Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich
- 6. Evangelist: Die Schar aber und der Oberhauptmann
- 7. Aria (alto, oboes): Von den Stricken meiner Sünden
- 8. Evangelist: Simon Petrus aber folgete Jesu nach
- 9. Aria (soprano, flutes): Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten
- 10. Evangelist, Maid, Peter, Jesus, Servant: Derselbige Jünger war dem Hohenpriester bekannt
11. Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen
- 12a. Evangelist: Und Hannas sandte ihn gebunden zu dem Hohenpriester Kaiphas
- 12b. Coro: Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?
- 12c. Evangelist, Peter, Servant: Er leugnete aber
- 13. Aria (tenor): Ach, mein Sinn
14. Chorale: Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück
15. Chorale: Christus, der uns selig macht
- 16a. Evangelist, Pilate: Da führeten sie Jesum von Kaiphas vor das Richthaus
- 16b. Coro: Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter, wir hätten dir ihn nicht überantwortet.
- 16c. Evangelist, Pilate: Da sprach Pilatus zu ihnen
- 16d. Coro: Wir dürfen niemand töten.
- 16e. Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Auf daß erfüllet würde das Wort Jesu
17. Chorale: Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten
- 18a. Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Da sprach Pilatus zu ihm
- 18b. Coro: Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam!
- 18c. Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Barrabas aber war ein Mörder.
- 19. Arioso (bass, viole d'amore, lute): Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen
- 20. Aria (tenor, viole d'amore): Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken
- 21a. Evangelist: Und die Kriegsknechte flochten eine Krone von Dornen
- 21b. Coro: Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!
- 21c. Evangelist, Pilate: Und gaben ihm Backenstreiche.
- 21d. Coro: Kreuzige, kreuzige!
- 21e. Evangelist, Pilate: Pilatus sprach zu ihnen
- 21f. Coro: Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben
- 21g. Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Da Pilatus das Wort hörete, fürchtet' er sich noch mehr
22. Chorale: Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn muß uns die Freiheit kommen
- 23a. Evangelist: Die Jüden aber schrieen
- 23b. Coro: Lässest du diesen los, so bist du des Kaisers Freund nicht
- 23c. Evangelist, Pilate: Da Pilatus da Wort hörete, führete er Jesum heraus
- 23d. Coro: Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!
- 23e. Evangelist, Pilate: Spricht Pilatus zu ihnen
- 23f. Coro: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser.
- 23g. Evangelist: Da überantwortete er ihn daß er gekreuziget würde.
- 24. Aria (bass) e coro: Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen
- 25a. Evangelist: Allda kreuzigten sie ihn
- 25b. Coro: Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König
- 25c. Evangelist, Pilate: Pilatus antwortet
26. Chorale: In meines Herzens Grunde
- 27a. Evangelist: Die Kriegsknechte aber, da sie Jesum gekreuziget hatten, nahmen seine Kleider
- 27b. Coro: Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen, sondern darum losen, wes er sein soll.
- 27c. Evangelist, Jesus: Auf daß erfüllet würde die Schrift
28. Chorale: Er nahm alles wohl in acht
- 29. Evangelist, Jesus: Und von Stund an nahm sie der Jünger zu sich.
- 30. Aria (alto, viola da gamba): Es ist vollbracht!
- 31. Evangelist: Und neiget das Haupt und verschied.
- 32. Aria (bass) e coro: Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen
- 33. Evangelist: Und siehe da, der Vorhang im Tempel zeriß in zwei Stück
- 34. Arioso (tenor, flutes, oboes): Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet
- 35. Aria (soprano, flute, oboe da caccia): Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren
- 36. Evangelist: Die Jüden aber, dieweil es der Rüsttag war
37. Chorale: O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn
- 38. Evangelist: Darnach bat Pilatum Joseph von Arimathia
39. Coro: Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine
40. Chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Bach followed the Gospel of John but added two lines from the Gospel of Matthew, the crying of Peter and the tearing of the curtain in the temple.
He chose the chorales "Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen" of Johann Heermann (1630), verse 6 for movement 3, verses 7 & 8 for 17, "Vater unser im Himmelreich" of Martin Luther (1539), verse 4 for movement 5, "O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben" of Paul Gerhardt (1647), verses 3 & 4 for movement 11, "Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod" of Paul Stockmann (1633), verse 10 for movement 14, verse 20 for 28, the last verse for 32, "Christus, der uns selig macht" of Michael Weiße (1531), verse 1 for movement 15, verse 8 for 37, "Valet will ich dir geben" of Valerius Herberger (1613), verse 3 for movement 26, "Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr" of Martin Schalling (1571), verse 3 for movement 40.
For the central chorale (#22) "Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn muß uns die Freiheit kommen" ("Through Your prison, Son of God, must freedom come to us) Bach adapted the words of an Aria from the Johannes-Passion of Christian Heinrich Postel (1700) and used the melody of "Mach's mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" of Johann Hermann Schein. The architecture of Part Two shows symmetry around this movement, the music of the preceding chorus #21f "Wir haben ein Gesetz" corresponds to #23b "Lässest du diesen los", the demand #21d "Kreuzige ihn!" is repeated in an intensified way in #23d "Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!", #21b "Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig" reappears as #25b "Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König".
The St John Passion is written for an intimate ensemble of soloists, four-part choir, strings and basso continuo and pairs of flauti traversi and oboes, the latter both doubling on oboe da caccia. For special colours Bach also used lute, viola d'amore and viola da gamba, instruments that were already old-fashioned at the time. In present day performances the part of Jesus is given to one bass soloist, Pilate and the bass arias to another. Some tenors sing the Evangelist – a very demanding part – and the arias. The smaller parts (Peter, Maid, Servant) are sometimes performed by choir members.
Researchers have discovered that Bach revised his St John Passion several times before producing a final version in the 1740s. Alternate numbers that Bach introduced in 1725 but later removed can be found in the appendix to scores of the work, such as that of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (and heard in the recording by Emmanuel Music directed by Craig Smith, cited below).
The St John Passion was not Bach's first passion. While he was working as organist in 1708 and Konzertmeister in 1714 in Weimar, Bach possibly wrote a Passion, but it is now lost. Sometimes while listening to the St John Passion today one can sense an older feel to some of the music, and some scholars believe that those portions are the surviving parts of the Weimar Passion. Unlike the St Matthew Passion, to which Bach made very few and insignificant changes, the St John Passion was subject to several major revisions. The original version from 1724 is the one most familiar to us today.
In 1725, Bach replaced the opening and closing choruses and added three arias (BWV 245a-c) while cutting one (Ach, mein Sinn) from the original version. The opening chorus was replaced by O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which was later transposed and reused at the end of part one of the St Matthew Passion. The closing chorale was replaced by a setting of Christe, Du Lamm Gottes, taken from the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23. The three new arias are not known to have been reused.
In the 1730s, Bach revised the St John Passion again, restoring the original opening chorus and final chorale, and removing the three new arias. He also excised the two interpolations from the Gospel of Matthew that appeared in the work, probably due to objections by the ecclesiastical authorities. The first of these he simply removed; he composed a new instrumental sinfonia in lieu of the second. He also inserted an aria to replace the still-missing Ach, mein Sinn. Neither the aria nor the sinfonia has been preserved. Overall, Bach chose to keep the biblical text, and inserted Lutheran hymn verses so that he could return the work to its liturgical substance.
We can infer that Bach had in mind an orchestra composed of no more than 15 to 17 musicians. In 1749, he reverted more or less to the original of 1724, making only slight changes to the orchestration, most notably replacing the by-then almost obsolete viola d'amore with muted violins. Also, Bach's orchestra for this piece would have been very delicate in nature because he called for many gamba strings.
In the summer of 1815, Bach's Passions began to be studied once again. Parts of the St John Passion were being rehearsed and the St Matthew Passion was soon to follow. Fred Wolle, with his Choral Union of 1888 at the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was the first to perform the St John Passion in the Americas. This spurred a revival of Bach's choral music in the New World.
While writing the St John Passion, Bach intended to retain the congregational spirit of the worship service. The text for the body of the work is taken from the Gospel of John chapters 18 and 19. To augment these chapters, which he summarized in the music, Bach used an elaborate body of commentary consisting of hymns, which were often called chorales, and arias. He used Martin Luther's translation of the Bible with only slight modifications.
Bach proved that the sacred opera as a musical genre did not have to become shallow in liturgical use by remaining loyal to the cantus firmus and the scriptural word. He did not want the Passion taken as a lesser sacred concert. The text for the opening prayer, "Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm", as well as the arias, chorales and the penultimate chorus "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine", come from various other sources. The first part of the score, which makes up about one-third of the entire piece, dramatically takes us through Peter's walk and his betrayal of Jesus. It is interesting to note also that the two recitative passages, dealing with Peter's crying after his betrayal and the temple veil's ripping during the crucifixion, do not appear in the Gospel of John, but the Gospel of Matthew. In the Passion, one hears Peter deny Jesus three times, and at the third time, John tells us that the cock crew immediately.
There is a recent historical example for the congregational character of St John Passion. In the early 1950s in Hungary (then under Communist rule), congregational musicians were allowed to play church music only in the frame of liturgy. However, the St John Passion is an almost complete liturgy from the Lutheran point of view, since the focus is exactly on the evangelium (Bach was a devout Lutheran). Hence, the solution was to insert the four missing features of a Lutheran liturgy. Congregational musicians could then perform the whole Passion, as if it were part of the liturgy.
- (1) Each year the concert begins with "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.", announced by the priest; this is the start of a Lutheran liturgy.
- (2) Between the first and second part of the Passion, the priest gives a very short sermon, intended to be understood even by non-believers.
- (3) The congregation prays the Pater noster together, a chief prayer of Christianity, between the "Es ist vollbracht!" aria with the short "Und neiget das Haupt und verschied." recitative, and the "Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen" chorale.
- (4) At the end, the Aaron blessing is given by the priest: "The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace." (Numbers 6:24–26).
There is no applause, either at the beginning or at the end. The Passion contains quite a few choruses that are in regular use in worship. The congregation and the audience are to remain silent, as no one is supposed to sing along with the professionals.
- opening chorus: "Herr, unser Herrscher ..." ("Lord, our master, whose glory fills the whole earth, show us by your Passion that you, the true eternal Son of God, triumph even in the deepest humiliation." Herr, unser Herrscher on YouTube). There is an orchestral intonation of 36 bars before the explosive entrance of the chorus. Each of these bars is a single stress of lower tones, weakening till the end of the bar. These bass beats are accompanied by the remaining instruments of higher tunes, by legato singing the prospective theme. The last six bars of the orchestral intro produce a robust crescendo, arriving to shouting forte initial three bars of the chorus, where the chorus joins to the long sequence of deep stresses by Herr, Herr, Herr. Soon, after the first portion of the theme, comes the triple Herr, Herr, Herr again, but this time, at the end of the bars, as a contra answer for the corresponding orchestral deep stresses at the beginning of the bars. Just before the composer's ideas could dry out, the full beginning is repeated. But this time our illusion is, as if we heard 36 Herrs.
"Herr, unser Herrscher" and "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" are very different in character. The latter is full of torment in its text, but a serenely majestic piece of music. "Herr, unser Herrscher" sounds as if it has chains of dissonance between the two oboes and the turmoil of the roiling sixteenth notes in the strings. Especially when they invade the bass it is full of anguish and therefore it characterizes the St John Passion more so.
- commenting arias: The first part of the St John Passion includes three commenting arias. There is an alto aria called "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden" (From the tangle of my transgressions). This includes an intertwined oboe line that brings back many characteristics of the opening chorus. Another aria is an enchanting flute and soprano duet, "Ich folge dir gleichfalls". In this piece the verbs "ziehen" (to pull) and "schieben" (to push) stimulate Bach's delight in musical illustration. The third aria is a passionate tenor solo that is accompanied by all the instruments. This piece is called "Ach, mein Sinn" (O my soul)
- the death of Jesus: "Es ist vollbracht! ..." ("It is accomplished; what comfort for suffering human souls! I can see the end of the night of sorrow. The hero from Judah ends his victorious fight. It is accomplished!" Es ist vollbracht! on YouTube). The central part is essentially a viola da gamba solo and an alto aria. The theme is introduced by a single viola da gamba gently accompanied in a usual basso continuo setting. Then comes the solo vocal interpretation. There is a habit — at least in Hungary —, that if the performance is in a church with living congregational live, then the performance is suspended just after this section, in order to pray the Pater Noster together.
- closing chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein ... (O Lord, send your cherub in my last hour to bear my soul away to Abraham's bosom; ... Listen: ). This chorale — with alternative lyrics — is still in regular use in the congregations. The beginning of the theme is a descending sequence, but in overall the theme is full of emotion as well. Singing this chorale standalone does not sound a closing chorale, except if it is sung at the end of a real ceremony.
The text Bach set to music has been criticized as anti-Semitic. This accusation is closely connected to a wider controversy regarding the tone of the New Testament's Gospel of John with regards to Judaism.
Having come to the United States in 1937 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Lukas Foss changed the text from "Juden" to "Leute" (people) when he directed performances of the work. This has been the trend of numerous mainline Christian denominations since the late 20th century as well, for instance, the Episcopal Church, when they read the gospel during Lenten Good Friday services. Michael Marissen's Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's 'St John's Passion' examines the controversy in detail. He concludes that Bach's St John Passion and St Matthew Passion contain fewer statements derogatory toward Jews than many other contemporary musical settings of the Passion. He also noted that Bach used words for the commenting arias and hymns that tended to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from "the Jews" to the congregation of Christians.
- For selected recordings see St John Passion discography
- Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide, 19. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
- Williams, Peter. The Life of Bach, 114. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004.
- Daw, Stephen. The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Choral Works, 107. Canada: Associated University Presses, Inc. 1981.
- Steinberg, 22.
- Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, 291. New York: WW Norton & Company. 2000.
- Dreyfus, Laurence. The Triumph of 'Instrumental Melody': Aspects of Musical Poetics in Bach's St John Passion. In Melamed, Daniel R. Bach Perspectives, Volume 8: J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition, 100–101. University of Illinois Press. 2011. ISBN 978-0-252-03584-5.
- The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245 commentary of Michael Steinberg (2004)
- Architecture and Sources of the St John Passion Neuer Basler Kammerchor (in German)
- Wolff, 293–4.
- Wolff, 294.
- Wolff, 297.
- Melamed, Daniel R. Hearing Bach's Passions, 72. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
- Melamed, 75.
- Steinberg, 25.
- Steinberg, 21.
- Bach, 237.
- Herz, Gerhard. Essays on J.S. Bach, 58. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press. 1985.
- Bach, vi.
- Hochreither, Karl. Performance Practice of the Instrumental-Vocal Works of Johann Sebastian Bach, 11. Maryland, The Scarecrow Press. 2002.
- Herz, 94.
- Herz, 199.
- Steinberg, 20.
- Wolff, 292.
- Wolff, 293.
- BWV 245 TajKéAp
- A Deák téri János passió-előadások kulisszatitkaiból I.
- see the score  of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary
- Steinberg, 23.
- Steinberg, 26.
- Alfred Dürr. Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion: Genesis, Transmission, and Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-816240-5.
- Michael Marissen. Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's "St John's Passion". NY: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-511471-X
- Markus Rathey. Johann Sebastian Bach's 'St John Passion' from 1725: A Liturgical Interpretation, Colloquium 4 (2007) Colloquium 4 (2007)
- St John Passion: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- St John Passion on the "Bach cantatas" website, Text (in many languages), details, recordings, reviews, discussions
- Emmanuel Music translation to English
- List of recordings, details and reviews, jsbach.org