As Thomaskantor Johann Sebastian Bach provided Passion music for Good Friday services in Leipzig. The extant St Matthew Passion and St John Passion are the best known Passion oratorios composed by Bach.
- 1 Bach's Passion settings
- 2 Good Friday services in Leipzig
- 3 References
- 4 Sources
Bach's Passion settings
According to his "Nekrolog", the 1754 obituary written by Johann Friedrich Agricola and the composer's son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach wrote "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus". The double chorus one is easily identified as the St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion is the only extant other one that is certainly composed by Bach. The libretto of the St Mark Passion was published in Bach's time, allowing reconstruction based on the pieces Bach is known to have parodied for its composition, while the extant St Luke Passion likely contains little or no music composed by Bach. Which Bach compositions, apart from the known ones, may have been meant in the obituary remains uncertain.
The St John Passion is shorter and has simpler orchestration than the St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion has been described as more realistic, faster paced and more anguished than the reflective and resigned St. Matthew Passion.
St John Passion
The St John Passion, BWV 245 is the first Passion Bach composed during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a tenure that started after the Easter season of 1723. Apart from the German translation of parts of the Gospel of St John and several Lutheran chorales, it used text of the Brockes Passion for its arias. The Passion was performed on Good Friday of 1724, 1725, 1732 and 1749.
St Matthew Passion
The double chorus St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 was composed on a libretto by Picander for Good Friday of 1727 and/or 1729. After revision the Passion was performed again in 1736 and 1742.
St Mark Passion
Bach wrote the St Mark Passion, BWV 247 for 1731. Picander's libretto for the Passion was once thought to have been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in World War II, but the recovered copy seems to show that the work was a parody of music from the socalled Trauer-Ode, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, BWV 198, and that some choruses were used also in the Christmas Oratorio. There are several reconstructions of the Passion.
St Luke Passion
Bach's copy of an anonymous St Luke Passion, BWV 246, was published in the Bach Gesellschaft Complete Works (vol. xlv/2) but is regarded as spurious, with the possible exception of the introduction to the second half.
Other Passion music
Bach's "fifth" Passion possibly refers to Passion music he composed before his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, parts of which may have been recuperated in his extant Passions.
St Mark Passion pastiche
In the early 1710s Bach staged a St Mark Passion in Weimar. Bach added some of his own chorale settings to that Passion composed by Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns (formerly attributed to Reinhard Keiser). He staged it in a new version in Leipzig in 1726, and finally, expanded with some arias from Handel's Brockes Passion, again in the last years of his life.
Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt
Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt, a pasticcio Passion oratorio possibly compiled by Bach's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, contains a few movements attributed to Bach, including the arioso for bass BWV 1088, and Der Gerechte kömmt um (an arrangement of a SSATB motet attributed to Johann Kuhnau). The pasticcio may have been performed in Leipzig in the late 1740s and/or the early 1750s.
Good Friday services in Leipzig
- Hymn: Da Jesus an den Kreuze stund
- Passion, part 1
- Passion, part 2
- Motet: Ecce quomodo moritur in Jacob Handl's setting
- Collect & Benediction
- Hymn: Nun danket alle Gott
The first time a concerted Passion in two parts was performed according to this order of service was in 1721, when Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor, was given permission to perform the Passion he had composed in the St. Thomas Church. Four years earlier, Georg Philipp Telemann's Brockes Passion, TWV 5:1, performed in the New Church, was the first Passion Oratorio that had been staged in Leipzig.
A first feature of the structure of the Passions Bach wrote for Leipzig follows from the order of service: the Passions needed to be in two parts, for performance before and after the sermon. A second structural feature specific for Leipzig is the recitation of the unaltered Gospel text, as in Leipzig it was not allowed to paraphrase the Gospel in Passion presentations: for this reason an unaltered setting of the Brockes Passion, which contained a lot of such paraphrasing loosely based on all four Gospel texts of Christ's Passion, was not possible, although Bach returned often to Brockes' text, choosing parts of its poetry as lyrics for commenting arias after recitations of the Gospel text. For this reason Bach's Passions for Leipzig are named after the Evangelist from whoms Gospel the Passion text is used.
Another characteristic of Bach's Passions are the chorales set in four-part harmony that recur often throughout the compositions. These chorales, representing a Lutheran tradition, were highly recognizable, both the text and the melody, by the audience for which he wrote his Passions. It is even surmised Bach intended the audience to participate by singing along with the chorales they knew.
Bach's Passions are set for an orchestra with strings, woodwind instruments such as oboes and flutes, and a continuo including organ. The Lenten period did however not allow usage of (festive) brass instruments like trumpets. The vocal forces include SATB choir (or double SATB choir for the St Matthew Passion) and vocal soloists. In Bach's time none of the vocalists were women: the high voice parts were traditionally sung by treble choristers.
The Gospel readings, set as a secco recitative for the Evangelist, complemented with recitatives and turba choruses by the characters and groups having direct speech in the text, are presented in parts of a few verses, alternating with commenting chorales and/or arias with a free verse text. In most cases the arias are preceded by non-Gospel accompagnato recitatives. Apart from these sections, Bach composed grand choral movements with which to open or close the two parts of his Passions.
Schematically, this is the structure of Bach's Passions:
- Part One:
- Grand opening chorus with all forces from orchestra and chorus
- Reading of a few verses from the Gospel text as a (secco) recitative, concluded by turba, chorale and/or (recitative and) aria
- Reading of the next section of Gospel text in the same way, and concluded in the same way.
- (...continue with similar units...)
- Last recitative of Part One: this unit is always concluded by a movement with chorus
- Grand opening chorus with all forces from orchestra and chorus
- Part Two:
- Movement with chorus and/or vocal soloist opening Part Two
- (...sequence of units as in Part One...)
- Closing movement(s) of the Passion including a grand choral movement.
- Movement with chorus and/or vocal soloist opening Part Two
Bach was Thomaskantor in Leipzig from late May 1723 until his death in 1750. The Passion music he programmed for the Good Friday services is largely documented. The St Matthew Passion, with its double choir and orchestra, was most likely written for the St. Thomas Church while it had two organ lofts, although Bach later also produced a version where the continuo instrument of the second choir was a harpsichord (instead of organ), so that a performance in St. Nicolas (with only one organ) was possible.
Bach's first Passion presentation, the St John Passion of 1724, led to his first documented conflict with the Leipzig Town Council. Because of the bad state of the organ loft and its instruments (the organ and an harpsichord), Bach did not want to stage his St John Passion in St. Nicolas, despite it being the turn of that church to host the Good Friday service. Having announced the plan, sharp communications between Bach and the official bodies of the town ensued, with Bach having announcements printed that the service was going to be held at St. Thomas. Ultimately the Town Council decided to pay for emergency reparations at St. Nicolas, and for a reprint of the announcements where the service was announced for St. Nicolas.
- 1724 (April 7): St John Passion, 1st version.
- 1725 (March 30): St John Passion, 2nd version.
- 1726 (April 19): Markus-Passion by Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns, with additional chorales composed by Bach.
- 1727 (April 11) and/or 1729 (April 15): St Matthew Passion, BWV 244b.
- 1730 (April 7): St Luke Passion, BWV 246.
- 1731 (March 23): St Mark Passion, BWV 247.
- 1732 (April 11): (?) St John Passion, 3rd version.
- 1734 (March 27): St Mark Passion, BWV 247.
- 1735 (April 8): St Luke Passion, BWV 246.
- 1736 (March 30): St Matthew Passion, revised version (BWV 244).
- 1739 (March 27): (?) Telemann's Brockes Passion, TWV 5:1.
- 1742 (March 23) and/or 1743 (April 12): St Matthew Passion, revised version (BWV 244).
- 1743–1748: (?) Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt, pasticcio containing some movements by Bach.
- 1744: (?) St Mark Passion, BWV 247 (revised version).
- 1745 (April 16): (?) St Luke Passion, BWV 246 (revised version).
- 1746 (April 8) or 1747 (March 31): Georg Frideric Handel's Brockes Passion, HWV 48.
- 1747 (March 31) or 1748 (April 12): pasticcio Passion oratorio based on Brauns' Markus-Passion expanded with seven arias from Handel's Brockes Passion.
- 1749 (April 4): St John Passion, 4th version.
- 1750 (March 27): St John Passion, 4th version.
In 1730 (in response to his perceived harassment by the officials and out of concern for the deteriorating condition in religious music), Bach wrote a treatise he entitled "Kurtzer, iedoch höchstnöthiger Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music; nebst einigem unvorgreiflichen Bedenkken von dem Verfall derselben." ("Short, but most Necessary Draft on a well-regulated Church Music, with some modest Thoughts on the Decline of the same"). In it, he outlines both what he thinks would be a well-regulated Church music and also the current circumstances he faced in Leipzig. For the vocal ensembles he states that for each of the main churches (Hauptkirchen), i.e. St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, and the New Church (Neukirche), there would be a choir with three voices per part, meaning three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses. A fourth choir (residual) with two voices per part would serve both St. Thomas and the University Church (Petruskirche). This residual would also act as the concertists (soloists) in the cantatas and other vocal works.
In 1982 a scholar surmised Bach may have performed his large vocal works, like the St Matthew Passion, with only one voice per part, an idea that was rejected by others. However, while since the 19th-century Bach revival it was customary to perform the large vocal works with large bodies of performers, a tendency to perform these works with smaller ensembles was felt since the 1960s.
- "Nekrolog" of Johann Sebastian Bach by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola, in Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume 4. Leipzig, 1754. p. 168
- Boyd, Malcolm (ed.) (1999). Oxford Composer Companions J. S. Bach. OUP. ISBN 0-19-860620-6.
- Amati-Camperi, Alexandra. "J.S. BACH: Johannes-Passion" at San Francisco Bach Choir website. March 2008.
- Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns: Markus-Passion at www
- Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt by Johann Christoph Altnikol et al.: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Edward McCue. "The Passion Tradition" at boulderbachbeat
- Eidam, Klaus (2001). The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-01861-0. Chapter XVI.
- Barthold Heinrich Brockes (Librettist) at www
- Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 at www
- Lukas-Passion BWV 246 at www
- Markus-Passion BWV 247 at www
- G.F. Telemann-C.H. Graun-J.S. Bach-J.C. Altikol-J. Kuhnau Passions-Pasticcio at www
- Johannes-Passion BWV 245 at www
- Spitta 1884, p. 241
- David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel. The Bach Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. p. 124.
- Rifkin, Joshua (1982). "Bach's Chorus: A Preliminary Report." The Musical Times 123(377), 747–754.
- Eidam 2001, op. cit. Chapter XVIII.
- Fabian, Dorottya (2003). Bach performance practice, 1945-1975: a comprehensive review of sound recordings and literature. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 88. ISBN 0-7546-0549-3.
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