St John Passion
The Passio secundum Joannem or St John Passion (German: Johannes-Passion), BWV 245, is a Passion or oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, the older of two surviving Passions by Bach. It was written during Bach's first year as director of church music in Leipzig and was first performed on April 7, 1724, at Good Friday Vespers at the St. Nicholas Church.
The structure of the work falls in two halves, intended to flank a sermon. The anonymous libretto draws on existing works (notably Brockes') and is compiled from recitatives and choruses narrating the Passion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John, ariosos and arias reflecting on the action, and chorales using hymn tunes and texts familiar to a congregation of Bach's contemporaries. 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".
The work is most often heard today in the 1724 version although Bach revised it in 1725, 1732, and 1749, adding several numbers. "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß", a 1725 replacement for the opening chorus, found a new home in the 1736 St Matthew Passion but several arias from the revisions are found only in the appendices to modern editions.
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 on Good Friday (as observed by German Protestants) of 1724 in the St. Nicholas Church, shortly after Bach's 39th birthday. 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 (note that this particular numbering is only used by the NBA).
|1. Coro: Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!
3. Chorale: O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße
5. Chorale: Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich
11. Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen
14. Chorale: Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück
|1. Coro: Lord, our Lord, whose glory is magnificent in all the earth!
3. Chorale: O great love, o love beyond all measure
5. Chorale: Thy will be done, Lord God, at the same time
11. Chorale: Who hit you so
14. Chorale: Peter, who does not think back
|15. Chorale: Christus, der uns selig macht
17. Chorale: Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten
22. Chorale: Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn muß uns die Freiheit kommen
26. Chorale: In meines Herzens Grunde
28. Chorale: Er nahm alles wohl in acht
37. Chorale: O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn
39. Coro: Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine
40. Chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
|15. Chorale: Christ, who makes us blessed
17. Chorale: Oh great king, great at all times
22. Chorale: Through thy captivity, Son of God has come to us the freedom
26. Chorale: In the bottom of my heart
28. Chorale: He took everything well in eight
37. Chorale: O help, Christ, Son of God
39. Coro: Rest well, holy bones
40. Chorale: O Lord, let your dear little angels
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 (in Version I, this second line was replaced by the line from the Gospel of Mark).
He chose the chorales:
- "Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen" by Johann Heermann (1630), verse 6 for movement 3, verses 7 & 8 for 17,
- "Vater unser im Himmelreich" by Martin Luther (1539), verse 4 for movement 5,
- "O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben" by Paul Gerhardt (1647), verses 3 & 4 for movement 11,
- "Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod" by Paul Stockmann (1633), verse 10 for movement 14, verse 20 for 28, the last verse for 32,
- "Christus, der uns selig macht" by Michael Weiße (1531), verse 1 for movement 15, verse 8 for 37,
- "Valet will ich dir geben" by Valerius Herberger (1613), verse 3 for movement 26,
- "Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr" by 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" by 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, known as the Weimarer 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 not the one most familiar to us today, but rather the Version of 1739-1749. In the 1724 version, the Recitative Movement No. 33 reads "Und die Vorhang im Tempel zerriß in zwei Stück; von oben an bis unten aus." (Mark 15, 33) and was in 3 measures. From 1725 on, this was replaced by the more familiar 7-measure quote from Matthew 27: 51-52 (except in the 3rd version, in which this was taken out altogether).
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 brilliant 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, removing the final Chorale (thus ending the work with the choral Movement No. 39), 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. 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. It is interesting to note also that two recitative passages, the first dealing with Peter's weeping after his betrayal and the second portraying the temple veil's ripping during the crucifixion, do not appear in the Gospel of John, but the Gospel of Matthew.
A modern example originating in Communist Hungary demonstrates the congregational character of St John Passion. In the early 1950s musicians were allowed to play church music only in the frame of liturgy. However, the St John Passion is an almost complete Lutheran liturgy, focused on the Evangelium. Hence, by inserting four missing features, the whole Passion could be performed 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, after Jesus' death "Und neiget das Haupt und verschied." and before the aria-chorale "Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen" .
- (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 chorales 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, ..." 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.
- commenting arias: The first part of the St John Passion includes three commenting arias. There is an alto aria, "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden" (From the bonds of my sins). 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, "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!" on YouTube). The central part is essentially a viola da gamba solo and an alto aria. The theme is introduced by the viola da gamba gently accompanied by the 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, it is suspended just after this section, in order to pray the Pater Noster together.
- closing chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein … (O Lord, let your dear little angels ...). 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, however, does not sound as 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.
Lukas Foss, who came to the United States in 1937 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, changed the text from "Juden" to "Leute" (people) when he conducted 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 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
- Bach's Latin title is more literally "Passion according to John"
- 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.
- Markus Rathey. 2016. Bach’s Major Vocal Works. Music, Drama, Liturgy, Yale University Press
- 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)
- Markus Rathey. Bach’s Major Vocal Works. Music, Drama, Liturgy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0300217209.
- Michael Steinberg, Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-802921-7.