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St John Passion structure

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St John Passion
BWV 245
Passion by J. S. Bach
First page of the autograph
Original Paßio secundum Joannem (Passion after John)
Occasion Good Friday
  • 7 April 1724 (1724-04-07) – Leipzig (version 1)
  • 30 March 1725 (1725-03-30) – Leipzig (version 2)
  • 1728 (1728)/1732? – Leipzig (version 3)
  • 1739/1749? (1739/1749?) – Leipzig (version 4)
Movements 40 in two parts (14 and 26)
Text anonymous
Bible text John 18–19
Chorale stanzas from 9 chorales (version 1)
Vocal SATB choir and solo
  • 2 flauti traversi
  • 2 oboes
  • 2 oboes da caccia
  • 2 violins
  • viola
  • viola d'amore
  • viola da gamba
  • lute
  • continuo

The structure of the St John Passion (German: Johannes-Passion), BWV 245, a sacred oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, is "carefully designed with a great deal of musico-theological intent".[1] Some main aspects of the structure are shown in tables below.

The original Latin title Paßio secundum Joannem translates to "The Passion after John". Bach's large choral composition in two parts on German text, written to be performed in a Lutheran service on Good Friday, is based on the Passion, as told in two chapters from the Gospel of John (John 18 and John 19) in the translation by Martin Luther, with two short interpolations from the Gospel of Matthew. During the vespers service, the two parts of the work were performed before and after the sermon. Part I covers the events until Peter's denial of Jesus, Part II concludes with the burial of Jesus. The Bible text is reflected in contemporary poetry and in chorales that often end a "scene" of the narration, similar to the way a chorale ends most Bach cantatas. An anonymous poet supplied a few texts himself, quoted from other Passion texts and inserted chorales by nine hymnwriters. Bach led the first performance on 7 April 1724 in Leipzig's Nikolaikirche. He repeated it several times between 1724 and 1749, experimenting with different movements and changes to others, which resulted in four versions. The Passion, close to Bach's heart, has an "immediate dramatic quality".[2]




The gospel account by John narrates the story in five "scenes". The corresponding movement numbers are given from the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA).

Part I

  1. Arrest (1–5), Kidron Valley (John 18:1–11)
  2. Denial (6–14), palace of the high priest Kaiphas (John 18:12–27)

Part II

  1. Court hearing with Pontius Pilate (15–26) (John 18:28–40 and John 19:1–22)
  2. Crucifixion and death (27–37), Golgatha (John 19:23–30)
  3. Burial (38–40), burial site (John 19:31–42)

Some musicologists regard movement 24 as the conclusion of scene 3, the aria "Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen" which locates the action from the courthouse to Golgotha, the calvary.[3] Others, including Alfred Dürr regard the scene as ending with the last comment by Pilate.[4]

Bach incorporated two short interpolations from the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 26:75 after John 18:27, describing the weeping of Peter, and Matthew 27:51–52 after John 19:30, describing the tearing of the temple curtain. The narrator is the Evangelist, a tenor, Jesus and all other male characters are sung by a bass, the people who are often summarily called die Jüden (the Jews) are sung by a four-part chorus (SATB) in dramatic turba movements. The "immediate, dramatic quality" of the "kind of musical equivalent of the Passion Play" relies on the setting of the interaction between the historical persons (Jesus, Pilate, Peter) and the crowd ("soldiers, priests, and populace").[2]


At eleven points in the structure, chorales reflect the narration, stanzas from Lutheran hymns. Possibly Bach had an influence on their selection.[5] He set them all in common time for four parts, the instruments playing with the voices.

Five chorales conclude a scene (in movements 5, 14, 26, 37 and 40), a chorale opens Part II (15). Five chorales comment within a scene (3, 11, 17, 22, 28). including the central movement of the whole Passion (22). One chorale accompanies the bass soloist in an aria (32).

Most chorale texts were written in the 16th and 17th century,[6] by authors of the Reformation such as Martin Luther, Martin Schalling and Michael Weiße, and by hymn writers including Paul Gerhardt and Johann Heermann. The central chorale is not part of a common hymn.

Contemporary text[edit]

On a third level of text, contemporary poetry reflects the biblical narration. It was compiled by an unknown author, who partly used existing text. From the Brockes Passion (Der für die Sünde der Welt Gemarterte und Sterbende Jesus, aus den IV Evangelisten, Hamburg, 1712 and 1715) by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, he copied for movements 7, 19, 20, 24, 32, 34, a part of 35 and 39. He found movement 13 in Christian Weise's Der Grünen Jugend Nothwendige Gedanken (Leipzig, 1675) and took from Christian Heinrich Postel's Johannes-Passion (c. 1700) movements 19 (partly), 22 and 30.[7]


The work is scored for vocal soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, a four part choir SATB, and an orchestra of two flauto traverso (Ft), two oboes (Ob), two oboes da caccia (Oc), two violins, viola (Va), and basso continuo. Bach added some instruments in arias for special effects, old-fashioned already at the time, such as lute, viola d'amore and viola da gamba (Vg). Bach did not differentiate the vox Christi (voice of Christ), singing the words of Jesus, from the other bass recitatives and arias, nor the evangelist from the tenor arias.


The work displays a thoughtful symmetry. In the center of the five parts is the court hearing which confronts Jesus, Pilate and the people. In the middle of the hearing, a chorale (22) interrupts the argument, which talks about prison and freedom. It is surrounded by two choral movements, which not only both ask for the crucifixion of Jesus, but also use the same musical motifs, the second time intensified. Again in symmetry of similar musical material, a preceding turba choir explains the law, while a corresponding movement reminds Pilate of the emperor whose authority is challenged by someone calling himself a king. Preceding this, Jesus is greeted in mockery as the king, corresponding in motif to the later request that Pilate should change the inscription saying he is the king to that he claimed to be king.[8]


Nikolaikirche, c. 1850

Bach led the first performance on 7 April 1724[9] at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas)[10] as part of a Vesper service on Good Friday. Part I was performed before the sermon, Part II after the sermon.[10] Bach performed a second version on Good Friday a year later, 30 March 1725.[11] Other changes date from between 1728 and 1732 (version 3),[9] and between 1738 and 1748 (version 4).[12]

In version 2, Bach opened with a chorale fantasia on "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" (O man, bewail thy sins so great), the first stanza of a 1525 hymn by Sebald Heyden,[7] a movement which he ultimately used to conclude Part I of his St Matthew Passion, returning to the previous chorus Herr, unser Herrscher in later versions of the St John Passion. He used three alternative arias, one of them with a chorale sung by the choir, and replaced the two closing movements, the chorus "Ruht wohl" and the chorale "Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein" with the chorale 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes" (O Christ, Lamb of God thou),[10] the German Agnus Dei, published in Braunschweig in 1528.[7] Bach took this movement from his cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, which had been an audition piece for the Leipzig post.[10] Before, it had been part of his Weimarer Passion of 1717.

In version 3, after Bach wrote his St Matthew Passion, he returned the opening chorus Herr, unser Herrscher and the final chorus "Ruht wohl" to their first position, but eliminated the Gospel passages after Matthew and the closing chorale.[10]

In version 4, Bach returned to the first version, possibly in 1739, but revised it thoroughly. He began a new score which covers 12 movements. As Christoph Wolff observes: "The fragmentary revised score constitutes an extensive stylistic overhaul with painstaking improvements to the part-writing and a partial restructuring of the instrumentation; particular attention was paid to the word-setting in the recitatives and the continuo accompaniment."[13] In 1749, Bach performed the St John Passion once more, to become his last performance of a Passion.[13]

Wolff writes: "Bach experimented with the St John Passion as he did with no other large-scale composition",[10] possible by the work's structure with the Gospel text as its backbone and interspersed features that could be exchanged.[10] Wolff concludes: "the work accompanied Bach right from his first year as Kantor of St Thomas's to the penultimate year of his life and thus, for that reason alone, how close it must have been to his heart.[14]

Tables of movements[edit]

The following tables give an overview of version I of the Passion, first performed in 1724. Two versions of movement numbers are given, first that of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA), then that of the older Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV). Voices appear in one of three columns, depending on the text source, Bible, contemporary poetic reflection, and chorale. The instrumentation is added, using abbreviations for instruments, followed by key and time signature, and the NBA number of a corresponding movement within the work's symmetry.

Part I[edit]

NBA BWV Bible Reflection Chorale Beginning of text Source Instruments Key Time Symmetry
1 1 Chorus Herr, unser Herrscher anonymous 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc G minor common time 39
2 a 2 Ev, Jesus Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern John 18:1–8 Bc
b 3 Chorus Jesum von Nazareth 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
c 4 Ev, Jesus Jesus spricht zu ihnen Bc
d 5 Chorus Jesum von Nazareth 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
e 6 Ev, Jesus Jesus antwortete Bc
3 7 Chorus O große Lieb Johann Heermann 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc G minor common time
4 8 Ev, Jesus Auf daß das Wort erfüllet würde John 18:9–11 Bc
5 9 Chorus Dein Will gescheh Martin Luther 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc F major common time
6 10 Ev, Jesus Die Schar aber und der Oberhauptmann John 18:12–14 Bc
7 11 Alto Von den Stricken meiner Sünden Brockes 2Ob Bc D minor 3/4
8 12 Ev Simon Petrus aber folgete Jesu nach John 18:15a Bc
9 13 Soprano Ich folge dir gleichfalls anonymous 2Ft Bc B-flat major 3/8
10 14 Ev et al. Derselbige Jünger war dem Hohenpriester bekannt John 18:15b–23 Bc
11 15 Chorus Wer hat dich so geschlagen Paul Gerhardt 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc A major common time
12 a 16 Ev Und Hannas sandte ihn gebunden John 18:24–27 Matthew 26:75 Bc
b 17 Chorus Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
c 18 Ev et al. Er leugnete aber und sprach Bc
13 19 Tenor Ach, mein Sinn Christian Weise 2Vn Va Bc F-sharp minor common time
14 20 Chorus Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück Paul Stockmann 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc A major common time 15

Part II[edit]

NBA BWV Bible Reflection Chorale Beginning of text Source Instruments Key Time Symmetry
15 21 Chorus Christus, der uns selig macht Michael Weiße 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc E common time 14
16 a 22 Ev, Pilate Da führeten sie Jesum John 18:28–36 Bc
b 23 Chorus Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
c 24 Ev, Pilate Da sprach Pilatus zu ihnen Bc
d 25 Chorus Wir dürfen niemand töten 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
e 26 Ev, Pilate, Jesus Auf daß erfüllet würde das Wort Bc
17 27 Chorus Ach großer König Johann Heermann 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc A minor common time
18 a 28 Ev, Pilate, Jesus Da sprach Pilatus zu ihm John 18:37–40 Bc
b 29 Chorus Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
c 30 Ev Barrabas aber war ein Mörder Bc
19 31 Arioso bass Betrachte, meine Seel Brockes
Christian Heinrich Postel
2 violas d'amore Bc with lute
20 32 Aria tenor Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken Brockes 2 violas d'amore Bc E-flat major 12/8
21 a 33 Ev Und die Kriegsknechte flochten eine Krone John 19:1–12a Bc
b 34 Chorus Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 25 b
c 35 Ev, Pilate Und gaben ihm Backenstreiche Bc
d 36 Chorus Kreuzige, kreuzige 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 23 d
e 37 Ev, Pilate Pilatus sprach zu ihnen Bc
f 38 Chorus Wir haben ein Gesetz 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 23 b
g 39 Ev, Pilate, Jesus Da Pilatus das Wort hörete Bc 23 a
22 40 Chorus Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn Christian Heinrich Postel 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc E major common time center
23 a 41 Ev Die Jüden aber schrieen und sprachen John 19:12b–17 Bc 21 g
b 42 Chorus Lässest du diesen los 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 21 f
c 43 Ev, Pilate Da Pilatus das Wort hörete Bc
d 44 Chorus Weg, weg mit dem 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 21 d
e 45 Ev, Pilate Spricht Pilatus zu ihnen Bc
f 46 Chorus Wir haben keinen König 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
g 47 Ev Da überantwortete er ihn Bc
24 48 Aria bass and chorus Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen Brockes 2Vn Va Bc G minor 3/8
25 a 49 Ev Allda kreuzigten sie ihn John 19:18–22 Bc
b 50 Chorus Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc 21 b
c 51 Ev, Pilate Pilatus antwortet Bc
26 52 Chorus In meines Herzens Grunde Valerius Herberger 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc E-flat major common time
27 a 53 Ev Die Kriegsknechte aber John 19:23–27a Bc
b 54 Chorus Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc
c 55 Ev Auf daß erfüllet würde die Schrift Bc
28 56 Chorus Er nahm alles wohl in acht Paul Stockmann 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc A major common time
29 57 Ev, Jesus Und von Stund an nahm sie der Jünger John 19:27b–30a Bc
30 58 Aria alto Es ist vollbracht Christian Heinrich Postel Vg 2Vn Va Bc B minor
D major
common time
31 59 Ev Und neiget das Haupt John 19:30b Bc
32 60 Aria bass Chorus Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen Brockes
Paul Stockmann
2Vn Va Bc D major 12/8
33 61 Ev Und siehe da, der Vorhang im Tempel zerriß Matthew 27:51–52 Bc
34 62 Arioso tenor Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt Brockes 2Ft 2Oc 2Vn Va Bc
35 63 Aria soprano Zerfließe, mein Herze Brockes Ft Oc Bc F minor 3/8
36 64 Ev Die Jüden aber, dieweil es der Rüsttag war John 19:31–37 Bc
37 65 Chorus O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn Michael Weiße 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc F minor common time
38 66 Ev Darnach bat Pilatum Joseph von Arimathia John 19:38–42 Bc
39 67 Chorus Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine Brockes 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc C minor 3/4
40 68 Chorus Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein Martin Schalling 2Ft 2Ob 2Vn Va Bc E-flat major common time


In the following, the movement numbers are those of the NBA, version I, unless otherwise noted.

The chorales in detail[edit]

The first chorale, movement 3, is inserted after Jesus said to arrest him, but let the disciples go. "O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße" (O mighty love, O love beyond all measure)[7] is stanza 7 of Johann Heermann's 1630 hymn "Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen". In personal reflection, the speaker sees the contrast of his pleasure in the world and the suffering of Jesus, ending in a short "Und du mußt leiden" (And thou must suffer).[7]

The second chorale, movement 5, ends the first scene (of the arrest), after Jesus remarks that he has to be obedient. "Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich" (Thy will be done, Lord God, alike)[7] is stanza 4 of Luther's 1539 hymn "Vater unser im Himmelreich,[7] a paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer.

The third chorale, movement 11, is inserted after Jesus asks the one who beat him for justification. Two stanzas from Paul Gerhardt's 1647 hymn "O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben" comment the scene, stanza 3, "Wer hat dich so geschlagen" (Who hath thee now so stricken),[7] and stanza 4, "Ich, ich und meine Sünden" (I, I and my transgressions),[7] highlighting the personal responsibility of the speaking sinner for the suffering of Jesus.

The fourth chorale, movement 14, ends the second scene (of the arrest) and Part I. After the denial of Peter, "Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück" (Peter, when he fails to think)[7] summarizes the scene in stanza 10 of Paul Stockmann's 1633 hymn "Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod".[7]

The fifth chorale, movement 15, opens Part II and the third scene (of the court hearing). "Christus, der uns selig macht" (Christ, who hath us blessed made),[7] stanza 1 of Michael Weiße's 1531 hymn, summarizes what Jesus has to endure although innocent ("made captive, ... falsely indicted, and mocked and scorned and bespat").[7]

The sixth chorale, movement 17, comments in two more stanzas from "Herzliebster Jesu" (3), after Jesus addressed the different kind of his kingdom. Stanza 8, "Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten" (Ah King so mighty, mighty in all ages)[7] reflects the kingdom and the need for thanksgiving, stanza 9 the inability to grasp it, "Ich kanns mit meinen Sinnen nicht erreichen" (I cannot with my reason ever fathom).[7]

The seventh chorale, movement 22, is the central movement of the whole Passion, which interrupts the conversation of Pilate and the crowd by a general statement of the importance of the passion for salvation: "Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, ist uns die Freiheit kommen" (Through this thy prison, Son of God, must come to us our freedom)[7] is not part of a known hymn, but the text of an aria from a St John Passion by Postel from c. 1700.[7]

The seventh chorale, movement 26, ends the scene of the court hearing, after Pilate refuses to change the inscription. "In meines Herzens Grunde" (Within my heart's foundation)[7] is stanza 3 of Valerius Herberger's 1613 hymn "Valet will ich dir geben".[7]

The eighth chorale, movement 28, is related to Jesus telling his mother and John to take care of each other. "Er nahm alles wohl in acht" (He of all did well take heed)[7] is stanza 20 of Stockmann's hymn (14).[7]

The ninth chorale, movement 32, is part of the bass aria which follows immediately after the report of the death of Jesus. "Jesu, der du warest tot, lebest nun ohn' Ende" (Jesus, thou who suffered death, livest now forever)[7] is the final stanza of Stockmann's hymn (14).[7]

The tenth chorale, movement 37, ends the scene of the crucifixion. "O hilf, Christ, Gottes Sohn" (O help, Christ, O Son of God)[7] is stanza 8 of Weiße's hymn (15).[7]

The eleventh chorale, movement 40, ends the Passion. "Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein" (Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear)[7] is stanza 3 of Martin Schalling's 1569 hymn "Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr".[7]





Online sources[edit]