Performance Sunday, March 25, 2012 | 2 PM

Les Violons du Roy

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
When Bernard Labadie, Les Violons du Roy, and La Chapelle de Québec settled into Carnegie Hall from la belle province to perform the Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in December 2009, James Oestreich of The New York Times praised their performances as “endlessly satisfying” and declared their version of Handel’s masterwork to be “the best I’ve heard in years.” They’re back this season with a host of soloists, this time performing Bach’s St. John Passion.
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The Program

St. John Passion

About the Composer

When one thinks of Passion music, Bach no doubt immediately comes to mind—so much so that one might overlook the fact that the genre’s rich history began several centuries before the composer’s birth. The Passion, an account of Jesus’s final days as recorded in any of the four Gospels of the New Testament, was commonly presented during the medieval era, with the priest himself chanting the biblical text. Later, chordal responses were added for a small vocal ensemble; and in the 16th century, Passion music was typically set polyphonically, with several voices singing different parts throughout. By the 18th century, Passions had grown to adopt many of the traits of opera and oratorio, employing instrumental accompaniment and a degree of dramatic flair. They had also become quite popular, and when Bach assumed his post as music director of the Leipzig churches in 1723, the city had already instituted a tradition of performing a Passion on each Good Friday.

Although Bach had written 50 cantatas for Leipzig before the St. John Passion premiered on Good Friday in 1724, it represents the first large-scale choral work he composed in his new position. Contemporary audiences, primarily exposed to the celebrated St. Matthew, tend to refer to the St. John as Bach’s “other” Passion, but Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel in fact notes no fewer than five Passions in his father’s necrology. This number is likely to be inflated, but it is confirmed that Bach composed at least one St. Mark Passion, of which only the libretto remains today.

About the Music

When outlining the form and libretto for the St. John, Bach relied heavily on the Passions recently performed in Leipzig: Eminent scholar Arthur Mendel once observed that “Bach’s Passions contained no new element—except Bach’s music.” As was standard, the biblical text (John 18:1–19:42) provides the backbone. (Ever the dramatist, Bach also borrowed two of the more stirring moments from the St. Matthew Gospel: Peter’s weeping after the rooster crows, and the earthquake following Jesus’s death.) The Gospel text is narrated in recitative by the Evangelist, and acted out by the chorus and several solo characters (Jesus, Peter, Pilate, a maid, and a servant).

To the biblical passages, Bach adds two main elements. The first are chorales—Lutheran hymns sung by the chorus (and, in Bach’s time, by the congregation as well) that reflect on the events recounted in the Gospel. The second are the choruses and arias, which, while not sung by the congregation, also provide the opportunity for devout contemplation. Bach draws the text for these from free poetry—most significantly, Der für die Sünde der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus, a 1712 work by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that many of Bach’s contemporaries (including Handel and Telemann) had already used as a libretto.

It is not known whether Bach enlisted a librettist to cull and reshape the various texts, or took on the task himself. In any case, the difficulty inherent in synthesizing several sources is likely reflected in Bach’s persistent dissatisfaction with the Passion: He substantially revised its score several times, right up until one year before his death.

A Closer Listen

The St. John Passion is presented in two sections, the second of which is considerably longer. Described below are several highlights.

• In the gripping opening chorus, Bach intertwines the oboes in a seemingly endless chain of dissonances and provides the strings with an ominous 16th-note accompaniment that soon defines the vocal line. Set in the key of G minor, this number exemplifies why the St. John is generally thought of as Bach’s more anguished and grief-stricken Passion.

• The aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (no. 9) provides a much-needed respite from the prevailing dark atmosphere: The soprano, accompanied by light figures in the flute, offers a pleasant melody in
B-flat major. 

• The Evangelist portrays Peter’s recognition of his betrayal (no. 12c) with an extended descending chromatic line. Meant to signify the Apostle’s bitter weeping, this gesture is a prime example of Bach’s inclination for word-painting.

• The chorale “Durch dein Gefängnis” (no. 22) arrives at the crucial moment of Pontius Pilate’s internal debate, and around it Bach creates a symmetrical formal structure: For several numbers on either side, he employs a palindrome-like pattern of choruses, recitatives, and arias.

• In “Und von Stund an nahm sie der Jünger” (no. 29), Bach sets Jesus’s final expression, “It is accomplished,” in a graceful descending scale, which is then imitated in the cello—an echo that likely symbolizes how Christ’s words should be emulated by others. The ensuing aria underscores this point, as the countertenor reiterates not just the poignant melody, but also the text itself (“Es ist vollbracht,” no. 30).

• Rather than simply following the pivotal “Es ist vollbracht” with a chorale or aria, Bach innovatively interweaves the two. As a background to the bass aria “Mein teurer Heiland” (no. 32), the chorus softly intones the hymn “Jesu, der du warest tot” one phrase at a time.

• In the affecting lullaby “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” (no. 39), the chorus brings Christ—and the St. John Passion as a whole—to rest. The St. Matthew concludes with a piece quite similar to this, but here Bach provides a chorale (“Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein,” no. 40) as an affecting postlude, thereby shifting the ultimate focus from Jesus to his followers.

—Jacob Cooper

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert and the Choral Classics series are made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for choral music established by S. Donald Sussman in memory of Judith Arron and Robert Shaw.
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The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.

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