St. John Passion
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.
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
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
• 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
• 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.