Bernard Labadie on Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions
Composed for Good Friday services in 1724 and powered by strikingly dramatic moments, Bach’s St. John Passion was his first large-scale choral work for the churches in Leipzig. On March 25 in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, Bernard Labadie conducts Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec in a performance of the piece.
We recently interviewed Maestro Labadie, who explained some of the differences between the St. John Passion and its famous brother, the later St. Matthew Passion.
Performing the Passions
The two passions—the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion—are really my bread and butter in terms of repertoire. The St. John I have done very often, both with my groups and as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras—more often than St. Matthew, for obvious reasons. The St. Matthew is a huge thing. It's not programmed often, and when it's programmed, it's often done by symphony orchestras. Then you are asked to make cuts, which I refuse to do in St. Matthew, because I don't think there should be any cuts in that piece. It's the Walküure of Baroque pieces. So the St. Matthew is not done as often, but I've done it a few times.
Even though they were composed only a few years apart, they are literally worlds apart. The St. John is especially fascinating because it's part of Bach's phenomenal first year's output in Leipzig. Obviously, he wanted to impress his new bosses and his new audience by coming up with something extremely dramatic and complex, and at the same time extremely concise in terms of form. The St. John is, of course, shorter than the St. Matthew. It's also much more dramatic.
I think the St. John has a much more first-degree impact on audiences. There are moments of pure desolation. "Es ist vollbracht"—the alto aria with gamba—for instance, is one of the most plaintive moments I know in Bach's entire output. We even have contemporary reports that when it was performed for the first time, the little boy who sang it had such a beautiful voice that all the ladies in the audience were moved to tears. He knew what he was doing. He wanted to be an evangelist, literally. We've often described Bach as being the fifth evangelist, and I think that in the St. John, this is what he does at literally the highest level. He's an amazing storyteller in that piece.
From the very first bar, the very first chords of the piece, we are grabbed by the drama in the St. John Passion, whereas the St. Matthew starts like a funeral procession. In the St. John, you are literally thrown into the furnace from the very beginning of the piece. The waves in the violins—you have different lengths of waves between the violins and the violas—and the harmonies are so tense. It's almost shapeless at the beginning. You just hear flashes of sound coming from the woodwinds and then just a big crescendo leading to this first outcry from the chorus, "Herr," which is like a dagger in your heart.
It's one of the most dramatic moments, not only in the whole 18th-century repertoire but in the whole repertoire, period. I cannot think of a single moment that has more impact on an audience than the beginning of the St. John Passion. There are many moments like that. One of my favorite moments is the very end, because, to some extent, we have the impression that he's building a bridge to his next passion. It doesn't end with a large chorus, the way it usually does. There is a large chorus, which is unbelievably beautiful and sad and reflective, but then he adds this little chorale at the end, which is as simple as it can get. Many people are actually dazzled by it, or puzzled, or don't know exactly what to do with it. I think it's a stroke of genius because suddenly it's like, "This is the drama. This is what you should bring home after being a witness to that drama." The way he approaches it, it's like announcing what he will be doing later in the St. Matthew Passion, with a much more reflective approach to this whole story.
For me, the two pieces are almost like the two different sides of the same universe. In terms of sheer dramatic impact, nothing beats the St. John, I believe.
Related: March 25, Les Violons du Roy