Notes on Bach's St John Passion
On March 29, Christians across the world will be attending Good Friday services. And as part of those services they will hear the reading of portions of the Bible which depict The Passion of Jesus Christ (the story of his capture, trial, crucifixion and death.) At Ascension and all Episcopal churches, the portion read is the backbone of the work we hear tonight: it is the entire 18th and 19th chapters of the Gospel of St. John.
This tradition of Passion readings on Good Friday goes back many, many centuries, and during some periods the story was chanted. Little by little, the chanting became more elaborate and different singers took the various character parts. By the time of the early Baroque period, composers such as Heinrich Schütz composed elaborate compositions with soloists, choruses, and instrumental ensembles. There were countless settings of The Passion during the Baroque, but none could prepare us for the two towering works of Johann Sebastian Bach, The St. John Passion and The St. Matthew Passion. In these works Bach used every skill he had as a composer to illuminate the text. This is not a concerto or an abstract piece of music. It is a perfect marriage of text and music.
Bach's plan in each was to take the text of the Bible passages verbatim and have it sung by a tenor (the "Evangelist" - representing St. John in this case) and by other solo singers taking the parts of various characters in the narrative. Throughout the piece, the action is frozen and Bach inserts some commentary on what has just occurred. These commentaries could be vocal arias or traditional Lutheran hymn tunes (called "chorales") with special texts written for this piece. And The St. John Passion also contains two large "bookend" choruses at the beginning and end of the work. We are not sure, but it is possible that Bach himself put together the libretto (download here as large pdf), collecting and adapting various religious poems and texts for the commentaries.
The central story theme of this great work is declared right at the beginning and repeated over and over again, straight through to the end of the work. It is what is called the "Victory of the Cross." This means that because Jesus went through his suffering and death, we are given the ultimate victory of everlasting life. In movement after movement, Bach shows us this victory in very clear poetic and musical ways.
The work begins with one of Bach's finest choruses and, indeed, one of the great beginnings in all of music. Immediately we are transported to another world, teaming with profound and complex emotions. The epic scope of the entire work is also indicated right from the beginning. And the theological theme is also stated right up front: "Lord, show us by your Passion that you triumph even in deepest humiliation." On the words "grössten Niedrigkeit" ("deepest humiliation") the voices go to the lowest notes, then build up again with the words "verherrlicht worden bist" ("you are glorified").
Then the story itself begins as told by the Evangelist (John). It is Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper has been finished, and Jesus has taken his disciples to a garden to sit with him as he prays. But Judas has betrayed him, and soldiers come to take Jesus away. Bach tells this story with what is called secco recitative. This is the singer accompanied only by occasional notes and chords by a bass instrument and a keyboard instrument (I have chosen cello and harpsichord.) This art form reached its summit in this Passion and the St. Matthew. The notes given the soloists and the harmonies chosen indicate the story and the meaning of the story, the significance of the story, in an extraordinary manner unequalled by any other composer. For example, in this opening recitative, the tone is rather ordinary at first, until, suddenly, the name of Judas is mentioned. Here the chord is the highly-charged harmony of a diminished chord. And the recitative gets quite active as the soldiers arrive with torches and weapons. Then, as the Evangelist sets up the first words of Jesus, the recitative melodies become more tender and the harmonies turn to the major.
Jesus asks, rhetorically, "Whom do you seek?" And the soldiers answer with hostility, "Jesus of Nazareth!" Here the chorus plays the part of the crowd of soldiers. Many times they will assume character roles; and at other times will take the part of the faithful congregants, commenting on what has just happened. Again Jesus asks, "Whom do you seek?" and again the soldiers answer with hostility. Then Jesus says, "I have told you I am the one you want. Let my disciples go." At this point comes the first inserted commentary in the form of a chorale (German Lutheran hymn). "What great love it was for me that you took upon this suffering."
The disciple Peter acts in a knee-jerk manner, draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant. But Jesus stands above all this, and tells Peter to put away his sword. Jesus says, "Shall I not take the path that my Father has given me?" Another commentary follows. The people ask to be as faithful to God's will in their lives as Jesus was.
The next recitative is centered around Jesus being bound and led away. The commentary that follows is the first vocal aria of the piece. "Jesus allowed himself to be bound so that I can be unbound from my sins." The two oboes depict this being bound up with their plaintive melodies which constantly crisscross each other - being tied-up with sin.
A brief sentence about two of the disciples following Jesus sets up the next - and very special - aria. Bach uses the notes of the recitative as the basis for the beautiful theme of the aria. It is scored for soprano, two flutes and bass line. "I will follow you, my life and light." The piece was originally sung by a boy soprano, and, for me, I hear this movement as an incredibly sweet, innocent, testimony of faith from someone who is (happily) too young to know the difficulties and even suffering that come with following in Christ's footsteps. When the young singer says, "Push me along when I hesitate," Bach gives us slurred pairs of upwardly-moving notes, depicting the nudging along.
Now the action becomes more vivid, as we return to the high priest's court. It is most interesting to notice the mood changes in the character of Jesus. At first his music is calm and in F Major. But, as he gets worked up, all the harmonies change, and he sings in a higher and more intense register. Finally, as he asks "If I spoke no wrong, why did you strike me?" the music is filled with such compassion (in E Major) that Bach tells us that Jesus has already forgiven the officer. The following chorale continues in this compassionate mode, by Bach's choice of the beautiful hymn melody and his extraordinary, heart-felt harmonization. (It should be mentioned that the tradition of composers harmonizing traditional Lutheran hymn tunes reached its absolute summit in the hands of Bach. And the magnificent collection of chorales in The St. John Passion form the true backbone of the piece, each one communicating some thought, some reflexion, in a profound and clearly expressive manner.) This chorale asks who it was that struck you, Jesus? The second stanza answers, "I and my sins were the cause."
Then, the crowd says to Peter, "Aren't you one of the disciples of that man on trial?" Their short, quick contrapuntal notes are cold, callous. Peter keeps denying he has anything to do with Jesus. When the cock crows, Peter realizes what he has done and weeps bitterly. The tenor's recitative on the words "wept bitterly" ("weinete bitterlich") is one of the greatest examples of recitative composition in all of music. It is a chromatic sigh of anguish. The following aria is Peter's song of remorse and anguish. It is the most blatantly passionate aria in the piece, befitting the disciple who always behaved so emotionally.
The aria doesn't really conclude. It just stops, and leads directly to the closing chorale of Part I. This is a totally amazing chorale. The first eight measures deal with Peter - how he took one look into Jesus' eyes and realized what he had done. The other eight measures are a plea from the faithful, "Jesus, look at me when I sin!" Bach uses every technique in the book to express very complex emotions. The first two measures start in the minor, but the second two evolve into a resolution of sorts in A Major. Then the harmonies sound completely troubled as Peter looks into Jesus' eyes and weeps. Even the cadence on "bitterly weeps" is worthy of mention, with its sad, expressive moving parts, and the fact that this phrase - and the first half of the chorale - ends on a dominant seventh chord in an inverted position (in layman's terms: totally unresolved.) Now, as the chorale talks about the lives of the faithful congregation, it picks up with considerable strength and conviction (again, through Bach's amazing use of harmony and voice-leading), finally ending with peace and faith.
In The St. Matthew Passion, Bach begins Part II with a lengthy commentary in the form of an aria with chorus. Here, he begins Part II much more directly, with a short, rough chorale. In less than 60 seconds Bach communicates three things: 1) what happened in Part I (Jesus was seized and taken away); 2) this was done for us (a reminder of the theological theme of the work); and 3) what is coming next (falsely accused, mocked, spat upon.) Bach expresses the words "falsely accused" with unexpected, deviating harmonies.
The action moves along quickly now. Jesus is taken to the high priest Caiphas and then to Pontius Pilate. Pilate asks the crowd what one would think would be a pro-forma question, "What charge do you bring against this man?" The crowd practically explodes, "We wouldn't have brought him here if he weren't a criminal!" This is the first of many highly dramatic, emotionally-charged choruses that give The St. John Passion its particular character. Here Bach uses sharp repeated notes, wild chromaticism, and an intensity which builds up and up, recedes temporarily, then builds up again. A brief recitative is followed by another highly-charged chorus.
In the next recitative, Pilate asks Jesus "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world; if it were, his servants would fight. But his kingdom is not of this world. As the text talks about fighting, Bach animates the notes. But, interestingly, the animation is not really dramatic, and it is in major keys: because Jesus, of course, would never really wage a battle. As he sings the final "aber nun ist mein Reich nicht von dannen" (my kingdom is not here) Bach clearly portrays Jesus thinking about his real kingdom, the one in heaven. In the commentary chorale which follows, the faithful try to express that, as human, earthly beings, we cannot possibly conceive of the mercy of this heavenly king. The chorale has almost continuous eighth notes in the bass line. Does this perhaps represent the earth-bound existence of human beings?
Pilate then tells the crowd he will release one of the two prisoners, Jesus or Barabbas, and asks them, "which one?" They cry out, "Not this one (Jesus) but Barabbas!" Pilate then has Jesus taken away and whipped. The word "geisselte" (whipped) provides Bach with another opportunity for picture-painting, which he seizes with enormous effect.
One might expect a bold, dramatic commentary to follow here, or at least a lament, as the Gospel text talks of Jesus' whipping. But, remember the theme of this St. John Passion: "The Victory of the Cross." What follows is instead one of the most luminous, tender, poetic arias Bach ever composed. It is scored for a very special collection of forces: bass soloist, accompanied by two viola d'amores (a sweet-toned member of the Baroque viol family), lute, organ, cello and bass. (In our performance, the viola d'amore parts are played on modern violas with mutes.) In this magnificent aria, the text expresses the thought that, out of Jesus' suffering comes the highest good. Out of the thorns that prick him comes a beautiful blossom; out of his wounds comes sweet fruit. The beautiful sound world of this arioso, the extraordinarily expressive melodies and subtle, profoundly moving harmonies, all contribute to one of the truly magnificent moments of the Passion. A full-length tenor aria continues with exactly the same theological concept, again with beautiful and evocative poetry.
The soldiers place a crown of thorns and purple cloak on Jesus. They mock him in a chorus, "Hail, King of the Jews!" The music is in a major key and is rather pretty, but Bach's swirling 16th notes in the flutes and oboes adds an uneasy, mocking undercurrent. Notice in the next recitative the spot where the Evangelist talks of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and purple cloak. Bach's setting depicts the Evangelist's deep pathos as if he were feeling "How could they treat the Son of God this way?"
As the high priests and officers scream "Crucify him!" we have another highly-charged, brutal chorus, fast and dissonant. The next chorus depicts the high priests slavishly following the letter of the law. So Bach composed music that also slavishly follows the letter of the law in musical composition. Although periodically it indicates the seriousness of the situation, this four-part choral fugue sounds as if a student following all the rules had written it. It is square and done correctly by formula.
Pilate starts to get anxious about who this Jesus fellow really is. The harmonies sound unsure. But, as this recitative comes to a conclusion, it remarkably ends in a sweet E Major key. It prepares us for the most theologically central chorale of the entire work. "From your imprisonment comes our freedom." The Victory of the Cross. To indicate the centrality of this chorale, Bach constructs the movements before and after it in a mirror image. Immediately before and after the chorale are two choruses with the same melodic material ("Wir haben ein Gesetz" and "Lässest diesen los"). On either side of those choruses are two "Crucify him" choruses. On either side of those are yet two more choruses with the same melodies ("Sei gegrüsset" and "Schreibe nicht"). An interesting detail along the way: in the libretto #23g, the Evangelist sings "he handed over Jesus to be crucified." On the word "crucified" Bach composed a very expressive melody for the Evangelist, properly depicting the word. But then he follows that harmonically charged phrase with a cadence in D Major. This major chord sounds totally out of place. Indeed, when I first conducted this piece - 30 years ago! - during a rehearsal, the D Major chord struck me right in the face. I stopped the rehearsal to make sure it was indeed a D Major chord and not D Minor. And then I understood, this was yet another depiction by Bach of The Victory of the Cross.
A marvelously vivid bass aria follows in G Minor, "Hurry to Golgotha!" The chorus asks, "Where?" When the text says, "You will be revived there," the music goes into E-flat Major.
After the "Schreibe nicht" chorus comes the chorale "In meine Herzen." This personal, compassionate piece serves as a transition from all the action to the final moments of Jesus' life. Then comes a unique moment in the work. As the soldiers take Jesus' coat, they decide to cast lots for it. Bach depicts this gambling with a most unexpected chorus. It is full of nimble running notes, quick repeated eights, syncopations and, in general, a rather playful atmosphere. Other than expressing the rolling of dice or whatever form of gambling you might choose, why is this movement here? The only answer I can come up with is the "comic relief" found in Shakespeare tragedies. Amidst all the horror and sadness of this Passion, Bach wanted to interject a momentary relief before returning to the death of Jesus.
We are near the end. The following recitative begins by finishing the story of the coat. Then it becomes extremely poignant as Jesus' mother and the disciple "whom Jesus loved" (St. John) gather beneath Jesus on the Cross. Jesus says to Mary, "Mother, this (John) is (now) your son." And to John, "There is now your mother." The chorale which follows is the same chorale tune as the final movement of Part I. And here, as was the case before, the first half is a commentary on what just happened, and the second half encourages all of us to act the way Jesus did. But the harmonizations of the melody are quite different. We are not in the same world now. And Bach expresses this with a more muted setting.
Jesus utters his final words in the next recitative: "Es ist vollbracht!" It is ended. It is fulfilled. One of the most famous arias follows. The thinner, poignant tones of the viola da gamba (a Baroque predecessor of the cello) are used, and the alto sighs a lament from deep within. And yet, all of a sudden, coming from nowhere, the aria suddenly breaks forth vigorously in D Major "The Hero of Judah triumphs in power!" The alto realizes the ultimate victory. But, just as quickly as this section began, it is over, as the alto nonetheless realizes that Jesus' time is finished.
A hushed recitative announces Jesus' death. Bach does not give us a lament here, but one of the most radiant pieces he ever composed. There are two worlds going on here: 1) the bass soloist and cellist ask the question, "Jesus, now that all is fulfilled, am I made free from death?" Jesus answers silently, with his head down, "Yes!" The melodies here are profoundly beautiful; and with its slow, gentle lilt, the music is spiritually happy. 2) The chorus exists simultaneously and sings from afar the familiar chorale (the same one heard at the end of Part I and earlier in Part II - this time in a low key with luminous, peaceful harmonies). They sing, "Jesus, you were dead and now live eternally. Let me follow your path."
A dramatic recitative follows as the veil of the temple is torn and the earth quakes. The quivering notes in the bass instruments here become the throbbing sound of a heart in the next tenor arioso. The rending of the veil, the rocks splitting, the earthquakes, and the graves opening up are all vividly depicted in the orchestra. But the arioso ends tenderly and unresolved as the tenor asks, "My heart, what will you now do?" The following soprano aria answers the question, "Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears, because Jesus is dead." This, also, is one of Bach's greatest creations. Only four instruments accompany the soprano: flute, English horn, bassoon, and organ. The sound world prefectly suits the profound sadness of the singer. And the role of the singer is that of a real human being, someone present at the Crucifixion who knew and loved Jesus. Three times the aria just stops, as if she realizes that he is actually dead. And in the moment before one of those cessations, Bach writes trills on two long held notes. These trills, however, are not usually performed like normal Baroque trills, but like an early Baroque Monteverdi trill: repeated notes on the same pitch, like a sound of sobbing.
The next recitative ties up many loose ends of the story, each with a different emotional expression. The firm chorale, "O hilf, Christ," provides a strong contrast before the final recitative. Here Bach gives the tenor some of his lowest notes as we journey to the grave. These notes sound particularly solemn in the voice of a "Bach tenor" whose voice naturally resides in higher pitches. Bach also knew that, after two hours of singing the recitatives, often in very high passages, the tenor's lowest register would be even weaker, more frail than usual. The recitative ends on the cello's and the organ's lowest notes, a low C.
Now is the final chorus, one of the most beautiful Bach composed. It is the other large bookend, balancing the opening chorus, bringing this epic story to a close. "Rest well," the people say. And the movement concludes solemnly in C Minor. But the work does not end here! Bach adds a final chorale, a final prayer from the faithful people: "Lord, when I die, send your angels to take me to Abraham's bosom where there is no pain. Then, at the last day, wake me from sleep so that I may see you. I glorify you eternally!" The chorale starts so softly and tenderly, and, little by little, grows into one of the most inspiring moments in Western Music.
— Dennis Keene