This Sunday – Bach’s Johannes-Passion (BWV 245)

In our last two subscription concerts the Choir presented two sacred masterpieces – the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms and the Messa da Requiem of Giuseppe Verdi – by great composers whose religious faith was tenuous at best. Today, we perform a sacred masterpiece, the Johannes-Passion (St John Passion) of the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), for whom the act of composition was itself an expression of religious faith. As Albert Schweitzer, the great humanist, organist and Bach scholar, wrote in his major two-volume study of Bach’s life and work in 1911:

Music is an act of worship with Bach. His artistic activity and his personality are both based on his piety…For him, art was religion, and so had no concern with the world or with worldly success. It was an end in itself.

Music was in Bach’s DNA. He came from a long line of musicians in Central Germany, primarily Thuringia, stretching back as far as the beginning of the Reformation. It is reported that by 1700 in Thuringia the word ‘Bach’ had come to mean musician. Among his immediate family, Johann Sebastian studied with his brother Johann Christoph and taught music to six of his nephews and to his own sons, two of whom, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, became major composers in their own right.

Bach was unequivocally a Protestant composer but his music appeals powerfully to music-lovers of all faiths. The area the family came from and worked in was the Lutheran heartland. Bach attended a school in his birthplace, Eisenach, where Luther had been a student nearly two hundred years earlier. Luther did a great deal of the translation of the Bible into German while staying in the Wartburg, the famous castle that lies just outside and above Eisenach.

Bach was born in 1685, some forty years after the end of the destructive Thirty Years’ War, which had its origins in religion, and yet did not prevent Germans of different faiths from living together peacefully when it was over. Bach himself spent most of his working life in Lutheran Leipzig, which was subject to the Catholic court in Dresden. In 1733, the Protestant Bach was to seek preferment from the court by submitting a Missa Brevis consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria, favoured at the Catholic Dresden court at the time (and also sung in Lutheran services), which later  became the the first two movements of his great Mass in B Minor.

Bach took up the position of Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1723, and composed the Johannes-Passion initially in 1724. The practice of performing Passions (non-theatrical musical representations of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ) at Vespers on Good Friday had begun in German churches, Protestant and Catholic, in the early sixteenth century. According to Schweitzer, there were two main types of this genre, what he calls ‘motet Passions’ and ‘dramatic Passions’. In the former, the whole text, including the words of Jesus, is rendered by the choir; in the latter, the words of the Evangelist and the speeches of Jesus are recited by one person in plain chant, while only the cries of the people are set polyphonically for the chorus, which renders also the words of Pilate and the minor characters. When Bach composed his first version of the Johannes-Passion in 1724, he ambitiously entered a very young Leipzig tradition of annual performances of so-called “oratorical passions”.  It was only 7 years earlier that Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, commenced these performances in the Neuen Kirche;  by 1721, after 4 years, he transferred them to the more important St Thomas Kirche  because of their great success.

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

The St John Passion is one of Bach’s two surviving Passions (he is believed to have composed four or five in total, the others having been lost. The text of Bach’s St. Mark Passion survived and parts of the music can be reconstructed as he used most of the Trauer-Ode BWV198 for the St. Mark Passion). The Johannes-Passion is smaller in scale, less famous, and composed earlier than the Matthäus-Passion (St Matthew Passion), which is the largest of Bach’s works.

In contrast to the St Matthew Passion, Bach gave his Johannes-Passion no ultimate version. Instead of an ultimate version, no less than four divergent performance-versions for the years 1724 (1st), 1725 (2nd), 1732 (3rd) and 1749 (4th) can be traced, of which not all of them have been preserved in their totality. For instance, only the vocal Ripieno parts (the choral parts without the soloists pieces), the two violin parts and a continuo part of the original version have been preserved; And only the continuo part of this version contains all movements of the work and reveals that the first version is largely identical with Bach’s last version. But important details of the instrumentation remain unknown. As a result, it is unclear if flutes were already used in the 1724 version, i.e. in the opening chorus. But flute parts of the later versions survived and can be heard in today’s performance of the Johannes- Passion. Also, the version of the Recitative No. 33 you are hearing tonight (which describes the earthquake after Jesus’ death) is actually from the second version (1725) of Bach’s Passion. The original Recitative was a shorter 3 bar version describing the events after Jesus’ death according to St. Mark and not according to St. Matthew as this part of the story is not mentioned in St. John’s gospel. Bach obviously felt it was important to include this dramatic part of the story in his St. John Passion (but removed these inclusions in his third version to create a ‘pure’ St. John passion).

St John Passion

St John Passion

For his second performance of the Johannes-Passion just one year after the first performance, Bach exchanged the large opening and concluding choruses with two large chorale fantasies and exchanged some of the arias with arias from an earlier but now lost work. The opening chorale fantasy “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” found its final place as final choral of the first part of the St Matthew Passion. In his last version, Bach returned more or less back to his first version and just amended parts of the instrumentation and added several instruments (including a “Bassono grosso” thought to be a contra bassoon). Large parts of the contemplating lyrics of the arias were changed in this last version for unknown reasons but with negative effects for the balance of text and music, since the music was not amended to reflect the changed lyrics in this version. Therefore, it must be assumed that Bach did not approve of these text changes, as he simply ignored them. This shows the version of the Johannes-Passion everyone is so familiar with (and we are performing tonight) is actually a mixed form of several versions, based on the full score of the last version without the additional instruments added in this version but with inclusion of the flutes not mentioned in the first version and the lyrics of the contemplating pieces of the original version.

The rediscovery of the St Matthew Passion and its Berlin performance by Mendelssohn in 1829 for the first time after Bach’s death in 1750 was instrumental in launching the Bach revival of the nineteenth century and gave the larger work a glamour that the St John Passion has never enjoyed. This has given rise to speculation that the latter was composed in preparation for the former. Such speculation does not do justice to the greatness of the St John Passion as a work in its own right. In the words of Masaaki Suzuki, the founder and conductor of the outstanding Bach Collegium of Japan: Just as the Gospel of St John relates the events of the Passion from a completely different viewpoint from that of St Matthew’s Gospel, the St John Passion differs both in conception and direction from the St Matthew in its treatment of Christ’s Passion. I would characterize the St John Passion as an ambitious and adventurous work to which Bach was strongly attached. The two Passions were both published in 1830, in the wake of Mendelssohn’s pioneering work.

It is important to understand that while the gospel of St. Matthew shows the human side of Jesus with his doubts and hesitation in the garden of Gethsemane and the desperation on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, St John’s Jesus is depicted throughout the gospel as the godly hero who himself takes the action until the end without any hesitation or doubt. Even on the cross, he commands one of his disciples to be his mother’s guardian. The St John Passion has a much faster pace than the St Matthew Passion, which has its origin in the different perspectives of the gospel texts.

Bach’s relationship with his employers, the Leipzig Town Council, was often difficult; In 1739 the Council (not the church!) even forbade him to perform an oratorical passion on Good Friday. This cancelled performance is thought to be another planned performance of his St John Passion as Bach started towork on a clean copy of the score for an obviously ultimate version of the St John Passion. But for unknown reasons this score was left unfinished after only 20 pages – right in the middle of the recitative No.10. Even when he performed the St John Passion for the last time in 1749, he did not use or complete this unfinished clean copy but used the old score. One reason might have been that he was so annoyed about the Council’s order that he never finished this score. Only in 1749 completes a copist the score fragment using a transcription of the then still existing original score. It is peculiar that the subtle improvements of the autograph part of the score were never performed in Bach’s time. For instance the first chorale of the passion finished in all four of Bach’s performances with a minor chord whereas in all modern ‘Urtext’ editions this chorale finishes with a major chord since they use the 1739 score.

But Bach also had a proud, stubborn temperament and might have regarded his position as Kantor, which he appears to have accepted primarily because of the educational opportunities Leipzig offered his family, as a comedown from his previous position as Kapellmeister at Köthen. It is interesting to note that a particular difficulty occurred over the first performance of the St John Passion. The Passion performances were supposed to be given in  alternate years at St Thomas’s and St Nicholas’s Churches. In 1732, the Town Council’s records indicate that the Kantor was called to account for having a handbill printed announcing a performance at St Thomas’s, when it was the turn of St Nicholas’s. The records further indicate that the Kantor justified himself by saying that the choir loft at St Nicholas’s was too small, its harpsichord needed repair and, anyway, the handbills had been distributed. This defence failed to sway the city fathers, who directed Bach to have the choir loft enlarged, the instrument fixed, and a new handbill printed reinstating St Nicholas’s as the venue, and all to be done at the expense of the Council.

Happily, no such bureaucratic controversy appears to be dogging today’s Great Hall performance: there is plenty of room for the choir, the instruments are all in good order, and we are in the correct, very appropriate venue. So Bach’s masterpiece can speak directly to us, with all its drama, pathos and piety. The drama and pathos are mainly contained in the recitatives and major choruses. The Evangelist’s recitatives tell the story in a direct, no-nonsense manner (with some of the words highlighted by musical gestures like the crying of the rooster or Peter’s weeping), interspersed with quotations from John’s gospel as the words of the main characters, Jesus, Peter and Pilate (the latter two called by their Roman names, Petrus and Pilatus, in German); the chorus for much of the work plays the role of the mob (turba) with all its prejudice, bloodlust and viciousness.

An interesting fact of the Johannes-Passion is that Bach composed most of the turba choruses as pairs. Always two choruses correspond to each other and are connected by the same musical motif. Most of these chorus pairs are ordered in a symmetrical manner around the Chorale No. 22 “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, muss uns die Freiheit kommen“ (Through your prison, son of God, our freedom must come). So are the choruses 21f “Wir haben ein Gesetz” (We have a law) and 23b “Lässest du diesen los” (If you  let this man go) based on the same musical idea, as are the choruses 21d “Kreuzige, kreuzige” (Crucify, crucify!) and 23d “Weg, weg mit dem” (Away with him), as well as the third pair of choruses 21b “Sei gegrüßet” (Hail) and 25b “Schreibe nicht” (Do not write). Interesting is also the fact that the first five turba choruses 2b, 2d, 16b, 16d, 18b (with the exception of 12b “Bist du nicht” (Are you not) are also based on the same four bar motif in the flutes. This all gives the Johannes-Passion an unique unifying structure.

The simple piety of the faithful is expressed in the chorales which are musical miniatures, frequently with complex harmonies, so typical for Bach and are obviously composed with trained choral singers in mind. The congregation were intended to identify themselves with Jesus‘ suffering and contemplate it. This was the musical and spiritual aim of the chorales. Contemplation and identification with the story are also the main themes of the Arias and Ariosos which interpret or comment upon the previous scenes of the passion story.

A good example of Bach’s dramatic method is contained in the last items of the First Part, where successively the mob confronts Peter in the chorus, Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer (Art thou not one of his disciples?); the Evangelist reports Peter’s denial, which the soloist singing the role of Petrus gives directly, Ich bin’s nicht  (I am not); the tenor soloist sings the aria, Ach, mein Sinn (Ah, my senses), describing Peter’s remorse at his act of disloyalty and cowardice; while the chorale, Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück (Peter, who does not reflect), asks Christ to touch our consciences when we do evil and involves the congregation in the story. (This scene is Bach’s other inclusion from the St Matthew gospel, as Peter’s denial and remorse is not mentioned in the Gospel according to St John but is an important part of the ‘story’ in Bach’s St John Passion.)

From the impressive opening chorus, Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord, our ruler), the St John Passion is composed at an exalted level. This first chorus fully reflects the spirit of the Johannes-Passion as portrayed in the Gospel of St John: Jesus as ruler of the world who shows us through his passion and remains also in his suffering the confident acting one. The expansive orchestration of this chorus, mirrored in the vocal lines, emphasizes the point that Bach’s compositional style is essentially instrumental. One needs only to hear that deep pulsation in the bass, like the beating of the human heart, above the violins symbolising the movement of time flowing constantly renewed throughout eternity, while towering over everything, the two flutes and the oboes paint the motif of the cross.

This opening chorus conveys an epic sense of timelessness but once it is out of the way, Bach throws the listener straight into the middle of the action, with the Evangelist describing how Christ and his disciples go into Gethsemane, while a body of men assembled by the High Priests and Pharisees, primed by Judas, come for him. The chorus, representing this group, announces that they have come for Jesum von Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth), Christ acknowledges that that is he, and the action is under way.

Bach finds particularly expressive music to set the uglier, more violent ideas, especially when enunciated by the mob. For example, in the chorus, Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter (Were this man not an Evildoer) Bach sets the word ‘Übeltäter’ (evildoer) to a strikingly chromatic and unappealing phrase. In the chorus Kreuzige, kreuzige (Crucify, crucify) he writes a fifty-bar piece on one word, again including a chromatic phrase to indicate the repugnance of the concept. A similar process occurs with the word ‘sterben’ (die) in the chorus Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have a law), and on ‘töten’ (kill) in Wir dürfen niemand töten (We may not put anyone to death). Bach’s dramatic sense gives particular weight to the powerful words ‘verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit’(derided, scorned and spat upon) in the great chorale, Christus, der uns selig macht (Christ, who makes us blessed) which opens Part Two of the work.

Bach’s genius for expressing dramatic action is especially noticeable in the virtuosic chorus, Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen (let us not divide up), where the Roman soldiers decide that, as Christ’s robe is not suitable to be cut up and shared around, they should draw lots for it. It has been suggested that the semiquaver figure on the word ‘losen’ (draw lots) is an onomatopoeic representation of a die being shaken and thrown.

Bach finds an appropriately frenetic phrasing for the chorus, as it responds to Pilate’s enquiry whether Jesus should be released with Nicht diesen, sondern Barabbam (Not this one, but Barabbas) – Latin grammar purists will, however, be gratified to note that the rabble at least puts Barabbas into the accusative case, where he belongs. There is a tone of malicious sarcasm in the music for the chorus Sei gegrüsset, lieber Judenkönig (Hail to thee, dear king of the Jews), as Christ has been condemned and is about to be crucified.

A number of the arias in the St John Passion are particularly moving, for example, Zerfliesse, mein Herze (Melt, my heart) by the soprano, Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished) by the alto (which for a short moment anticipates already the Easter triumph of Jesu’s resurrection), Erwäge, erwäge (Consider, consider) by the tenor, and Mein teurer Heiland (My dear Saviour), sung by the bass over a four part chorale.  In a similar vein is the great final chorus, Ruht Wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine (Rest well, you holy bones), which conveys a wonderful sense of consolation, almost of lullaby.

Overall, the Johannes-Passion is a very great work, which suggests that the world lost a great deal from the fact that Bach never worked in an environment where opera was part of the music scene. In fact, his use of similar musical phrases in choruses which deal with similar dramatic material is like an early version of Wagnerian leitmotivs. The Leipzig-born Wagner himself was not immune to the cult of Bach, writing:  Let anyone who wishes to grasp the wonderful individuality, power, and significance of the German spirit in an incomparably eloquent image but look keenly at the otherwise almost inexplicably puzzling phenomenon of the musical miracle man, Sebastian Bach.

If the word ‘human’ is substituted for ‘German’, many of us could agree with this comment.

John Bowan, Christoph Kaufmann

For even more details and further references go to

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4 Responses to This Sunday – Bach’s Johannes-Passion (BWV 245)

  1. I find the last line of the article incredibly offensive.

  2. John Bowan says:

    Dear Isabell
    I am sorry you were offended by the last sentence in my blog article about the Johannes-Passion. I can assure you that it was not intended to be anti-German but to make the point that Bach belongs to humanity as a whole, not just to one nation, as suggested in the wagner quotation.. I hope you will agree that other parts of the articlewent into some detail about Bach”s German background.

    I was very happy to note from the email that you addresses to the Choir after the performance that you had greatly enjoyed it. WE look forward to having you at future concerts.

    John Bowan

  3. Very interesting and informative! Thank you for this article-.
    Inge Courtney-Haentjes

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