‘Layton has directed this annual St John Passion for several seasons now. His readings, which are becoming ever more dramatic and daring, have a raw intensity. It was easy to see why these concerts have become one of the highlights in London’s musical calendar’ (The Guardian)
Polyphony and Stephen Layton present their celebrated performance of Bach’s most dramatic masterpiece. Accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a starry team of soloists, Layton directs a vivid account, the excitement of the narrative drama contrasting with heartbreaking moments of reflection.
In Ian Bostridge, we have the most iconic Evangelist of the last twenty years; an artist who is an incomparable communicator, a singer of technical brilliance, and an impassioned, experienced interpreter of Bach’s music.
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In the history of Bach’s musical legacy, the St John Passion has always stood in the shadow of the St Matthew Passion. The repercussions of the first revival of the St Matthew after Bach’s death, which took place in Berlin under the direction of the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, decisively contributed to gaining it a unique position. But at the same time the great success of the St Matthew aroused a wider interest in Bach’s large-scale vocal works that initially benefited the St John Passion above all. This is attested not only by performances of the work, but also by publication of the music: in 1830, a year after Mendelssohn’s performance of the St Matthew, the full score and vocal score of that work were published for the first time in Berlin; as early as 1831 another Berlin firm followed this up with full and vocal scores of the St John—unmistakable signs of the Bach revival that originated in and radiated from the Prussian capital at that time.
In the years around 1800 the name of Bach was by no means unknown in Germany, England, France or Italy. But Carl Friedrich Zelter’s Sing-Akademie in Berlin was in the vanguard of the committed champions of his music. Hence, for example, the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, a member of the Sing-Akademie since 1796 and later the father of Felix Mendelssohn, played a determining role in that institution’s purchase of the surviving manuscripts of the Bach family. However, the impact of the St Matthew Passion performance of 1829 was underlined by the fact that the youthful genius Mendelssohn, the great white hope of music, had so single-mindedly dedicated himself to the Old Master Bach. Past and future came together in this significant event in the musical history of Berlin and assured for Johann Sebastian Bach the elevated status in public musical life that he had already long enjoyed in the milieu of professional musicians. In this respect, the two Passion settings played a pioneering role. As early as the 1830s, Robert Schumann already expressed his particular enthusiasm for ‘the little Passion’, which he considered ‘much bolder, more powerful, more poetic than the one from Matthew’s Gospel’. Nevertheless, the monumental aspect in the make-up of the St Matthew Passion and the exemplary nature of its homogeneous, oratorio-like conception were especially in tune with the nineteenth-century notion of art. So it is hardly surprising that the eminent historian of music and Bach biographer Philipp Spitta denied the St John Passion ‘the highest degree of perfection’ in 1880.
To be sure, Spitta’s overall aesthetic judgment subsequently turned out to be problematic prejudice, since the St John Passion was to gain an almost equivalent place in later musical practice. But to arrive at a fair assessment of the St John one needs to bear in mind the specific circumstances of its genesis. For this makes clear how the work accompanied Bach right from his first year as Kantor of St Thomas’s to the penultimate year of his life and thus, for that reason alone, how close it must have been to his heart. Of course, the work’s history also shows—as Spitta could not have known in his time—that in fact the composer had not really finished with it. For the St John Passion never reached its final form.
The genesis and early performance history of the St John Passion proves to be unusually complicated, as only more recent Bach scholarship has acknowledged. In comparison with the St Matthew Passion, which was first given in 1727 and remained virtually unchanged after what was probably its third performance in 1736, Bach revised the St John several times, in some cases radically. Yet his listeners scarcely ever noticed this, nor does the modern listener realize it. In many ways it is the features associated with this process of transformation from 1723 to 1749 that give the St John Passion its peculiar appeal.
Bach experimented with the St John Passion as he did with no other large-scale composition. This was made possible by the structure of the libretto, in its relationship between the Gospel narrative and freely composed meditative texts. The spiritual verse, unlike the libretto written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) for the St Matthew Passion, was of varied provenance, and therefore interchangeable in principle. In the St John Passion the biblical Passion story formed a homogeneous unit, which Bach as it were through-composed as it stood and merely interspersed with chorale strophes and contemplative arias. As a result, it is the Gospel text and its setting that give the work its structure. Accordingly, the well-chosen aria texts by various poets (Christian Weise, Christian Heinrich Postel and Barthold Heinrich Brockes) functioned as set pieces that could be inserted as required to emphasize specific points in the Passion narrative. This did not detract in the slightest from either the musical quality of the individual movements or the cohesion of the work, so it would hardly be appropriate to underrate the St John Passion against its later sister work on that account.
The St John Passion was heard for the first time at Good Friday Vespers of 1724 in Nicholas’s Church in Leipzig. With this performance, which took place towards the end of his first year as Kantor of St Thomas’s, Bach began the process of consolidating over the next twenty-seven years a still recent tradition in Leipzig which his predecessor in the post, Johann Kuhnau, had inaugurated with a St Mark Passion in 1721. The work’s incorporation into the liturgy of the Vesper service on Good Friday afternoon made it necessary to split it in two, as was subsequently to be the case in in all the Passions Bach gave in Leipzig: the first and shorter part was heard before the hour-long sermon, the second after it.
It is possible to distinguish five versions of the St John Passion, which are connected respectively with the performances in the years 1724, 1725, 1728, c1739, and 1749. All of them display significant modifications in detail, but also in the overall formal scheme of the work, the character of which is determined by the large-scale framing movements at the beginning and end. The furthest removed from the original design is the first revision. The opening and closing movements ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ and ‘Ruht wohl’, along with the final chorale ‘Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein’, were replaced in 1725 by new movements. In both cases the substitutes were extended chorale settings: ‘O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß’ (transferred to the St Matthew Passion in 1736) and ‘Christe, du Lamm Gottes’ (taken from the Cantata BWV23 for Bach’s examination for the post of Kantor in 1723). In addition to this, Bach replaced a number of arias. Two factors made him decide on so fundamental a transformation just a year after the premiere. In the first place, there was evidently no time to compose a new Passion; and secondly, he was clearly intent on bringing the 1724 Passion into line with the ongoing annual cycle (Jahrgang) of chorale cantatas of 1724–5. This aim was easy to achieve with the big framing choruses based on chorale themes and the inserted aria ‘Himmel, reiße, Welt, erbebe’ featuring the chorale ‘Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod’.
The third version (1728) restored the original opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ and the closing chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ to their initial function, but dispensed with the final chorale. It is impossible today to reconstruct most of the major changes in this version, but we know they included the deletion of those sections from Matthew’s Gospel (such as the passage ‘Und der Vorhang im Tempel zerriss’) which Bach had taken over into the St John Passion for dramatic reasons. Given that a St Matthew Passion had come to join the St John in 1727, a clear segregation of the two Gospels was now desirable. The fourth version, probably dating from 1739, marked a return to the first version, but combined with a thoroughgoing musical revision. Bach recorded this in a newly copied score, which however breaks off at movement 12. The fragmentary revised score constitutes an extensive stylistic overhaul with painstaking improvements to the part-writing and a partial restructuring of the instrumentation; particular attention was paid to the word-setting in the recitatives and the continuo accompaniment.
With this fair copy of around 1739 Bach was obviously aiming to produce a final version of his St John Passion. The revision he began here was connected with the thorough reworking of a whole series of large choral works, including not only the St Matthew Passion but also the Magnificat, the Easter and Ascension oratorios and the lost St Mark Passion. Why his work on the St John Passion remained in a fragmentary state is unclear. Even the revival of 1749 apparently provided no stimulus to complete what he had begun. The revision of 1739 was disregarded, and during the 1740s Bach repeatedly performed Passion music by other masters (including Passion oratorios by Handel, Keiser and Graun) while seemingly resigned to allowing his own work to lie unfinished. Perhaps a row with the Leipzig authorities over the Passion performance of 1739 had taken its toll. For that incident had provoked an angry reaction from Bach, who is reported as saying that ‘he did not care, for he got nothing out of [the annual Passion music] anyway, and it was only a burden’.
All the same, Bach resolved to give his St John Passion again in 1749: this was to be the last Passion he directed. To this end he made further interventions in the 1724 form of the work, modifying and modernizing some of the poetic texts. Thus, for example, the line ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ (‘I too follow thee with joyful steps’) was rephrased to read ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls, mein Heiland, mit Freuden’ (‘I too follow thee, my Saviour, with joy’). Above all, however, he augmented the performing forces. For instance, a bassono grosso (contrabassoon) was expressly required in order to give the orchestra a sonorous foundation, and the existence of five continuo parts indicates that there was an especially rich array of bass and keyboard instruments.
In spite of its chequered history, the St John Passion displays in all its numbers a high degree of musical elaboration coupled with a special originality of content which is due above all to the theological idiosyncrasy of John’s Gospel in relation to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The former lays particular emphasis on the sovereignty of Jesus. This means that, in John’s account of the Passion story, the trial scenes before the chief priests and Pilate are treated in extensive detail and lead to the central question ‘Art thou a King then?’. Following the Gospel, Bach too gives great weight to the dialogic sections of the trial, makes special use of the opportunities for dramatic shaping, and makes the theme of the kingship of Christ his own. But already the opening chorus speaks of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (‘Lord, our Master’). In the same vein, the central aria after the death of Jesus, ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, features an emphatic middle section on the text ‘Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht’ (‘The Hero of Judah is victorious in power’) hymning His triumph over death. And even the closing chorale with its opening words recalling the text of the work’s first chorus, ‘Ach Herr …’, is no funeral dirge but offers a prospect of the end of time and the eternal praise of the Heavenly King.
Whereas the St Matthew Passion, with its framing sections, stands in the tradition of the Baroque Passion oratorio, the St John Passion draws on the older tradition of the sung Passion historia, which customarily began with a plain introduction (‘Höret das Leiden unsres Herrn Jesu Christi …’—‘Hear the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ’). The opening chorus of the St John Passion combines the instructive character of the second section of the text, ‘Zeig uns durch deine Passion’ (‘Show us by thy Passion’), with the underlining of Christ’s kingship in the first section, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’, based on the opening formula of an old prayer used in Electoral Saxony, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Name herrlich ist in allen Landen!’ (‘Lord, our Master, whose Name is glorious in all lands!’). The liturgical function of the Passion setting as a sermon in music also finds expression in the dual chorus that concludes the work. The burial chorus ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ is followed by the chorale strophe ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein / Am letzten End die Seele mein / In Abrahams Schoß tragen’. The chorale individualizes the events of the Passion by underlining the words ‘die Seele mein’ (my soul), but at the same time, with its call to prayer, harks back to the didactic opening of this setting.
Among the distinctive features of the St John Passion is its relative downplaying of contemplative verse and thus the relegation of the solo numbers to a less important position. The number of arias is not large, and individually they are kept within relatively modest proportions. Whereas in the St Matthew Passion Bach underlines the significance of the poetic text, and hence the solo element, by inserting extended ariosos before most of the arias, the St John Passion has only two paired movements of this type. Similarly, there are no duets and only two movements combining soloists and chorus. Moreover, between the opening chorus and the chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ there are no tutti movements on freely composed texts. In the scoring of the arias Bach generally limits himself to either wind soloists or strings and dispenses with more elaborate accompaniment. The aria ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, placed at the centre of the work, is set in the style of a French tombeau, but deliberately breaking with the conventions of the da capo aria. While the middle section normally achieves contrast by reducing the dynamics, here Bach does the opposite: the A sections are for reduced forces (solo viola da gamba), the B section for full string orchestra; this corresponds to the markings Molto adagio for A and Vivace for B. The model for this ABA form is the French overture, but here its emblematic significance implies not the usual meaning (‘the king is coming’) but something highly unusual (‘the king is dying’—and at the same time ‘The Hero of Judah is victorious in power’).
In the structuring of its recitative, too, the St John Passion goes its own way. For example, a characteristic feature of the St Matthew Passion is the emphatic underlining of Jesus’ words in the Gospel narrative by string accompaniment. In the St John, all the soliloquentes (the biblical characters who express themselves in direct speech) are accompanied only by continuo. In compensation for this Bach brings out certain passages of particular importance in the text with a motivic treatment in regular metre: this is the case with Peter’s lament (‘und weinete bitterlich’) and the scourging of Jesus (‘und geißelte ihn’). The corresponding passages in the St Matthew Passion are set in significantly less striking fashion.
Also of great import in formal terms are the unusually broadly laid out and elaborate ‘turba’ choruses—that is, the sections of biblical dialogue for the chief priests, the people, the soldiers and the disciples. The original Johannine text already gives these dialogues considerable importance from a purely quantitative point of view, and Bach heightens their impact by compositional means. He further creates a system of thematic-motivic correspondences which gives the choral interjections of the various groups a cyclical organization through repetitions. The starting points for Bach’s formal method are the equivalent repetitions in the Gospel narrative (such as ‘Jesum von Nazareth’, ‘Kreuzige’ and ‘Wir haben keinen König’ / ‘Schreibe nicht der Jüden König’). Moreover, the multiplicity and concentration of the choruses stimulated the emergence of a network of formal relationships through the creation of symmetrical correspondences. This system of thematic-motivic relationships forms a correlate to the outer movements of the Passion. Thus, the internal organization, guided by the biblical words, and the external frame are very closely interconnected, defining the liturgical function of the work and thus revealing Bach’s first Leipzig Passion setting as a mediator between the older Passion historia of the seventeenth century and the more modern Passion oratorio.
Christoph Wolff © 2013