This recording of Bach's John Passion gives listeners a refreshing outlook, shining a new light into one of the best known pieces of the choral repertoire. John Butt recreates the Good Friday Vesper liturgy of a passion performance during Bach's time at Leipzig; in addition to the Dunedin Consort performance of Bach's composition, this recording features music from an original Leipzig hymn book with works by Jacob Händl, J. H. Schein and J Crüger performed by a congregational choir and the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir. John Butt takes centre stage to perform organ chorale preludes by Bach and Schütz on the Collins organ at Greyfriar's Kirk in Edinburgh, where the recording took place.
Since receiving a Gramophone Award in 2007, the Dunedin Consort has continued to receive accolades: Its recording of Handel's Esther was voted one of the ‘Top 10 Classical Albums of 2012' by The Times and its recording of Bach's Matthew Passion was named 'Building A Library: First Choice' by BBC Radio 3.
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Bach first performed his John Passion (Johannes-Passion) on Good Friday 1724, during his first year as Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. Not only would this have been a new musical experience for the congregation, but the very genre of the Oratorio Passion (in which the standard Passion narrative was embellished with reflective arias, choruses and chorales) had only been introduced in the two principal churches two years previously. The forward-looking Neue Kirche had made a similar innovation some five years before this, so it is clear that the tradition must have been embraced with some enthusiasm, perhaps inspired by the collapse of the Leipzig opera shortly before Bach’s arrival.
But if the Oratorio Passion had many characteristics in common with opera, its differences are very striking: first of all, it was designed to fit into the Good Friday Vesper liturgy, for which the focal point was the sermon delivered between the two halves of the musical setting. The narrative was taken directly from the chosen Gospel, and is therefore largely in the third person. Only the utterances of specific personages feature direct speech. Jesus’s part was naturally delineated by a specific singer, but he, like the narrating Evangelist, also seems to have sung all the other solo and choral material within the same range. Moreover, the arias do not relate directly to characters in the story (as they would invariably do in opera) but are subjective meditations effectively in the present of the performance, and addressed directly to the congregation. Likewise, the chorales inserted within the musical setting of the Passion seem to function as a concerted response to particular aspects of the story, as if sung by the congregation as a whole (the layout of the original parts and the elaborate nature of the harmonizations makes it unlikely that the congregation participated directly in these). Thus, Bach’s Oratorio Passions doubled all the essential elements of the service itself: the reading from Scripture; the communal response in the chorales; the more subjective and meditative element of prayer in the arias. The chorales, arias and meditative choruses also drew theological or spiritual points out of the story and thus doubled the role of the sermon. In all then, the dynamic of the Passion was more complex and nuanced than that of opera. If it forsook the visual element, it seems to have been designed to involve the listener much more intensely, both as part of a congregation and individually.
It is as if Bach reversed the mechanism of opera, turning the attention away from the representation ‘on stage’ and back towards the pew.
Bach and his (anonymous) librettist could draw on a rich heritage of devotional writing, some of which was specifically designed to be sung. Among the most celebrated Passion librettos – originally for concert, rather than liturgical, performance – was B.H. Brockes’s Der für die Sünde der Welt Gemarterte und Sterbende Jesus (1712), from which Bach’s librettist for the John Passion borrowed liberally. Indeed, some would characterize the entire Passion as a Brockes setting (in the tradition of composers such as Handel and Telemann) although the Brockes text was not originally designed to be combined with a specific Gospel. Moreover, the choice and placing of the non-Biblical text imply that both Bach and his librettist were intensely concerned with the theology of the Gospel. John’s Gospel sits somewhat apart from the others, the three so-called ‘Synoptic Gospels’, which are closely interrelated; it provides rather more of a cosmic explanation for the phenomenon of Jesus, one which is clearly influenced by classical philosophic traditions. Accordingly, Jesus, like his father, must exist eternally, standing quite outside human conceptions of time. Jesus’s earthly office is a sign of God’s presence as ‘the Word made flesh’; all his activities are designed to prove his ambassadorial position as the Son of God, all-knowing and coterminous with truth. Within this deterministic scheme, the murder of Jesus is essentially the device by which the Son returns to the Father, his triumph thereby assured. John’s account omits much of the suffering which Jesus must have experienced as a human being; rather, every adverse event is turned into a celebration of the fulfilment of the plan: in death Jesus – who knows everything in advance – triumphantly exclaims ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ (‘It is fulfilled!’). The darker side of John’s account is his view of the Jews as primarily responsible for the death of Jesus: they are placed on a lower level, outside Pilate’s judgement hall, and it is they who coax this seemingly benevolent governor to kill their impostor ‘King’. Many commentators note that John is clearly talking as a Jew himself and therefore only referring to the intransigence of certain factions within orthodoxy; it may also be that he is trying to shift the blame away from the Romans in view of his broader readership at the end of the first century.
The text of the opening chorus establishes the Johannine theme of the work: Jesus is portrayed as the eternal and omnipresent ruler. The poet implores him, as the true son of God, to show how he becomes glorified even in the lowliness of his Passion. The same pairing of opposites (interestingly, also linked with a da capo ABA structure, albeit modified) is evident in the lament ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, where the central section portrays Christ as victor. For many, the pivotal point of Bach’s Passion and the most significant distillation of its message is the aria text (set as if it were a chorale) ‘Durch dein Gefängnis’, which again exploits a contradiction: we receive freedom through Christ’s captivity. This develops a theme from John that is not so evident in the Passion narrative itself, namely, the atonement that Jesus’ death performs for believers (Jesus as the Lamb of God sacrificed for human sin).
Many writers have sought elaborate symbolic structures within Bach’s John Passion. Certainly such orders are not atypical of the intellectual and religious climate of the time. What does come across in performance is the relentlessness of the events, everything taking place almost with a clockwork precision, in direct and necessary fulfilment of a pre-ordained – indeed prophecised – order. The trial scene is the central point of the Johannine narrative since it is here that Jesus’s kingship is judged by the Jews and Pilate (they miss the point about Jesus’s kingship being of ‘another world’). Whether or not the musical connections between the crowd choruses (especially those derived from the first ‘Jesum von Nazareth’) point to another symbolic dimension, the first listeners must have experienced an increasing sense of inevitability – perhaps of the uncanny – as the piece progressed, since so many choruses would already sound familiar.
Some critics maintain that the John Passion lacks the refinement of its more illustrious sister, the Matthew Passion. Certainly it is not so evenly paced, lacking the almost doctrinaire successions of narrative-arioso-aria, which accord to the latter the flavour of a spiritual exercise. But the central trial scene would lose its impact if it were punctuated with arias. Both the intense musical colouring of the recitatives (Peter’s lament and the scourging of Christ are far more vivid than their counterparts in the Matthew Passion) and the incisive figuration of the choruses (almost a latter-day adaptation of Monteverdi’s ‘warlike’ style) recall the idioms of the late seventeenth century, when Lutheran music tended to wring every nuance it could from the grain of the text.
Only the arias, together with the opening and closing choruses, display the more luscious, affective style of Bach’s mature writing. These show an astonishing range of style and mood: the opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (which Bach used in all but his second, 1725, version of this Passion) is arguably the most turbulent piece he wrote, in which the triumphal text is entirely transformed by the grinding dissonance of the music; if Jesus is indeed to be shown as the true Son of God, the means by which this is achieved are truly agonizing. The first two arias both demonstrate the voice as almost entirely bound into the world of the music, the first (‘Von den Strikken meiner Sünden’) vividly alluding to the bondage of sin and the second (‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’) to the notion of following Jesus directly, in musical imitation of Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. Most extraordinarily of all in Part One, is the final aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ (replaced in the 1725 version), by which one of the tautest and most ordered of musical structures is virtually ignored by the solo tenor, who cannot escape the confusion brought by the human’s sinful state (just so graphically demonstrated by Peter’s denial).
As the drama becomes more intense at the outset of Part Two, we hear by contrast the most extensive aria, ‘Erwäge’, which with its accompanying arioso lays out the atoning purpose of the Passion, likening Jesus’s bloodstained back to the rainbow signifying peace with God after the flood. This rather lurid language was replaced in Bach’s last version of this Passion, but the rainbow imagery, together with the soothing swirls of the musical idiom, work particularly well in delineating the apex of the Passion setting as a whole, a moment of repose that so beautifully complements the savageness of the narrative music. Two arias feature dialogue between the soloist and other members of the vocal complement, almost as if Bach were trying out a texture that he was to exploit more extensively in his next Passion. ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ addresses the believers who are repeatedly asking whence they should hurry: their salvation lies at Golgatha, to which they should fly with the wings of faith. In other words, key theological notions of faith and atonement, to be sought in the present of the performance, are dramatized in one of the liveliest settings in the work. ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ is gentler, but no less compelling, with the solo bass (apparently sung by the same singer who sang Jesus’s words in Bach’s performances) asking if he is now freed from death. In a verse from the chorale ‘Jesu, deine Passion’, the other singers exclaim that Jesus, who has just died, now lives for evermore (and, in performance, this is just the illusion we gain, since the singer who represented Jesus continues to sing, now as a believer seeking salvation).
If the two dialogue arias point towards hope for the believer, the remaining two arias that occur in the latter part of the Passion return to the double emotion of sorrow and triumph as articulated in the opening chorus. ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (heard just before ‘Mein teurer Heiland’) takes up Jesus’s last words, showing both their sorrowful import and their articulation of triumph (in the central section); ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’ emphasizes the deep sorrow at Jesus’s death, as if to compensate for the overall cosmic confidence of John’s account. Yet, even in this most intensely sad piece of music there remains the remarkable confidence of the musical construction, the four interlocking lines and the recurrence of the segments seeming to sustain the sympathetic listener.
The arias thus provide a range of individual responses, some modelling the likely emotions of the listener, others exhorting the listener towards a particular resolution or action. The chorales perform a similar role for the listeners as a group, the body constituting the church. The use of several verses from some of the chorales binds the overall experience together in much the same way as the repetitions of the music within the choruses. Like the arias, the chorale verses are chosen to fit the specific point in the narrative. The first is taken from ‘Herzliebster Jesu’ (interestingly also the first chorale that Bach employed in the Matthew Passion, bar the opening chorus), a text emphasizing Jesus’s love at the point when he tells the arresting party to leave the disciples alone. The same chorale is used later at the point when Jesus’s kingship is being questioned by Pilate; here the opening of the chorale verse fortuitously concerns Jesus’s kingship, great throughout all ages. Perhaps most striking of all are the multiple uses of ‘Jesu, deine Passion’: first the verse that closes Part One, which concerns Peter’s denial (‘Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück’); thinking ‘backwards’, which Peter so signally failed to do, is what so much of this music encourages us to do, with its nested repetitions. The second occurrence comes at the point where Jesus commends his mother to his friend, again with an apposite verse (‘Er nahm alles wohl in acht’), and finally, there is the remarkable setting in ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ where the chorale points towards the resurrection.
The interlocking nature of the musical components and the juxtaposition of several textural layers mean that Bach’s John Passion is potentially one of the most intense religious works he wrote, interpreting itself almost before it has presented the prescribed text. The range of interpretation is potentially infinite, which may well account for the way the work still brings rich meanings and resonances even to those unsympathetic to its religious implications. Indeed, it may be that the Leipzig town council found Bach’s compositional attitude overbearing: the very first performance in 1724 was coloured by a dispute about the venue. Bach seems to have prepared the libretto for the Thomaskirche rather than the Nikolaikirche, as expected, and only agreed to the latter venue when its harpsichord was mended and more room was provided for the performers. The following year Bach, unexpectedly, presented the John Passion again (quite possibly he had planned another work, one that for some reason could not be presented). Presumably to avoid direct repetition he modified the piece considerably, adding several chorale-based movements that perhaps rendered the Passion closer to the chorale cycle of cantatas performed that year. A third version, in the early 1730s, returned largely to the first, excising two insertions from Matthew’s (or Mark’s) Gospel but also containing movements that have since been lost. Towards the end of the 1730s Bach began to prepare a neat score of the work, presumably as a definitive version. Yet he broke off after some twenty pages and the score was finished a decade later by a copyist (mostly copying literally from earlier sources). There may have been some dispute behind this change of plan, since there is a report in the council minutes on 17 March 1739 where it was reported that a clerk had been dispatched to prohibit the Good Friday performance until permission had been granted. Bach’s reported response was frosty: ‘he did not care, for he got nothing out of it anyway, and it was only a burden; he would notify the Superintendent that it had been forbidden; if an objection were made on account of the text, it had already been performed several times’. Certainly, several aspects of the text were modified ten years later when Bach returned to the work for the fourth time; perhaps the early enlightenment mood of the mid-century was no longer in sympathy with the imagery of arias such as ‘Erwäge’. It may also be that the view of Jesus as victor in a battle with death was becoming old-fashioned, in an age where the human qualities of Jesus seemed more relevant. Nevertheless, Bach clearly put some effort in preparing his final performance (despite ignoring the refinements he had made in his incomplete score of 1739), and it is even possible that he performed the work again in 1750, just months before his death. Despite the various hiatuses and his almost constant tinkering with the details, it seems that Bach never lost his interest in this Passion, a work of restless beauty that never quite divulges all its secrets.
John Butt © 2013