St John Passion BWV 245
Orpheus Choir WCSP Soloists: Nicola Edgecombe, Ellen Barrett, Greg Massingham (evangelist) and Hadleigh Adams. Continuo: Douglas Mews and Brenton Veitch
From the earliest centuries of the Christian era, readings of the passion narrative, intoned by one voice, were a key part of the liturgies of Holy Week. Around the middle of the 13th century, the narrative was distributed among several different voices and from the 15th century onwards, the words of the biblical text attributed to the crowd – the turbae- were sung polyphonically. This development was due in part to changing attitudes to the importance of the telling of the passion story. With the emphasis on a more mystical perception of Christ’s suffering, the telling of the story needed to be more immediate both visually and audibly.
In contrast to the passion form employed by J. S. Bach, there were settings of the story entirely written polyphonically. In the Lutheran church the first Passions were written by Johannes Walter, a friend of Luther himself. These were written in the responsorial style, that is, with the Evangelist and other key characters in the story intoned by various individual voices and the crowd scenes or turbae set to simple polyphony. By the time of the three settings of Heinrich Schütz 1653-1666, the liturgical tones have been replaced by through-composed recitatives evolved from the liturgical tones.
The oratorio passion form used by Bach began to be identified in the second half of the 17th century. Its main features are as follows: 1) specially composed recitatives which developed operatic characteristics such as expressiveness reflecting the meaning of the words; 2) the inclusion of the chorales; 3) the use of non-biblical texts and 4) increased use of instruments to accompany the singers. Other features were the designation of the solo singers. Solos bass singers sang the words of Christ and of Pilate while sopranos sang the words of the maid and of Pilate’s wife. The choir was generally given the opening and closing choruses (however brief in early examples of the form), the chorales and the turbae.
With Bach’s passion settings the style tended even more towards opera and oratorio in the Italian style. In addition, Bach also added the larger scale arias and duets in the Italian style and the large scale opening and closing choruses, thus creating essential structural elements. The three passion settings known to have been composed by J. S. Bach according to St Matthew, St John and St Mark) were all two parts.
In particular the St John Passion is perhaps more dramatic than the St Matthew Passion with its trial scenes, its noble and reflective final chorus “Ruht wohl,” its monumental opening chorus and its striking prayerful chorale which ends the work. With respect to the additional non-biblical texts set by Bach, the work reflects the growing influence of Pietism in Germany in Bach’s time. Crucial elements of Pietism were the individual’s concern for his or her own soul and the inner life of the Christian leading to an urge to share with compassion the sufferings of Christ as told in the passion narrative. During the 17th century there was a growing trend for hymns to be written from the “Ich” or “I” standpoint rather than the “Wir” or “we” standpoint of the early Reformation period. For example, this is reflected in the choice of the text of the soprano aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls, mit freudigen Schritten” from the St John Passion.
The work itself
The 4 EXTANT VERSIONS of the work, 1724, 1725, 1726-31 & 1747.
As always with Bach and indeed other Baroque composers, no one version represents a “final” version of the work. Bach was adapting the score for the performing forces available at the time of performance or to the whims of the authorities of the time. This evening’s performance uses the “Neue Bach Ausgabe” edition published by Bärenreiter and edited by Arthur Mendel. In this edition the sequence of movements of the 1724 is the same as the 1747 version and includes two of the most beautiful but most demanding arias replaced in the 1725 version by other arias.
St John’s gospel (small section of St Matthew’s gospel)
Lutheran Chorales in use at the time of composition
Prayers and other devotional texts
Mostly based on Der für die Sünde der Welt gemartete und sterbende Jesus (1712) by Hamburg librettist B. H. Brockes
6 broad sections
Betrayal and Capture (St John 18: 1-14)
Denial (St John18: 15-27; Matthew 26: 75)
Interrogation and flagellation (St John18: 28-40; 19: 1)
Condemnation and Crucifixion (St John 19: 2-22)
The Death of Jesus (St John19: 23-30)
The Burial (St Matthew 27: 51-52; St John19: 31-42)