J.S. Bach – "St. John Passion"
1685 – 1985
The year 1985 is a year filled with special musical birthdays. It marks the tercentenary of Georg Friedrich Händel, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Domenico Scarlatti. It also marks the quarter-centenary of Heinrich Schütz.
These musical birthdays will be celebrated in many different places and in many different ways. Most choirs and orchestras will feature works written by the "birthday men," thus providing the listener with a smorgasbord of musical delights. I urge you to make use of the opportunities. Attend a concert and do not forget to take along some of the younger members of your family. The combination of sight and sound makes for a powerful musical experience, turning a life performance into an unforgettable event ... even for a twelve-year-old! In addition to attending concerts, you can celebrate the musical birthdays within the confines of your own home. Many radio stations featuring classical music are broadcasting special programs and documentaries dealing with the life and times of the composers. Major recording companies are releasing new records, tapes, and compact discs in order to acquaint the listener with yet another "authentic" edition, historic recording, or "boxed set" of complete works written by the birthday composer.
It is not surprising that J.S. Bach has fared very well in these circumstances. His music has stood the test of time, and the information (or lack of it) with respect to Bach's life, his religious convictions, number symbolism, etc., has led many scholars to further research and speculation. The head of the Stuttgart-based International Bach Institute, Helmut Rilling, has just completed the recording of Bach's 194 known surviving cantatas. This birthday present to the listener consists of 100 records, and traces the development of the cantatas which were composed between 1707 and 1740.
Recently, we had the opportunity to hear a performance of Bach's St. John Passion. Helmut Rilling led the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra through the magnificent passages of this work. It was no surprise that the audience paid the conductor and performers the greatest tribute possible: a response of total silence followed the final chorale. It was a deeply moving experience. And as the words "Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich; Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!" (Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me; I will praise Thee endlessly!) reverberated, I could not help but wonder what their effect might have been on the very first audience in Leipzig, now almost three hundred years ago.
Most assuredly, the circumstances differed greatly. Today, the concrete-steel-and-glass surroundings of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, the elegant audience mingling in the lobby, making full use of the intermission between Parts I and II in order to see and to be seen, the first-rate soloists, choir and orchestra, the distinguished guest conductor… Then, in 1724, the St. Thomas Kirche, the members of the congregation gathered together for the Good Friday service, the hour-long sermon between Parts I and II, the local choir and musicians, the newly appointed and not-so-well-known cantor, J.S. Bach… Yes, the differences are great. Yet there is one outstanding factor which did not change at all: the Scriptural message which formed the basis of the St. John Passion. This message, which tells us of the trial and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, is as relevant to today's concert hall audience as it was to the congregation in Leipzig three hundred years ago.
The Passion, the account of Christ's last days on earth, with an emphasis on His suffering and death, has always played an important role in the worship service of the Christian church. The Early Christian Church introduced Passion music to teach the members of the congregation. Pope Leo the Great acknowledged the didactic importance of Passion music. He prescribed the readings from Scripture to be used during the worship service, making sure that all four Passion accounts would be read throughout the "Holy Week": Matthew 26-27 on Palm Sunday, Luke 22-23 on Wednesday, Mark 14-15 on Thursday, and John 18-19 on Good Friday.
This tradition was still observed in Bach's time. The members of the Leipzig congregation were not surprised at all to hear a Johannes passion, a St. John Passion. They may have wondered whether their newly appointed music director Bach would take a modern approach to Passion music and introduce a truly operatic Passion in which the Biblical text was hidden among the secular passages. Well, Bach recalled the lines he had written in his letter of application to the members of the Town Council in Leipzig:
I promise to preserve the good order in the Churches, and shall so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.
On Good Friday, 1724, Bach performed the St. John Passion. He used a choir and an orchestra, as well as several soloists. Some of these soloists represented a specific character, while others sang a more general role. The tenor was the Evangelist, the person who recites the actual chain of events, somewhat like a narrator. A baritone sang the role of Jesus, while two bass voices represented the figures of Peter and Pilate. The roles of the soprano and alto voices were much more general, and were cast to interpret the major events. We may note that the choir also fulfilled a dual role. At some points the choir became the "turba" or crowd, and called out that Barabbas be set free, but Jesus be crucified. At other points in the St. John Passion, the choir represented the believer, who contemplates the true meaning of Christ's suffering, the Mediator whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 6).
Part I of the St. John Passion tells us of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and highlights the actions of Peter. We hear of Peter's denial and his outburst of contrition. As soon as the evangelist has told us that the disciple left, weeping bitterly, the tenor soloist tells us in an Aria how Peter's soul bears the marks and pain of the denial. The choir follows immediately with a Chorale in which the application is made to the believer: "Jesus, also look to me, when I will not repent; when I have done evil things, sting my heart and mind." With these words, we come to the end of Part I. At this point, the minister would deliver his sermon. It has been suggested that the Leipzig congregation heard a sermon on the theme of Peter's denial.
Part II opens with a Chorale, which serves as response to the preaching and introduces the next events, the trial before Pilate. We may note the joyful opening line: "Jesus Christ, who brings us joy." Bach stayed away from the overly dramatic accounts of Christ's suffering, accounts which were widely used at the time. Instead, he emphasized the triumphant victory of the risen Christ. Throughout Part II we hear the actual words of the text reflected in the music. We hear the greeting of the mocking soldiers: "Hail, dear King of the Jews!", their laughter reflected in the notes played by the flutes and oboes. We hear the bass violins play the fast notes to depict the rattling of the dice in a bowl, "Let us not tear the tunic, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be." We hear the descending line of the alto Aria, "It is fulfilled," a reflection of Christ's words: "It is finished!" It is quite remarkable that this Aria changes very suddenly from the soft sombre feeling of grief to a bright and lively cry of triumph "Judah's champion comes in power and ends the strife: It is fulfilled!" The trumpet-like fanfare which accompanies these words reminds us of the resurrection of Christ. The Lion of Judah has conquered death and doom. The evangelist continues with a description of the tearing of the curtain of the temple and the earthquake. These events are not found in John, and it is generally assumed that Bach included them for their dramatic quality. Again, the instrumental accompaniment illustrates the point very well.
In the second last chorus, we discover a glimpse of the other side of Bach. The sentimental and mystical side. You may be reminded of the final chorus in the St. Matthew Passion: the believer sits at the grave of Christ, and calls out "We sit down in tears and call to Thee in the tomb: Rest softly, softly rest! Rest ye exhausted limbs, rest softly, rest well..." We find a similar passage at the end of the St. John Passion: "Rest well, rest well, ye holy limbs for whom I'll weep no more. Rest well and bring me too to rest..." and applying these words to the believer himself, the chorus continues: "My flesh laid in its little room, bid gently past all doubt and pain: Sleep until the end of time!"
Let us remind ourselves to listen critically at all times. Even Bach's greatest works, written to the glory of God, require a sharp ear on the part of the believing listener. Let us be tuned to the truth of God's Word in order not to be led away by diverse and strange teachings.
Today, three hundred years after Bach's birthday, we may listen to the St. John Passion amid the concrete-steel-and-glass surroundings of the modern concert hall. Circumstances may differ greatly, yet we may know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.