Many of us, whether church-goers or not, feel the need to go to a performance or listen to a recording of one of the Bach Passions during Holy Week every year, almost as some kind of pilgrimage. As a newcomer to these parts I was very much hoping there would be a performance this year in Lewes, but the nearest I was able to find was in March, in Burgess Hill and I was not able to go to that and in any case it felt too long before Holy Week!
Both Passions are broadcast without fail by BBC Radio 3.
I would like to offer some personal reflections and some easily digestible information about these extraordinary pieces of sacred music.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) worked as a church musician in several different cities in Germany. Until the nineteenth century, performing musicians and composers could only work for the church or at court, and indeed in his early years Bach worked in both situations, however his most important and productive post was in Leipzig, at both the Thomas and Nikolai churches, and he began his post as "Kantor" there in 1723. I visited the Thomas church a few years ago on tour and it was a very powerful experience to stand at his tombstone, which is set in the floor of this austere but beautiful church which dates back to the 12th century. Bach’s job was a full-time version of what Susan, Liz and I do here at St. Anne’s, but his full-time contract was much more demanding, involving organ playing, directing the choir and orchestra, and composing, as well as teaching at the church school and other more tedious duties. He wrote short pieces called cantatas for various voices and small instrumental groups, one for every Sunday of the church calendar, as well as a very large number of other vocal works, works for organ, harpsichord, solo instruments and small orchestras. Not all his work is intended for performance in church, however, his deep Christian faith moved him to mark the title pages of his scores with the letters "A.M.D.G.", standing for Ad Majorem Dei Gloria; "To the greater glory of God". There is a Christmas Oratorio, and large-scale settings of the Passion story intended for performance on Good Friday as part of the even longer act of worship including an extended sermon which was delivered in what we would call the "interval". The St. John Passion was written in 1724, and the St. Matthew in 1727, although both underwent various revisions for later performances. There is a St. Luke Passion attributed to Bach, but this is almost certainly not authentic.
The music for these Passion settings is highly dramatic, even operatic, and brings the listener/congregation right into the heart of the events of Holy Week. Bach never wrote an opera; at that time most opera was flourishing mainly in other parts of Europe. In 2000, there was a staged production of the St. John at English National Opera in London.
In both these pieces, the events of Holy Week are narrated by a solo tenor singer known as the Evangelist (using the German Bible text from the relevant Gospel) and his narration is in a style of singing known as recitative, sung to speech rhythms and accompanied by the "continuo" which is usually a cello and an organ. The Evangelist’s sections of the music are interspersed with choruses, often representing the crowd, which witnesses and comments on the events unfolding: chorales, or hymns which would have been known to the congregation and would have been sung by them along with the choir: and arias, where a non-Biblical text would be sung by a solo singer in a much more melodic style than the recitatives. The texts for these in the St. Matthew were supplied by a contemporary poet who went under the name Picander. The arias, as in opera, are a chance for the action to pause, and for the soloist to reflect and meditate on the proceedings. They may take the form of a prayer, such as "Erbarme dich" ("Have mercy on me") from the St. Matthew. There is often a solo instrument playing a musical line (“obbligato”) that weaves in and out of the vocal line. The accompaniment in both Passions is provided by a small orchestra of strings, woodwind and continuo. Christ’s words are sung by a bass, and these passages only are accompanied by ethereal string chords, often described as a sort of musical halo. Soloists also take the parts of e.g. Peter, Pilate etc. in recitative. Most modern performances use female sopranos and altos for the high voice parts, but women would not have been permitted to sing in church in Bach’s time, the top lines being sung by boy trebles and the alto lines by counter-tenors.
I have been fascinated to read (rather late in life) a biography of Bach, and learn about many details of his life and work. What struck me in relation to the Passions, (which portray a public execution in first century Palestine) was the fact that most of the churchgoers in Bach’s Leipzig would occasionally attend just such a public execution; indeed, some of his musicians and singers would probably have been called upon to perform SterbeLieder at these gruesome events. Schoolboys would be allowed to miss a day of school in order to accompany their parents to go and witness an execution, which would take place (like that of Jesus and the two thieves) outside the city walls and overseen by soldiers.
It is difficult to put into words the difference between the St. Matthew and St. John settings. I feel that the St. Matthew is on a larger scale; it features two choirs and associated instrumental groups, which are usually placed to the left and right of the stage to give a sort of stereo effect. I mentioned earlier the chorales, which bring an element of participation to the congregation, since they would have been well-known. Bach also uses a chorale melody some way into the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. This sets the scene with a relentless 12/8 rhythm and a dense moving counterpoint in the orchestra, taken up by the chorus; but above all this texture floats unexpectedly a chorale melody, "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig" (O innocent Lamb of God) in long notes (a "cantus firmus") sung by a group of trebles with striking effect. These simple yet majestic chorale melodies, some written by Martin Luther himself and an essential element in Reformation worship, were extremely important to Bach and form the basis of many of his organ works.
Both the St. John and the St. Matthew begin and end with substantial choruses, the final choruses offering a kind of consolation; although it is worth noting that there is no mention in either text of the Resurrection, the whole point of Easter. This is music for Good Friday, and by the end we are expected to be in that sort of limbo of unbelief, like Mary Magdalen and the disciples, not really sure where to turn and wondering where our Lord has gone.
I am one of many performing musicians who revere Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer to have lived, and we can only guess from contemporary accounts about his phenomenal skill as a keyboard player and improviser. His music shows astonishingly effortless technical and formal mastery, but also expresses deep emotion and spiritual profundity. His was a life devoted to the worship of God in music, so much so that at times he was stubborn and intractable and there were numerous occasions when he clashed with the church authorities and was reprimanded. Church musicians can only aspire to his level of greatness and dedication to his art, and audiences surrender to the all-consuming power of his music which expresses sublime joy as well as utter desolation.
If you don’t know these pieces very well, as in much substantial classical music it’s advisable to mug up the text in advance with a translation so as to follow the action:-
Early recordings using modern instruments and vocal styles were superseded in the 1980s by performers inspired by a desire for recreating the authentic sounds of the voices and instruments that Bach would have heard. Look out for versions directed by Philippe Herreweghe, Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Masaaki Suzuki.