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Bilingual Music: Bach’s St John Passion (I)

Peter’s Denial, a scene of prominent significance in the Gospel of John, depicted by 19th century German painter Anton Robert Leinweber in a North African setting.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even today, almost 300 years after it was composed, few audiences will fail to be profoundly moved by the opening chorus to Bach’s St John Passion. Against the surging accompaniment played by two violin parts in low register and the pounding basso continuo led by the organ, the woodwind section, led by the flute, strikes heavy blows before relentlessly descending. The tension is gradually built up over 18 bars, before the music suddenly erupts with the choir declaring “O Lord, our ruler...,” raising the curtain to this passion story. Through the voice of the crowd, here represented by the choir, Bach elevates Christ’s suffering to a world-embracing tragedy. Of all the music composed in praise of God in the entire history of Western music, this piece is unprecedented whether in terms of sheer musical scale or expressive power.

Bach was certainly not the first Baroque composer of passion music, and neither was this the first time the genre was performed in Leipzig. The tradition of musical performance of passion was firmly established in the Germanic area long before Bach had achieved fame. As Baroque opera swept throughout Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, its grandiose and dramatic style gradually influenced the compositions of oratorios and passion works. Over time, this saw the birth of highly dramatic and sometimes blood-curdling “passion libretto.” For Lutherans, however, piety was to be the highest guiding principle for musical performances on Good Friday, in order for the hearts and senses of the audience to be moved such that they could fully understand what the passion had to communicate about the Christ’s act of redemption. It was for this reason that when Bach took up the position of Cantor et Director Musices at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, his contract specified that he should avoid an overly operatic approach when composing church music.

A devout Christian, Bach adhered to the Lutheran translation of the Bible and composed a musical setting of the biblical narrative from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John. In his arrangement, an evangelist sings passages directly taken from the Bible in recitatives, interspersed with vocalists performing the parts of Christ, Peter, Judas and Pontius Pilate. From this point of view at least, the parts resembled the dramatis personae of an opera. Bach also included verses from various sources, creating ingenious arias, at the same time composing chorales based on lyrics familiar to contemporary audiences, thus retaining the congregational spirit of liturgy.

The first half of the “O Lord, our ruler...” passage is taken from Psalm 8:1 of the Bible, the second from one of the anonymous poems. At this point, the choir sings “testify to us by thy Passion [that thou, the true Son of God,]” in high registers, and from here the music descends, all the way down to the point where the choir sings “even in time of deepest lowliness,” before it once more ascends, concluding the passage at “hast at all times been glorified.” Bach made this arrangement, with the music descending from a high point before ascending again, to express the profound meaning of the lyric, shaping an inverted rainbow with the musical notes on the score and foreshadowing the climax in the center of the work. When the chorus concludes, the music goes straight into the passion narrative in John the Apostle’s account in medias res.

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