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

Saint John the Evangelist by Simone Cantarini.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Johann Sebastian Bach finished the first draft of the St John Passion in 1724 and premiered the piece at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday, which fell on April 7 that year. While the St Matthew Passion completed three years later presents the warm radiance of the human spirit, with high drama set in a solemn atmosphere, and was subsequently referred to as “the great Passion” by Bach’s family, the St John Passion is somewhat less accessible and held in less high regard. The melody as a whole flows less brightly, and indeed can be rather jarring on the ear, with its frequent mood changes and complexity, its dissonance and tension. The disparity between the two works derives not from the level of maturity in compositional skills, nor from the evolution of his musical style: it is directly related to the fundamental differences in the nature of the gospels inspiring them, and of Bach’s fidelity to the scripture.

The gospels attributed to the two disciples show different sides of Christ. The Gospel According to St Matthew focuses on the ecce homo (behold the man) aspect, emphasizing the fortitude and patience Christ demonstrated in the events immediately preceding his crucifixion, facing his suffering armed with omniscience, before bringing redemption to humanity through his sacrifice. In the Gospel According to St John, Christ appears as a militant Savior, an omnipotent ruler and the belligerent Son of God, facing down Death and emerging victorious.

The opening choral part of the St John Passion is arguably the most extreme example in the history of classical music of a work focusing on the intense emotions of Christ’s suffering. When the choral part concludes, the music is immediately followed by the biblical narrative from the Gospel According to St John. The following excerpt, sung by the evangelist, illustrates Bach’s intricate compositional method:

Jesus ging mit seinen Jungern uber den Bach Kidron, da war ein Garten, darein ging Jesus und seine Junger” (Jesus proceeded with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered).

Judas aber, der ihn verriet, wusste den Ort auch, denn Jesus versammlete sich oft daselbst mit seinen Jungern” (And Judas also, who betrayed him, knew the place; for Jesus often went there with his disciples).

John 8:1 and 8:2 are faithfully set to music and sung by the evangelist, with the keywords Jesus, Junger/disciples, Kidron/Cedron, Garten/garden, Judas, verriet/betrayed and wusste/knew set by Bach in the downbeat, to highlight their significance, and to represent the hierarchy with gradually descending tones for the words Jesus (G), the disciples (E flat) and Judas (D flat). These two Bible excerpts are played with descending thirds, the first, starting with Jesus, being a major third (G to E flat) — in c minor — and the second, starting with Judas, being a minor third (D flat to B flat), with a harmonic center of f minor. Within the musical rhetorics of this parallelism, “Jesus” and “Judas” are set in the frame of a tritone, an interval known since the Middle Ages as the diabolus in musica (“the Devil in music”), or “the Devil’s Interval.” This use of intervals and tonal changes to represent and highlight the meaning of the scripture would appear on a frequent basis in this piece.

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