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

The Denial of Saint Peter, painted around 1610 by the Italian painter Caravaggio.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In his St. John Passion, Johann Sebastian Bach assigned an evangelist to sing the text from the Bible in recitative, while soloists perform the spoken parts of Jesus Christ and other biblical characters to drive the narrative forward. As each section of the script draws to a close, Bach inserts ariosos and arias, on the one hand allowing soloists to offer commentary on the action, explaining the significance of the previous section, but also allowing the singers to act as representatives of the devout and convey a wide range of emotions.

In the first half of Part One, Bach composes an aria for alto “Von den Stricken meiner Sunden” (“To release me from the knots of my sins”). This line was taken from the text of a popular Passion script written by the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, and describes how Christ was physically bound to enable us to be liberated from the knots of our sins, cleverly conveying different meanings of the German root “binden.” Bach set this aria in the melancholy key of d minor, accompanying the alto with two oboes, to express the profound meaning of the text and to represent the audience’s reflection on the events before them.

As the narrative approaches the familiar episode of Peter’s denial of Christ, Bach composes an aria for soprano “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (“I will follow you likewise with joyful steps”). Two flutes play a light, sprightly Baroque dance in 3/8 time before the soprano joins in, representing the word “follow” by the melodic lines composed in a canon-like contrapuntal techinique.

The innocence, courage and self-assurance of this aria stands in stark contrast to Peter’s denial in the following passage, at his remorse after the cock crows when he recalls Christ’s premonition of his betrayal. The aria “Ach, mein Sin” (“Oh, my soul”) was adapted from the poem Der weinende Petrus (The Weeping Peter) by German Baroque poet Christian Weise. Here, Bach brings in all string instruments to convey the strong emotional tension. The continuous use of dotted notes brings a strong sense of remorse to the music, and the rare use of F# minor enhances the sense of grief.

In Part II, Bach details the inner conflicts and psychological struggle of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, where he scrupulously interrogates Christ before finally asking himself: “Was ist Wahrheit?” (What is truth?), and music comes to a halt as if in contemplation.

Following the intense trial scene, the aria “Erwage, wie sein blutgefarbter Rucken” (“Consider, that his blood-bespattered body [is a part of Heaven above]”) comes in the center of the whole piece. The aria, written in c minor for tenor, is quite long and technically extremely demanding. The tenor is accompanied by two Violas d’amore, with their rich and relatively deep tone.

Theologians through history have often regarded the Gospel of St. John as progressing, pendulum like, from a high to low point, and then back up again. The low point, naturally, is Christ’s crucifixion. Bach sought to express this concept through the music: the lowest point is the point from which the pendulum starts to swing back. In the second half of this aria, located in the middle of the piece, the composer makes reference to the Great Flood and the rainbow, which represents the covenant God made with Noah. The rainbow shape that appears on the score can be seen as the pious Bach’s attempt to convey a message to the audience through the story of the Passion.

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