Fall 2014 Concert Notes
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion, BWV 245
It was on Good Friday of 1724 when J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. Bach had only recently been hired as Kappelmeister, having been the last choice of the consortium of Lutheran churches in Leipzig. Indeed it was to the disappointment of many that he was appointed. What parishioners expected on that Good Friday was certainly not what Bach had composed; hitherto then, musical Passions were plainchant settings of the text from the Gospel with an occasional congregational chorale. Bach, having only recently accepted his new post, presented this monumental work that took the passion genre to a new level with the inclusion of chorus and orchestra. Bach's motives for composing this massive work were possibly not just altruistic, but also to strategically establish himself as a capable composer and Kappelmeister in a town where he was less than warmly welcomed. The Passion was no longer plainchant, but a masterfully crafted collection of choruses, recitative, and arias. It became a multi-dimensional work: not only are there characters in the drama, but commentaries on the drama, and congregational responses. It is a grand combination of opera, oratorio, and liturgy. After having stunned audiences (in ways both favorable and unfavorable) with this work of cinematic proportions, he continued to serve as Kappelmeister for twenty-six years, until his death.
The St. John Passion is the first of Bach’s two famous Passions (the other being that of St. Matthew), and of the two, it is certainly the more audacious and dramatic. It is entirely likely that Bach wrote up to five Passions, and we are lucky enough to have these two toweringly beautiful works.
This large work consists of four different types of movements: choruses, passages of recitative, arias, and chorals. Each serves a different purpose and employs different types of text: the choruses plays the role of the crowd during the trial and crucifixion of Christ; the arias, written in a trendy operatic fashion (considered at the time to be the most expressive),communicate the pain of Christ’s trial and crucifixion; the recitative accounts the biblical narrative; and the preexisting chorales, which are a poetical testament of the theology, are sung by the congregation from memory. Bach’s congregations not only knew the chorales, but also understood them on a level deep enough to recognize their pertinence to the Gospel, and to instantly grasp their function within the passion as a commentary on the narrative and poetical heightening of Lutheran theology. The interaction between the different types of movements – the choruses, arias, recitative, and chorales — greatly enhances the significance of the text in a way that is incredibly dramatic and poignant.
Uniquely, the Gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity more so than the othercanonical Gospels, yet its portrayal of the death of Jesus is profoundly and vividly human. This juxtaposition of the Divine with humanity is important to the theologian Martin Luther, of whose work Bach had a very nuanced understanding (being a servant of the Lutheran Church). The image of Christus Victor represents the very argument between Christ’s death as a result of the power of evil, and the glorious victory of the resurrection; it is the wrestle between the power of evil and faith in the unity of God; it is the blame for Jesus’ death on all of humanity, yet the cross being a symbol of divine victory; it represents the dialectical opposition of God being simultaneously perfect, yet represented by “the Word made flesh” in the most base of forms, human. This theological argument posits that God reveals God’s self not only the resurrection, but in a profound love for humanity by the lowliness of the crucifixion. It is an important concept to Luther: that our salvation is not from the empty tomb alone, but from the cross itself; not from Easter alone, but also Good Friday. It is therefore because of this dialectic that the image of Christus Victor was to both Luther and Bach the most appropriate and theologically rich.
The theme of Christus Victor is declared at the beginning and repeated over and over again. The work begins with a magnificent chorus in G-minor on the text, “O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Contrasting the glorification of Christ in the text is a profoundly ominous musical setting with a relentless pulsating bass line, buzzing sixteenthnotes in the violins, and a crying out from the chorus on “Lord!” Following are the words that are the central concept of the Passion: “Show us through your Passion that you, the true Son of God, at all times, even in the greatest abasement, have been glorified.” The portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion as a glorification is central to Bach’s setting of the work and understanding of Christus Victor. The remainder of Part I narrates the arrest of Christ, Peter’s denial, and Christ being brought before Caiaphas.
Part II is far longer and more complex. It begins with a hymn and moves into the dialogue of Christ and Pilate. The chorales in Part II are ever grounded in the concept of Christus Victor. We constantly hear phrases, such as:
Our freedom, Son of God, arose when Thou was cast in prison. (Chorale 22) When dreaded death is near me, with all its dark distress, Thy Cross, dear Lord, will cheer me and ease its bitterness. (Chorale 26)
Make your peace with God and man, that upon the morrow, you may end this mortal span, free from care and sorrow. (Chorale 28)
Perhaps the most striking moment in the second half is the unforgettably quiet death on the cross. After Christ announces, “It is fulfilled,” the profoundly beautiful aria, “Es ist vollbracht,” follows, accompanied by viola da gamba; at the time, viola da gamba was inextricably associated with funerals, as it was typically the accompanying instrument due to its soft nature. Following is a very quiet statement from the Evangelist: “Then bowed He His head and was gone.” The fact that Bach chose not to dwell on the moment of death indicates that his emphasis on the salvation of humanity, which is indeed the victory of the cross.
Being consistent with the concept of Christus Victor, the piece does not end with the death of Christ, but with the pledge of resurrection; however, it declares not only the resurrection of Christ, but also the resurrection of humanity. It is not only in the cross that Christ is lifted up, but that through faith, humanity is exalted and will join in the glorious company of Divine when in the fullness of time, we may conquer death. The final movement, unsurprisingly, is a chorale. It is a declaration that the crucifixion was not a surrender, but the greatest triumph:
Ah Lord, when comes that final day may angels bear my soul away to Abraham’s bosom take it; let then my body’s anguish cease, my soul to wait the day, in peace, when Thou again awake it. Ah, what a joy it then will be the very Son of God to see, to gaze upon His holy face, my Savior on the throne of grace! Lord Jesus Christ, oh hear Thou me, oh hear Thou me, Thy name I praise eternally.
Notes prepared by
BCCO Assistant Conductor