The Passion According to St John by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Leipzig, May 29th, 1723: “This past Saturday at noon, four wagons loaded with household goods arrived here from Cöthen. They belonged to the former Princely Capellmeister there, now called to Leipzig as Cantor Figuralis. He himself arrived with his family on two further carriages shortly after and moved into the newly renovated apartment at St Thomas’s School.  

These events,reported in a Hamburg newspaper, were clearly not just local news. Apparently the same people who had informed the press about Bach’s well-received audition for the post of Cantor et Director Musices in Leipzig wanted the world to know that not only had Bach won the appointment and accepted it, but he had actually arrived in the city and was preparing for work.

As things stood at the time, Leipzig was the centre of the printing and book industry in Germany, had a renowned university and, most importantly in this context, was a formidable stronghold of uncompromising orthodox Lutheranism, rejecting anything which caused its inhabitants to stray from the straight and narrow. The pious city fathers had closed the opera house in 1720, only twenty years after its opening, because they perceived it to be a source of inappropriate entertainment. 

The first performance of the St John Passion (BWV 245) was given on April 7th 1724 (Good Friday) in St Nicholas’s Church. Somewhat ironically, the work (the story of Christ’s crucifixion set to music) has all of the constituents of an opera. It has character roles for a number of significant people, ranging from the evangelical personification of St John himself, down to lowly servants and handmaidens. There is a plot which is moved along by recitative. There are arias which comment on the action and give us both insight into the various characters’ reaction to the events of the plot and also the opportunity to reflect. There is a chorus which gives the work context, acting variously as disciples, protagonists, chief priests, Roman soldiers, the angry mob in the streets of Jerusalem and the faithful believers and supporters of Christ. There is drama of the highest order, and there is music which meticulously and skilfully captures, enhances and vivifies that drama. Every word is sung. On show is the whole gamut of human emotion: jealousy; doubt; guilt; remorse; hatred; anger; courage; fear; suspicion; contrition; longing; desolation; forgiveness; and, perhaps above all, overwhelming love. Also present are disappointment; denial; intimidation; humiliation; violence; assault; bribery; mockery; betrayal; assault; murder; entombment; and utter despair. The St John Passion is akin to the opera Bach might have written had the city fathers in Leipzig not denied him the opportunity. 

One cannot approach a work like the St John Passion without being aware that it is deeply rooted in the context of the Reformation, a fundamental constituent of Christianity that was already 200 years old when the work was written. Of the numerous Protestant reforms across Europe, the one initiatated by Martin Luther (1483-1546) was by far the most important. Prompted in part by Rome’s literal “selling of souls” for hard cash (known in the Catholic Church as “indulgences”) in order to finance work on the building of the giant basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, the outraged Luther, a monk and professor of theology, began to re-evaluate church doctrine point by point. Luther didn’t intend to create a new church, merely to reform the existing one. However, political events, including the desire of several influential German princes to break away from Roman doctrine, led to a complete rupture with Rome and caused a schism and Luther’s excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The views of Pope Leo X, who held himself in self-appointed power over souls in purgatory, were incompatible with Luther’s re-evaluation. Three of the main Lutheran doctrines state, firstly, that only faith can save (and certainly not cash), secondly, that there is no intermediary between God and man, and, thirdly, that the sole point of reference for Christian belief is the biblical text – all of which ideas were at odds with contemporary thinking in the Roman See. In 1648, after the thirty years war (the Catholic counter-revolution), the religious situation in Germany was, broadly speaking, Reformed Germany in the north, and Catholic Germany in the south, although there were other currents and tensions in amongst this. Bach had to adapt his compositional style each time he relocated; in Leipzig, for example, he was obliged to rebut the Calvinism practised in Cöthen, his previous place of residence.