The History, Music and Text of the St John Passion

C.P.E. Bach, writing his father’s obituary in 1751, makes reference to five settings of the Passion, two of John, two of Matthew, and one of Mark. If this is to be believed, Bach set the words of St John’s gospel once in Weimar (where he was resident from 1708-1717 under the patronage of the Duke of Weimar) and once in Leipzig, and the words of St Matthew’s gospel also once in Weimar and once in Leipzig. The score of a setting of the passion as it appears in St Luke’s gospel in Bach’s hand also exists. It is thought, however, that he did not compose this, but merely copied it out and made some small additions for the purposes of performing it. (The actual composer has never been clearly identified.) Only the Leipzig settings of the John (1724) and Matthew (1727) survive. The manuscript for the earlier (Weimar) St Matthew Passion was discovered amongst the possessions of C.P.E. Bach after his death in 1790, but has subsequently been lost. The original score of the St John Passion has been lost, but a set of parts for the work, in Bach’s hand, does exist.

When compared to the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion was clearly conceived on a much smaller scale, both poetically and structurally. Whilst the St Matthew Passion contains 38 poetic interpolations of non-biblical text and 17 chorales spread over 78 separate movements, the St John Passion contains only 12 such interpolations and 12 chorales spread over significantly fewer movements. The St Matthew Passion is for double choir, double continuo and double orchestra (plus an additional ripieno boys choir), whilst the St John is for single forces. St Matthew takes 141 verses of scripture to tell the story, where John does it in 82. This is partly because John does not include the details of the last supper, having told that story some three chapters earlier. (He also omits various other key events of the last few days of Christ’s mortal life, which Matthew includes, such as the anointing with ointment in the house of Simon the leper, Christ’s kissing of Judas to identify him as the betrayer, the thirty pieces of silver and their association with the potter’s field, the suicide of Judas, the watching and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples fall asleep, the dream which Pilate’s wife has, Pilate’s symbolic washing of his hands, and Christ’s final words spoken from the cross in Aramaic.) Bach also seems far less concerned with orchestral colour in the St John Passion. Scored for flutes, oboes (doubling oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia), strings and continuo, the work contains only four different combinations of these instruments, whereas the St Matthew Passion contains fifteen different scorings and textures. The unique sound of the oboe d’amore is not really exploited – Bach uses it merely to cover the notes which are below the range of the orchestral oboe. Bach used transverse flutes (instead of recorders or block flutes) for the first time in the work. Dramatic effect is achieved not by changes to orchestral colour and texture, but through long, tortuous and twisting melodies and chromatic and angular harmonic progressions. 

Composed for a liturgical performance at the service of Good Friday vespers in St Nicholas’s, the St John Passion was written for male singers and instrumentalists, women having no access to active participation in religious or liturgical ceremonies. The soloists were drawn from the boys and men of the church choir. According to the payroll records at St Nicholas’s, the original performance would have had about 30 singers, making a total of about 60 performers including the instrumentalists. The composition of the St John Passion must have been an exciting challenge, as it allowed Bach, the newcomer to Leipzig, to put his own stamp on the Good Friday vespers service, which was one of the highlights of the Lutheran liturgical calendar. Never before had he been in a position to engage with such a large and captive audience for his work, and never before had he had the opportunity of such a showcase occasion. Arriving in Leipzig in May, Bach had missed the major religious festivals of Easter, Pentecost, Ascensiontide and Trinity for the year 1723. His first musical statement therefore was the composition of the exhilarating Magnificat, written for Christmas 1723 and ambitiously interpolated with four Christmas carols. The St John Passion was his second big composition, written partly, we might assume, to impress his new employers and members of the congregation alike.  

The text contains the verses of the passion story: the whole of chapters 18 and 19 of St John’s Gospel, as translated by Martin Luther. These are delivered largely by the Evangelist – a musical personification of St John himself – and by Christ. Some lines are delivered by the chorus representing variously the chief priests, the Roman soldiers, the protagonists, the people of Jerusalem, the disciples and the faithful believers in Christ. Other lines are delivered by other characters in the story known as the soliloquentes – a high priest, a maid, a servant, Peter and Pontius Pilate. The words of the Evangelist, of Christ, and of the soliloquentes, are delivered in the style known as recitative secco (dry recitative). They are accompanied starkly by very simple and occasional chords from the basso continuo (harpsichord and solo cello). This is a Singspiel style, in which primarily pitch only is notated, and which therefore allows the singers a great deal of rhythmic freedom and spontaneity, providing the potential for a highly charged and dramatic delivery.