J.S. Bach: St John Passion (1725 version)
Derek Chester, Evangelist
Douglas Williams, Jesus
Ilya Poletaev, organ
William Perdue, violoncello
Abigail Haynes and Mellissa Hughes, soprano
Ian L. Howell and Sylvia Aiko Rider, alto
Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor
Joshua Copeland, bass
Yale Collegium Players (Robert Mealy, director)Yale Schola Cantorum
Simon Carrington, director
The rarely performed 1725 version of Bach’s St. John Passion is presented by Yale University’s premier early-music ensembles. Simon Carrington, who initiated his illustrious musical career as cofounder of the King’s Singers, directs this live performance.
THE 1725 VERSION
Towards the end of his first year as cantor at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig (Saxony), Johann Sebastian Bach composed his first large-scale setting of the passion of Jesus Christ, based on the narrative in the Gospel according to John. This first version of the St. John Passion was performed on the afternoon of Good Friday, 1724, in the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. In the following year he returned to this composition and reworked it for another performance. The changes he made are significant for Bach’s own artistic development during the year between the two performances and reflect especially his compositional interest in settings of chorales during the summer, fall, and winter of 1724.
In his second year in Leipzig, Bach was occupied with the composition of his “Chorale Cantata Cycle,” that is, cantatas for each Sunday and feast of the ecclesiastical year, based on Lutheran chorales. Bach was unable to finish this project, probably owing to the death of his librettist. However, the idea of using Lutheran chorales as the main musical material in a composition still interested him, and he inserted several chorale settings in his St. John Passion, in part replacing movements from the earlier version.
The most obvious change is his replacing of the first movement. While the version of the Passion from 1724 started with a large-scale setting of the words “Herr, unser Herrscher, wie herrlich ist dein Ruhm in allen Landen” (“Lord, our ruler, whose praise is glorious in all the lands”), the second version begins with an amalgam of a vocal motet and an instrumental concerto, based on the chorale “O Mensch bewein dein Sünder groß” (“O humankind, bewail your great sin”). The skillful combination of vocal and instrumental layers reflects (and summarizes) Bach’s compositional experiments in the “Chorale Cantata Cycle.”
This replacing of the movement changed not only the musical character of the Passion but its theological profile as well. The first movement of a passion setting (true of Bach, and of all his predecessors and contemporaries) serves as a kind of a headline, a hermeneutic key to how the narrative to follow is to be understood. While the headline from 1724, “Lord our ruler,” emphasizes the glory of God, the new headline, “bewail your great sin,” focuses on human sins and on how humanity caused the suffering of Jesus Christ. This changes the theological character of the entire piece.
The St. John Passion presents the narrative of the death of Jesus, beginning with Jesus entering the garden of Gethsemane where he is arrested. The biblical narrative is mostly set in simple, declamatory recitatives, sung by the evangelist and the other soloists who represent the persons in the story. Only when a larger crowd of people is speaking, as in the overwhelming “Crucify, crucify” (21d), does the entire choir sing the biblical text.
The speech-like style of the recitatives is interspersed by solo arias, which serve as points of repose and reflection. The relationship between biblical text and reflective aria can be seen in sections 8 and 9 of the passion. In section 8 the evangelist reports that Jesus, after his arrest, was followed by Simon Peter and another disciple. The aria that follows interprets this from the perspective of the Christian believer: “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (“I will follow you likewise with joyful steps”). The text of this aria is like a small-scale sermon, asking what the biblical narrative means for the believer, for me. Bach’s setting emphasizes the idea of “following” by setting the text in a dialogue between soprano and two flutes, where one voice imitates and follows the other.
Another integral element of this Passion is Bach’s use of several choral tune settings, simple in style and similar to congregational singing. While the arias reflect the meaning of the biblical narrative from the perspective of an individual, the hymns serve as a reflection from the perspective of the entire congregation. This function becomes obvious in the first hymn setting of the Passion, after the biblical narrative reports the arrest of Jesus, ending with Christ’s words: “Ich hab’s euch gesagt, daß ich’s sei, suchet ihr denn mich, so lasset diese gehen.” (“I have told you I am that one; if you are looking for me, then let these others go!”). The “imagined” congregation, represented by the choir, replies with the stanza: “O große Lieb ...” (“O great love, o love beyond all measure, that has brought you on this path of torment! I lived with the world in delight and joy, and you have to suffer”), emphasizing the responsibility of all humanity for the suffering of Christ.
While the different layers of the libretto of the Passion (biblical text, arias, and hymns) normally alternate, in the second version of his Passion Bach composed a movement that presents two layers — “aria” and “hymn” — at the same time. The bass sings the highly virtuosic aria “Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe” (“Heaven, tear apart; world, quake”), while the soprano answers with single lines of the chorale “Jesu, deine Passion” (“Jesus, your Passion”). The individual and congregational reflections on the suffering of Christ can thus be heard at the same time, woven together into one movement.
After the death and the burial of Jesus, the Passion ends with a double reflection. The first is a beautiful aria for the entire chorus, “Ruhet wohl ihr heiligen Gebeine” (“Be fully at peace, you holy bones”), reflecting the burial of Christ and the soteriological meaning of his death for the individual. The final movement is again a Lutheran hymn, the German version of the “Agnus Dei” from the Mass ordinary. This movement broadens the view and asks Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, for his mercy and peace. The final hymn (which was inserted by Bach only in this second version of the Passion, the first having had another hymn) serves a dual purpose. First, it is again the reflection of the congregation, reacting to the death of Christ and asking for his mercy, but second, it places the entire Passion in a larger liturgical context. The German “Agnus Dei,” like its Latin model, was part of the liturgy of the Eucharist, the celebration of the forgiveness of our sins through the death of Christ, and the commemoration of this death. By placing the “Agnus Dei” at the end of the Passion, Bach draws a connection between the Passion narrative and the celebration of salvation through the very events in the mass that were reported in this narrative.
The St. John Passion, like the St. Matthew, is a liturgical piece and was performed during Vespers on the afternoon of Good Friday. The performance in Bach’s day was interrupted by a lengthy sermon of about one hour, deepening the reflections on the passion narrative already presented by Bach and his librettist. Immediately following the last movement of Bach’s setting, the choir performed the sixteenth-century motet, “Ecce, quomodo moritur justus” (“Behold how the righteous one dies”) by Jacob Handl. The recording here follows that practice.
— Markus Rathey, Associate Professor of Music History, Yale Institute of Sacred Music