Bach: St. John Passion

18.04.14: Good Friday.

Bach composed his Johannes-Passion during the early months of 1723, intending it as a Good Friday service for Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he was expecting to be appointed Cantor. During this period, Bach worked without a poet-collaborator, choosing texts from existing passion poems and altering them, if necessary, to fit his concept.

To appreciate Bach’s St. John Passion, it is useful first to compare it to his St. Matthew Passion (composed 1736). Both are large works that set two chapters of the passion story in recitative. The tenor is the narrator, the voice of the evangelist, whether John or Matthew, and the other soloists sing the words of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and others who participate in the story. Whenever the crowd, the soldiers, or another group of people speak, Bach gives their words to the chorus with more elaborate settings than in the solo recitatives.

The chorus and soloists have a second role as active listeners to the story, who express the sentiments of the Lutherans for whom Bach wrote the passions. The soloists’ arias and the chorales of the chorus are placed at telling points in the scriptures where their modern (to Bach) texts serve as an appropriate commentary. The chorus also sings long and complex numbers to open and close the passions.

The instrumentalists play a significant role as well, especially in the commenting movements. An aria may really be a trio for one singer with two oboes, flutes, or violins. And in choral crowd scenes, the orchestra typically adds still more voices to an already intricate counterpoint.

Though a big work by most standards, Bach’s John Passion is much shorter than his grand Matthew Passion. Bach takes his cue from the difference in the texts. The account in John is less dramatic than in the other gospels. Accordingly, Bach makes of it a subtler, more personal, more intimate story.

John’s version strips the passion story of its mission, fulfillment, and promise, omitting many of the symbolic, portentous, and stirring events. John relates so many of Jesus’s teachings at the Last Supper that the scene cannot be included at all. Absent as well are the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the death of Judas, the ominous dream of Pilate’s wife, and even the crowd’s final acknowledgement that “truly he was the son of God.”

Some of the omissions John makes were apparently just too much for Bach. He borrows from the gospel of Matthew for Peter’s lament and for the earthquake, both of which are colorfully set.

All the cuts, as Bach clearly recognizes, help to focus the drama on Christ’s trial before Pilate, a political, psychological and emotional conflict, but one without obvious good-guy and bad-guy roles. In those two chapters of John, Christ is not a particularly strong character. He does not claim to fulfill scriptures, nor does he make prophecies. And in the end he dies quetly. Pilate on the other hand has great presence though he can be interpreted as either a sympathetic figure or a smooth, crafty operator.

Notes on the John Passion always feature the ingenious, palindromic structure of the piece. (See tables next page.) The work is flanked by two massive choruses, the opening Herr, unser Herrscher, a complex and compelling invocation, and the ending Ruht wohl, a sweet and lingering graveside parting. Within this framework Bach transcends mere sequence of individual numbers by arranging musically similar choruses symmetrically around a central chorale. Nine choral movements, the last four mirroring the first four, revolve around the pivot point in the drama, the height of the psycho-emotional conflict, when Pilate searches for a way to release Christ while the high priests scream for Christ to die.

Here and throughout the work, Bach pairs off choral movements that share similar texts or sentiments. The music with which the soldiers mockingly hail the King of the Jews reappears when the priests demand that Pilate “write not that he is King of the Jews.” A more ironic pairing is Bach’s choice of the same chorale tune to contemplate first Peter’s thoughtlessly denying his master and then Jesus’s thoughtfully providing for his mother. On an even larger scale, Bach takes the grating chromatic notes with which the oboes pierce the dark turbulence of the opening chorus and repeats this harsh, sinister sound in the choral cries of “crucify him” and in the frenetic, agitated orchestral accompaniments of five other angry-mob choruses.

With so much attention paid to Bach’s “formal concept of genius,” not enough is said about his word and tone painting, examples of which appear throughout.

The evangelist, who relates the very dry narrative, has opportunity to emote on many pictorial words (for instance geißelte, “scourged,” takes three whole measures) and phrases (“Simon Peter had a sword, he drew it forth, and struck at the high priest’s man”) The chorales, though based on familiar hymn tunes, are characterized by exceptionally rich harmonies – poignant, sinister, or glorious – which highlight significant words or phrases. The complexity of the chorales makes it obvious that they were not meant to be sung by a congregation.

Solo arias are characterized by their intricacy in form and wealth of imagery. The alto’s Von den Stricken, “From the tangle of my transgression,” is an elaborate weaving of vocal and instrumental lines. In the tenor aria Erwäge, “Consider,” the words for “waves of water” are sung in undulating phrases and “rainbow” is one long rhapsodic arch. Ich folge dir, “I will follow thee,” has a flute line that “follows” after the soprano line. The bass Eilt, “Hasten ye,” is a compelling “running” line of eighth notes.

Bach’s St. John Passion is gloomy, stressful, highly emotional, and powerfully meditative. Its depth comes from its subtlety. There is no noble hero, no mustache-twirling villian, no hummable tunes. As difficult as it was to work within the confines of John’s text, Bach was able to create a moving work with musical, spiritual, and psychological unity of form.

—Audrey Wong, Norm Proctor

2 thoughts on “Bach: St. John Passion”

  1. Thank you for writing this beautiful post–it brought back the wonderful memories of hearing St. John’s Passion in Leipzig this day last year. I haven’t had the chance to hear Matthew Passion live yet (just a recording). Your notes on the text are very helpful as well. I don’t speak German so, although there was a libretto available, it wasn’t of use to me since I couldn’t understand the language. Have you heard the boy’s choir perform it?

    My account can be read here, if you are interested:


    1. Thank you for the feedback and happy Easter. Visiting Leipzig and hearing the (three?) Passions live are two of my most sincere musical dreams, and having both of them fulfilled at once would be just WOW. I envy you. 😀


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