About this Recording
8.573817-18 - BACH, J.S.: St. John Passion (1749 version, with additional movements from 1725 version) (Mainz Bach Choir and Orchestra, R. Otto)
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245


A Work in Progress

The St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 and the St John Passion, BWV 245 are—without a doubt—two of the most important works Johann Sebastian Bach composed. No further reason needs to be given for the fact that they are considered among the most distinguished compositions of Western music since they were rediscovered in the 19th century. The extraordinary musical style of both works definitely speaks for itself.

Annual Passion performances did not have a longstanding tradition at the time when Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) took up the post of Thomaskantor (cantor at the St Thomas Church) in Leipzig in 1723. The fact that Passion compositions for the Good Friday vespers in Leipzig were to become an established tradition in Bach’s time was due to an unexpected windfall: the last will and testament of the jeweller’s widow Maria Rosina Koppy (from 1722) provided for the funding of ‘oratorical Passions’ that were—with regards to form and structure—large-scale performances in one of the main churches of Leipzig on Good Friday.

However, in addition to the funding of the project, details as to its specific form were also laid out and followed until Bach’s death: for each Good Friday vespers, a work in two parts was to be composed and performed, based on a biblical Passion narrative (cyclically alternating between the four evangelists). The service in one of Leipzig’s main churches—St Nicholas or St Thomas—began at around 1 p.m. The first part of the Passion was to be performed before and the second part after the sermon. Bach’s St John Passion was the very first composition for what was to be become an annual tradition.

Intention of the composition

None of these two extensive Passion compositions remained unchanged during Bach’s lifetime. Most probably, the reasons for the respective revisions had nothing to do with pragmatic adjustments to accommodate the works to varying performance situations; the motives for the revision of these works remains a mystery.

However, in connection with the St John Passion, the large number of versions Bach created until his death is quite remarkable and undoubtedly justifies the view that Bach himself must have held the compositional value of this Passion in such high esteem that he constantly aimed at optimising its musical quality.

Although the term ‘work in progress’ is borrowed from the contemporary, avant-garde conceptual and process art of the 1960s, its characterising elements aptly describe Bach’s method of dealing with his work. The main aspect is that the respective modification process in the development of the work becomes part of the presentation. In the four (possibly five) versions that can be reconstructed, it is by no means minor details or trivialities that are altered. On the contrary, the modifications significantly affect the sound and structure of the score in question.

In the years after 1724, the score and voices for the subsequent Good Friday performances were adjusted again and again (in 1725, 1728 (or 1732) and 1749). Whatever the reason, Bach obviously did not deem the original version to be thoroughly satisfying.

This original version, however, the so-called first version (1724) of the St John Passion can only be partly reconstructed. Apart from the fact that some voices were definitely lost, Bach’s notes in the score provide no answer to a number of questions that are still open.

The so-called second version from 1725 has been passed down almost completely and is, compared to the first version, characterised by the replacement of choral movements and arias. The traditional opening chorale Herr, unser Herrscher (‘Lord, our master’), for example, is replaced by the final chorale from the first part of the St Matthew PassionO Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (‘O mankind, mourn your sins so great’). Furthermore, arias are replaced, recitatives modified and the text of the libretto is revised. The most probable reason for these alterations in the second version might be that Bach did not want the composition to sound exactly the same in two consecutive years. (However, Bach cancelled most of these modifications in the third version). Giving any other possible motives for this version is tantamount to indulging in pure speculation.

What is more, after having analysed Bach’s handwriting and the watermark of the paper, the musicologists Alfred Durr and Georg von Dadelsen were able to date a third version back to the time between 1728 and 1731 (most likely 1730).

Strangely enough, the St John Passion has been passed down in a further hand-written score with voices (transcription 1739). Presumably Bach started writing this score for another performance (in Gotha?); however, it breaks off after 20 pages as the performance obviously did not take place. Bach never finished the transcription of this score himself but had a scribe do it for him, who then only transferred the non-revised notation of the original version from 1724 into the score Bach had started writing.

The earliest possible date for the last, fourth version (1749)—on which this production is based—is the year 1746, the latest possible date is 1749 (or even 1750, the year Bach died). This dating is mainly based on the stiff handwriting Bach had when getting old: the main features of this version are the reintegration of parts taken from the Gospel according to Matthew, including the final chorale (movement 40), the addition of voices as well as some text revisions relating to movements of free verse. However, it is quite obvious that Bach mostly draws on the first version again.

The assumption that the second version of the St John Passion passed down to us is related to the socalled ‘chorale cantata years’ 1724–25 is suggested, but cannot be verified satisfactorily. It is noticeable, however, that this version (unlike all others) was given a different opening and closing chorale: instead of the well-known opening chorale Bach uses the closing chorale of the first part of the St Matthew PassionO Mensch, bewein Dein Sünde groß—in E flat major instead of in the original key E major. The closing chorale Ach Herr, lass’ Dein lieb Engelein (‘O Lord, let your dear little angels’) is replaced by the closing chorale from the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23: Christe, Du Lamm Gottes (‘O Christ, lamb of God’), which was not associated with the liturgy of the Holy Communion at that time. This new framework is definitely the most important alteration even though there are also a number of other modifications.

Movements that were added, replaced others or were altered in the 1725 version

New Bach Edition

1II 244/35 chorale: O Mensch, bewein Dein Sünde groß (‘O mankind, mourn your sins so great’) replaces the opening chorale Herr, unser Herrscher (‘Lord, our ruler’)

11+ 245a aria with chorale: Himmel, reiße, Welt, erbebe (‘Heaven open, world now tremble’)—added

13II 245b aria: Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hügel (‘O crush me now, you rocks and mountains’)—replacing the original aria: Ach, mein Sinn (‘Ah, my mind’)

19II 245c aria: Ach windet euch nicht so, geplagte Seelen (‘Ah, do not writhe and twist so, tormented souls’)—replacing the original aria: Betrachte meine Seel (‘Contemplate my soul’)

20I aria: Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (‘Consider how his blood-stained back’)—omitted

32II string players double choir voices

33II recitative: Und siehe da… (‘And now behold…’)—seven-bar version according to Matthew 27, 51–52

34II arioso: Mein Herz… (‘My heart…’)—instrumentation regarding the wind instruments: 2 traverse flutes, 2 oboes da caccia

35II aria: Zerfließe, mein Herze (‘Dissolve, my heart’)—instrumentation of the wind players: traverse flute and oboe da caccia

40II 23/4 chorale: Christe, Du Lamm Gottes (‘O Christ, lamb of God’)—replaces the closing chorale Ach Herr, lass‘ Dein lieb Engelein (‘O Lord, let your dear little angels’)

Due to the fact that Leipzig had no established tradition and that (compared to the St Matthew Passion) an overall poetical concept was missing, Bach integrates into the libretto of the St John Passion not only the Gospel text but also verses by poets from the Baroque period, such as Barthold Hinrich Brockes, Christian Heinrich Postel and Christian Weise. (Among Bach’s Passion compositions only his St Matthew Passion has a poetically structured libretto—the verses by Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander.) As there are only a few so-called madrigal-like verses in the St John Passion the number of solo parts (arias) is comparably limited so that mainly the Gospel narrative is recited. This is additionally emphasised by the fact that the recitatives are exclusively composed as recitativo secco.

Theological dimension

By replacing the opening and closing chorale of the second version from 1725, Bach somehow impedes the theological unambiguity of the Gospel narrative according to John; the texts do not share the essential feature of St John’s theology, in which ‘neither the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself for the sins of mankind [nor] the idea of his suffering for mankind’ (Kreyssig) play an important part. Nevertheless, the structure of the Passion narrative is—for the most part—traditional: an exordium replaces the introductory passages of the Passion narrative, i.e. the events that precede the Passion (such as the anointing in Bethany, John 12, 1–8; the foot washing, John 13, 1–20 and the unmasking of the traitor, John 13, 21– 30). The narrative of Bach’s St John Passion is based on the classical five acts, but leaves out the events preceding Jesus’ suffering. It commences with the actus hortus (garden), then goes on with Jesus before the high priests (actus pontifices), which is followed by the actus Pilatus (Pontius Pilate), the crucifixion (actus crux) and the burial (actus sepulchrum). The composition of every act, which has the approximate length of a cantata, ends with a chorale. There is a caesura in the middle of the composition as the two parts of the performance were to flank the Good Friday sermon.

Looking at the composition in its entirety it becomes obvious that the dramatisation of situations and events is composed in the style of an opera in so far as Bach does not alternate between contemplative musical forms and the continuation of the story, which lends this work concise austerity within an almost ‘scenic structure’ (Seedorf), and thus distinguishes it from the tradition of oratorical narratives. Therefore, this version differs from the St Matthew Passion much more than any of the other versions. Considering which texts Bach selected and how he put them together, the theologically well-versed Bach seemed to have been keen on accentuating the specific character of the Gospel according to John, i.e. on characterising Christ as the triumphant king!

Norbert Bolin
Translation: Dorothee Kau

The recording was produced in the Christuskirche, the Protestant main church in Mainz, the state capital of Rhineland-Palatinate. This church, built in the style of the Italian High Renaissance and consecrated in 1903, has been the home of the Bach Choir Mainz and Bach Orchestra Mainz for over 60 years. The broadcasting corporation SWR has used this impressive building with its excellent acoustics as a recording studio for many years.

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