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Bach’s St John Passion: Re-telling the story of death and life

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Bach’s St John Passion was first heard on Good Friday 1724, in Leipzig’s St Nikolai Church. Bach deliberately crafted the Passion to enable the congregation to reflect more profoundly on the story of the arrest, trials, death and burial of Jesus. Bach’s unknown librettist drew on St John’s Passion narrative, contemporary poetry – some of which had been written for a contemporary Passion Oratorio by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – and traditional Lutheran chorales to tell the story of how Jesus came to be crucified.

Bach’s St John Passion would have concluded Good Friday worship in Leipzig. The work was written for a performance at the evening service, following that morning’s extensive meditation on the death of Christ. Accordingly, in his sermon at St Nikolai following the singing of the first part of the Passion, the preacher reflected especially on the burial of Christ. In his Passion Bach turns the preacher’s message into music: the two final movements of the Passion tell of the believers’ conviction that the death of Christ has broken the power of death itself, and transformed the grave into a place of hope, Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist/ Und ferner keine Not umschließt,/ Macht mir den Himmel auf/ 
und schließt die Hölle zu (the grave, so is destined for you/ and no further misery surrounds/ Makes heaven open/ And Hell shut to me, movement 39). At the end of the Passion, the hearers are encouarged to give voice to this hope themselves in the words of the closing chorale: death has been defeated, and the grave has become a room to retreat into, a Schlafkämmerlein (little sleeping chamber) where our bodies may rest, Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein/ bis am jüngsten Tage! (gently without any torment or agony at all,/ until the last day, movement 40).

The journey to that place of rest and hope is a dramatic tale of betrayal and power-play, of agony and pain. Bach’s Passion begins and ends in a garden near the city of Jerusalem. We join Jesus and the disciples as they cross over the Bach Kidron (Kidron stream) – it is as if the composer, himself a ‘Bach’, joins the disciples on their journey in music across Jesus’ Rubicon. We take our leave from two other disciples in the garden of the resurrection, where they laid their friend to rest. The story told between the two gardens leaves little doubt that not one of the participants in this drama – not even Jesus’ followers – fully recognised the true identifty of Jesus. Throughout the Passion Jesus’ opponents struggle to understand how Jesus can be called a ‘King’ since he clearly has neither kingdom nor earthly power, just as his close followers fail to comprehend how Jesus can be the ‘resurrection and life’. Indeed, at at the end of the Passion we encounter the disciples as they bury Jesus, with no expectation of ever seeing him again alive.

Much of the musical drama of the St John Passion comes to life because of these misunderstandings. Jesus’ trial before Pilate, with its dramatic crowd scenes, in which the religious leaders of the land accuse Jesus of being an insurgent claimant to the vacant throne of Judea, thrives on misunderstood truths, and confused loyalties. Pilate himself has little understanding – nor, frankly, interest – in truth. Was ist Wahrheit (What is truth? movement 18a) he asks Jesus during his interrogation, a question that Jesus, who earlier in John’s gospel spoke of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), pointedly leaves unanswered. Nor has Pilate any sympathy for faith: he purposefully goads the religious hierarchy into professing their loyalty to the hated Roman Emperor by dressing the flogged prisoner in royal garments. In his music Bach suggests that Pilate’s sense of justice is as twisted as as crown of thorns the soldiers pressed on Jesus’ head. Many of Pilate’s statements are set to augmented fourths – tritones, the Baroque diabolus in musica (devil in music), often used as a symbol of mischief or evil intent. Pilate not only twists Roman justice, but also manipulates the Jewish leaders. At the end of the trial, the high priests are forced to affirm their fealty to Rome: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser (We have no king but the Emperor, movement 23f) they shout, at the risk of foregoing even the little self determination they had enjoyed under the occupying forces.

Even Jesus’ close friends who, John’s gospel tells, had followed and learnt from Jesus for more than two years, do not really understand their teacher. They certainly find it hard to comprehend that when Jesus spoke of the need for his followers to ‘take up their cross’, when he said that his glory would he be revealed by being lifted up on a cross, or when he foretold his resurrection, he was speaking literally. This is shown well in their differing individual reactions to Jesus: one of his followers, Judas, hands him over to the combined forces of Roman soldiers and Temple authorities. Another, Peter, denies him. The others desert him. Only ‘the disciple whom he loved’ remains at Jesus’ side and sees him die on the cross. At the end of the Passion story it is two of his secret followers who bury him. In his music, Bach consistently points to the literal meaning of discipleship. Nachfolge, following Jesus, means taking up the cross: when Peter and John follow Jesus to the high priest’s residence to witness his trial, the composer shapes the words folgete Jesu nach (followed after Jesus, movement 8) like a cross. Following Jesus did mean taking up the cross ‘day by day’; meant journeying with Jesus to the cross, witnessing his death, rather than abandoning or denying him.

Many of the arias of the Passion serve to underline this insight. It is re-told in music in the call on Jesus to support the believers’ journey of faith in the dance-like soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls (I follow you equally, movement 9) as much as by expressing the grief of betrayal and the lack of human wisdom in the tenor aria, Ach mein Sinn (Oh my reason, movement 13). The arias of the Passion, then, give voice to complex emotions. In the paired Tenor Arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel (Consider my soul), and the ensuing Aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken (Contemplate, how his blood-coloured back, movement 20), those emotions are the bittre Lust/ 
und halb beklemmtem Herzen (bitter happiness and half anguished heart, movement 19) of seeing Jesus suffer: happiness that redemption is being wrought by Jesus’ suffering; anguish because it is hard to see someone you love suffer. Jesus’ suffering is at once the believer’s Wermut (wormwood) as it is the key to heaven – Himmelsschlüsselblume (‘heaven-key-flower’) – is at once the believers’ Sündflut (sin-flood) as it is the allerschönste Regenbogen (most beautiful rainbow of all). All of these emotions Bach paints in evocative music: his depiction of the rainbow in music is breathtaking – ‘literally, if you are the tenor soloist’, as the theologian and librettist NT Wright quips in his Foreword to my commentary on Bach’s St John Passion. It is this combination of anguish and happiness, terror and longing, brutality and hope, that characterises many of the arias in the Passion.

At the same time, many of Bach’s arias leave little doubt of the faith in resurrection and new life. In the aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished, movement 30), sung as Jesus spoke his last, the triumph of the Held aus Juda (Hero of Judah) and the Trauernacht (night of mourning) are beautifully juxtaposed to testify to Jesus’ accomplishment: death defeated by death. And if there had been any doubts at all as to the meaning of Jesus’ death, Bach adds another aria immediately after the short, matter-of-fact, recitative that records the death of Jesus: in the aria Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen (My dear Saviour, let me ask you, movement 32), the Bass soloist asks the dead Jesus about the meaning of death, and the hope of new life, while the entire chorus confirms Jesu, der du warest tot/ lebst nun ohne Ende (Jesu, you who were dead/ Live now without end); affirms the hope of believers reconciled to God, and new life gained through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Where the arias of the Passion provide moments of individual reflection for Bach’s hearers on the most important questions of faith – life and suffering, loyalty and discipleship, death and resurrection – the carefully chosen chorale verses enabled hearers to root these reflections in their day-to-day experience of worship: for Lutherans singing was (and remains to date) a central way of giving voice to a lived out faith. And where, as in movement 22, Bach’s unknown librettist was unable to source a suitable Lutheran chorale, a contemporary poem was set to music in such a way that it felt, and sounded, just like a chorale. It serves to express the central doctrine of the Passion, and Luther’s theology of the cross: denn gingst du nicht die Knechtschaft ein/ müsst unsre Knechtschaft ewig sein (if you had not gone into slavery/ our slavery must have been forever).

Bach retells one of the most dramatic stories told in Biblical words, devotional hymns and contemporary poetry; carefully and beautifully set to music. He helps us navigate that story by placing recurrent musical devices in the St John Passion. His Baroque tropes were intended as much for the careful listener, as for the performer: the cross-motifs or shapes in the score or the tritones that reveal that not all that is spoken by Pilate should be taken at face-value (and certainly not his desire to ‘let Jesus go’, movement 21). The sharps, in German called Kreuze (crosses), because they look like two crosses superimposed on one another that appear in the score as the story moves closer to Golgotha. Bach’s plays on numbers: the reference to the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not kill, introduced by five rising chromatic semitones on töten (kill) in the religious leaders’ protest, Wir dürfen niemand töten (We may not put anyone to death, movement, movement 16d), or the reference to all ten commandments in the ten fugal entries of their Wir haben ein Gesetz (We have a law, movement 21f). The rattling of dice as the Roman soldiers gamble for the seamless robe (movement 27b) and, finally, the musical sense of completion at Jesus’ final words, Es ist vollbracht (movement 29).

The hearers who shared Bach’s Lutheran cultural horizon would have heard and understood Bach’s story of the Passion from the vantage point of Easter, and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. They would have believed that the new life Christians celebrate at Easter was born on the cross. Bach’s St John Passion continues to effect profound personal responses in listeners, whether or not they share his Christian faith. For those who do not share the Christian faith, it tells the story of relationships severed and newly-forged, of the risks and gambles of power-play and politics, of torture and human suffering, of death and the longing for certainty when faced with the existential questions of life. For Christians, Bach’s St John Passion adds a further dimension to this prototypically human story: it gives shape to their story of salvation by taking listeners straight to the cross and placing them firmly at its foot to witness the death of Jesus, in the hope that by travelling on Jesus’ Marterstrasse, ‘road of torture’, by going with him to the cross, they, too, may come to share Christ’s life reborn; to share the Leben ohne Ende, ‘life without end’ in his presence.

Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in Music History at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His book Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary, Brill Studies in the History of Christian Traditions (Leiden/New York: Brill, 2014) is for sale at a specially discounted rate for audience members and can be ordered online.


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