By Linda de Vries
This was another very busy day in several years.
- 1685--Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at St. George's Church in Eisenach
- 1729--Sebastian returned to Cöthen to perform the funeral music for his former patron, Prince Leopold, music drawn from his St. Matthew Passion
- 1731--BWV 247, the St. Mark Passion, was first performed at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
- 1742--BWV 244, a revised version of the St. Matthew Passion, was performed
These events give us our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach's Passions.
In church music, Passion is the term for a musical setting of the Gospels telling of the Passion of Jesus and emphasizing his suffering. As early as the eighth century priests began to intone the gospels rather than just speak them, and this musical tradition evolved throughout the centuries.
At the Reformation Martin Luther wrote, “The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life.” Despite this, however, Passion performances remained common in Lutheran churches.
In the 17th century “oratorio” passions were developed, using instrumental interludes, interpolated texts, motets, chorale arias, and recitative—basically unstaged musical dramas. The best-known Protestant Passions are by Sebastian Bach, and his 18th century innovations included the double choir, extensive use of chorales as interpolations in arias, and large polyphonic movements.
St. John Passion
Sebastian may have written previous Passions that have been lost, but his St. John Passion (BWV 245) is the earliest extant. The text is Luther’s translation of the Bible, enhanced by an unknown librettist. Composed for the Good Friday Vespers service of April 7, 1724, it was intended for performance in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, but owing to the decision of the town fathers, it was moved to the St. Nicholas Church.
Sebastian revised this Passion several times, perhaps say some because it included material from an earlier, lost Passion. He first revised it in 1725, replacing the first and last choruses, adding three arias, cutting one, and altering the final chorale (BWV 245a). He revised it again in the 1730s, restoring the first and last chorales, removing the three arias and an interpolation from the Gospel of Matthew, composing a new instrumental section, and inserting a new aria in place of the one he had cut in 1725. In 1749 he reverted to the original 1724 version, and that is the version most familiar to us today.
The Gospel he set to music has often been criticized as anti-Semitic, but several modern scholars conclude that this work contains fewer statements derogatory toward Jews than many other contemporary musical settings of this Biblical text, and note that Sebastian used words for the commenting arias and chorales that tended to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from “the Jews” to the congregation.
St. Matthew Passion
Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen died in 1728, but it was not until March 23, 1729 that his embalmed body was transported from the Court to St. Jacob’s Church for burial in the crypt. Being a Calvinist church, services at St. Jacob’s did not usually feature elaborate music, and when resident in Cöthen Sebastian and his family belonged to the Lutheran congregation at St. Agnius’s Church.
Nevertheless, he returned and performed the funeral music for the Prince in St. Jacob’, probably for the burial on March 23, but possibly for the memorial on March 24. Sebastian’s wife, Anna Magdalena, sang the soprano part.
The libretto of this cantata, Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt (Cry, children, cry to all the world), also called Cöthener Trauermusik (Cöthen Funeral Music) was written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander), Sebastian’s most frequent librettist. Picander’s text survives, but the music (BWV 244a) does not. It is known, however, that Sebastian used music from his St. Matthew Passion.
The St. Matthew Passion was written and performed on April 11, 1727, Good Friday, at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The libretto by Picander augmented Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew in Martin Luther’s German translation. It is regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music.
Sebastian revised it and performed it again on March 30, 1736, using two organs. A second revision on March 23, 1742 used one organ and a harpsichord, possibly because the second organ was undergoing repair. A further revision occurred but with no performance in 1743-46, and this is the score as it is known today.
It was Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of portions of this Passion that brought about the Bach Revival in the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century it has been mounted for the stage by George Balanchine in 1943, Jonatan Miller in 1997, Lindy Hume in 2005, and Peter Sellars in 2010.
St. Luke Passion
There is a manuscript of such a work from 1730 that is partly in Sebastian’s hand, but although C.P.E. Bach included it in his body of work, scholars are now certain that it is not his.
St. Mark Passion
BWV 247 was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, March 23, 1731 and again in a revised version on Good Friday in 1744. The music has been lost, the full score last seen in 1764, but the libretto by Picander is extant, allowing for reconstructions of the work, a task aided by the fact that Sebastian recycled material from earlier compositions—the Trauer Ode from BWV 198 and two arias from BWV 54—and reused two choruses from the St. Mark Passion in his Christmas Oratorio. The recitative is usually drawn from a Markus Passion attributed to Reinhard Keiser, a work Sebastian conducted a least twice.
Sebastian’s Passions are revered for their extreme expressive power—the rich musical elaboration of the poetic text, the complexity of the arias in contrast to the simplicity of the hymns, the emotionally charged recitatives that emphasize words such as “crucify,” “kill,” and “mourn” with chromatic melodies, and the psychological depth the music provides the characters.