Passionate, gut-wrenching, but humble: Bach – St John Passion

by 5:4

Two weeks ago, i was fortunate enough to be at the performance of J. S. Bach‘s St John Passion, given by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Town Hall. i’ve loved this work since i was a teenager, when a friend lent me a recording of the arias and chorales. It was the one by John Eliot Gardiner, a recording that captures every nuance of the drama as it unfolds, in all its beauty and terror. i bought this recording many years ago, while living in The Hague, and it was also during this time that i attended a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the central Gröte Kerk. The Matthew, while wonderful, is far less demanding (both for performer and listener alike), and it seems appropriate that Bach approaches John’s words with such a radical outlook, as his gospel is surely the most transcendent and impassioned, emotionally, psychologically and theologically. A plethora of composers have explored the Passion accounts, but Bach’s St John Passion still, i feel, outclasses most of them; i am no staunch supporter, nor indeed even an avid listener of Bach, but he taps into something here with an honesty and clarity of vision that is extraordinary.

Right from the opening (9-minute!) chorus, “Herr, unser herrscher”, the breadth, too, of his vision becomes clear, spiritually and musically: the cluster-like opening chords, the oddly-chromatic sequences, the continual ebb and flow between passages that rise only to plunge back to whence they came – this is music full of humility and hand-wringing, redolent of the believer who has barely found sufficient courage to address God, ever consciousness of their lowly place. Aspiration writ large, from the very first bar – it’s clear Bach was no Catholic! – which is perhaps why it appeals so much to me, being an Anglican. The narrative, similarly, takes no time at all to get going, plunging us into the time immediately prior to Jesus’ arrest. Within moments, we face an angry (but fearful) mob, and the questions and denials quickly fly; amongst this comes one of the only glimpses of lightness among the enveloping gloom, an almost effervescent aria given to the soprano, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (“I follow you with eager steps”). Bach only gets away with such unbridled levity, i think, due to how early on in the Passion this aria appears; when the soprano sings her second and final solo, not long before the end, it is – in every sense – to a very different tune (“Dissolve, then, heart, in floods of tears…”). Bach uses the chorus with great effectiveness, enabling them to speak from opposing directions, both the sacred (in the chorales) and the secular (in the narrative choruses). It’s a shame the chorales have come to be so associated with the drudgeries of music teaching; they have a vitality and raw emotional power that has probably been all but erased for generations of music students. The St John Passion contains many chorales, each commenting or elaborating on the narrative surrounding them; two of the most striking are “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” and “In meines Herzens Grunde” (known to many as the English hymn “All glory, laud and honour”, traditionally sung today, Palm Sunday).

As the narrative draws to its inevitable climax, Bach takes the chorus into incredibly complex areas, casting them as a venemous, pugilistic throng (the so-called ‘turba’). One of the most terrifying sections occurs as Pilate begins to try to wriggle his way out of the Jews’ demands; the opening line, “Die Jüden aber schrieen und sprachen” (“The Jews cried out and said”) says it all: Bach first of all gives them slithering counterpoint, before letting them loose in an utter mêlée; at breakneck tempo, they literally spit out the line “Weg, weg mit dem” (“Away with him”) before – with absolutely no warning – the sopranos seem to scream, “kreuzige ihn!” (“crucify him!”); it is horrifying to witness, perhaps the most gut-wrenching moment in the history of choral music. Of course, the bloodthirsty outcome is achieved, all heaven breaks loose, and finally the work reaches its conclusion, in an atmosphere of exhausted grief. Just before the rather more emphatic and optimistic end, Bach delivers a soft, intimate chorus that serves as a fitting epitaph for Christ and the work as a whole, “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” (“Lie in peace, sacred body”). While its phrases wax and wane, there is a powerful sense of restraint here; the words may claim “I weep no longer”, but tears don’t seem very far from the surface.

It takes a brave, confident but humble composer even to approach the words (and, indeed, the meaning) of this narrative; Bach is one of the few to do them justice, and to keep their importance very much alive.

postscript Now that we’re into Holy Week, my listening will reflect that, so through the next seven days i propose to look at a few individual pieces that relate to this week.

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