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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 6

Bach's St. John Passion

by Julian Wachner / March 2, 2003

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In the twentieth century, Bach's mastery of musical composition was an undisputed fact; his music served as the foundation of the entire body of repertoire known as the common practice period, "Bach to Brahms" that makes up the canon of western art-music. The twenty-first century is identifying J. S. Bach as an ecumenical and theologically complex composer who uses his musical craft to illuminate theological issues. Thus for Bach, every choice of key, instrument, voice part, polyphonic texture, or compositional style has theological significance. His musical genius is simply one tool of many for the edification of his congregation. The academic approach to Bach scholarship downplayed this fact in the last century, particularly in the 50's and 60's, but now, due to some pioneering scholarship and research by theologian-musicologists (Robin Leaver, Michael Marrissen spring to mind), we, as a listening and performing audience may have a truer and more universal appreciation for Bach's stunning accomplishments.

For example, in the St. John Passion, one of Bach's two surviving setting of the Passion Narrative, much has been written about the palindromic, "mathematical" quality of the second part (where Jesus is standing trial before Pilate and being condemned to crucifixion), particularly in Bach's symmetrical pairing of identical choral movements: in between Wir haben ein Gesetz (a fugue in F major) and Laessest du diesen los (the same fugue with new words transposed to E major), there is a chorale of sublime beauty in the midst of this horrific scene of betrayal, crowd mentality and injustice. It is this chorale that had usually been identified as the axis of symmetry for the work, but in reality, it is the narrative immediately preceding it that is the dramatic central point to the work, for in it Jesus' fate is sealed and it is clear that he will not escape crucifixion. At this point, in Bach's original manuscript, Bach adds the E major key signature, and thus one gets a visual image of four sharps, which are in essence two juxtaposed crosses : #. When one combines this with a reading of the text, it sends shivers down the spine to turn the page and have 40 crosses appear down the side of the manuscript. This is a deliberate key choice to make a theological point.

Another example of Bach's clever merging of matters musical and theological is his use of the archaic viola da gamba which makes its only appearance at the very point where Jesus utters "Es ist vollbracht" meaning, "It is done." Again, a magical moment, but only if one is aware of Bach's rhetorical sophistication in matching an historical identification with a theological statement.

The St. John Passion is probably Bach's most vivid and hair-raising work particularly due to the dramatic and concise nature of its biblical text. The musical presentation is as dramatic and propelling as the most dynamic of opera seria! The writing for the Evangelist is rich with text-painting with highly chromatic passages for Peter's weeping bitterly, a strange cello arpeggio for the rooster's crowing, and intense harmonies for the depiction of Golgatha.

Yet, the many chorales display a personal religious reflection of the truths in the gospel. Excepting perhaps the first and last of part Two, the chorales invite an introspective application of the text to the life of the believer. For this reason, many modern performances invite the audience to sing the chorales with the chorus, although this was not practice in Leipzig. Audience participation may diminish the passive listening experience, but it creates the atmosphere of active and intentional participation, which surely is the historically accurate choice!

Julian Wachner directs the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul Choir in Bach's St. John Passion on March 16 at 4 p.m. Freewill Offering. 514-842-3431

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