By Luther Gulseth
On Good Friday, April 7, 1724, J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Through the centuries, this setting has remained one of the most revered musical settings of the Passion narrative. Composed in two parts, intended to be performed before and after a sermon during a Good Friday service, the piece contains the text of John 18–19, sung by a four-part choir and several soloists.
This article will follow the course of Bach’s St. John Passion and serve as a guide to understanding its overall narrative and its various parts. Read it prior to listening to the work, or read through while listening for the elements described here. It may also be helpful to follow along with the English text, which can be found here (scroll to pp. 70–82).
The history and format of Passion settings
The church has a rich tradition of magnificent musical settings of the Gospel Passion texts, with the earliest plainchant settings dating back to the 13th century. Lutheran composers are no strangers to Passion settings, with the earliest Lutheran Passion being written by Johann Walter in 1530. This was still being performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1723, the year before Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the St. John Passion, first performed on Good Friday, 1724.
Musical settings of the Passion come in many forms, and Bach followed Walter’s example with his uses of choral and solo voices. The chorus sings both poetic texts (“Chorus”) and hymn stanzas (“Chorale”), and also takes on various voices from the biblical text: crowds of Jews, bands of soldiers and various people in the courtyard of the High Priest (“Chorus”). The solo voices each have pious texts to sing as an “Aria” along with a “Recitative.” These are sung speech, similar to how a congregation chants a psalm or a pastor chants the Words of Institution but more dramatic and complex. Recitatives and arias are both for solo voice and can be differentiated quickly in that recitatives generally do not repeat texts — they are an efficient, and sometimes dramatic, way to move quickly through the biblical narrative. Bach’s Passion arias and chorales are almost always a pious Scripture-based text. For the biblical narrative, the tenor (highest male voice) serves as the Evangelist (St. John’s narration) and also as the officer/servant. The bass voices (lowest male voices) serve as Christ (lowest of the bass singers), Pilate and Peter (a higher-sounding bass voice).
Listening to the St. John Passion: Part 1
From the opening of Bach’s St. John Passion, we hear angst created by the constant undulating strings, while the floating voices of a pair of oboes create ongoing tension and release above the strings. The undulating theme is a Baroque “turn,” which in this instance follows this pattern: starting pitch, one step lower, starting pitch, one step higher (e.g., D C D E). Bach uses this “turn” (with only a few slight modifications) through the entire first chorus with only a few gaps, and the texture can contain up to six instruments “turning” at the same moment. Was Bach using those moments to show how we as a church might together “turn” back to Christ during the time of Lent? The text certainly suggests this as, over the undulating accompaniment, the choir calls out to Christ, “Hail! Lord and Master; / Every tongue shall offer praises to Thy name.” After the initial adoration of Christ, Bach creates an unstable foundation in the lowest instruments with the “turn” as the choir moves forward with its petition to Christ to “save Mankind from depths of shame.” At the completion of this chorus, Bach returns to the beginning and repeats the initial section, adoring Christ, our Lamb.
The Passion narrative begins with the Evangelist setting the scene as Jesus enters Gethsemane. Christ speaks with great patience, in contrast to the crowd’s reckless impatience to arrest “Jesus of Nazareth” as Judas betrays Him. Christ’s words “I am He” are the focal point through this section. Bach follows this with stanza 7 of “O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken” (Lutheran Service Book [LSB] 439).
In the next section, Bach chooses to repeat words of the biblical narrative: Christ’s words “the cup which now My Father hath given Me” are sung twice by the soloist. This is a rare occurrence in recitative and calls the listener to pay attention. The following section — Stanza 4 of LSB 766, “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” — is Martin Luther’s versification of the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and is a fitting response to this cup of our salvation that Christ bears.
In the aria “From the Bondage of Iniquity,” the alto’s vocal line is musically “bound” by the two instruments weaving in and out of each other. This aria contains one of Bach’s many “cross motifs,” which he uses to draw the listener’s ear to the cross. These cross motifs start on one note, move up to the highest note of the motif, leap down to the lowest motif note, then usually return to the starting note. Bach gives the oboes, with their voice-like singing, this cross motif, creating an aria with the cross-focused human plea “From the evils that immure me / Fully He’ll cure me / By His death upon the tree.”
“I Follow Thee Gladly,” sung by the soprano, is a trio of sorts with the low string cello, high flute and soprano voice echoing each other in a graceful and ascending theme. The middle section takes this theme, twisting it to add a tormented “turn” to the text “When dangers surround me.” Bach’s painting of this text gives the listener an unsettling sense of confusion, and yet Bach returns “gladly” to the beginning section, ending with a grace-filled cry to Jesus, “My life and my light.”
Nearing the end of Part 1, Peter is heard denying Christ, followed by the chorus singing stanzas 3 and 4 of LSB 453, “Upon the Cross Extended.” These stanzas are a fitting response to Peter’s denial, serving to remind the listener of their own sinful flesh.
As Peter is accused, the chorus jabs at him in echoing fashion, charging him as “one of His.” A poignantly ascending cello line immediately follows Peter’s third denial, after which the music pauses for Peter to remember Christ’s words to him. The Evangelist weeps bitterly for Peter, another place the recitative text is repeated, as Bach uses a jarring tritone (“Devil’s tone”) and descending chromatic lines, both classic “weeping” themes still used by composers today. The following tenor aria continues this weeping with the use of a descending theme along with crying leaps up toward Christ.
The final chorus for Part 1 of Bach’s St. John Passion is stanza 10 of Paul Stockmann’s 1633 hymn “Jesu leiden, pein und tod” (lit. “Jesus to Suffer, Pain and Death”), a 34-stanza hymn based on the Passion text. The Good Friday sermon follows this chorus.
Listening to the St. John Passion: Part 2
Following the sermon, Bach uses a 1531 German chorale by Michael Weisse, “Christus, der uns selig macht” (lit. “Christ, who us blessed makes”), which sets the scene for the continuation of the biblical narrative through the trial of Christ.
Throughout Christ’s trial narrative there are nine chorus responses as the Jews respond to Pilate. Three of these are non-imitative (all voices sing the same words, usually at the same time), thus making the text very plainly understood by the listener. Bach also chooses to interrupt the dialogue with stanzas 8 and 9 of LSB 439, “O Dearest Jesus,” to remind the listener that our sin also was intertwined in Christ’s trial.
The trial begins after the Evangelist sets the scene with Pilate asking the Jews for their accusations against Christ. In this section, the first two choruses’ voice and instrument lines imitate one another and increase in intensity, like a crowd of people shouting over each other, until the third chorus when the Jews reply together “with one accord” for Pilate to release Barabbas. The Evangelist finishes the conversation between Pilate, Christ and the Jews with the “scourging” of Christ. Here Bach employs his knowledge of the significance of numbers in the Bible with brilliant text painting to emphasize this scene. He writes a furious line that uses eleven of the twelve chromatic notes, covers a very broad range from the top to bottom of the vocal range, and contains three cross motifs.
The arias that follow Christ’s scourging remind the listener how through our sin we participate in the wounding of Christ’s body. In both arias, a pair of strings float above the male voices, as Christ’s intercession rises to His Father. The first aria for the lower voice warmly beckons the listener to “gaze, forever gaze on Him!” In the second, Bach’s text points to the “bruised and bleeding” body of Christ with the ascending sung line “Behold Him!” The ascending line with intermittent cross motifs paints the picture of Christ’s interceding for us to the Father through His cross.
Three choruses again appear in the next section of the trial. In the second chorus, the Jews are united with intense tension and release as they cry out “Crucify Him!” The third chorus begins with male voices clearly stating, “We have a sacred law,” followed by imitative entrances from the rest of the chorus until they sing united, “for He made Himself the Son of God.” Christ’s final response to Pilate is a firm and ascending line that peaks as He states that this is God’s plan for the world: “Thou couldest have no power over Me, had it not been given unto thee from above.” In the Evangelist’s next lines, Bach tries to show some compassion and even convey the innocence of Pilate as he seeks to to “release Him.”
The next chorus is a Gospel nugget during the trial. “Our Lord in Prison Cell Confined” is a sacred text that was familiar to Bach, and he gives it a chorale-like tune. Here Bach is reminding the listener that Christ’s imprisonment serves to release us from the prison of sin — we remember that “our freedom has arisen.”
The final section of the trial again has two imitative chorus sections and one unified cry of “We have no King but Caesar.” The Evangelist closes the trial with a very poignant painting of Christ being delivered to the Jews and bearing the cross up to Golgotha.
Bach’s next aria for the low bass voice paints the climb up Golgotha to the cross with a very quick ascending line that finishes with a cross motif. The high (almost angelic) chorus repeats the question “O where?” to the soloist’s command “haste, all ye whose souls are weary.”
Crucifixion and death
As the Evangelist sets the scene for the crucifixion of Christ, Bach paints the picture using two different and very unsettling intervals for “crucified” and an abrupt key change for “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The Jews are united in their demands for Pilate: “Write thou not the King of the Jews; / rather that He Himself said: I am the King of the Jews.” Here Bach inserts stanza 3 of Valerius Herberger’s text “Valet will ich dir geben” (lit. “Farewell, want I to give you”) and the listener will recognize the tune of LSB 442, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”.
Bach tenderly approaches the interaction between Christ on the cross, His mother, and the disciple whom He loved, and then returns to the Stockmann hymn “Jesu leiden, pein und tod” before continuing.
Christ’s final declaration, “It is fulfilled,” is a mournful descending line, imitated in the following aria where Bach adds a cross motif to the mournful descent for both the voice and the low string. Bach contrasts this with a bold and bright painting of the triumphant fight when Christ descended into hell and proclaimed victory over sin, death and Satan. After the last strains of this boldly ascending “fight motif,” the soloist returns to the beginning, reflecting that “It is fulfilled.” In this aria, Bach has wonderfully juxtaposed the grace and sorrow which are contained in “It is fulfilled.” We mourn that Christ had to die, yet we also know that His death is the grace that bonds us to His resurrection and our eternal life.
The Evangelist states that Christ “gave up the ghost,” and the bass aria follows with warm comfort asking a series of rhetorical questions considering the sacrifice of Christ. The chorus joins in with phrases from stanza 34 of Stockmann’s hymn, and after the chorus sings their final phrase, Bach removes the instrumental accompaniment as the soloist sings “in silence.”
The Evangelist’s most dramatic and highest notes happen as the temple curtain tears and the earthquake shakes the ground. The low strings paint a striking “rent in twain” and continue with the earthquake under the unexpected movement in the soloist’s line. The following tenor aria continues these themes as the earth and temple curtain are rent asunder.
In the soprano aria “O Heart, Melt in Weeping,” the vocal line mourns “With tears overflowing.” Below this line, the strings slowly descend as if laying the body to rest, while above both of these, the flute and English horn bear Christ’s spirit away. The soloist then sings a haunting “Thy Jesus is slain,” before returning to the beginning section to weep.
The Evangelist tells the rest of the narrative in two final sections with several notable musical moments. Bach again uses a jarring descent to show the agony of crucifixion, and the voice of the Evangelist lowers in sorrow as the soldiers discover Christ is already dead, and then pierces upward as the soldiers spear Christ’s side. The sorrow is more agitated with an angular line of “look on him whom they have pierced” at the conclusion of this section. This is followed by stanza 8 of “Christus, der uns selig macht” by Weisse, where Bach implores the listener to “Let us, helpless though we be, / With our thanks extol Thee.”
In the final section, the Evangelist sings his deepest notes as Christ’s body is laid in the grave, returning to this depth three times as he sings of the preparation and burial of Christ’s body. In a similar manner, Bach finishes the narrative with the deepest note a cello can play. In this way, he paints a simple, reverent and somber picture of laying Christ’s body to rest.
The final chorus, beginning on the same final note from the previous recitative in which Christ was laid to rest, and its accompanying chorale, are stunningly beautiful music for Good Friday. Bach brings back nearly all of the instruments used previously in the Passion with a descending, but bold and reassuring theme. “Ruht wohl” is the original German, literally “rest well,” here translated “Sleep well, / and rest in God’s safe-keeping” — a most fitting prayer for all departed saints. They sleep well, for Christ slept well as He conquered death and rose again, and thus Bach concludes the St. John Passion with stanza 3 of LSB 708, “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.” We too may rejoice with the final words, “Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me, / And let me praise Thee endlessly.”