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Focus On: Listening to Scripture in J. S. Bach's Passions

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Listening to Scripture in J. S. Bach's Passions

Daniel R. Melamed
Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

In the long history of musical settings of the passion narrative, the two surviving compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach make the greatest demands in their length and complexity. One useful point of entry, especially for those who do not have much experience with early eighteenth-century music, is the settings' use of the bible. Both by quotation and allusion, Bach's St. John Passion BWV 245 and St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 draw heavily on listeners' familiarity with scripture.

To find our way into the works, we need to understand the construction of the texts Bach set to music. The organization of these texts derives from the liturgical function of the musical passion. In Leipzig, where Bach worked from 1723 until his death in 1750 and where he composed all his known passion music, that function was the presentation of a gospel narration of Jesus' crucifixion according to one of the four evangelists. The large-scale musical passion was heard at the vespers service on Good Friday, alternating each year in the city's two most prominent churches with the chanting of the narrative in a much simpler musical form.

The liturgical requirement of literal gospel text was the organizing principle of Bach's settings. A listener to one of Bach's passions hears the familiar words of John or Matthew's narrative (or Mark's, in a work we know Bach composed but that is now lost). A tenor singer presents the words of the Evangelist in a simply-accompanied kind of music that loosely imitates speech. Interlocutors whose first-person words are quoted—Jesus, Peter, Pilate, a young woman, and so on—are sung by others in a similar way. The words of groups (disciples, soldiers, passers-by, and most problematically in the St. John Passion "the Jews") are sung by a chorus. In Bach's performances that ensemble consisted of the four principal singers in the work who combined to form the chorus, sometimes with the reinforcement of four additional singers. The practice of having a large choir distinct from the solo singers is modern, and dates from the early nineteenth century.

The bulk of the narrative was delivered in a relatively neutral way, with an emphasis more on declamation than expressivity. The musical type used for this narrative, accompanied by low string instruments and a keyboard, owed something to liturgical chant but was principally borrowed from contemporary opera. There it was known as recitative and was used to present speeches and dialogue. Both operatic recitative and the settings of scriptural prose in the passions are usually neutral in affect—that is, in characteristic human emotions, and flexible in their metrical organization—more reportorial than evocative. The words of groups are sung in more regular and metered music, usually with the participation of instruments. These settings often present their texts in a somewhat more emotionally expressive way. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 4]

Nonetheless, the relatively neutral tone of the Evangelist's narrative in Bach's passions occasionally gives way to something more emotionally charged. For example, Peter's denial of Jesus that ends Part 1 of the St. John Passion is marked by the evangelist's plaintive description of Peter's crying. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. John Passion, no. 12] The usual declamation of one note per syllable of text is replaced by a much more florid line, full of conventionally expressive melodic gestures and supported by evocative harmonies. The singer also repeats phrases of the text, in contrast to the straight-through narration in the rest of the setting. These features inflect the narrative with a great deal more emotion than in typical narrative passages. The other emotionally heightened moment comes just after Jesus' death, where an earthquake and the tearing of the Temple veil are described in heightened musical language. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. John Passion, no. 33] This episode is presented even more strikingly in the St. Matthew Passion, with similar musical gestures that go beyond simple narration. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 63]

These must have been favorite moments in Leipzig. We can be sure of that because neither of these heightened moments in Bach's St. John Passion—Peter's weeping and the cataclysms at Jesus' death—appear in John's gospel. Rather they are borrowings in Bach's setting, the first from Matthew's gospel and the second from Mark's. Bach's anonymous librettist inserted these passages, presumably with the expectation that the composer would give them special treatment. And even the first attempt was apparently not sufficient; in one of the many revisions of the St. John Passion Bach undertook in performing the work over 25 years, he replaced Mark's description of the aftermath of Jesus' death with the even more vivid one from Matthew, and composed new music to fit the new words. (This is the version heard today; the first setting of this passage, according to Mark, is lost.)

Bach's listeners would probably not have been surprised by these turns to another gospel in a setting of John's narrative because Lutherans were familiar with so-called harmonized gospels that drew on language and details from all four tellings. The model for this technique was the so-called summa passionis, a harmonized narration of the passion story. The best-known of these, by Johannes Bugenhagen, dates from the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation and was still in use in Bach's time. The tendency to combine gospels was also a feature of an immensely popular new kind of mid-eighteenth century musical passion in which the narration, drawn from all four Evangelists, was presented in poetic paraphrase rather than in the original gospel prose. Bach never composed a work of this kind, but he owned at least two settings by other composers and is known to have performed one in Leipzig; why this was possible in a context in which gospel text was expected is not clear.

The first-person words of Jesus in the passion story were held in particular esteem, and the reverence for them is reflected in a striking way in the St. Matthew Passion. Whereas the first-person speech of the Evangelist and all the other interlocutors is supported by simple accompaniment by bass instruments and keyboard, the words of Jesus are surrounded by sustained chords played by string instruments. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 9] The modern interpretation of this feature as a "halo" might is probably fanciful, but the technique does make the words of Jesus stand out. Famously, Bach sets Jesus' last words from the cross in Matthew's narration—"Eli, eli, lama asabthani/My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"—without the string instruments that have accompanied his words throughout. Presumably this is to instruct listeners on the significance of Jesus' mortality at this moment, an unusually specific but effective bit of exegesis in music. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 61]

At all Lutheran services in Bach's time, the presentation of scripture went together with its explication. The principal weekly service, for example, centered on the reading of Gospel and Epistle and the delivery of a sermon on them. Good Friday vespers in Leipzig was liturgically simpler, but the presentation of a musical passion setting (effectively a gospel reading) was still closely linked to a sermon. In fact all of Bach's passions, as well as the passion settings by other composers he performed, are in two parts designed to be heard before and after the sermon. That construction highlights the moment in the narrative where the story is divided and where the sermon began: Peter's denial of Jesus and weeping in the St. John Passion, and Jesus' capture and his disciples' flight in the St. Matthew Passion.

In city churches, the weekly reading of gospel and epistle and their explication in a sermon was often enhanced by the performance of a musical work of a kind now called a " cantata." A cantata sometimes presented words of gospel, but principally expanded on scriptural and interpretive themes in newly-written poetry and in hymn stanzas. Something similar was part of a musical passion setting of the kind Bach composed. In the interest of encouraging the reflection on the crucifixion story urged by Martin Luther, an admonition explicitly emphasized in passion season hymns, the gospel text is enhanced with poetry. A librettist added poems to introduce and conclude the narrative and to interrupt it at significant moments for reflection and commentary. These texts and their musical settings guide the listener through the familiar scripture.

The interpolated poetry was of two kinds. The first consisted newly written verse that marked significant moments in the story and encouraged reflection on them. These insertions also accomplished a principal goal of almost all early eighteenth-century music: moving the affections of the listener. The poems did this by invoking various affective states— sadness, remorse, joy, defiance, rage, and so on, and the musical settings followed suit, presenting conventional gestures and styles associated with those affects. The poems are mostly set for solo voices, except for the opening and closing poetic numbers, which call for all the voices and instruments but are otherwise constructed the same way as the solo pieces.

This kind of composition— an affective setting for voice and instruments of a short lyric poem—was called an "aria," precisely the same kind of piece that made up most of contemporary opera. There it serves a parallel function, representing an opportunity for a character to express emotion in a pause in the drama. In the St. Matthew Passion, whose libretto is by Christian Friedrich Henrici (pen name Picander), the new poems often come in pairs. The second is set an aria and the first, in more irregular verse, is set as kind of instrumentally heightened speech known as accompanied recitative. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, nos. 5 and 6]

These poetic moments of reflection and affect are often closely tied to scripture. Of course they are linked to the passages in the gospel narrative to which they respond, but many also refer to other biblical texts. For example the opening choral aria of the first version of the St. John Passion, "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, our ruler) sets the theological tone for the passion by highlighting Jesus' paradoxical glorification in the abasement of the crucifixion. But it is not entirely a free poem; it is a paraphrase of Psalm 8, as biblically literate listeners would have recognized. And they would also have known that Martin Luther interpreted Psalm 8 as a messianic prophesy. The opening poetic movement of the St. John Passion thus invokes a Lutheran reading of a Hebrew Testament text to frame the narration. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. John Passion, no. 1]

Another example, even more literal, comes at the beginning of Part 2 of the St. Matthew Passion. It opens with an aria, "Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin" (Ah, now my Jesus is gone), that sets a free poetic text lamenting the capture of Jesus. The poem is placed in dialogue with verses from chapter 6 of the Song of Solomon, beginning with the question "Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen?" (Where has your beloved gone?), alternating poetic lines with scriptural verses. This invites reflection on the allegorical Christian understanding of the Song of Solomon and its relationship to the passion story. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 30]

Passion settings include another kind of interpolation as well: individual stanzas of seasonal hymns (chorales) carefully chosen to be relevant to the moment of interpolation. Like the free poetry set as arias, they highlight moments, phrases, and words of the scriptural narrative. For example, in the St. Matthew Passion the disciples ask (in a chorus) "Herr, bin ich's?" (Lord, is it I?) A reply comes in the form of a hymn stanza that begins "Ich bins, ich sollte büssen" (It is I; I should atone). [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, nos. 9 and 10] Moments like this were probably meant to draw the believing listener into the gospel story by means of familiar hymns associated with congregational singing, even though it is likely that Bach's congregation did not sing them in a passion performance.

Scripture appears in other guises as well. For example, Bach's setting of the first stanza of the hymn "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross" (Humankind, bewail your great sin") opens the second version of the St. John Passion and was re-used to close part 1 of the revised St. Matthew Passion. That hymn, in its complete 23-stanza form, narrates the entire passion story—it's a poetic summa passionis that paraphrases scripture. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, no. 29]

A few of the interpolated hymn stanzas serve a second function, signaling the end of each of the actus into which the passion story was traditionally divided (garden, priests, Pilate, cross, and tomb). For example, in the St. John Passion the first actus in the garden is brought to a close by the chorale verse "Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott" (May your will be done, Lord God). Sometimes the functions overlap, as here; this stanza also responds to Jesus' words just before. In both senses this hymn and the others are a guide to the scriptural words that are at the center of Bach's passion settings. [Listening example: J. S. Bach, St. John Passion, nos. 4 and 5]

The special place of scripture in the passion settings is reflected in the calligraphic score Bach made when he revised the St. Matthew Passion in 1736. In this document, the composer entered the gospel words of the Evangelist in red ink. The exact significance of this gesture is debated, but there is no question that it reflects the fundamental role that Matthew's narrative plays in the work.

A contemporary listener to a Bach passion would have drawn on a knowledge of the bible and of Lutheran interpretations of it in experiencing Bach's passion settings. Both the narrative and interpolated commentary took that familiarity as a starting point for a sophisticated presentation not only of the crucifixion story, but also of a theological and affective glossing of it. Modern listeners can make this their starting point as well.

Daniel R. Melamed is professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He is the author of two books on Bach for general readers: Hearing Bach's Passions (Oxford University Press, updated paperback edition 2016), and Listening to Bach: The Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio (Oxford University Press, April 2018).

Librettos and translations

  • Michael Marissen. Bach's Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts,
    With Annotations
    . New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

  • Original sources

    • A reprint of the original libretto of the St. Matthew Passion by Christian Friedrich Henrici (poetic material only).
    • Bach's 1736 autograph score of the St. Matthew Passion [Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv Mus. ms. autogr. Bach P 25]
    • An original score, partly in J. S. Bach's hand, of a revised version of the St. John Passion [Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv Mus. ms. autogr. Bach P 28]


    • Particularly recommended are recordings that present Bach's passions with an ensemble the size and disposition of J. S. Bach's, including:
    • Dunedin Consort, dir. John Butt. J.S. Bach: John Passion, Reconstruction of Bach's Passion Liturgy. Linn Records CKD 419.
    • Dunedin Consort, dir. John Butt. J.S. Bach: Matthew Passion (Final performing version, c. 1742) . Linn Records CKD 313.


    • John Butt. Robin A. Leaver. "St. John Passion." In Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, ed. Malcolm Boyd. Oxford, 1999.
    • Alfred Dürr. Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion. Genesis, Transmission, and Meaning. Transl. Alfred Clayton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
    • Robin A. Leaver. "St. Matthew Passion." In Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, ed. Malcolm Boyd. Oxford, 1999.
    • Don O. Franklin. " The Role of the 'Actus Structure' in the Libretto of J. S. Bach's Matthew Passion." In Music and Theology: Essays in Honor of Robin A. Leaver, ed. Daniel Zager, 121–139. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2006.
    • Michael Marissen. Lutheranism, anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion: with an annotated literal translation of the libretto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
    • Michael Marissen. "Blood, People, and Crowds in Matthew, Luther, and Bach." In Bach & God. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 158–l88.
    • Daniel R. Melamed. Hearing Bach's Passions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
    Oxford University Press

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