Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bach's St John Passion: a very short introduction

Let me speak personally.  Bach’s St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since learned is that Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a true theologian. 

The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  Bach’s St John Passion sets the last part of this story to music.  These are the chapters that tell of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial that are read at the Good Friday liturgy.  All the great themes of St John’s Gospel feature here: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion show how Bach the theologian inspires Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  This is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’.  It’s the clue to the music of the chorus and to the whole work.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive word.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ John says at the beginning:  a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus.  So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion. 

My second example is the work’s climax, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  In St Luke he dies as the obedient servant with a goodnight prayer on his lips: ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant D major aria for bass and chorus. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of joy and release.  Golgotha is a place not only of pain but of transfiguration. 

The artistry with which Bach works recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales into a seamless work of art is his great achievement.  John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action shifts between personal encounters on the one hand and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay of private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us to both mind but heart.  And that is what Holy Week is for. 

Durham, Holy Week 2012








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