Bach’s Passions in context
by Ken Myers
“Bach’s Passions belong to a long musical-liturgical tradition. Musical renditions of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s final suffering and death have deep roots in Christian worship. Tangible evidence goes back as far as the fourth century, when a Spanish nun named Egeria, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, described the chanting of the Passion story in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The practice of chanting the entire story directly from one of the Gospels spread throughout Christendom during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, composers started to set the Passion story in simple harmonizations. Sometimes the entire story was in parts, but more usually the narrative continued to be chanted, and part-singing was reserved for the words spoken by the various groups of people and, sometimes, also for the words spoken by individuals.
“After the Reformation the Lutheran Church retained the ancient practice. Luther’s friend Johann Walter provided simple models for singing the Passion in which the narration and the words of individuals were chanted and the words of groups were sung to simple recitation formulas harmonized in four parts. This way of rendering the Passion story was still being used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure.
“About the middle of the seventeenth century, musical settings of the Passion began to change both textually and musically. The words no longer came directly from the Bible. Instead the story was retold in newly written poetic verse called ‘madrigal’ texts. Under the influence of opera, chanting and simple part-singing were replaced by recitatives, arias, and choruses accompanied by instruments. They no longer maintained the ancient liturgical mooring in the exact words of the Bible; instead they were devotional concert music. Especially popular was a text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that was set to music by Handel, Telemann, Matheson, and others.
“Bach’s Passions, however, were liturgical. They are more aptly called ‘oratorio Passions.’ Despite including madrigalian text, they retain the key ingredient of the ancient liturgical tradition: singing the words of the Passion narrative verbatim from one of the Gospels. In addition to the biblical text and madrigal poetry, they include chorales. The familiar texts and melodies of these congregational songs add to their liturgical fittingness. Both types of non-biblical text function as responses to the various scenes in the story. The madrigal poetry, sung as recitatives and arias by soloists, represents individual responses; the chorales, sung by the choir, represent communal responses. In both cases they draw the contemporary worshiper into the ancient story.
“In Leipzig the old style Passions, for example those of Johann Walter, were still sung in Bach’s time in the Good Friday morning Eucharist service. The elaborate new style Passions were performed in the Good Friday Vespers service, which began at 1:30 in the afternoon with the singing of a Passion chorale, ‘Da Jesu an den Kreuze stand’ (‘When Jesus hung on the cross’). The Passion and sermon followed. The Passion, divided into two parts like the larger cantatas, framed the sermon. The service concluded with a motet, the verse and a prayer called the collect, the benediction, and a final chorale.”
— from Calvin R. Stapert, J. S. Bach (Lion, 2009). Stapert has been a guest several times on the Journal, most recently on Volume 127 talking about the life and work of Joseph Haydn.