This recording of the Saint John Passion by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem – America’s oldest Bach society -- is an acknowledgement of an important part of its history. In 1888, fresh from studying with Reinberger in Munich, J. Fred. Wolle conducted the Bethlehem Choral Union in the first complete American performance of this Passion in Bethlehem’s Moravian Church. Ten years later, the Choral Union morphed into the Bach Choir that came into being to perform the B Minor Mass in 1900. Although there were a few gaps in the early years, the annual Bethlehem Bach Festival continues to bring the music of Bach to thousands of people from across the United States and beyond.
Bach’s Saint John Passion is one of the masterworks of the choral repertory, but it took time for it to be acknowledged as the masterpiece it truly is. It was re-discovered after Mendelssohn’s performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in 1829 had stunned the music world, awakening it to the superlative quality of Bach’s vocal music, and, at the same time, creating an upsurge in the performance of choral music in general, which continues to this day.
The interest generated by the Saint Matthew Passion threw the spotlight on the other Passion that Bach composed, the Saint John Passion. The comparison with the Saint Matthew Passion often meant that the Saint John Passion was thought to have been a more simple work, in that it called for less complexity in terms of the vocal and instrumental resources. But the differences between the two Passions are not because one is superior to the other but because they are settings of two different narratives, each one written from a different perspective.
The Passion narrative in Saint Matthew’s Gospel is interpretative and deals with the cosmic implications of the tragedy. The Passion narrative in Saint John’s Gospel is more dramatic and displays the unfolding details of the suffering of Jesus – and their effect on those caught up in it – in personal terms. Thus Bach’s setting of the Saint Matthew Passion is somewhat detached, distant and reflective, like looking down on an event from high above, whereas his Saint John Passion is dramatic, immediate and compelling, like being on the edge of an apron stage for the performance of a Shakespeare play – so close that you are virtually part of the action. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion is more measured, with places of rest, where the action stops and the significance of what has just taken place is interpreted. In contrast, the Saint John Passion is almost breathless in its progress through the sequential events of the Passion, and the chorales and arias heighten this intensity. The Saint Matthew portrays the Passion something like a tableau to be observed: the Saint John, as a sequence of events to be experienced.
Today Bach’s Passions are heard very differently from how they were first heard in Leipzig. Contrary to what one might think, they are liturgical music. The Saint John Passion was not written as an independent oratorio, though that is how we usually hear it – in the same way we hear Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, or Britten’s War Requiem. But Bach wrote it for a community at worship, not an audience at leisure. It was composed for a liturgical service, vespers on Good Friday. It was designed to be heard in the context of prayer, preaching and congregational song. The two halves were not meant to incorporate an intermission but an hour-long sermon on the Passion of Jesus.
When we hear this work, we hear it out of context. We do not hear it as part of the Holy Week music. We do not hear it as liturgical music, performed at vespers on Good Friday. We hear it in an entirely different context – modern, non-ecclesiastical, and in a concert hall setting (even though it may take place in a church), or disembodied through speakers or ear-buds – where the music comes to us detached from its original context and is heard in isolation and judged on its own terms and for its own sake.
We can be historically informed in our performance, by using period instruments. We can learn the appropriate performance practices associated with this music. But what we cannot do is hear this music with 18th-century ears. We have 21st-century ears that cannot pretend to have unheard the sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Stockhausen. We have 21st-century minds that cannot fabricate the limitations of an 18th-century world-view. Therefore we have to create our own context in which to hear this work. In philosophical terms, we have to interpret what we hear so that it makes sense in our modern world, and each one has to create our own philosophical context.
Some will hear this music – as indeed it is – as a statement of Christian faith, still powerful, even though it is heard outside of its original liturgical and theological contexts. Others, who do not share this belief, will ignore its text and subject matter and receive it as marvelous music. But even though it is magnificent music, it is disturbing music. It is, after all, the musical exposition of the trial and execution of one who is innocent, while everyone else in the story is less than perfect. But it is not an exercise in despair. This music proves beyond all doubt that, while human nature might be seriously flawed, it is nevertheless capable of creating works of art that give us hope to live by. Just listen to that closing chorale, almost entirely in the major mode, whereas most of the Passion that precedes it has been in the minor. So at the end, hope conquers despair, death is followed by resurrection.