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Pianist Alex Taylor recording the keyboard pieces in the Radio 3 In Tune studio
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

St John Passion (1724, rev. 1725, 1732, 1749)

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Today, it is hard to imagine either of Bach's two great surviving Passions - the St Matthew and the St John - ever being mistaken for an opera. For many people, believers and agnostics alike, attending a Passion performance is a vital and meaningful part of Holy Week, an act often invested with something of the sombre reverence of a religious celebration. And sure enough, Bach composed his Passions to be performed in church on Good Friday, one of the most important days in the church calendar, when, instead of enjoying a relaxing interval drink between the work's two parts, listeners would have endured a gruelling sermon.

Yet, in composing Passions of this particular type, Bach was slotting into a tradition of increasingly dramatised musical settings of the Gospel texts relating the events leading to Christ's crucifixion - a tradition that went back to early Christian times, but had gained particular strength in northern Germany during the previous century. The evolution from the first chanted Passions to elaborate compositions involving solo singers with named roles, choirs and orchestras certainly shows a strong trend towards the theatrical, as the theologian Christian Gerber recognised when he complained in 1732 that 'if some of those first Christians should rise, visit our assemblies, and hear such a roaring organ together with so many instruments, I do not believe that they would recognise us as Christians and their successors'. Gerber had also written of an unidentified Passion performance at which 'all the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment ... An elderly widow of the nobility exclaimed: "God save us, my children! It's just as if we were at a comic opera".'

Nevertheless, for all that the St John Passion is a strikingly dramatic work - for instance, in its vivid depiction of Christ's trial in Part 2 - and while the presence in it of urgent recitatives interlaced with arias and choruses to words adapted from those which the poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes and others had already furnished for even more openly operatic Passions by Keiser, Telemann and Handel is presumably just the sort of thing to which Gerber objected, it seems unlikely that, in composing music for his first Good Friday service in Leipzig's St Nicholas Church in April 1724, Bach was actually setting out to be theatrical. After all, at his appointment the previous May to the job of Kantor of St Thomas's School - a post which carried with it responsibility for organising the music at all Leipzig's four main churches - Bach's new employers, the town council, had specifically stipulated that he should 'so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather to incite the listener to devotion'.

In fact, the St John Passion is more complicated than that. Bach's achievement was to devise a work which is more than two hours long, with a detailed and complex yet utterly coherent construction, which tells its well-known story in four parallel and mutually supportive strands. At its core is the narrative, the text of the Gospel itself, sung in recitative by a tenor representing the Evangelist, with Christ's words sung by a bass; in addition, the smaller roles of certain other characters (Peter and Pilate, for instance) are taken by solo voices, while the utterances and exclamations of the crowd are voiced, succinctly but sometimes with almost hysterical intensity, by the chorus.

As a foil to this narrative element, there are the episodes provided by the eight arias, in which the action stops and a relevant emotion or reaction is explored; these are where the most reflective moments in the Passion are to be found, enhanced and coloured by accompanying solo instruments, including two violas d'amore in the bass arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' ' (No. 19) and a viola da gamba (associated in Bach's time with death) in the superb alto aria 'Es ist vollbracht!' (No. 30).

The third strand is the meditative and communal element represented by the chorales. These would have been extremely familiar to Bach's contemporaries, and while their role as points-of-entry was probably not literal - in the sense of the congregation actually joining in - they would certainly have provided listeners with moments of recognition and identification.
Finally, there are the great choruses that frame the work like massive structural pillars: the first, the very opening movement, is a harrowing depiction of Christ's agony and humiliation, but one which, at the same time, reminds us that within this is contained his ultimate glory; the second, 'Ruht wohl' (No. 39), is a moving and consoling farewell to Christ's earthly incarnation.

The St John Passion was long seen as a poor relation to the larger, later and better-known St Matthew. Recently, however, its popularity has grown, a testament to an increasing realisation among both performers and listeners that this is a work with its own character and ambitions. Maybe it does not reach quite so far into the listener's soul as the more contemplative St Matthew but, as a gripping depiction of the emotionally charged events of Holy Week, it ultimately appeals with greater directness to our human emotions and sympathies.

Programme notes © Lindsay Kemp/BBC

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