J.S. Bach’s Johannes-Passion, or St. John Passion, BWV 245—one of just two surviving Bach Passion works out of an original four or five—is, simply put, a headache for editors and performers wishing to recreate the authentic, stamped-and-approved original work. There is no such beast: the work was performed at least four times during Bach’s lifetime, and for each new presentation he overhauled the music, adding numbers, deleting numbers, changing numbers, so that today we really have four different St. John Passions through which to pick and choose our way. Happily enough, however, Bach misses the mark in not a single one of those numbers, and the director can hardly go wrong selecting from such a wealth of fine material.
The St. John Passion was first heard on April 7, 1724 (Good Friday), and then reproduced for Leipzig churchgoers in 1725, sometime in the early 1730s (perhaps 1732), and then again in 1749. Perhaps in part because of its sometimes bewildering compositional history and the fact that its texts were not really conceived as a single entity (Bach seems to have arranged the texts himself from a number of disparate sources, and sometimes his efforts—which seem to have been hasty ones—are not altogether graceful), the St. John Passion has never been a sweepingly popular work like the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244. But it is a monumental work that must have made quite an impression indeed at its first performance, early on in Bach’s tenure as Cantor of Leipzig.
The St. John Passion calls for four vocal soloists, four-part chorus, and a large orchestra including not only the now-usual string instruments, flutes, oboes, and basso continuo, but also oboes d’amore, oboes da caccia, and violas d’amore; and there is even the possibility of letting a lutenist into the ensemble! Although the work perhaps lacks the scope of its cousin the St. Matthew Passion, it has an immediate, dramatic quality. Bach enacts, as a kind of musical equivalent of the Passion Play, an episode from the story detailing the arrest, trial, and crucifixion, with the words of the historical persons—Christ, Pilate, Peter, and John as Evangelist—set in recitatives, followed by a solo commenting on the emotional and spiritual meaning of the event described. The chorus portrays the crowd—soldiers, priests, and populace—in addition to singing chorales, based on familiar themes. By contrast, the arias are special events (there are just three in the whole of the first part) during which the course of the Passion drama is paused and room is made for profound reflection .
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