For a composer as central to the Western tradition as J.S. Bach, it can still set your head spinning to recall how slow posterity was in figuring out just what treasures he’d left behind. Exhibit A would be his two settings of the Passion story according to Saints Matthew and John (the only two to have survived complete out of a total of five mentioned in Bach’s obituary). Now recognized as among the greatest achievements in all art, after Bach’s death they soon fell into obscurity.
It took a little over a century after it had first been heard for the St. Matthew Passion to be “rediscovered” by the public at large, thanks to the pioneering efforts of a very young Felix Mendelssohn. The famous revival performance he led in 1829 represents a landmark not just for the appreciation of Bach but for a deeper awareness of the musical past in general.
But until recent years, the St. John Passion tended to be eclipsed by St. Matthew, which it predates. It’s still often referred to as a “forerunner” of the latter. Though both revolve around the same central narrative — the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion as told in the gospels — the sheer monumentality and sweeping vision of the St. Matthew Passion have earned it an especially exalted status. Even Bach’s family referred to this as “the great Passion.”
“St. Matthew is more expansive and contains a greater quantity of contemplative arias,” observes Karen P. Thomas, conductor and artistic/executive director of Seattle Pro Musica. In contrast, the St. John Passion is “a much more tightly structured dramatic work.”
This weekend Seattle Pro Musica will give two performances of the complete St. John Passion at St. James Cathedral. Founded four decades ago and led by Thomas since 1987, this admired choral ensemble last performed the work in the early 1990s. Any chance to hear the St. John Passion is well worth your attention — and considering the consistently excellent quality I’ve experienced in the past from Seattle Pro Musica, I expect these concerts to be a highlight of the season.
The chorus will be joined by an orchestra of local musicians familiar from Seattle’s early-music scene, including players from the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, as well as guest vocal soloists: soprano Madeline Bersamina, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenors Wesley Rogers and James L. Brown, and baritones Charles Robert Stephens and Jacob William Herbert.
Bach premiered the St. John Passion in the spring of 1724 to round out his first full year in his new job as music director of Leipzig’s main churches. It marked the largest-scale work he had created to date. From the start, he’d set himself the superhuman feat — certainly not required by his employers — of supplying a complete cycle of his own cantatas for every Sunday and feast day of the liturgical calendar.
St. John gave Bach, who was only in his late 30s at the time, a platform where he could draw from all the insights he had gathered during this year of volcanic creativity. His experiments in the cantatas, with their blend of soul-baring arias, reharmonized chorale tunes, and intricately architected choruses, helped pave the way for this work of sustained drama and devotional meditation. He returned to the score for several waves of revisions right up to 1749, the year before he died.
Traditions of singing the Passion narrative as part of Good Friday liturgical services long predated the Reformation. But in Bach’s hands, as conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, the Passion provided a format “to show on a large canvas what modern music — his music — could do towards defining and strengthening belief.” Both the John and Matthew Passions juxtapose the scriptural “action” with contemplative reflections on its meaning for the present. Bach exploits this duality between the past and the here and now, along with his masterful command of word painting, to create a remarkably involving sense of drama in the St. John Passion.
Yet one stumbling block the work poses is the troubling issue of John’s portrayal of the Jews in his gospel narrative, particularly as reflected in the German translation by the notoriously anti-Semitic Martin Luther, which Bach set to music.
“In contemporary performance, you can’t sweep it aside [as some textually emended versions do] and have to be aware of how the text carries these elements," says Thomas. "But I think it’s important to realize that Bach’s viewpoint is different from Luther’s.” She refers to Michael Marissen’s classic study of the issue, Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach’s St. John Passion, which argues that the composer introduces reflective moments in the non-scriptural commentaries to shift the blame to all of humanity.
In terms of performance style, Seattle Pro Musica’s approach will mix elements of modern practice with insights from the early-music movement. “We’re a 65-voice choir, so clearly this is a larger group than Bach would have had,” explains Thomas. “And we’re using mostly modern instruments, though these musicians play on period instruments in other contexts. So the aesthetic approach — how the music is phrased and so on — will draw on informed practice, but with modern forces. This suits the group we are, and it also suits the space better.”
Thomas adds that, as far as she’s been able to determine, these performances mark the first time that either of the Bach Passions has been performed at St. James Cathedral.
“The writing for the chorus is especially challenging,” says Thomas. “Because the drama is so tight, the chorus has to be quite acrobatic, bouncing back and forth to portray an angry mob one moment and the congregation the next. And framing it all are two monumental choruses. Preparing a work on this scale is an overwhelming experience.”
If you go: Seattle Pro Musica performs Bach’s St. John Passion this Saturday and Sunday, March 10 and 11, at 8 p.m. in St. James Cathedral, 9th and Marion. (206) 781-2766. Tickets: $15-40.
Seattle Pro Musica presents A Celtic Christmas the following Saturday, December 10, at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall, 8th and Seneca, 206-781-2766. Tickets: $15-35.
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