The arrival of Lent and the anticipation of Holy Week on the Christian liturgical calendar bring with them what professional musicians call “passion season.” In a close parallel to “Messiah season” in December, singers and players hope to find work performing musical settings of the crucifixion narrative, to help audiences and congregations listen and worship and to help get themselves through the next few months’ rent.
Musical settings of the passion go back to the beginning of the Christian faith, starting with chanted recitations of the gospel narrative. Enhancement of these intoned liturgical presentations with more elaborate vocal music started in the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth there were settings for voices and instruments adorned with extensive passages of poetic commentary and reflection designed to evoke listeners’ emotional responses to the story. The most famous works of this kind are, of course, the two surviving settings by J. S. Bach: the St. John Passion BWV 245 to an anonymous libretto (first version 1724), and the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 to a text by Christian Friedrich Henrici (first version 1727).
Approaching their 300th anniversaries, these works might be the oldest pieces in the standard repertory not routinely found in the specialized “Early Music” bin of the digital record store—both landed instead squarely in the domain of mainstream classical music. After the definitive transformation of these compositions from functional liturgical pieces into artworks typically heard in concert halls, it is striking that in today’s world they should remain so closely tied to the season in which they were first heard three centuries ago.
Of course there are listeners for whom performances of the Bach passions remain closely connected to their faith and to religious commemoration, and many performances do take place in church buildings. But it is rare to find a liturgical performance of the work today that parallels Bach’s presentation of these pieces in the Good Friday vespers service in Leipzig, where they formed part of a liturgy of hymns, a long sermon, and the presentation of the passion narrative according to one of the gospels.
Bach’s passion settings fell out of liturgical use shortly after his death in 1750, largely because their many commentary movements (solo recitatives and arias and poetic choruses) became textually and theologically out of date. They re-entered the repertory three quarters of a century later with the legendary performance of a greatly abbreviated St. Matthew Passion in 1829 under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn, transformed into works of musical history, of moral (rather than theological) edification, and even of emerging German national identity (with Bach as a symbol of German-ness). And they were concert works heard in public performance, not part of a liturgy.
Yet those first revived performances took place during Lent and Holy Week, maintaining a close seasonal link despite the change in the music’s context, and this association has stuck. Almost every aspect of modern performances of these works is different from Bach’s own presentations (in vocal and instrumental forces, performing context, and listeners’ understanding of stylistic elements and their meanings), yet the seasonal tie is still valued. Perhaps against all expectation, the musical world still observes passion season.
And passion season is also Bach season. Other works are occasionally presented—Heinrich Schütz’s passion settings from time to time, recent (Bach-inspired!) pieces like Krzysztof Penderecki’s now and then, the odd work by G. P. Telemann, C. H. Graun, or C. P. E. Bach—but passion repertory is overwhelmingly Bach repertory. Even the efforts to expand it are often Bach-centric, most notably the quixotic attempts to “reconstruct” the lost St. Mark Passion that surface again and again despite the impossibility of the task.
Not even Bach was so limited. His working portfolio included his own settings, of course, but not even they were stable; every time he performed the St. John Passion he revised it, using substitute commentary movements and sometimes new poetic texts. These changes, particularly in the large framing choral movements, altered the theological tone and focus of the work and arguably made it a new piece. The St. Matthew Passion was more fixed, but a recently discovered printed text for a reperformance of Bach’s now-lost St. Mark Passion BWV 247 shows that he revised that work as well.
And Bach did not restrict himself to his own settings. On several occasions he performed a St. Mark passion he attributed to Reinhard Keiser, including once in a version that incorporated movements from a passion by Georg Friedrich Händel. And in the last few years scholars have identified a setting by Bach’s contemporary Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel—a work of a somewhat different textual and musical type—that Bach performed in the 1730s. In all there was more variety in the passion repertory heard under Bach in Leipzig than in our concert life today, to say nothing of the music composed and performed by other musicians of the time.
Passion season offers employment for musicians and inspiration for religious adherents, and it gives us the annual opportunity as listeners of discovering new things in passion performances presented in a wide array of musical interpretations. But it is worth recognizing, at least, that passion season is Bach season, and that this is a distinctive feature of our modern musical life in the twenty-first century.
Featured image: Leipzig, Neues Bachdenkmal an der Thomaskirche” by Andreas Praefcke. CC BY 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons.