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A choice of St. John Passions

This is the time of year at which you are most likely to hear J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion, which tends to be performed in accordance with the Christian liturgical calendar even when it is programmed in a secular concert. If you do, you probably expect that the work will be recognizable and even predictable in its makeup, and consistent from presentation to presentation–that’s what makes it a “piece,” after all. But the passion is not so stable.

I don’t mean in the size and composition of vocal and instrumental forces, for which there are now several choices ranging from Bach’s own very small ensembles to large-scale modern renditions with chorus, soloists, and orchestra. Rather, performances can differ from one another in the words and notes that are sung and played–in the movements that make up the work. This is because the St. John Passion comes down to us in several versions. Their existence points both to features of eighteenth-century music making and to choices that we face today.

Bach composed the St. John Passion for Good Friday 1724, during his first Lent and Easter in Leipzig. He and an anonymous librettist created a work that presents John’s gospel narrative of the crucifixion, along with poetic commentary in the form of hymn stanzas and newly-written poetry set as instrumentally-accompanied recitatives and arias (including opening and near-closing poetic arias for chorus).

Bach was responsible for putting on a passion performance each year, alternating between the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches. Their congregations were distinct, but Bach nonetheless evidently felt obligated not to repeat a passion setting from year to year. But he did not compose a new setting in 1725, nor did he turn to the music of another composer, as he sometimes did. Instead he revised his St. John Passion, replacing several movements and adding one.

He substituted a new piece for the original opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher,” a setting of a poetic text based on Psalm 8. In its place he put a new setting of the first stanza of the hymn “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (a piece he later used to conclude the first half of the St. Matthew Passion in its revised form). At the end, instead of the concluding chorale stanza “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein” he specified a setting of the German Agnus Dei, the movement “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” recycled from one of the cantatas he had performed at his Leipzig audition. In place of the aria “Ach, mein Sinn,” just after Peter’s denial of Jesus, he supplied a replacement, “Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hügel.” Just before that episode he added a new aria, “Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe,” creating a new moment of reflection and commentary. Instead of the accompanied recitative and aria “Betrachte, meine Seel” and “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” came a new aria, “Ach windet euch nicht so, geplagte Seelen.”

We know all this from the miraculous survival of the original performing parts–the very pieces of paper from which Bach’s musicians sang and played. They take some serious sorting out, but to the extent that we can establish the state of the parts in a given year, we can know which movements were performed.

Bach most likely made these changes to create, in some sense, a new passion setting. That might be difficult to understand because most of the words and music remained the same, including almost all the gospel narrative, which might seem to us to represent the most important element of the work. But the narration of the passion story according to one of the gospels was a fixture of the Good Friday observance; what changed from year to year–and what gave a musical passion setting its identity–were the commentary movements. So Bach’s revisions, substituting opening and closing movements and replacing or adding arias, arguably made the 1725 St. John Passion a new work.

It’s a work with a different theological perspective of the passion story. The first version, in the language of its commentary movements, emphasizes the question of Jesus’s identity and his paradoxical glorification through the abasement of the crucifixion. Most of the 1725 movements focus on a view of humankind as sinful; this is reflected, for example, in the new opening chorale (“O humankind, consider your great sins”) and closing movement (“Christ, lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world . . .”). The new arias are mostly on this theme as well.

So we have two versions of the St. John Passion, from 1724 and 1725. That is not the end of the story, though, because we have evidence of yet another version Bach performed in the early 1730s. In that performance he restored most of the original movements and removed the 1725 substitutes. He did add one new aria and an instrumental sinfonia, but those two movements are now lost because in 1749, possibly the last year he directed a passion performance, Bach revised the work once again, mostly restoring the 1724 sequence of movements, though with some revised poetic texts. In doing so he set aside the pages that contained the new aria and sinfonia from the 1730s, and they have not survived.

We thus appear to have four versions of the St. John Passion, where a “version” is defined as the form in which Bach presented the work. Two (1725 and 1749) survive almost intact; there are gaps in the others, particularly the one from the 1730s.

But there is another complication. In the late 1730s, Bach began a neat copy of the work made from his presumably messy composing score of 1724, but didn’t finish. After about 10 numbers he abandoned the project; we know neither why he started nor why he stopped. Some 10 years later an assistant completed the copy, presumably working from the same composing score. (The result is the only original score that survives.) The copyist faithfully reproduced what was in his model, but in his portion Bach was not content to leave his music alone. making numerous revisions to vocal and instrumental lines.

Is this a version? Certainly it’s not a complete one, because Bach did not get past the first 10 movements. The question is even knottier because even this partial revision doesn’t fit our definition of a “version”–a form of the piece heard in performance. That is because the revised readings never found their way into Bach’s performing material; recall that we have the original parts, including from 1749, and they reflect the same music that had been heard in Leipzig since 1724, give or take a few other minor changes. So the status of the partial score “version” might well be different.

It used to be that performances of the St. John Passion typically did not pay much attention to this history. What has tended to be heard is a version published in 1973 in the complete edition of Bach’s music. That edition is a pastiche, using the revised score for the first 10 numbers, but presenting the rest of the piece in the version from the 1749 parts–minus the textual changes made in that year. There were some good reasons to present the work this way, but you can see that it does not represent any of the versions heard under Bach.

Things have changed, to a degree: Performances, recordings and musical editions today often specify what version of the piece they are presenting. Those from 1725 and 1749 can be performed intact; there are gaps in the 1724 and 1730s versions–which is one reason the modern pastiche is still heard so often.

We thus have a choice of four or five St. John Passions, and this richness is a reminder that this was practical working repertory for Bach–a tool for fulfilling the musical obligations of his job. That meant revising and adapting his compositions as needed. We probably need to free ourselves from the idea that there is one abstract, ideal St. John Passion, recognizing instead that it represents a family of versions, not a fixed text.

Which one will you choose?

Hear more about these topics in the Houston Bach Society’s podcast series Notes on Bach.

Featured image: Pages from the original “Soprano concert[ante]” part for Bach’s St. John Passion BWV 245 showing revisions connected with various versions of the work. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv, Mus. ms. autogr. Bach St 111. CC by 4.0 via Bach Digital.

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