Bach's St. John Passion: Ravishing and Disputed
J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion has always gotten more respect than his other telling of the crucifixion story — the St. John Passion. The St. Matthew, with its six-part choir and double orchestra, is grander, about 45 minutes longer and generally more imposing.
But don't underestimate the St. John. Its very compactness gives it a power of its own.
And you can judge for yourself this weekend, as it will be the centerpiece of Les Violons du Roy's Carnegie Hall performance Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, heard live on this page.
"The St. John's text is much more direct and burns like a coal," says Kent Tritle, director of cathedral music and organist at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine an a WQXR host. "The St. Matthew is much more narrative and takes more time to work out."
The St. John has also become a somewhat harder sell in an era sensitive to ethnic characterizations. The work's harping on "the Jews" as the driving force behind the crucifixion of Jesus have led some people to view it as anti-Semitic. Some orchestras have printed disclaimers in their concert programs. A performance today at the Berlin Cathedral is substituting texts by poets as varied as Rumi and Paul Celan, as well as words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, for some of the texts Bach set.
"The gospel of John is problematic because of the burden it places upon the Jewish people for Jesus," Tritle says. "There's a comfort zone issue here."
Scholars and performers have wrestled with the work's message over time. Lately it has been suggested that Bach took the St. John's narration and dialogue almost verbatim from the Gospel of St. John, which grew out of the era in which the book was written — between A.D. 90 and 130. In those days, Christians were trying to ingratiate themselves with their Roman rulers rather than laying the blame for the crucifixion on the Roman Pontius Pilate. Some scholars have also suggested that Bach mollified through his music the anti-Semitic tendencies of the text.
Controversies aside, Tritle says the work is rich in its formal structure, with the Evangelist's telling of Jesus' crucifixion regularly interrupted with timeouts for ruminative arias and reflective chorales. These sweeping choral moments not only portray the crowd — soldiers, priests and populace — but were also the work's most interactive aspect in its day.
"The chorales come at points where the congregation would actually join in singing some affirmation of what has just happened," Tritle explains. "You can imagine that the interaction was rather consistent from beginning to end."
- Les Violons du Roy
- La Chapelle de Québec
Bernard Labadie, Music Director and Conductor
- Ian Bostridge, Tenor
- Neal Davies, Bass-Baritone
- Karina Gauvin, Soprano
- Damien Guillon, Countertenor
- Nicholas Phan, Tenor
- Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Bass-Baritone
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