Bach's moving reflection on the Passion story

By Ashley Grote, Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral - 10 April 2019
Norwich Cathedral Choir concert (c) Paul Hurst
The reading of the Passion narrative has since medieval times formed a central part of the Holy Week liturgy. Indeed, here at Norwich Cathedral, as in churches across the world in the days ahead, the story will be read in public worship as we gather once again to meditate on the events of Christ’s Passion in that first Holy Week.

Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Baroque will perform Bach’s St John Passion on Saturday, April 13.

Bach’s St John Passion is the culmination of a musical and liturgical tradition that traces its roots as far back as the 13th century, when there is evidence of the parts played by the various characters in the Passion story being distributed between different voices.

From the 15th century, the crowd (‘turbae’) was often represented by a choir. By the late 17th century, composers such as Walter and Schütz set the gospel texts in such a way that the narrative was still chanted in the traditional liturgical tones, with the crowd scenes depicted in increasingly elaborate choral polyphony.

In 1723, Bach was appointed ‘Kantor’ (Director of Music) at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, where he was responsible not only for providing music in the three major churches in the town (St Nicholas’ Church and St Paul’s Church being the other two), but also for teaching and training the choir boys who were educated at St Thomas’s School.

Bach composed incessantly, producing new cantatas week by week for use in the church services. He composed St John Passion for Holy Week in 1724, for use on Good Friday, when it was first performed at St Nicholas’ Church, Leipzig.

It was, without doubt, written as a liturgical work, with a sermon being preached between the two parts. The story is narrated by the Evangelist in specially composed recitative which, whilst having links to the tradition of intoning the story in liturgical chant, is more akin musically to the narrative style of early Italian opera. In keeping with earlier conventions, the Evangelist is a tenor, with Jesus and Pilate played by bass soloists. As was traditional, the crowd is played by the choir, and particularly for the trial scenes in St John’s account of the Passion, Bach writes some of his most intense and dramatic polyphony.

The work being intended as a liturgy in itself, Bach places particular emphasis on the importance of the congregation through the inclusion of 11 chorales – Lutheran hymns, the tunes of which would have been well known to regular churchgoers. There has been much debate as to whether the congregation would actually have participated in the singing of these hymns, or whether Bach was seeking to draw them in closer simply through the inclusion of familiar hymn melodies.

The other element which makes Bach’s work so much more elaborate than any previous settings is the inclusion of poetic texts which reflect in a deeply personal way upon the action that is unfolding in the narrative. These solo movements (arias) display some of Bach’s most expressive, sensitive and intimate writing.

Bach made frequent use of instrumentalists in church in the performance of his cantatas. The orchestral writing in his setting of St John Passion is particularly elaborate, with virtuoso string writing and important solo parts for wind instruments. With this in mind, I am delighted that the Cathedral Choir will be joined by local 
ensemble Norwich Baroque, performing on period instruments.

Our boy and girl choristers, lay clerks and choral scholars are also joined by a cast of distinguished soloists, whom we are privileged to welcome to Norwich.

I hope that you will discover Bach’s powerful setting of the Passion story to be a moving reflection as we share again in the sufferings of Christ and look forward to his joyful resurrection at Easter.

And when from death you waken me,
let my unworthy eyes then see
with tears of joy, my soul’s reward;
my Saviour and my risen Lord!
O Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
and let me praise Thee endlessly!

Ashley Grote, Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral Choir and Norwich Baroque will perform Bach’s St John Passion on Saturday 13 April  at 7.30pm.
Tickets £10-£28.
Under 18s can buy tickets in the side aisles for just £5.
To book tickets, click here
Alternatively call 01603 630000 or buy in person at Norwich Theatre Royal.

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