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AAM BLOG

4 March 2013

Bach's original Passion

"Bach’s St John Passion had a complex genesis in which four separate versions can be discerned, dating from 1724, 1725, c.1732 and 1749. Each version was prepared for a Good Friday performance in the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. Such repeated revisions were not unusual in early eighteenth-century music; a composer would adapt a piece to the performers available, as well as to possible external factors such as the tastes of the audience or patron. Some of Bach’s changes indeed fall into this category: for instance, the 1749 version uses an expanded orchestra, with the continuo section reinforced by contrabassoon and at least one harpsichord.

"Many of Bach’s revisions, however, stem primarily from an artistic restlessness, a creativity that sought to refine and perfect his large-scale compositions. Some of the revisions, particularly the 1725 version, go beyond simple adaptation as to change entirely the overall shape and narrative dynamic of the work. And in addition to the four versions that can be associated with specific performances, Bach also began a major revision of his autograph score of the St John Passion around 1739. This revision was never completed, and thus it seems that Bach never brought the work into a definitive form. As the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff writes, it might be more accurate to speak of the St John ‘Passions’.

"The AAM's new recording will present a rare opportunity to hear Bach’s original conception of the work, the 1724 version of the St John Passion. A complete score of this version does not survive, but the first ten movements can be reconstructed from the parts copied for Bach’s original performance. It uses the same order of movements as the 1749 version that is the normal choice for modern performances. But there are many small differences in the melodic writing, which is less elaborate than in subsequent versions. The vocal lines in the arias tend to have plain leaps rather than florid stepwise ornamentation. The alto and tenor parts in the chorales are less prominent, moving in the same rhythms as the outer parts rather than containing their own faster counter-melodies. There are also changes to the contour of the vocal line in the recitatives, and one recitative (‘Und siehe da, der Vorhang im Tempel zerriß’, sung as the curtain in the Temple rips upon Christ’s death) is several bars shorter than in the familiar version of 1749.

"The surviving parts suggest that Bach used a small orchestra in the 1724 version, giving an intimacy to this most impassioned and dramatic of Passion stories. In the arias ‘Betrachte meine Seel’ and ‘Erwäge wie sein blutgefärbter Rükken’, the 1724 version specifies the use of two violas d’amore rather than the muted violins which are specified in the third version (and which are often used in modern performances). The violas d’amore lend a haunting timbre to these arias through their sympathetic strings, which resonate in consonance with the bowed strings like an otherworldly echo.

"Bach’s most radical revisions were in the 1725 version, in which he replaced the opening chorus with a movement later used in the St Matthew Passion (the chorus ‘O Mensch bewein’). To balance this substantial new first movement, he closed the 1725 version with a choral setting of the German Agnes Dei (‘Christe du Lamm Gottes’). He inserted two arias of extreme drama: ‘Zerschmettert mich’, where musical representations of thunderbolts express Peter’s anger at having forsaken Jesus; and ‘Ach windet euch nicht so’, which depicts the writhing of souls and scourging of lashes. He also included a bass aria (‘Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe’) that incorporates the chorale ‘Jesu deine Passion’. Subsequently Bach removed many of these 1725 insertions, in part to differentiate the work from the St Matthew Passion (which he first performed in 1727).

"The different versions of the St John Passion usually remain hidden in the appendix of the complete edition, as an object purely of scholarly interest. By performing these different versions, we can gain rare insights into Bach’s creative process, as well as new perspectives on one of his best-known works."

© Dr Stephen Rose. Stephen Rose is Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London