» Archive for January, 2009

J. S. Bach: St. John Passion

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 by Martin Hester

J. S. Bach: St. John Passion. BWV 245.
The Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists.
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner. Archiv 419324-2.

This is Good Listening #50, so I would like to go back to the composer who was the subject of GL#1 in March 2004 – Johann Sebastian Bach. His music has been a thread all through my life, challenging me to try and play it, bringing solace in troubled moments, and moving me intensely as a listener. There is a little Organ Prelude in E minor adapted for the piano which I play: this gently rolls along, with its calm melody, mobile inner voices, and slight dissonances. It grows in strength, and then gently settles down to a beautifully resolved conclusion…. and with it, the world too fits back into place. A professor of violin told me the same thing about his playing Bach’s pieces for the solo violin. There is a peculiar quality of assured faith and order about his music which comes reaching down to us through the years.
Bach’s Life and times
Bach was born in 1685, into a post-Luther Germany still divided into hundreds of small independent states, each ruled autocratically by a noble – but music was everywhere, used at religious services, at court, on civic occasions, and for entertainment. Although this age was pre-science as we know it (Newton was 1643-1727 ) there was great elaboration in architecture, painting, sculpture, vesture, – and in Germany, things were very well cared for in an ordered life-style. Bach’s family had been of professional musicians for generations, and during his youth he could count on over 40 close relatives who were professional musicians. Bach himself was one of five children, but was left an orphan of both parents before he was 10. He was then supported by an older brother Johann Cristoph, but at 15 was admitted to a Choir School in Lüneberg where he stayed on a scholarship which also provided food and board, until he was 17. After a time as “violinist and lackey” in Weimar he obtained his first professional post as organist in Arnstadt. Some 2 years into this tenure, he requested permission to absent himself for a month to go to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude – and ended up staying away 4 months! When he came back, he put so many innovations into his playing that the congregation complained they couldn’t follow him – and in mid-1707 at 22, bolstered by a growing reputation, he took up a new posting as organist at St. Blaise in Mühlhausen. (This is not as simple as it sounds, because many of these appointments were for life, and an employer might refuse to accept a request to leave). Here he developed quickly as musician and composer, for instance writing a full-scale and impressively complex Cantata Gott ist mein König. He married his cousin Maria Barbara. The famous Prelude and Fugue in D minor for organ also comes from this period.

However, once again, Bach’s music was considered too innovative, and in 1708 he accepted an invitation to join the court of Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, as chamber musician and organist. Here things really settled down, and during the next 9 years working for a deeply religious prince, Bach produced most of his great organ works, as well as at least one Cantata a month – and three children. His next appointment was a prestigious and well-paid job as Court Conductor at Köthen, working for Prince Leopold. (This move was so disagreeable to Wilhelm Ernst, that he actually imprisoned Bach for a month in late 1717 to try and stop him going!).

At Köthen, Bach had no obligations to produce Church music, but rather instrumental music for ensembles in which the young Prince Leopold would also take part. From this period come the Brandenberg concertos and much music for the clavier. But sadly Bach’s wife died in 1720, while he was away. Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, who he married in 1721, was to bear him 13 children, of whom 7 died in infancy. But shortly after their wedding, prince Leopold also re-married, music ceased to play a central role at court, and soon Bach was looking for a new appointment.

In 1723, Bach became Musical Director (Cantor) of the 5 principal churches of the city of Leipzig, a post which he occupied until his death. He produced for the Leipzig churchgoers an enormous quantity of sacred works: cantatas, oratorios, masses, and works for the organ. Apart from this, he found time to direct the Collegium Musicum, a grouping of local musicians for whom he composed his orchestral suites and concertos for various instruments, as well as many other keyboard works. The St. John Passion was first performed in Leipzig in Easter week 1724.

The master musician
An obituary of Bach, published some years after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Friedrich Agricola, has this to say –

“If ever a composer showed polyphony in its greatest strength, it was certainly our late lamented Bach. If ever a musician used the most concealed mysteries of harmony with the greatest artistry, it was certainly our Bach. No one ever showed so many ingenious and unusual ideas as he in elaborate pieces…. he needed only to hear a theme to be aware – it seemed instantaneously – of almost every intricacy an artist could produce in treating it. His melodies were unusual, but always varied, rich in invention, and like those of no other composer. His serious temperament attracted him to music that was serious, elaborate and profound; but he could also, when appropriate, adjust himself, especially as a performer, to a lighter and more humorous approach…. His hearing was so fine he could detect the slightest error even in the largest ensembles… As a conductor, he was very accurate, and he was unusually assured of the tempo, which he generally took very lively…. we cannot be blamed for declaring boldly that Bach was the greatest organist and clavier player we have ever had…. How extraordinary, how novel, how expressive, how beautiful were his ideas as an improviser… How perfectly he realised them….”

During his life, Bach was known more as an extraordinary organist and musician, rather than composer. After his death, his works were largely forgotten, as musical styles changed and evolved to classicism. Many of his manuscripts were lost. It took a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Mendelssohn in 1829, to bring his music back to notice. Since then, interest has not ceased to grow: many have devoted their lives to the study of his works, to cataloguing and analysing them, searching for lost manuscripts. Nearly 1000 works are known, but the dating is uncertain of some 250 of them. His music is widely performed; there is a recording of all his known works, in a set of 172 CDs! The best-known ones have been recorded innumerable times. At the 250th anniversary of his death, BBC Radio broadcast all his Cantatas, 24 hours a day – it took a week! Appreciation of his work has not ceased to grow, and among musicians, of all callings, his works are admired for their innovations, harmonies, structure and unique sentiment.

The CD
Bach’s St. John Passion tells the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, based on the gospel of St. John. The story is told in long recitatives by the Evangelist (a tenor) and there are solo parts for Christ, Pilate, and other participants. The choir act as the crowd. Apart from this, there are Arias with texts which meditate on what is happening – sometimes sung by the choir, sometimes by soloists with instrumental accompaniment – and Chorales, well-known hymn tunes which would be sung from printed sheets by choir and congregation together, also reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. The words were compiled from varied sources (it is not known by whom) and set to music by Bach. The work is in two parts of about an hour each (they would have been separated by a sermon).

It is evident that the words inspired Bach to capture their spirit in his music – long flowing lines, often with the beautifully worked out and fitted inner parts, the hallmark of polyphonic style. Bach always has wonderful bass lines – supportive, interesting, dynamic. However, it seems Bach sometimes had scant interest in “picturing” the words or favouring the singer – some of the phrases are desperately long, and it seems the words fall where they may. (Accompanying listening with a translation is probably essential!). The opening is distinctly sombre,

and we may count the first part, up to Peter’s denial, as interesting and beautiful music. Here the Evangelist relates how Peter took his sword and struck off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, and was rebuked by Jesus. The choir reflects on this May your will be done on earth as in heaven, Lord God; make us patient in suffering, obedient in everything…..

Things get tense in the second part, however, with the dialogues between Jesus and Pilate, and the interventions of the incensed crowd – “we want Barrabas!”

After Jesus is flogged, Bach’s imagination soars, with incredible and touching harmonies in the bass Arioso My soul, think thou….(19)

The tension continues to mount as Jesus is punished, and the crowd shouts “Crucify! Crucify!”

Another bass aria (24) Hurry…. over a fast-moving bass pattern with interventions from the choir To where? is a masterpiece of writing,

followed hard on by others – the alto Aria (30) It is accomplished,

the soprano aria (35) Dissolve then, heart, in floods of tears,

to the penultimate choir chorus (39) Lie in peace…. which somehow manages to extract some comfort and repose from all the suffering beforehand. Can one doubt the greatness of Bach after such a work?

I find this recording by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists to be at the very highest level of English musicianship. Gardiner keeps the music light, moving along, with great emphasis on shapely phrasing and no histrionics.

So with a reverent bow to Father Bach….Good Listening!