J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion: An Introduction

The first Lutheran hymnal was printed and published in 1524. Two hundred years later, at the Vespers service on Good Friday of 1724, the Lutheran congregation in Leipzig heard the first performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. This was a liturgical event, not a concert. And it commenced with the congregational singing of the Lutheran chorale, “Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund,” “When Jesus stood at the cross.” They probably sang all ten stanzas of the hymn, seven of which repeat the seven last words or sayings of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do;” “Today you will be with me in Paradise; “Behold your son; behold your mother,” and so on. In the hymn’s text, each of these sayings is followed by commentary applying the saying to the life of each individual believer. The first introductory stanza reads (in translation):

When on the cross the Saviour hung,
And that sore load that on Him weigh’d
With bitter pangs his nature wrung,
Seven words amid His pain He said:
Oh let them well to heart be laid!

Having sung this hymn, the congregation had already narrated — and sympathized with — critical moments in the passion story, which Bach’s music was about to bring to life for them with remarkable dramatic intensity. As music historian Markus Rathey writes in his book, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy, this chorale “is almost a summary of the passion narrative, leading from his crucifixion to his agony and his final cry of divine abandonment.” As Rathey explains, for that original audience, Bach’s St. John Passion was interwoven with hymns, prayers, Bible readings, and a sermon. This was the setting for which Bach composed this remarkable work, its drama and artistry serving to convey to worshippers the paradox of death and glory at the heart of the Passion story.

Most of us will never experience Bach’s music as it was intended to be experienced: within the liturgical life of the Church. But we can still receive many of its blessings through thoughtful and attentive listening to recordings, supplemented with instructive readings. Below are some tools to aid in such reception.

To read:

Theology in the St. John Passion

In an article titled “Christus Victor: Bach’s St. John Passion,” Calvin Stapert explains how the structure of this dramatic work — shaped by the theological concerns in St. John’s Gospel — conveys an understanding of the mystery of the atonement. You may download that article here.

The St. John Passion in liturgical context

You may download an essay by Marcus Rathey entitled “Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion from 1725: A Liturgical Interpretation” here.

The text in English

One of the performances presented below has subtitles in English. But if you are going to be listening to a performance without that aid, you may want to download the complete text of the St. John Passion (German and English in parallel columns) here.

To hear

Bach + subtitles: Bach Collegium Japan

On March 15, 2020, Bach Collegium Japan performed the St. John Passion in Cologne (Germany) at the Kölner Philharmonie. The performance was staged without an audience because of the start of the spread of COVID-19. This was just before lockdowns all over the world. Together with the kind cooperation of the Kölner Philharmonie, this performance was live broadcast through Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, and more than 250,000 people watched it worldwide.

The performance (embedded below) is presented with subtitles in English. It features the musicians of the Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. The soloists are: James Gilchrist, Evangelist (tenor); Aki Matsui, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Zachary Wilder, tenor; and Christian Immler, bass. The performance was recorded by BIS Records and is available (in a higher audio resolution) on CD and digital download.

Young musicians front and center: The Netherlands Bach Society

In 2017, the Netherlands Bach Society performed the St. John Passion with a cast of singers under the age of 35. Apart from the leaders, all the orchestra members are also younger than 35. Before listening to that performance (further down this page, below the credits), you may want to watch the short video immediately below in which conductor Jos van Veldhoven and musicians of the Netherlands Bach Society describe some of the unique virtues of the St. John Passion.

Below is the complete performance by the Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven, conductor. The soloists are: Raphael Höhn, Evangelist (tenor); Myriam Arbouz, soprano; Maria Valdmaa (Maid), soprano; Daniël Elgersma, alto; Marine Fribourg, alto; Gwilym Bowen, tenor; Guy Cutting (Servant), tenor; Felix Schwandtke (Jesus), bass; Drew Santini (Peter), bass; and Angus Mc Phee (Pilate), bass.

A 2008 Proms concert: The Monteverdi Choir

John Eliot Gardiner conducted recordings of the St. John Passion in 1986 and 2003. Then, in 2008, he conducted a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the annual Proms concerts sponsored by the BBC. That performance was recorded on video and is available on DVD. A much lower resolution version of the video is on YouTube and is embedded below. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are joined by soloists: Mark Padmore, Evangelist (tenor); Peter Harvey, Jesus (bass); Katherine Fuge, soprano; Robin Blaze, counter-tenor; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Jeremy Budd, tenor; and Matthew Brook, bass.