Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), one the greatest Western composers, composed various Passions: sacred oratorios that set the Gospel narrative of Christ’s Passion to music. Two are extant: the St. John Passion (Johannes-Passion, BWV 245) and the St. Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244). The former was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1724, and later revised extensively. The latter was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1727 and revised in 1736 and again around 1742. In addition to the Gospel text, the libretto of each contains verses that dramatize or meditate upon episodes of Christ's Passion. These two Passions by Bach are now treasured as two of his greatest compositions and performed frequently throughout the world. Moreover, it was Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 that brought Bach to his current prominence.

In this issue, Daniel R. Melamed discusses Bach’s Passions and some of the best literature on them.

Daniel R. Melamed is professor of music in musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. His research interests focus on J.S. Bach, Mozart-era opera, and music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is president of the American Bach Society and director of the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project. He has authored Listening to Bach: The Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio, Hearing Bach’s Passions, and J. S. Bach and the German Motet, and co-authored (with Michael Marissen) An Introduction to Bach Studies. He is editor of Bach Studies 2 and Bach Perspectives 8: J. S. Bach and the Oratorio.

  1. Hearing Bach's Passions
    by Daniel R. Melamed
  2. Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion: With an Annotated Literal Translation of the Libretto
    by Michael Marissen
  3. Bach in Berlin. Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn's Revival of the St. Matthew Passion
    by Celia Applegate
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion. Genesis, Transmission, and Meaning
    by Alfred Dürr
  5. Rethinking Bach
    by Bettina Varwig
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How many Passions did Bach write and how many are extant?
That question has interested Bach enthusiasts and scholars for a long time. We are certain of three passions that he composed: the St. John Passion, first performed in 1724 and so this is its 300th anniversary; the St. Matthew Passion, composed and first performed in 1727; and a Passion According to St Mark, probably from 1731. Of those three, the John and Matthew Passions survive, each in multiple versions. We can make good guesses about the music of the St Mark Passion and are quite sure that Bach reused music from other pieces that do survive. However, for practical purposes, the St. Mark Passion is lost.

Some Bach scholars believe that, early in his career, when he worked at the Court of Weimar, he composed another Passion that no longer survives. Hence, it is sometimes known as the Weimar Passion. I am sceptical about the evidence.

There is yet another Passion setting: A Passion According to St. Luke. We know that this was in Bach’s music library. Clearly, it is not a piece that he composed. It belongs to the Passion settings that Bach knew about, owned, and in some documented cases, performed in the liturgy.

We know about three that he composed for sure, two of which have survived.

Who wrote the libretto for Bach’s two extant Passions?
I can answer half of that question. The librettist of a Passion setting took the narrative of the chosen evangelist and ornamented it with stanzas from chorales (i.e. German hymns) and newly written poetry. The chorales were chosen for their relevance to certain moments in the story. The newly written poetry was designed to be sung as operatic-style recitatives and arias. The librettist of a Passion assembled existing texts and combined them with new writing.

We do not know who the librettist of the St. John Passion was. Recently, there has been a theory that it was a particular theologian. To me, the evidence is weak at best.

For the St. Matthew Passion, we know that it was a Leipzig poet and frequent collaborator of Bach’s: Christian Friedrich Henrici, who worked under the pen name Picander. We know this from a couple of sources. He was also the librettist for the lost St. Mark Passion.

"The St. John Passion is a terrific and very complicated example of Bach making changes in a piece over the years for every conceivable reason."

Did Bach treat his sacred music as works-in-progress, to be adapted for each liturgical performance?
Hardly a piece that Bach is known to have performed more than once went untouched. Was this an artistic matter, with Bach regarding the pieces as works in progress that he was improving? Was it a practical matter of fitting a piece to the occasion, forces, and circumstances of a given performance? That is an interesting question. It might even be an aesthetic and philosophical question. In some cases, Bach makes changes to adapt to the forces available. Such and such an instrument was not available and was substituted with a part for a different instrument. On the other hand, the Passions, especially the St. John Passion, are a good example of a piece that Bach adapted both for available forces and for other reasons, perhaps even artistic ones.

He performed the St. John Passion at least four times while he worked in Leipzig, from 1723 to his death in 1750. He made changes in scoring and instrumentation. He, and presumably a librettist, also made changes in the text a couple of times, partly to adapt the piece to different theological settings and ways of making the congregation think about the Passion. That said, when Bach made a new copy of the score of his St John Passion, he was not content just to leave the musical readings the same. He undertook revisions of various kinds. The St. John Passion is a terrific and very complicated example of Bach making changes in a piece over the years for every conceivable reason.

Bach was a Lutheran and wrote music for Lutheran services. Correct me if I am wrong, but he did not hold Catholicism in high regard. Nevertheless, some of his music is used in Catholic services in many countries. A Catholic who does not want to listen to Bach because he was Lutheran, is a bit like a Protestant who does not want to look at Michelangelo's paintings because he was a Catholic. What were Bach’s views about Catholicism?
That is a difficult question to answer because we have nothing from Bach on the subject. It is also a trap to look at the texts he set to music and to assume, perhaps in a nineteenth-century Romantic way, that these expressed Bach’s ideas or feelings. Take a song by Robert Schumann. Given some of the biographical context of Schumann's life, there is every reason to believe that he identifies with some of the ideas in the poem that he has set to music. Though an extreme view, you must allow for the possibility that Bach is a working church musician. He may have just been setting to music, as effectively as he could, texts that have been handed to him.

From many kinds of evidence, we know that Bach was a well-educated, devout Lutheran of an orthodox strain and that he fitted very well into orthodox Lutheran Leipzig. He had to be theologically examined in close detail to become the Cantor of the St. Thomas School and city music director in Leipzig. There were only certain correct answers to those theological questions. For good measure, as one of the terms of his employment, he had to sign a copy of the 1530 Augsburg Confession and acknowledge the most basic points of orthodox Lutheran theology. Does that tell us what Bach thought or believed? Probably, because he was a regular attendee at services and took communion whenever it was offered. Moreover, in many of his manuscripts, he invokes divine help at the very top of the page and, at the very end, writes an abbreviation that gives thanks to the divine for having helped him write this music. There is every reason to think that Bach embraced contemporary Lutheran ideas about all kinds of things, including Catholicism. Some of those ideas go back to Martin Luther and his deeply anti-Catholic vitriol. The Pope was routinely referred to as the Antichrist. There are Bach cantata texts that make casual references to the Antichrist. Everybody in the congregation would have known to associate that with the head of the Church in Rome. There are hymns, some of which go back to Luther's time, that invoke God's help in stemming the murderous tendencies of both the Turk and the Pope. There is a lot of vitriol there.

What did Bach personally think about this? We are not in any position to say or ever will be. As for what we do with that today, that is a problem that has received less attention than the anti-Judaic sentiment that crops up in the cantatas and, most famously, in the St. John Passion. However, in a multicultural and occasionally ecumenical world, what you do with the anti-Catholic sentiment is also a big question. It is difficult to pin it on Bach, unless you say that, as a good early-eighteenth-century Lutheran who adhered to the tenets of Lutheranism, he is very likely to have considered such views dogmatic.

Bach was not the only composer of the period to write Passions. There is also Handel’s Brockes Passion, for example. Are Bach’s Passions in the same mould as those of other composers of the period or very different?
By the time Bach wrote Passions for the Lutheran Liturgy in the first half of the eighteenth century, there were two models. Moreover, all his Passions fall into one of these models: the so-called Gospel Passions, in which one singer chants the words of the evangelist, another sings the words of Jesus, and others those of the other interlocutors in the story. The story is ornamented with instruments, solo voices, and ensemble voices. It is also ornamented with recitatives and arias, a kind drawn poetically and musically from opera, to move the affections of the listener to draw out emotional responses. The Gospel Passions, therefore, were constructed from the Gospel, choral stanzas, and newly written poetry.

There was another kind of Passion that arose in the early eighteenth century: the so-called Poetic Passions, in which both the Gospel and the movements commenting on it were paraphrased in poetry. There was almost a craze for them.

Hence, the first thing you should look at in an early eighteenth-century Passion is whether the libretto uses the Gospel verbatim or paraphrases it, often in a highly emotional manner, and is poetic throughout.

Bach’s two surviving Passions and the lost one that we know about were all Gospel Passions. Handel’s so-called Brockes Passion was his setting of one of the earliest and certainly the most famous of the librettos for a Poetic Passion. This libretto was set to music by many very good composers, especially in Hamburg.

For a very long time, we thought that in Leipzig Bach was permitted to perform only Gospel Passions as part of the Good Friday liturgy. However, a few years ago, a printed libretto turned up, without any music, that was performed once or twice liturgically in Leipzig and which we can line up with the libretto for a Poetic Passion by the prolific and excellent Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Therefore, on at least one or two occasions, Bach performed one of these Poetic Passions. However, as far as we know, he never wrote one.

"One condition of Bach’s employment, which he agreed to, was not to introduce into the liturgy any music that was too operatic. What does that mean, though?"

That explains the difference in genre but are Bach’s Passions very different musically from other existing models? For example, John Eliot Gardiner has remarked that though Bach was not a composer of opera, his Passions are the greatest operatic compositions of the whole Baroque period.
It depends on what you mean by operatic. There is no question that at the time it was understood that to drop into a Passion, or a Sunday church cantata for that matter, to drop in pieces of newly written poetry set as arias for voice and instrument, was an operatic gesture. This kind of music was borrowed from opera. The Hamburg theologian Neumeister wrote some of the very first texts for weekly cantatas of this type: ones that used newly written poetry that was designed to be set operatically as solo recitatives and arias. He said that these recitatives and arias were like little bits out of an opera. One condition of Bach’s employment, which he agreed to, was not to introduce into the liturgy any music that was too operatic. What does that mean, though? By the time he arrived at Leipzig, pieces that borrowed from opera in this way were already part of the music that was accepted in the liturgy. A Passion of this kind was unlike the much simpler sort, where there was no solo singing, and the Gospel was chanted with a simple presentation of the words of the interlocutors and groups. This new kind of Passion, such as those by Bach, had first been performed in the Leipzig liturgy for the first time only a couple of years before Bach took over. His predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, had done this for one or two years. They may even have been performed on the Good Friday liturgies that fell between Kuhnau’s death and Bach’s appointment. However, they were new and, in any religious tradition, some people think that anything new is not just new, but newfangled and objectionable. There were aesthetic debates about whether this music was too operatic or not.

We might label these Passions as opera. However, that would not have been an eighteenth-century view. Many thought they were operatic. Some would have thought that that was a good thing because opera, with its ability to move the affections, was one of the ways to preach the Gospel and teach Lutheran doctrine. However, if you were on the other side of the fence, it was somehow scandalous and unbecoming of church music. We will get further with the problem if we think of it in eighteenth-century terms.

Why, in your view, are Bach’s Passions great works of sacred music?
One reason is that they have been so musically and aesthetically adaptable over the centuries. The way in which tend to be performed now is very different from how they were performed in Bach’s time, both in context and in the musical forces. True liturgical performances of the Passion are exceedingly rare. It is much more common to hear these pieces in concert performances. However, what people hope to get out of hearing a concert performance of a Passion, they seem to find in it. Therefore, if you want to approach these pieces with enlarged forces, soloistic singing in the style of nineteenth-century opera, nineteenth- and early twentieth century style instrumental ensembles, and follow these pieces for their drama and their portrayal of the characters in the Passion story, you can experience them in this way too. These pieces are so adaptable. You can listen to them with an eighteenth-century mindset and imagine what it meant to perform them in that way and what a congregation might get out of it. You can approach them from the completely different aesthetic, cultural, and religious viewpoint of a modern listener. There is something about these pieces that has may have made them so adaptable.

Objectively, are they great compositions? To the extent that you can make that claim about anything, I suppose they are. However, they have proved particularly adaptable and are there for people to enjoy. That itself, is a not at all an eighteenth-century position. There were all kinds of reasons why listening to a Passion was not for enjoyment. Martin Luther and eighteenth-century theologians had very specific ideas about what you were supposed to get out of it. However, people can enjoy them for all sorts of reasons. Earlier Passion settings have not gripped modern listeners the way that those of Bach have and still do.

There is an ever-growing body of recordings of the St. Matthew and the St. John Passions. These reflect different performance practices and interpretative solutions. Artur Schnabel said that a great work of music allows for more than one interpretation. You might be hesitant about recommending particular recordings. Do you have any advice on picking recordings of Bach’s Passions?
Listen to one you like. There is no right way to perform this music or listen to it. You need to decide what speaks to you, what you want to get out of it, and what you want to know about. In my research and musicmaking, I have spent much time thinking about what it meant to hear these Passions in Bach’s time, especially under his direction. That has involved various approaches. For the most part, I want to hear performances that take seriously the kinds of performing forces that Bach used, but also keep in mind the way those forces were thought of and, say, the bass singer’s relation to the person of Jesus. This might seem obvious if opera is your model. However, it turns out to be quite complicated and was very different in the eighteenth century.

I also like the sound of ensembles of that size. Bach would have performed the St. John Passion with a band of about seventeen or eighteen players and eight vocalists, plus a couple more who sing a couple of lines. That is a much smaller ensemble than the kind preferred by others. They may be looking for a warm, modern, larger choral sound; an orchestral sound; a soloist trained in certain singing traditions; or performances that are not in German but their own language; or performances that try to deal with the problematic anti-Judaic posture of John's narration of the Passion. There is something for everybody. My recommendation is to find something that speaks to you.

I only have a problem with performances that make certain claims. It almost always boils down to the claim that the performers are doing it this way because they understand what the composer was truly after. That is part of a long tradition: of invoking the authority of a long-dead composer to support what is really one's aesthetic preference or centuries of performance tradition. I have nothing against those performances. What gets my hackles up are attempts to enlist Bach’s authority or claim that Bach is doing such-and-such here, where ‘here’ is what you get when you perform it in a way that is very different from how Bach would have performed in the eighteenth century. The performer takes Bach’s notes and words and does something with them. It might be terrific, moving, beautiful, or inspiring. However, it is not what Bach was doing. So, find a performance that you like.

Are there any a couple of recordings you come back to most?
I will mention a couple of recordings that I come back to repeatedly. For the St. Matthew Passion, there are so many things I like about the recording performed by the Dunedin Consort and directed by John Butt. One of the reasons I like it is that Butt, himself an accomplished Bach scholar, took Bach’s very particular way of performing that piece as his starting point. This leads to ear-opening results.

Along the same lines, there is an older recording of the St. John Passion, directed by Kenneth Slowik with the Smithsonian players. It was one of the first commercial recordings that not only used the same sized forces as Bach but also recorded movements that are particular to later versions of the Passion. I like both of those performances and appreciate the approaches they took.

"It makes a very different impression in a modern performance when the words of Jesus are sung by a vocally trained, resonant-voiced bass who sings nothing else the entire evening and, once Jesus dies, remains silent for the rest of the performance. That is very different from what happened in Bach’s time."


The first book is your own Hearing Bach’s Passions. Besides covering a range of scholarship on Bach’s Passions, you argue that modern performances and listeners are radically different from those of Bach’s day. Do you believe that we can come closer to the original meaning of the works by changing how we perform and listen to them?
I would like to think so. We are never going to figure out what these pieces mean or meant. However, there are all kinds of ways in which we can get a bit closer to eighteenth-century ways of thinking about them. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right approaches, we may then understand how the piece might have generated meaning in its own time.

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