There can be few more evocative words in music than ‘passion’. As well as its familiar English definition, in a musical context it also suggests the commemoration of that most emotive Christian story, the journey of Jesus to the cross. The word has also come to be all but synonymous in music with its two greatest exemplars: the St. John and St. Matthew Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The passions of John and Matthew were in fact the first two to gain a place in the liturgical canon, though this was a good twelve centuries before Bach's settings materialised: Pope Leo the Great established that these two accounts of the events leading to the crucifixion should be presented during Holy Week as early as the 5th century AD. Performances of the passions from this time onwards appear to have developed in much the same way as religious music generally: initially the texts would have been recited or chanted by a single priest, and by the 12th century there is evidence of musical notation being used to determine pitches. Also apparent in the early sources are indications of a sense of drama: many distinguish clearly between passages relating to the Evangelist/narrator, Christ, and the crowd (or ‘turba’).

 

By Bach’s time, passion setting had morphed into a dramatic form with much in common with the oratorio: Bach writes a dynamic and complex part for chorus (or double chorus) and characters with strongly delineated musical styles. Although the Evangelist’s part in Bach's settings is composed as ‘secco’ recitative (a speech-like narrative style, accompanied only by the continuo section), moments of immense drama still remain, and the Evangelist’s part in the St. John Passion surely contains some of the most affecting recitative sections ever written. Bach goes to great lengths to emphasise the horrors of the story, the reality of the death of Christ, and he does this with incredible mastery, fashioning a deeply moving and cathartic experience through his hugely imaginative and memorable scores.

The St. Matthew Passion

Though a contemporary catalogue lists Bach as having composed five passions, only music for the St. John and St. Matthew works survives. But these two pieces are so musically rich that we can hardly complain. The larger, later and more famous of the two, the St. Matthew Passion is for orchestra, double choir, children’s choir and soloists. It was first performed in 1727, but received relatively few hearings from this time until its famous 1829 revival in Berlin with the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. The huge interest which Mendelssohn’s performance sparked was a key factor in the resurgence of interest in Bach’s music generally, which grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. And as Bach has become more and more revered and loved over the years, the St. Matthew Passion’s status as one of music's masterpieces has only been confirmed; as a large-scale Baroque work it has few competitors in terms of fame or popularity.

The St. Matthew text was arranged by the poet Picander, whose sacred texts Bach also often used for cantatas. In it, verses from Matthew’s Gospel are interspersed with original, so-called ‘madrigal’ pieces set by Bach as arias and ariosos. There is also an element of dialogue in the text, which Bach exploits to great effect through use of the double choir.

The story is told by the Evangelist, as well as Biblical characters including Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Between these narrative sections are interspersed a combination of reflective ‘numbers’ (sung not by the characters but by various soloists) and chorales, with which the congregation would originally have joined in. Despite the fragmentary nature of its form, there is a fluentness to the piece, and a sense of energy runs through it all.

The part of Jesus is distinguished from the others by a particularly original effect: his music is given an accompanying group of strings which endows it with what is often described as a ‘halo’ (the musicologist Richard Taruskin has used ‘aureole’). It is only when Jesus is on the cross and declares ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ that this halo is withdrawn.

Particular highlights of the St. Matthew Passion include two incredible alto arias: ‘Erbarme dich’, an exquisitely touching piece with a solo violin part which provides a moment of reflection after Peter's third betrayal of Jesus; and ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’, whose impassioned broken chords reference the shape of the cross, with which Jesus is then beginning his journey. The duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, with its angry interjections from the choir, portrays the capturing of Jesus with amazing force at the end of Part 1. But picking out individual moments from a work of such overwhelming intensity is to miss the point: this is a piece whose scale and seriousness reflect its subject sincerely, and an experience of anything less than the whole cannot convey the sense of Passion integral to this work.

The St. John Passion

A smaller piece than the 1727 St. Matthew, Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed in 1724. Bach revised the piece considerably several times, but the final performance during his lifetime, in 1749, was similar in form to the first version. For conventional forces of soloists, chorus and orchestra, the St. John Passion tells John’s account of the crucifixion through Biblical passages and poetry from a variety of sources (the compiler of the text is unknown). As in the St. Matthew Passion, the story is told by an Evangelist and solo singers, and arias and chorales fit between the dramatic action. The familiar angle is that this work is somehow less unified, less ‘finished’ than its larger relative, but such views should not detract from the obvious high quality of the piece.

In fact, the St. John Passion contains several bold imaginative strokes to which Bach would not return in the St. Matthew. The beautiful, plangent opening chorus, an exordium addressed to Jesus, is startlingly dissonant and sets the tone for a bold composition of an apparent spontaneity which belies its careful construction. Part 2 likewise begins with a particularly memorable passage, though for very different reasons: this is where the chorus really finds its teeth. Portraying the crowd calling for the execution of Jesus, the chorus is given particularly vicious, spiteful music featuring rising chromatic scales and a whirlwind of strings. Even gentle moments such as the soprano aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ are often haunted by subtle, dark chromatic sections.

The latter stages of the work have a remarkable sense of momentum, epitomised by the bass aria ‘Eilt, ihr angefocht’nen Seelen’ (‘Hurry, you souls in jeopardy’) which is punctuated by the choir urgently asking ‘Wohin?’ (‘Whither?’). After the death of Jesus, there is a more prolonged reflective section than in the St. Matthew Passion, including the tender ‘Ruht wohl’, a closing piece for chorus (before a final chorale) which forms a structural parallel with the work’s opening. Perhaps like John’s Gospel itself, what Bach’s score lacks in conventional logic and narrative transparency, it makes up for with an otherworldly beauty, conviction, and a strong sense of the poetic.

Read about Arvo Pärt’s Passio here.