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Telling the Passion story: Bach's St John

Telling the Passion story: Bach's St John

30th March 2017

Timothy Noon explores the origins of Bach's St John Passion ahead of a performance by the Cathedral Choir on 10th April 2017.

The practice of presenting the Passion as part of the Holy Week witness was established in the time of Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century AD. From the earliest sources it is clear that a dramatic distinction between crowd, the Evangelist (narrator) and the other characters was drawn, and by the twelfth century there is evidence of musical notation being used to determine pitches.

By the eighteenth century, passion setting had evolved into a dramatic form with much in common with the oratorio: Bach writes a vibrant and demanding part for chorus and characters with clearly differentiated musical styles. The Evangelist’s part in the St John Passion is composed as ‘secco’ recitative (a speech-like narrative style, accompanied only by the continuo section), yet moments of intense drama and poignancy are communicated with relatively sparse means. Bach does not attempt at all to sanitise the horrific reality of the death of Christ, but instead fashions a deeply moving and cathartic experience through his hugely imaginative and memorable score.

Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed in 1724 and is composed for conventional forces of soloists, chorus and orchestra. Our performance is presented in collaboration with the Oxford based period instrument ensemble, Charivari Agréable, and a first-class line up of soloists, including rising star, Ruairi Bowen (Evangelist).  The Gospel story is told, in German, by the Evangelist and solo singers, and arias and chorales fit between the dramatic action, using poetry from a variety of sources (the compiler of the text is unknown).

The work opens with an extraordinarily beautiful, melancholic opening chorus, which is a plea addressed to Jesus. It is tonally unsettling, yet uplifting, and sets the tone for a bold composition of apparent spontaneity which belies its careful construction. In Second Part, the chorus really finds its teeth, portraying the crowd calling for the execution of Jesus with particularly vicious, spiteful music featuring rising chromatic scales and a whirlwind of strings.

The latter stages of the work have a remarkable sense of momentum, with the action driving forward to Jesus’s death on the cross. Thereafter, time appears to stand still for the heartrending aria, ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (‘The end has come’), allowing a prolonged period of reflection which includes the tender ‘Ruht wohl’ (‘Rest well’), a closing chorus (before a final chorale) which forms a structural parallel with the work’s opening.

In the same manner as John’s Gospel itself, Bach’s score has an otherworldly beauty, strong conviction, and a deep sense of the poetic.

Exeter Cathedral Choir performs the St John Passion on Monday 10th April 2017 at 19.00 as part of the Cathedral's Holy Week witness.

Admission is free (suggested donation £10) and doors open from 18.15. Timothy Noon (Director of Music) will conduct, and the soloists include Ruairi Bowen (Evangelist, tenor) and Tim Mirfin (Christus, bass). All welcome

Pictured: St John Passion manuscript (WikiCommons)

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