Bach's Saint John Passion

Bach's Saint John Passion

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

High on my list of all-time favorite Bach arias is “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten,” which translates as “I follow you likewise with joyful steps.” Scored for soprano with obbligato flutes, it’s one of ten arias or ariosi in Bach’s Passion According to Saint John. “Ich folge dir” is preceded by a very brief recitative, the full text of which translates as “But Simon Peter followed Jesus and [so did] another disciple.” By juxtaposing that line from the Gospel of John with the subjective poetry that follows, Bach meant to suggest that even the smallest detail in Christ’s life could offer an edifying example to contemporary believers. When I listen to this lovely aria, its music and the energies radiated by its performers always comfort and inspire me. (Even though I may not have been “edified” in exactly the way Bach intended!)


The text continues with “and [I] will not let you [go,] my life, my light. Enable my path, and do not stop drawing, shoving, imploring me,” the last few words prompting vivid pictorialisms in the soprano line.

I’m using the gentle “Ich folge dir” to introduce a major work by a major composer that presents major obstacles to modern listeners. You may well revere Janos Starker’s classic recording of the Bach Cello Suites, of which Michael Fremer opined, “You don’t have to know a bourrée from a crème brûlée to be moved by this” — which is not just a slick remark, it’s also the spot-on truth. Nevertheless, when it comes to Bach’s Passions the odds are stacked against you. They are too long; they’re sung in a foreign language; and they seek to arouse beliefs you may not have, emotions you’d rather not acknowledge. Obtaining your next Positive Bach Experience will take a bit more effort.

First, some history: Johann Sebastian Bach was not yet 40 in 1723 when he landed his dream job, Kantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, and by extension director of music at Leipzig’s four most important churches. (He almost lost the gig — read more here.) A vital part of Bach’s work was the composition of new music for nearly every Sunday of the year, plus special occasions. His Saint John Passion, given on Good Friday of 1724, was the first major work he created in his new post.

Those who initially heard the St. John Passion did so by attending a three-hour church service on the most somber day of the Christian year. It will have been cold in the sanctuary, the pews hard. No one was there to be entertained. They came to worship — to pray, praise, and reflect. Bach’s special music, which probably struck some congregants as unduly modish and complicated, was meant to instruct and inspire, to drive home the lengthy sermon they would also endure.

When it came to hearing this music, those faithful Lutherans enjoyed several advantages: They knew their Bible stories. They understood German. And they readily grasped the import of the congregational hymns scattered throughout. On the other hand, they would scarcely have noticed something that draws increasing attention these days, namely what Michael Steinberg termed the Fourth Gospel’s “anti-Judaic tone” in its account of the Passion. The notion that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus circulated freely in 18th-century German communities; churchgoers were no more likely to raise eyebrows at John’s pointed depiction than fish would have taken special note of water in their habitat.

In “Sacred Texts in a Secular World,” an introductory note to Choral Masterworks, Steinberg explored this cultural turn with considerable sensitivity, offering a personal appreciation of choral music in light of (and in spite of!) his experiences as an émigré who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. You may want to read his whole essay when you have time. Here is what he concluded:

Works of art and the work of artists do not exist in a protected vacuum; they are part of the fabric of life, and life is a mixed-up mess that gives us incredible richness and beauty and lovingkindness but also Dachau and Golgotha. . . . Bach’s sacred compositions deal with issues that go beyond matters of faith and dogma. To take just one obvious and dramatic example in the Passion story: betrayal. There is the sad figure of Judas, of course, but just now I am thinking of Peter. To Bach, Peter’s denial of Jesus and his pain at what he has done are so important that [in] the Saint John Passion he lifted words from Matthew and moved them into the text so as to intensify the narrative and heighten this moment.

Incidentally, that part of the story comes well after “Ich folge dir,” casting the aria’s innocent vows and entreaties into a darker, but more realistically human perspective. Did Bach have this in mind from the outset?

It’s time we broke down The Passion According to Saint John into its constituent parts. Bach created monumental opening and closing choruses that first announce, then summarize the narrative on a scale appropriate to its significance. I am particularly fond of the opening chorus, one of the most dramatically agitated pieces ever written by this composer. Consider its layers: an insistent 8th-note pulse underpins the churn of 16th-notes in the upper strings, while winds skirl a lengthy chain of dissonances, their intertwined wails continuing even as the chorus enters with a shouted “Herr! Herr!” (“Lord! Lord!”). It’s not great poetry, but it expresses quite clearly the overarching paradox of the Passion: through the pain and humiliation he endured, Christ confirms his identity as the Son of God and the one, eternal ruler of all mankind.


(This lively, stylish complete performance has no subtitles; you will need a text translation to make sense of things; click here for that, and keep the window open. Titles of individual movements, with timing cues, can be found in the associated YouTube Comment from “smuecke”; click on those cues to fast-forward to specific numbers.)

More About the Text

Bach’s Saint John Passion uses three textual sources: the Passion story as related in chapters 18–19 of the Gospel of John; familiar congregational songs (hymns or chorales) from Lutheran worship; and a handful of subjective, poetic reflections on the meaning of events in the story. Each source occupies its own space temporally and psychologically while refracting light onto the others.

Of the four New Testament Gospels, John most emphasizes fulfillment of various prophecies. Its terse yet oracular verbal style (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”) provides a swiftly paced narrative paradoxically rich in portent, open to commentary and reflection. An Evangelist sings the third-person narrative, but Christ and other “characters” deliver their own lines, placing them in greater relief. The angry utterances of the crowd, or turba, are usually delivered by the full chorus, often in lengthy fugal settings.


(No. 36, “Kreuzige!” [“Crucify him”])

Textual materials independent of the Gospel account function differently. Sung to their customary melodies, the traditional chorale texts respond to specific aspects of the story; it is as if the congregation was voicing its collective (and historic) Christian response. In like manner, the elaborate opening and closing choruses of the work imply a communal embrace of the sermon topic. Their texts, like those of the arias scattered throughout the work, were of more recent origin, freely adapted by the composer himself, who drew on a Passion poem by B. H. Brockes and other sources. The arias express individual believers’ emotions as events unfold; by interrupting the noisier Gospel narrative, they provide welcome space for contemplation.

More About Style and Structure 

Bach uses several devices to address short-term and long-term needs for a sense of order. One simple yet effective strategy is the patterned alternation of recitative (the Evangelist’s words) and concerted numbers (chorales, arias, turbae). Thus the narrative is regularly interrupted by more interesting, emotionally engaging music. Contrariwise, the narrative resumes whenever a concerted number concludes. Various critics and scholars have discussed the “thoughtful symmetry” of the work in greater detail (summaries here).

In a work as complex and lengthy as the Saint John Passion, Bach felt free to set up more elaborate structural schemes. One of his favorite design strategies was the arch or chiasm. With Bach, this connotes a palindromic arrangement of closed forms (e.g., arias, chorales) over all or part of a multi-movement work. So, whereas a typical da capo aria relies on ABA (a simple palindrome), an eight-movement work like Bach’s Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden, can be seen as an xABCDCBA form (in which a brief opening Sinfonia, x, stands outside the palindrome). A = chorale concerto; B = duet; C = solo; D = chorale motet; etc., ending in A = harmonized chorale.

In 1924 Bach scholar Friedrich Smend discovered an elaborate arch form with interlocking symmetries in Part Two of the Saint John Passion. A diagram of his finding is given here as Example A (you can access a larger version here: Passion Part Two Table). The 26 affected numbers stretch from (in the Bach-Gesellschaft numbering) No. 27 (chorale, “Ach grosser König”) to No. 52 (chorale, “In meines Herzens Grunde”). Centerpiece of the arch is No. 40 (chorale, “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn”). Its text, “Through your imprisonment, Son of God, freedom must surely come to us,” is likewise the central tenet in Christian observance of Holy Week and Easter.


Arrayed in symmetrical fashion around No. 40 are four turba settings, Nos. 36 and 44 (the “crucify Him” choruses) and Nos. 38 and 42 (the first accusing Christ of naming himself “son of God,” the second cannily arguing that one who “makes himself a king” is “no friend of Caesar”). The length and hateful intensity of these four numbers have done a lot to provoke modern suspicions of anti-Semitism not only in the Fourth Gospel but also and especially in Bach’s depictions of this mob. They offer a potent contrast to No. 40 and its assertion of human salvation gained through Christ’s suffering.

Further removed from No. 40 are two more pairs of turba settings, Nos. 29 and 34 (“give us Barabbas” and “Hail, King of the Jews”), and Nos. 46 and 50 (“We have no king but Caesar” and “Write not, King of the Jews”); all anticipate and continue the affect of the other turba choruses. Centered in these distant turba pairs are the only two arias in the arch, Nos. 31/32 (“Consider, my soul”/“Behold,” an arioso/aria sequence) and No. 48 (“Run, ye souls whom care oppresses”).

Of what practical use is Smend’s analysis? At the very least, it reveals structural sources of the violence unleashed in Part Two: of the 14 concerted numbers encompassed in the palindrome, more than half are turbae. It also points up the care with which Bach distributed his scant relief resources, namely the three chorales and two arias. Finally, it encourages us to search out other linkages between concerted numbers in this remarkable 26-number sequence.

Recommended Recordings and More

This is not a comprehensive list; many other good sets are available. My favorite of the most-recent crop is Philippe Herrewegh’s traversal, recorded in 2018, with the Collegium Vocale Gent and an assortment of fine soloists including Maximilian Schmitt as Evangelist. (YouTube offers a rehearsal of the complete work from the March 2020 incarnation of Herrewegh’s ensemble; several soloists are well worth hearing and seeing, including Evangelist Julian Prégardien,. There’s a one-minute audio dropout right after the opening chorus, but otherwise sound and picture are first-rate.)

For a work like this, my preferences always start with a modestly-scaled group of singers and a small orchestra playing historically appropriate instruments. A few critics have spoken (somewhat dismissively) of Herrewegh’s “madrigalian” interpretations, but I find them not only adequate in terms of drama and dynamic contrast, but beautifully endowed with a spirit of chamber-music interplay that helps bring this music alive.

A similar spirit, albeit one with significantly greater rhythmic energy, radiates from John Butt’s 2013 recording with the Dunedin Consort. It comes with a bonus feature I didn’t think I would like, but did: additional music reconstructing Bach’s liturgy in Leipzig. The extra movements—mainly organ chorale preludes and certain chorales as sung by the congregation—truly complete the work; once you’ve heard it done this way, it’s hard to remain satisfied with the typical concert version. Butt used augmented forces to perform it this way at a 2017 BBC Proms concert (available on YouTube), retaining some of that flavor even in the Royal Albert Hall. (It is occasionally difficult to watch Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook attempting to project into that cavernous space.)

Finally, a word about the 2017 video performance we’ve highlighted above, from the Netherlands Bach Society. Their SACD of this work, from 2009, is apparently out of print; I’m going to go out on absolutely no limb whatsoever and presume it’s masterful and satisfying. See if you can find a copy.


Header image: Giotto di Bondone (c1267–1337), Kiss of Judas, Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua. From Wikimedia (public domain).

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