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20 March 2024

Bach’s bridge to the past

The St John Passion, first performed 300 years ago, is not just a religious epic but also a profoundly human story.

By Ian Bostridge

Inside my score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion, 30 years old, brown and battered and scrawled on, I have long kept a postcard of a painting by Caravaggio, made in 1602, eight decades or so before Bach’s birth. It depicts the taking of Christ in gestures of supreme, electrifying drama. Slightly to the left of centre the betrayer, Judas, is seizing Christ by the shoulder. His face, in anxious profile, is close up against Christ’s, whom we see only slightly turned towards his erstwhile friend and disciple. Jesus has just been kissed and his response is of infinite sadness, his brow knitted, his eyes lowered, his hands, at the bottom of the picture space, clasped and tensely pressing away from the act of treachery. On Christ’s right, the left edge of the picture, one of the disciples raises a hand and cries for help. Two-thirds of the picture, the right-hand portion, is crammed with action. A soldier in shiny armour and a helmet from which his nose absurdly protrudes grabs Christ by his neck; a bearded young man holds up a lantern to investigate and illuminate the scene. Muddle, confusion. It is a characteristic confection of intense dark and luminous clarity.

I’ve kept that image in my score all these years because it seems to me, much more than the older German or Dutch paintings so often used to illustrate the Bach passions (Dürer, Grünewald, Bosch), to encapsulate and resonate with all that the St John Passion is about. Light emerging from the darkness, confusion, anxiety, sadness. A sort of dramatic realism. Both works were for a long time hidden and unappreciated, Caravaggio’s canvas quite literally. Dirty and unnoticed in an Irish Jesuit refectory, it was only restored to public attention in the 1990s after centuries of obscurity. Today, more than 400 years after it was painted, it remains shockingly modern.

It was Felix Mendelssohn who rediscovered the Bach passions for modernity, starting in 1829, but it was the St Matthew Passion above all, rather than the earlier John, that seized public and professional attention and became the touchstone for spiritualised music-making. It was the Matthew that late in life Bach had written out in fair copy as his legacy, the Matthew (first performed in Leipzig in 1727) that offered the possibility of the ideal romantic fusion of sublime length and a sort of expressive individualism. Hence the great series of annual Palm Sunday performances in Amsterdam by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra through the first decades of the 20th century; or the slow 1960s Klemperer recording on which I grew up, with its roster of legendary singers, all kvetching (behind the scenes) about the impossible tempi.

The Matthew’s predecessor, the John passion – first performed at Good Friday Vespers at the St Nicholas Church in Leipzig on 7 April 1724, making this year its tricentenary – was neglected. It was condemned by one late-19th-century critic as a display of “murky monotony and vague mistiness”, and even if Robert Schumann, writing in 1851, towards the end of his life, recognised that the John was “in many ways more daring, forceful and poetic” than the Matthew, he was distinctly in the minority. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that the John came into its own.

The reasons were multiple, but had a lot to do with the emergence of what has been variously called the authentic, period performance or early instrument movement. Big symphony orchestras became nervous about performing Bach on their modern instruments, unaccustomed to the new baroque style, lean and fleet of foot. The early instrument ensembles, bathed in the new musical rhetoric, were drawn to the pace and drama of the John; like the restorers who brought Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ back to life, they painstakingly cleaned and uncovered a new Bach. At the same time, in an age of more straitened financial resources, without the clout of the big orchestras, the smaller scale of the John (without the double orchestra and chorus of the Matthew) made sense. In my early years as a singer, I performed the John as much, if not more, than the Matthew.

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It’s easy now to highlight the myriad musical-dramatic felicities of the John passion. Whatever it meant in the 1720s, as a work of Lutheran piety conceived for liturgical performance, segmented by a Passiontide sermon we would barely understand today, we now reinvent it for ourselves, drawing on its reserves of humanity, an artefact which is both a bridge to the past and a monument to universal concerns. Take the first chorus, on its surface a hymn to the glory and triumph of Christ the eternal son of God, at one with a Lutheran soteriology mined from John’s Gospel. But hear the music. Three interacting, pulsating layers. A repeated, insistent low A in the bass line creates a whole world, as much as does Wagner’s bass-register E-flat major at the beginning of the Ring cycle. Anxious, probing, surging semiquavers in the rest of the strings. Then painful, wounding dissonances in the woodwind. The bass line descends and the choir bursts out with a cry of supplication and terror: “Herr” (“Lord”), three times. Where is God in this world of pain?

The narrative of the passion – from the betrayal by Judas (with its Caravaggesque lanterns, torches and weapons) to Jesus’s burial (a soundscape of vesperal resignation) – is told by an Evangelist in recitatives which veer between anguish, comfort and sheer incredulity. The story begins and ends in a garden, as if to reflect our beginnings in Eden. Whatever your religion, if you have no religious belief, this passion story in Bach’s hands is transformed into a powerful myth which reflects profoundly upon the human condition – the varieties of betrayal (Judas’s, Peter’s), the idiocy of authority (Pilate’s), the beauty of friendship (John’s). To paraphrase Annie Ernaux in The Years, music, like memory, “pairs the dead with the living, real with imaginary beings, dreams with history”.

The central section of the John gives us the most extended example of a visceral, breathless drama like Caravaggio’s. As Jesus is interrogated by Pilate, the crowd interjects with choruses of accelerating ferocity demanding the crucifixion of this so-called King of the Jews. It is here, and in the succeeding tale of humiliation and torture, that the John reaches towards a dialogue with contemporary political concerns: with populism and persecution. Yet, in a masterly feature of Bach’s dramatic construction of the piece, the fact that the crowd are “die Jüden”, the Jews, is neither here nor there. The John passion is not anti-Semitic in its force or intention (despite being the product of an anti-Semitic age) because we are all the Jews – singers and audience – just as we are all Peter when he gives up on his friend, or John when he loses him, a loss lamented in an aria of aching beauty for soprano, flute and the aptly named oboe d’amore – “Dein Jesus ist tot”: your Jesus is dead.

In our complicity with the unfolding action of the piece, our emotional recognition as we listen is that we are capable of the best and of the worst: that musical embodiment of empathy is the central wonder of Bach’s St John Passion.

Ian Bostridge’s “St John Passion”, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (recorded 2012), is on Hyperion.

[See also: Sibelius’s symphony without sequel]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024