Albrecht Dürer, kleine Passion (ca. 1510)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), who held many church posts in his lifetime (most notably St. Thomas’ in Leipzig, from 1723 – 1750), is said to have written music to each of the four gospel “Passions”; that portion of the New Testament which recounts the suffering and death of Christ. These would have served as the music for Good Friday services, surrounding the sermon in two parts, with interspersed congregational singing, prayers, and readings from the Bible rounding out the hours-long service. Of these, only the musical settings for the St. Matthew and St. John Passions survive in full.
These massive works are multi-layered, musically, dramatically, and theologically. The backbone of the text is the rendering of the gospel narratives, often in the voice of the tenor narrator, sometimes in another solo voice, or in the chorus. Interwoven between the gospel text are poetic texts and Lutheran chorales which serve as meditations, exhortations, and reactions to the scenes of the Passion which would have been incredibly familiar to the congregational listeners.
In this concert we will consider the inner workings of these two great structures through the performance of various arias and chorales. Bach’s overarching architecture and ingenious development of musical material are signature marks here, as they are in his other compositions for non-liturgical purposes. These aspects assert the force of mind that was Bach’s. But, it is in the ordering of movements, the moments of detailed symbolism embedded into melodic lines, the pathos and emotional breadth that are steeped into the bones of these works, that the heart of Bach is revealed, revealed in a profound profession of faith.