The St John Passion – but not as you know it

The St John Passion – but not as you know it

AAM performs JS Bach’s St John Passion on Good Friday, in its 1725 version. AAM’s Principal Oboe Leo Duarte explains why it might not be the version you’re used to hearing

You may be surprised by the 1725 version of Bach’s St. John Passion, though perhaps not as surprised as Bach would have been on hearing what, today, we experience at a traditional performance. We usually hear an amalgamation of music, some of which Bach never actually performed himself. He presented the John Passion on at least four occasions (1724, 1725, 1732 and 1749), and each time he altered the music and texts. The John Passion was therefore a living liturgical entity which adapted to the changing requirements of the ecclesiastical and musical establishments over the course of Bach’s career.

What today we might term the ‘traditional’ John Passion largely stems from the reading given in a manuscript known as ‘P28’, written at some point in 1739, between the third and fourth performances, which represents the only complete full score of the work in which Bach’s hand is significantly present. The first twenty pages of P28 are in his hand and contain many variants only found in this manuscript. After this point another scribe has copied from Bach’s now lost composition score. P28 has been used at least as far back as Robert Schumann’s revival of the work in Düsseldorf in 1851. Importantly, however, Bach himself never transferred the variants in this manuscript into any of the performers’ scores, so they were never heard during his lifetime.

Undoubtedly the most striking difference between the 1725 version, which we will be playing, and the traditional version, is the absence of the iconic opening chorus, Herr, unser Herrscher. For many people today this chorus is the very essence of the John Passion, but not so for Bach. What Bach composed for 1725 is a chorus, O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which will be more familiar as the closing chorus of Part I of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. In its original setting in the John Passion it imparts a sense of wonder at the start of the story.

Astonishing new additional arias and a new last chorus set the entire journey on a different emotional course. There are more subtle differences in the recitatives, too, and in the part-writing for some of the opening crowd scenes and chorales. All have a stark quality to them, mostly owing to the lack of ornamental passing notes which Bach added in P28, but also to the richer and unexpected harmonies provided by the continuo figures in this version.

Bach’s original score – the score he presumably used to direct the performances of Versions I, II, and III – is lost and we can only imagine what sort of state it was left in after all the cuts, additions and reinstatements of material over the course of those three performances. Since today’s traditional performances present the Passion in a form which Bach never heard, we should relish the opportunity to hear the 1725 version as he once did.

 

The original first violin part for the St John Passion, held at Staatsbibliothek Berlin, which features Bach’s editions for subsequent versions.

Banner image shows the first page of the Violin 2 part, which shows O Mensch, bewein.