Evolution of the Passion
THE dramatization of Christ’s tragedy is one of the oldest traditions of Christendom. Early medieval historiae acted out biblical scenes from the story of Christ’s birth or resurrection, using the dialogue form later adopted by those writing musical dramatizations of Our Lord’s sufferings—the Passions. Some scholars have traced these dramatic presentations back as far as Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389). This poetically and dramatically inclined Church Father patterned theatricals after the chanted dialogue and choruses of Greek tragedy. In 1260 a Passion was performed in the Roman Colosseum. Simple laudi, religious songs of praise in the vernacular, made up its music. These ancient sacred theatricals suggest some striking similarities to Bach’s Passions. Both strove for close contact with the congregation through vernacular lyrics and the personal dialogue form of dramatization.
One might expect that Luther would have been enthusiastic about these representations of the Lord’s suffering, as a form of instruction for the German congregations. But in his book of instruction for the German Mass he gives but little attention to it, saying only, “that the Passion and the Evangelia [the gospel readings] that are arranged at the same time [during Holy Week] shall remain . . .” and warning against too many performances and long sermons: “but not so that one . . . will sing four Passions or that one feels one has to preach for eight hours on Good Friday.”1 For the Passions that Luther knew were the highly sophisticated works, composed in motet form only, that the Catholic church encouraged in his day. Since in his German Mass he is chiefly interested in bringing the gospel to the people, Luther would not have felt these motets in Latin furthered this goal. His musical collaborator Johann Walther copied a motet Passion by Jacob Obrecht (ca. 1450-1505) which abandoned the plain chant setting traditionally used for the words of the Evangelist and Christ. All of the biblical text was woven into the polyphonic web, completely destroying the dramatic appeal of the Passion.2
Luther’s conception of congregational participation soon inspired a return to the traditional setting of the Passion, simple recitations in the language of the people. In fact, the older type similar to medieval mystery plays had not died out entirely. In 1580 a Passion after St. Matthew was performed in Leipzig on Palm Sunday, following an established custom. Immediately before the work the congregation joined in the singing of Luther’s famous hymn “ Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir” (From the Depth I Call to Thee), which linked the emotional reaction of the people to the interpretation of Christ’s words “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” On Good Friday the St. Johns Passion was introduced by the congregation singing “Nun freut euch, liebe Christen” (Now Rejoice, Beloved Christians), a hymn reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
The seventeenth century, as we have seen, saw the development of Italian opera and oratorio. When Heinrich Schiitz, a pupil of Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli, produced four Passions in 1666, he combined the virtues of the Italian arioso with the liturgical style of the older Passions. The dignity of the Bible words was fully preserved in these most expressive ariosos. The dramatic choruses were sung without instrumental accompaniment, and the opening and closing choruses provided the only elements of subjectivity. No effusive arias disturbed these very dignified works.
In the next generation, however, the text and the music began to be molded by individual interpretations. In the St. Matthew Passion by Giovanni Sebastiani (1672) numerous highly lyrical arias are interspersed between the recitations of the biblical narrative. Sebastiani also used a number of chorales, retaining their original texts but usually setting them for soprano solo, accompanied by strings and continuo. New texts had to be written for the arias, of course, and soon the Bible texts too would be paraphrased.
A whole generation of librettists grew up out of this development. These poets were given almost free rein, without much need to hold closely to the biblical text. This rather unique species of baroque poetry flourished in the theatrical atmosphere of Hamburg where through constant cooperation with opera composers such as Reinhard Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, and the young Handel these poets became accustomed to writing with theatrical production in mind. Keiser, Mattheson, and Telemann also held positions as cantors of the various churches and were obliged to write church music. The two styles tended to merge and the sacred music took on a decidedly theatrical tone. It was chiefly this quality that branded such librettists as Hunold, Postel, and Brockes as baroque in the most derogatory sense of the word.
Of all these librettists, Barthold Heinrich Brockes was the most successful. A member of the city council and a man of high social standing in Hamburg society, he carried much prestige. His Passion-Oratorium Der Fur die Siinde der Welt Gemarterte und Sterbende Jesus (Jesus, Who was Tortured and Who Died for the Sins of the World) made a great sensation, and was set to music by the renowned Reinhard Keiser, who directed its first performance in Brockes’s spacious mansion. Five hundred members of Hamburg’s high society were present, among them “all the foreign nobility [and] all embassadors with their wives.”3 His work was translated into several foreign languages, and Mattheson, Telemann, and Handel (at 19) all composed musical settings for this libretto, which truly represents the culmination of decadence and subjectification of the sacred text. The biblical narrative was now completely versified. Even the words of Christ flow on in a rather saccharine current of iambic rhythms, upon which shocking images arrest our attention. For instance, Christ pronounces His Testament at the Holy Supper:
This is my blood in the New Testament
That I want to shed for you and many others
It will serve those who partake of it
For the eradication of their sins.
This verse is followed by a contemplation of the allegorical Daughter of Zion and a lyrical chorale of the Christian Church.4 No less than 29 arias are sung by the Daughter of Zion, Peter, Judas, Mary, and even by the evangelist and Jesus Himself. There are solos, trios, and choruses of the other allegorical person, the “Believing Soul.” The Daughter of Zion, representing the people of Israel, and the Believing Soul had been introduced before by the satirist Hunold. These figures form the medium for the congregation’s contemplative reflections.
The music of Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, and the young Handel was as undramatic as any opera of that period, and their Passions are similar to their oratorios and operas, consisting of a series of arias with elaborate coloratura display. Only the absence of acting and costuming distinguished them from the opera. Although the example of the Hamburg Passion was applauded in most German cities, the Council at Leipzig, and especially Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor, refused to allow the introduction of theatricals into church, and ordered a written agreement from Bach to that effect.
As Mizler related in the Necrology, Bach composed five Passions, probably to correspond with the five sets of cantatas. Only two have survived— St. Matthew Passion and St. Johns. A third, published by the Bach Gesellschaft, is regarded as a copy—in Bach’s own handwriting—of an unknown composer. It dates from the Weimar period in which Bach had much trouble with the Council. A text of a Passion according to St. Mark exists, but its music is lost.5
Bach adopted Heinrich Brockes’ allegorical figures of the Daughter of Zion and the Believing Soul in the St. Johns Passion, the older of the two existing works, but with some drastic alterations. Even though Bach purges some of Brockes’ worst expressions from this work belonging to his Kothen period, the texts do not belong with the best poetry. Bach’s Passions restore the original intent and purpose of a Passion performance, effecting a synthesis of many elements of preceding styles. First of all, Bach returned to the pure, unabridged Gospel word. The evangelist relates his story in the recitative secco of the contemporary opera, accompanied by only a few chords. The words of Peter and Judas are treated in the same manner.
But in the St. Matthew Passion the words of Jesus are supported by sustained chords, played by a quartet of soft string instruments. The effect that Bach desired, especially as it sounded on ancient instruments with short bows, has been interpreted as picturing a halo surrounding the Saviour. When Jesus at the Holy Supper scene lifts the cup and pronounces the Sacrament the music develops into an arioso, and the recitative takes on a more expressive and melodious character.
For the parts in the St. Matthew Passion spoken by several persons— the group of disciples, the Israelite priests, the Roman soldiers, or the populace—Bach introduces the most dramatic music that was written in his era. The cries of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him,” set to a double chorus of four voices each, create an overwhelming effect of cruelty and spiritual chaos of a wild mob. Yet, this very short fugato— only eight measures long—is written in conventional contrapuntal fashion. The theme also follows the usual style of the loci topici, the four principal notes of the motif forming the design of a cross. A simple motif suffices to give a strong dramatic effect to the evangelist’s narration of how the temple curtain was rent in two. The work was written for two choruses and two organs;6 the first sang the narrative and most of the biblical personages, and the voices of the False Witnesses resounded from the second choir, in which the boys of lesser training sang. Lyrical arias on free poetry and chorales interspersed within the drama reflect the congregation’s reaction, but the worshippers were not invited to take an active part in the singing, as in earlier days. Although the major portion of the St. Matthew Passion consists of unaltered Bible texts, for the arias and the hymns Bach relies partly on Brockes and partly on Picander.7 But Bach himself modified both poets, and even induced Picander to model a hymn after an example of Salomo Franck.8
The history of the oratorio parallels that of the Passion. The term derives from a Roman practice in the latter part of the sixteenth century, when devout souls would meet for prayer in a hall used only for this purpose. This place was called the oratorio. There they sang laudi. The priest Philippo Neri initiated the enactment of biblical scenes there. Later, influenced by contemporary music dramas, this practice evolved into what is presently known as the oratorio. The only extra-liturgical presentation Luther approved, however, was the Passion.
Three of Bach’s works have been given the name “oratorio” even though technically they are not since they were written for the Lutheran service. One, the so-called Ascension Oratorio, is listed among the cantatas as Number n, “Lobet Gott in Seinen Keichen” (Praise God in His Realms), though it bears the title Oratorium. The others belong to the two major celebrations of the Christian year—Christmas and Easter.
There were always several extra services during Christmas week, and since naturally the theme for the sermon and all the musical parts in the liturgy was Jesus’ birth, the cantatas were sung on the three Christmas days, on New Year’s day, on the first Sunday after New Year, and on Epiphany. This sequence of six is known as the Christmas Oratorio. Inasmuch as they followed the narrative of the Bible rather than embarking on a lyrical meditation of a theological idea, these cantatas were given the name oratorio. Nevertheless they contain as many lyrical arias as the usual cantata, and, save for their lack of dramatic treatment, their form resembles that of the Passions. Since the story does not lend itself to particularly stirring dramatic action, the lyrical elements quite naturally predominate. The Evangelist sings the narrative, as in the Passion, but occasionally he deviates from the Bible text and, following cantata style, states the underlying thought for the ensuing aria.9
As in the B Minor Mass, Bach utilized previously composed cantatas that had served more worldly purposes. The opening chorus of the third part was originally written for the Queen’s birthday. Four arias, a duet, and a chorus had been a birthday cantata for the crown prince.10 One aria came from a cantata at the occasion of the King’s visit to Leipzig. Although this practice of transcribing need not lead to the conclusion that Bach was indifferent toward these compositions, he did write special music, completely planned for its sacred purpose,11 for the Passion and the Magnificat. These compositions occupied a foremost place of importance in the Lutheran liturgy.
The Easter Oratorio is as long as one cantata. Its subject is John 20:13-17, which tells of the discovery of the open sepulcher. The names of the dramatis personae, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and “the other disciple,” are not mentioned. The recitatives and the arias are entirely paraphrased. The work is introduced by a jubilant symphony and closed by an aria in which the theological theme of redemption is turned into a song of praise. The work hardly deserves to be called an oratorio. There is no dramatization and its cantata character is more apparent than in any part of the Christmas Oratorio.
A Lifework for Eternity
Thus it was during a period of about 17 years that Bach completed the greatest monument of Protestant liturgical music. Many other Lutheran composers have been as prolific, but without Bach’s craftsmanship or his underlying profoundly sincere devotion: Schiitz, one of the great spirits of the Protestant era, did not devote himself exclusively to Lutheran music; Buxtehude, a thorough Lutheran, was of considerably smaller stature than Bach; the virtuoso Reincken lacked the mystic spirit in his music; and Froberger vascillated all his life between his Catholic and his Lutheran leanings. Among Bach’s contemporaries was a smooth, fleet pen, but the theater was closer to their hearts than the sanctuary.
Bach fulfilled his mission. Every detail of the elaborate Lutheran liturgy was now properly introduced, ornamented, illustrated, and closed with fitting music. The entire service began and ended with the mighty organ preludes and fugues, never to be surpassed in grandeur and profundity. All the congregational hymns, the detempora hymns, and pulpit hymns now had their preludes with their musical commentaries. Organ voluntaries were heard at intervals during the long service. For the Communion after the main service all the fitting organ music was provided. He even composed a complete set of choralepreludes for the children’s service. During this relatively short period Bach composed five yearly series of cantatas, with five Passions to follow the Gospels, a complete Mass from which every part could be used for the proper Sunday. Towering art works were created such as the Magnificat, the Passions, and the Christmas Oratorio for all the festal days. For such secondary festivities as the Reformation anniversary Bach also wrote special cantatas. Most of his motets and cantatas written for state occasions and important weddings and funerals were ultimately absorbed into the regular service. No composer has integrated the entire yearly service with such absolute devotion and such a profoundly mystic spirit as Bach.
Did Bach realize the permanence, even the eternity of his accomplishments? Naturally, he was aware that the next cantor, according to custom, was again to provide the church with his own music, and not with that of his predecessors. And just as Bach considered the music of those who went before him antiquated, he too was soon considered out of date by his followers. For many years much of his music remained on the shelves of the Thomas library, for some of it was used after his death. But it gradually disappeared, to be discovered in orchards and shops where the manuscripts of musical masterpieces served as wrapping paper. In time, the religious spirit was dampened by the rationalism of the next generation, and the service became shorter. Only 16 years after Bach’s death performances of the Passion were discontinued. In 1740, during Bach’s lifetime, the second organ that was needed to accompany the second chorus of the St. Matthew Passion was removed from the Thomas church.
Exactly a century after its completion Felix Mendelssohn revived the almost completely forgotten St. Matthew Passion. Many cuts and alterations we’re made in the score to appease the musical taste of a public alien to the spirit of Bach. On March 11, 1829, in the concert hall of the Berlin Singing Academy, a mammoth chorus and orchestra performed the Passion, in striking contrast to Bach’s original scoring. The continuo parts were even transferred to the piano, played by Mendelssohn himself.
In an age of punctilious historical conscience this stylistic mutilation is seriously criticized, but the fact that Bach’s music, written and conceived for the sole purpose of religious worship, is now relegated to the concert hall and phonograph, completely severed from its liturgical function, proves that despite his great enlightenment throughout history modern man still cannot truly identify with Bach’s original motivation. Nevertheless, Bach’s great spirit and deep faith has reached us through the beauty of his music. For Bach’s religious art work, although depending on visions of a particular religion at a particular time, draws its vitality from a higher reality, the universal and absolute spirit, and speaks with great intensity to our age.
In fact, our age has a much deeper appreciation of this transcendental music than did the pillars of the St. Thomas Church. The subsequent chapters tell of how Bach had to fight to protect his prerogative as cantor against the encroachments of deans, deacons, and preachers who were unaware of the presence of such genius in their midst.