Maundy Thursday is the day on the liturgical calendar when the church celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the final lead-up to Easter. J. S. Bach began his St. John Passion just afterward, when Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane to be betrayed and crucified the next day.
On Good Friday in 1724, in Leipzig, Bach premiered the St. John Passion (BWV 245), the larger, more intricate, and all-around more “passionate” of his two surviving oratorios based on the gospel accounts of Jesus’s death. Last Thursday, in midtown Manhattan, the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys got an early start on Holy Week, performing the work at their home church in a collaboration with New York Baroque Incorporated, all led by Saint Thomas’s music director, Daniel Hyde.
Bach’s greater Passion has a lot of moving parts: two choirs, four soloists, a narrator, an orchestra, and an organist. And in last week’s performance, there was also the audience, as Saint Thomas participated in the German Lutheran Good Friday tradition of singing congregational chorales surrounding the main musical event. Saint Thomas’s associate organist, Benjamin Sheen, played Bach’s prelude to Johann Böschenstein’s “Da Jesu an dem Kreuze stund” (“When on the cross the Savior hung”), and then the audience was encouraged to sing along in English.
In Bach’s time, oratorios generally had two parts, flanking a sermon in the middle. Today, performers often opt for an intermission to break up the long performance—the St. John Passion runs nearly three hours, leading the audience on a grueling journey, both musically and narratively, up to Calvary.
No embellishment was necessary: the choir just channeled Bach, pure and simple.
Our leader is the narrator, or Evangelist, a tenor who sings chapters eighteen and nineteen of John’s gospel in secco recitative, a style from opera that sets a chant-like melody to spare chords from an organ (or another instrument) merely marking harmonic changes and cadences. Dann Coakwell presented the most poetic of the four gospels with a remarkable vocal and facial expression that restored the familiar narrative to high drama.
Bach surrounded the biblical text, divided into five scenes, with eleven chorales. For these, he used texts and melodies from German hymns, along with libretti from Passion oratorios by his close contemporaries Barthold Heinrich Brockes and Christian Heinrich Postel (whose “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn/ Ist uns die Freiheit kommen” or “Through your imprisonment, Son of God/ freedom has come to us” centers the work).
Through the chorales, Bach turns the oratorio into a heavily allusive genre, using stanzas from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hymns by Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, Michael Weiße, and other hymnists, preachers, and poets of his time for the arias and chorales that surround the recitative. Their German titles may not be familiar, but their melodies have been used for centuries in well-known hymns, including Johann Heerman’s “Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen” (“O dearest Jesus, what law hast thou broken”), Gerhardt’s “O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben” (“O world, see now your life,” with a melody similar to “Upon the cross extended”), and Valerius Herberger’s “Valet will ich dir geben” (“I shall say farewell to thee,” which shares a tune with that popular Palm Sunday selection, “All glory, laud, and honor”).
The Saint Thomas choir—known as the leading choir of men and boys in the Anglican tradition in the United States—brought a vivacity and frankness to the chorales that complemented Coakwell’s exposition of the text. Hyde is known for the strength of his treble sections, and the younger members consistently carried the rest of the choir. (Incidentally, Hyde will soon take over the directorship of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Saint Thomas’s British counterpart. King’s College recently gave a concert at Saint Thomas whose only notable weakness was an occasional airiness and hesitation in the trebles. Not for long.) The trebles were especially affecting in the masterful polyphonic sections in which the people accost Peter—“Are you not a disciple?”—and, later, accuse Jesus—“Crucify him!” No embellishment was necessary: they just channeled Bach, pure and simple.
The chorales give the St. John Passion its distinctly German and Lutheran character, focusing on elements of the text that present Christ as a loving savior, shepherd, and brother. The final chorale, from Martin Schalling’s “Ach Herr, Laß dein lieb Engelein” (“Ah Lord, let your own angels dear”) contains a very Reformation-vintage assurance of rest from death until resurrection: “Let my body in its little sleeping chamber,/ completely in peace, without any tribulation and pain,/ rest until the Last Day.”
Bach’s is at times a brutally intense Passion, but finally a consoling one. The modern composer Arvo Pärt is often described as evoking a “bright sadness” with his sacred music. Bach expresses in agonizing and brilliant Baroque detail all that Pärt, with his “holy minimalism,” so gloriously strips away. But he brings to his Passion a similar sense of paradox: a sorrowful comfort and a bloody peace earned by the end, expressing the pathos of John’s gospel, and that of Lenten and Holy Week music in general.
In “Nun danket alle Gott,” a man across the aisle from me finally dared to show off his pipes.
In a musical milieu that is often overly concerned with making older works “new” and “relevant,” the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, New York Baroque Incorporated, and these impressive soloists proved that all that is necessary for Bach, and sacred music, to speak to us is a faithful performance. And once you start looking, Bach is hiding in plain sight throughout Manhattan; the woman to my right told me with surprise at intermission that she recognized many of the faces up front; they had performed in various Bach performances across the city within just the past week. The soprano soloist Sarah Brailey, for example, appears regularly at the Bach at One series at Trinity Wall Street, and both she and some members of New York Baroque Incorporated have also performed at the weekly Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on the Upper West Side.
And the choir in the pews? At first, they were tentative to take part in the Passion, but by the closing chorale, they proved that the congregational singing was more than a crowd-pleasing gesture on Saint Thomas’s part. In the perfectly programmed “Nun danket alle Gott,” a seventeenth-century German Lutheran hymn introduced by Bach’s organ prelude based on its melody, a man across the aisle from me finally dared to show off his pipes. In the lowest bass rumble I’ve ever heard, he sang with the choir, with me, and with all of those awaiting Easter on Sunday, “Now thank we all our God.” This Holy Week, Bach’s St. John Passion is worth listening to, and maybe even humming along.