The passion of Bach

  • Themes: Classical Music

On 7 April 1724, Johann Sebastian Bach led the first performance of his St John Passion, a monumental work that revolutionised liturgical music.

Painted shopping windows in front of Thomaskirche Church, Leipzig.
Painted shopping windows in front of Thomaskirche Church, Leipzig. Credit: GmbH & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo

On 7 April, 300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach led the first performance of his St John Passion. It was not just the premiere of a monumental work describing Christ’s suffering and death, it was also the premiere of a completely new form of liturgical music. Only a few months into his new position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Bach was – with his Passion – presenting a biblical drama featuring an orchestra and choir as well soloists portraying the protagonists. Three centuries on, this masterful, musical account of St John’s Gospel remains a pillar of choral music.

Those in charge of the city of Leipzig and its churches didn’t want Bach as Thomaskantor – their first and second choices for the post both turned them down – so they begrudgingly turned to Johann Sebastian. ‘Since we can’t get one of the best, there’s nothing left but to turn to someone in the middle and try to see if Bach from Köthen can be won for Leipzig,’ one of the city’s councillors sighed. The court music director from Köthen took up his post in the summer of 1723 and proceeded to compose intricate and staggeringly beautiful works at an extraordinary rate. Though Bach was self-motivated, he was also obliged to compose a cantata for every Sunday during his first year of service (except during Lent, when services didn’t feature music), his first cantata cycle. On 6 February Bach premiered Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin (Take what is yours and go away).

On Good Friday 1724 Bach premiered not just a new cantata but a much larger work, indeed, a new type of musical work altogether. That day, Leipzigers in the city’s St Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), which was filled to capacity, didn’t hear the pleasant but dull harmonies Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, and other famous composers of the time had delivered in the Passions they had begun writing. After Bach gave the downbeat to the Passion According to St John – Johannes-Passion or Passio secundum Joannem, the Latin title on that first score – they heard instead an opening chorus that more resembled an operatic chorus offering a fervent plea: ‘O Lord, our ruler, whose glory is magnified in all lands, testify to us by thy Passion that thou, the true Son of God, hast at all times, even in time of deepest lowliness, been glorified.’ Then they met the Evangelist, a tenor soloist who recited the first passages of Jesus’s suffering and death as told in John’s Gospel. As the evening wore on, the Leipzigers heard the chorus and individual singers interrupt the Evangelist to deliver the answers, questions, shouts and demands recounted by John. ‘Whom do you seek?’ Jesus (sung by a bass) asked the crowd. ‘Jesus from Nazareth!’ they shouted. ‘I am he’, he responded. And they heard chorales, in Bach’s sublime settings. After the angry crowd finds Jesus and his disciples and he tells them that he’s the person they’re seeking, they ask again. He could deny that he’s Jesus, and thus save his own life, but instead he says: ‘I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way.’ At this point in the John Passion, Bach adds the Lutheran chorale ‘O große Lieb’: O great, boundless love, that hath brought thee to this path of martyrdom! I lived among the worldly in contentment and pleasure and thou must suffer!

Bach’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death was so different from what the Leipzigers were used to that many decided they didn’t like it. Indeed, after Bach’s death, the John Passion joined the Matthew Passion and most of his other works in nearly complete obscurity. It wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn performed the Matthew Passion in Berlin’s Singakademie in 1829 that the world rediscovered Bach.

Today the John Passion is performed every Good Friday in cities around the world. I counted three in London alone on Good Friday, and in the days just before it was performed in Stavanger, Dijon, Melbourne, Paris, Prague, Versailles and in virtually every other major city – and in many smaller ones, too. Indeed, today – and ever since Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach – the veneration of the great master is such that professional musicians, people with no musical skills, believers and agnostics alike eagerly listen to the St John Passion. Each time, they come away with renewed veneration.

Even the greats of classical music, many of whom have a jaded approach to their metier, show unflinching admiration for Bach. This March, Sir András Schiff, one of the world’s most respected pianists, performed Bach’s Art of Fugue in London’s Wigmore Hall. The performance, the second-ever by Schiff of that piece, had been sold out for months. Before playing the first notes of this monumental work, the 70-year-old virtuoso explained to the audience that, so masterful is the Art of the Fugue, ‘I’ve waited 70 years to play it’. Compared to Bach, he added, ‘we’re all very small people’. We are.

‘I will ever praise thee!’ ends the St John Passion’s final chorale. Bach wrote on all his works ‘Soli Deo Gloria’, to the glory of God alone. Today, and ever since Mendelssohn’s performance of Matthew Passion, people of all musical abilities have left Bach performances thinking exactly that, though referring to Bach himself: ‘I will ever praise thee!’


Elisabeth Braw