Towards a Reconstructed St. Mark Passion
On Good Friday of 1731 in Leipzig, Bach set himself a nearly insurmountable task – to write a Passion setting according to St. Mark, a gospel account whose workmanlike prose pales in comparison to that of the dramatic compactness of John and the madrigalian lyricism of Matthew. In addition, Bach’s Leipzig congregation would have recalled the St. Matthew Passion performances in 1727 and 1729 and the St. John Passion in 1724 and 1725. Bach’s St. Mark Passion concluded his Passion endeavors, and initiated his final period of the summation of his art through parody, the creative reworking of a preexistent composition to form a new composition which Bach employed frequently, transforming secular cantatas into sacred works.
Pre-eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff writes:
It is with a keen sense of the quantity and importance of the music known to have been lost that we regard the oldest surviving catalogue of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works contained in the obituary that his son Carl Philipp Emanuel helped to produce. This document, written in 1750-51 but not printed until 1754, includes the following entry in the list of Bach’s works: ‘Five Passions, including one for two choirs.’ But only two complete works have come down to us. What happened to the others?
We know that in April 1717 Bach, then the Weimar court organist and concertmaster, was invited by the Duke of Sachsen-Gotha to perform a Passion in the Gotha palace chapel. Was this perhaps the first Passion Bach composed? If so, it provides us with a third work alongside the St. John and St. Matthew Passions (BWV 244 and 245).
The identity of a fourth work may be concealed behind the anonymous St. Luke Passion, BWV 246, which Bach partly transcribed himself and augmented for a performance in Leipzig in 1730. We can be much more certain that Bach performed a Passion according to St. Mark in 1731. The text of this work, BWV 247, is contained in the third volume of the complete edition of the poetic works of Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici). No composer is mentioned, but that is also the case for the printed text of the St. Matthew Passion, the libretto for which, also by Picander, is printed in Volume 2 of his collected works (Leipzig 1729). That Bach was almost certainly the composer is supported above all by the fact that he was responsible for Passion performance in Leipzig as part of his official duties. Further evidence is provided by his long-standing and close collaboration with Picander and the fact that the character and overall form of the libretto concur with what we know about Bach’s Leipzig Passions.
Today the St. Mark Passion, except for its text, must be regarded by and large as lost. Like his Mass in B minor, it is based almost entirely on previously written music that was adapted through the process of parody or new text underlay. As early as 1873, Wilhelm Rust, editor of the “Old Bach Gesamtausgabe” (BGA) and cantor at St. Thomas in Leipzig, realized that five movements from the St. Mark Passion had been parodied from the Trauer Ode, BWV 198, a funeral cantata composed in 1727 to commemorate the Saxon electress Christiane Eberhardine. This music provides us with three choruses and three arias.
The missing music divides itself into three groups: 1) the sixteen chorales (compared to eleven in St. John and thirteen in St. Matthew; 2) the five arias and; 3) the Gospel narrative - turba choruses and recitatives. All the chorales can be indentified, although several are in alternative harmonizations and keys, all found in C. P. E. Bach’s collection of chorales (J. S. Bach’s Vierstimmige Choralgesänge). The arias have been adapted from surviving cantatas written before 1731. The Gospel narrative, which has been entirely lost, is a hybrid, from the St. Mark Passion by Reinhard Keiser and newly composed recitatives in the style of Keiser by Simon Heighes. The turba or crowd choruses likewise are a hybrid from Keiser’s setting, and cantata chorus parodies.
The Gospel narrative presents the most challenges as the music is entirely lost and proportionately the narrative text in the St. Mark is greater than that of John or Matthew. The Keiser recitatives solve most of our issues. However, as was the practice in 1712 Hamburg, the Gospel narrative starts at the move to the Mount of Olives (Mark 24:26), rather than with the Last Supper twenty-five verses earlier, which is where Picander’s libretto begins. Bach scholar Simon Heighes solves this problem by composing new recitatives in the style of Keiser thus creating a coherent narrative flow.
Bach was very familiar with Keiser’s St. Mark Passion, having performed it at least three times over the course of thirty-five years. Each time he reworked it, while maintaining the biblical narrative. The most significant reworking was in 1747 in which he added seven arias from the Brockes Passion by Handel. Of notable importance is Keiser’s innovation of accompanied recitative for almost all of the words of Christ. The rich string sound was enhanced by divided violas, surrounding Christ’s words with a sort of sonic halo. Clearly, Bach enthusiastically employed this idea in the St. Matthew Passion. Keiser’s recitatives, while not completely rising to the evocative nature of Bach’s, are remarkably quite similar to that of Bach. They are characterized by quick motion through several keys and abrupt tonal contrasts at moments of tension or hostility.
Mark’s story is the earliest extant Gospel and provides the basis for the other synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are longer and have more details and sub-plots. Mark’s biography of Jesus is simple, direct, human, and immediate, in the present tense with scant commentary, juxtaposing few scenes, and minimal crowd participation. Mark’s Jesus is not divine, as in John, or concerned with establishing community, as in Matthew. Rather, Mark’s portrayal is of an impatient, vulnerable and somewhat temperamental Jesus who is never understood by his disciples. However, despite the inelegant prose, the message is still one of healing and reconciliation.
Bach’s Passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel has a simpler structure than Matthew, without many of the subplots. It is divided into two parts, with eight scenes. The sermon delivered during the Good Friday service in Leipzig was presented between the two parts.
1. Omens: plot to arrest Jesus, anointing in Bethany, Judas’ betrayal
2. Preparation for the Passover, the Last Supper
3. Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane
Part Two 4. Christ’s trial before the High Priests
5. Peter’s denial
6. Christ’s trial before Pilate
8. Earthquake, Christ’s burial
Fully aware that no reconstruction of a lost Bach work can ever equal what the composer himself actually wrote, our intention is to help make Bach’s third setting of the Passion story a living experience as a stylistically coherent work, while at the same time revealing some of Bach’s greatest music which is otherwise rarely performed.
We are deeply indebted first and foremost to Christoph Wolff for the preparation of our performance version of the St. Mark Passion along with other Bach scholars Simon Heighes, A. H. Gomme, Diethard Hellmann and Alexander Grychtolik.