St. John Passion

Now streaming online through April 25

Ryan Turner, conductor

Emmanuel Church

The Gospel of John relates the story of Jesus' last days as a clash of political forces, where conflicting power structures conspire to crush a visionary reformer. Bach's dramatic, vivid, and deeply emotional setting of this Passion narrative does not shrink from this troubling human parable; yet the chorales and arias continually expand the focus of the Gospel text to all of humankind: our shared culpability, vulnerability, and ultimate potential for redemption through faith and love.

Emmanuel Music continues its tradition of exploring Bach’s most challenging and controversial works. This highly charged rendering of the Gospel of John is presented on the heels of conversations and lectures that engage with its troubling text—revealing this masterpiece of searing real-time drama and deeply felt emotion as absolutely essential listening.

St. John Passion, BWV 245, J. S. Bach
Reflections on St. John Passion
In my musical imagination, some pieces exist in perpetual motion in the ether. When I listen to them, it seems to me as if I am tapping into an ongoing stream playing continuously in the music of the spheres. The opening of the first Razumovsky Quartet (Beethoven's Opus 59 # 1), for example, sounds to me like those insistent eighth notes in the middle strings have been going on forever and the dialogue between the cello then joined by the first violin continue an ongoing eternal conversation.

The opening movement of Bach’s St. John Passion has the same effect on me. The unrelenting eighth notes the continuo and the agitation and foreboding conveyed by the churning 16th note figures in the violins beckon me to join a journey that seemingly began long ago and will continue forever. The dissonant entry of the woodwinds in the first few measures warns that this road will lead us ineluctably to tragedy, even before the first entry of a human voice. You need not know the passion story or understand a word of German to sense the gathering clouds. How Bach can draw us into this vortex of anguish in just two or three measures, measures his musical mastery. The wonders wrought throughout the rest of the score have generated many a learned commentary. But I still marvel at how those first few bars announce seemingly incessant suffering with such immediacy and spare economy. In Bach’s oeuvre, every stroke of the quill has intention. Every dot on the paper reflects a choice and conveys meaning. It is absolutely astounding that Bach could create the St. John Passion while composing nearly weekly cantatas amidst the frenetic burst of activity during his first two years as the Leipzig Cantor.

Bach’s pride of workmanship and faith never allowed him to relax his standards. Soli Deo Gloria. In this Passion, and before and beyond in his compositions, every page makes a statement, every movement is a marvel, every assemblage forms a coherent whole (when not lost or unfinished.) Bach’s constant commitment to the highest standards stands as a challenge to each of us in our own work, even those of us of meager talent. The perfectionism of Bach’s craft is as unrelenting as his unfolding of the passion story according to St. John. The St. John Passion presents a pinnacle depiction of the extremes of the human experience. The Johannine world into which Bach draws us is dense, concentrated, and inexorable. Even more remarkable is that the very different Matthew passion was waiting in the wings.

Peter Libby
Vice President, Board of Directors