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The Two Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach

by Jerome Weeks 23 Mar 2012 4:20 AM

The Dallas Bach Society will perform the St. John Passion, while the DSO will perform his St. Matthew for the first time in 50 years. The one concert is churchy and small, the other’s symphonic-big. Yet both are aiming for early-music authenticity?


Tomorrow, the Dallas Bach Society performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion. Next week, for the first time in 50 years, the Dallas Symphony performs his St. Matthew Passion. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that the two concerts are linked by more than their composer.

  • KERA radio story:

A Passion is a musical telling of the last days in the life of Jesus, as related in the different gospels. Passions were originally performed as part of religious services on Good Friday. For his, Bach even borrowed old church hymns — like ‘O Sacred Head Surrounded.’ In fact, as a musical form, a Passion is actually an oratorio – like Handel’s Messiah. It has soloists, a chorus and a dramatic story but no sets or costumes.

In the early 1700s, Bach composed his Passions for St. Thomaskirche, a modest-sized Lutheran church — not a cathedral — in Leipzig, Germany. In modern cities like New York, Berlin or London, having both of Bach’s passions performed during the same Easter season may be common enough, but this seems to be the first time in Dallas it’s happened, and Bach himself never would have heard them in the same week. He composed four perhaps five Passions (the others have been lost), and he more or less alternated performing them over the years (and revised them as well).

The interior of St. Thomaskirche, Leipzig, where J. S. Bach was cantor for 27 years.

Performing a Passion with instruments broke with tradition. In fact, Bach’s use of any instruments in his church music broke with tradition, notes James Richman, director of the Dallas Bach Society. Holy Week comes during Lent, after all, when music-playing was frowned on. Medieval Passions were a capella. As it was, Bach was criticized for introducing fancy Italian-opera techniques like soloists singing in character. But then, Bach, Richman points out, is the only major Baroque composer who never created an opera. His Passions are what he wrote instead – ‘sacred operas,’ they’ve been called.

For the Dallas Bach Society’s St. John, director Richman will use pretty much what Bach wrote for: a chorus of sixteen plus two soloists and fifteen musicians playing period instruments. In contrast, for the St. Matthew, Dallas Symphony conductor Jaap van Zweden will lead a 53-piece orchestra with 88 singers — plus a children’s chorus of 60. It’s true the St. Matthew calls for a double chorus and orchestra, but the DSO’s numbers are closer to quadruple the Dallas Bach Society’s.

One can easily see these two North Texas Passions as a David-and-Goliath story:  the smaller, more ‘authentic’ Dallas Bach Society vs. the Dallas Symphony continuing the popular convention of large and lush. But there’s more to it than that. The two actually are related.

Listen to the final choral section of the St. Matthew Passion (Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder) on the classic 1961 recording with Otto Klemperer conducting the huge Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and starring such soloists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears. The performance is silky, somber – and slow.

Then listen to this same ending conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in 2000 with his Concentus Musicus Wien. It’s leaner, crisper and quicker. It’s so quick, Harnoncourt’s version of this final chorus is almost half the length of Klemperer’s, five minutes to eight minutes.

The differences between the two recordings reflect the growing influence of the early music movement. The movement has pushed for decades to strip away the grandiosity that 19th century Romantics brought to musical performances: the sonorous sweep, the epic scale, the over-use of legato to make every note smooth into the next. Pioneers like conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt have advocated the use of historically accurate period instruments, more dance-like rhythms and clipped-off notes with less vibrato or legato.

James Richman of the Bach Society is a long-time proponent of early music. He says the movement has tried to understand just how composers like Bach, Rameau and Handel worked: their tuning, their instruments, how they turned limitations into advantages.

Richman: “What were they actually hearing? How were they actually playing this music? What did their ensembles look like?”

Alexander Kerr is the concertmaster, or lead violinist, of the Dallas Symphony. Before that, he was with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. That’s where Jaap van Zweden was concertmaster before coming to Dallas.  Since 1975, Harnoncourt, the early music pioneer, has been a chief guest conductor with the Royal Concertgebouw — where performing the St. Matthew Passion at Easter has been a popular, annual tradition since before World War II (Harnancourt has even recorded two versions of the St. Matthew.)  So both Kerr and van Zweden learned from Harnoncourt’s early-music approach — as well as from Phillippe Herreweghe and Dutch early-music pioneer Ton Koopman.

Kerr: “Jaap and I sort of a grew up in the tradition of Harnoncourt. And I think with Jaap, he wants to bring that tradition here.”

They represent how far the early-music movement’s influence has now reached. It’s moved from the fringe 30 years ago toward the center. But still, in America, only a few cities like Boston have taken to the movement in the way music audiences have in Europe.

And the DSO can go only so far. As van Zweden admits, the Dallas Symphony can’t really be an authentic Baroque ensemble. It doesn’t have the period instruments or the performers to play them.

Jaap van Zweden, music director of the DSO.

Jaap van Zweden: “There is a huge difference between a modern orchestra like the Dallas Symphony and a Baroque orchestra which is playing on old instruments. But we have an obligation and not only that, we love this style.”

Kerr defines that style as “transparency” — a matter of clarity and  lightness. Van Zweden sees it as both a matter of the string section’s fingering and bowing — and in larger terms, a moral obligation. It avoids self-indulgence and sentimentality. It keeps you honest, he says. And that’s important here. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is considered one of the peak achievements in Western music – and in Western expressions of faith.

It’s ironic, then, that van Zweden actually prefers Bach’s other passion, the St. John. The St. Matthew is generally considered the greater work — more expansive and all-embracing, more beautifully shaped, more profound, while the St. John is considered thornier, more dramatic or confrontational (it’s the one that’s been accused of anti-Semitism because of John’s habit of calling the crowd “the Jews”).

It’s the ending of St. John, van Zweden says, that gets to him.

van Zweden: “Whenever that comes, I really have to cry.”

Weeks: “Why?”

van Zweden: “For me, this piece is being in a church, asking for forgiveness  – for everything. And he gives you forgiveness in every part.

“The beauty of Bach is that it cleans the soul.”

  • James Richman: If the Passions are akin to Bach’s ‘operas,’ why is Jesus a bass — and not a heroic tenor?

  • Alexander Kerr: Why shouldn’t Baroque performance, especially in the string section, employ long sustained notes, legato and sustenuto?

  • Alexander Kerr: The two Passions are about, roughly, the same events. Yet they ‘feel’ different — why?

  • Jaap van Zweden: How did the tradition of an annual St. Matthew Passion evolve in Amsterdam, when did it start, how did it change?



Photo of van Zweden by Hans van der Woerd/Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.