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Bach's Johannes Passion

Updated on November 1, 2009

J.S. Bach

"I was obliged to work hard.  Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well."--Bach assessing his own art.
"I was obliged to work hard. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just as well."--Bach assessing his own art.


A masterpiece of sacred music, Bach's St. John Passion is a transporting dramatization of the Passion of Christ. This work communicates, measure by measure, what even charismatic evangelists and ministers struggle to impart. Bach masterfully invigorates the text of the Gospel of St. John with an Old World elegance. Here, Bach transports his listener from mundane, wordly concerns to the realm of celestial.


This hub contains six selections from the St. John Passion and I hope this introduction will stimulate you to explore futher.

Thomaskirche, the center of Bach's duties

The Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) is a Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany. It is most famous as the place where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a cantor, and where his remains currently lie.
The Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) is a Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany. It is most famous as the place where Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a cantor, and where his remains currently lie.

Bach in Leipzig

Bach, upon taking a position as Kantor in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, faced the obiligation of providing Passion music for the Vesper service during the Easter Week of 1724. He had two alternatives to discharge his task: to use an existing Passion (including his own) or to create a new one. Bach as the new Thomaskantor refused to fall back on the composition of someone else, and resolved to use the occasion to demonstrate his own creative power in a large-scale work for the officialdom and community of Leipzig.

The Union of Spirit, Drama and Music

The textual basis of any Passion music is the Gospel. It furnishes the word for the narrator, called the Evangelist, the dramatis personae (Christ, Peter, Pilate) and the soldiers/crowds. The Passion viewed as an artistic category is in the nature of drama, and any play logically contains scenes and episodes of lyrical and reflective qualities. The Gospel, however, which relates historic events and conveys religious doctrine, cannot provide the composer with texts for contemplative arias and meditative choral numbers. For these, the composer would draw upon various secondary sources (like Passion inspired poetry) for his lyrics.

The final version the St. John Passion includes 31 recitatives, 8 arias, two ariosi, 16 longer and shorter choral numbers and two chorales.

  • Recitatives: Bach's recitatives are full of energy, dramatic life, expression and meaningful word painting. The content of the recitatives is drawn from the Gospel itself; the character of the recitatives stem from Bach's conception of the Evangelists personality. The Evangelist is not an objective reporter but a fiery and deeply feeling chronicler "who describes the happenings with an almost ecstatic and passionate interest" (Schering).
  • Arias: The arias, in contrast to the recitatives, are more reflective in nature and in some instances complex in texture. As mentioned above, Bach, after some editing, appropriates religiously inspired texts or poems.
  • Choral Numbers/Chorales: Bach mirrors St. John's attitude in the depiction of dramatic events with incisive and realistic treatment of the choral numbers. The crowds are an acting element in the drama and Bach underlines this forcefully. Witness the incessant calls "Crucify, crucify" or the repeated cries "Where, where," injected in the bass aria "Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen" (see infra). Bach, the dramatist and historian, applied tone symbolism to numberous passages from the opening chorus which as a momentous choral prologue strikingly alludes to the events to be unfolded, down to the final lament in C minor. Yet perhaps in rememberance of an old custom Bach concludes the Passion story with a chorale cast in the major mode (E flat) in the spirit of hope and consolation.


Chorus "Herr, unser Herrscher..."


Herr, unser Herrscher,

dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!

Zeig' uns durch deine Passion,

dass du, der wahre Gottesohn,

zu aller Zeit

auch in der grössten Niedrigkeit,

verherrlicht worden bist.




Lord, our master,

whose fame is glorious in all lands!

Show us, by thy Passion

that thou, the true Son of God,

hast for all times

even in thy deepest lowliness,

been glorified.

Recitative et seq. (Evangelist) "Jesus ging mit seinen Jungern..." et seq.


The Essential Canon of Classical Music
The Essential Canon of Classical Music

This book focuses on the key composers of each age. Dubal spends a lot of time on the artistic development of each composer. He does a good job describing the emotional impact of each of their major works and often provides a quotation from another composer who was impacted by that work. Finally, he provides a list of recommended CDs to get a beginner started in building a collection. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.



Evangelist: Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern über den Bach Kidron, da war ein Garten, darein ging Jesus und seine Jünger. Judas aber, der ihn verriet, wußte den Ort auch, denn Jesus versammlete sich oft daselbst mit seinen Jüngern. Da nun Judas zu sich hatte genommen die Schar und der Hohenpriester und Pharisäer Diener, kommt er dahin mit Fackeln, Lampen und mit Waffen. Als nun Jesus wußte alles, was ihm begegnen sollte, ging er hinaus und sprach zu ihnen:

Jesus: Wen suchet ihr?

Evangelist: Sie antworteten ihm:

Soldiers: Jesum von Nazareth!

Evangelist: Jesus spricht zu ihnen:

Jesus: Ich bin’s.

Evangelist: Judas aber, der ihn verriet, stund auch bei ihnen. Als nun Jesus zu ihnen sprach: Ich bin’s, wichen sie zurücke und fielen zu Boden. Da fragete er sie abermal:

Jesus: Wen suchet ihr?

Evangelist: Sie aber sprachen

Soldiers: Jesum von Nazareth!

Evangelist: Jesus antwortete:

Jesus: Ich hab’s euch gesagt, daß ich’s sei, suchet ihr denn mich, so lasset diese gehen!

Chorale O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße, Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden, Und du mußt leiden.

Evangelist: Auf daß das Wort erfüllet würde, welches er sagte: Ich habe der keine verloren, die du mir gegeben hast. Da hatte Simon Petrus ein Schwert und zog es aus und schlug nach des Hohenpriesters Knecht und hieb ihm sein recht Ohr ab; und der Knecht hieß Malchus. Da sprach Jesus zu Petro:

Jesus: Stecke dein Schwert in die Scheide! Soll ich den Kelch nicht trinken, den mir mein Vater gegeben hat?

Chorale Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich Auf Erden wie im Himmelreich. Gib uns Geduld in Leidenszeit, Gehorsam sein in Lieb und Leid; Wehr und steur allem Fleisch und Blut, Das wider deinen Willen tut!

Evangelist: Die Schar aber und der Oberhauptmann und die Diener der Jüden nahmen Jesum und bunden ihn und führeten ihn aufs erste zu Hannas, der war Kaiphas Schwäher, welcher des Jahres Hoherpriester war. Es war aber Kaiphas, der den Jüden riet, es wäre gut, daß ein Mensch würde umbracht für das Volk.


18:1 [Jesus] went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples.

18:2 And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. 18:3 Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. 18:4 Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye?

18:5 They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he.

And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. 18:6 As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.

18:7 Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. 18:8 Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way

[Chorus] O great love, love without measure has brought You to this path of torment! I live in the world of joy and pleasure, and You must suffer!

18:9 That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none. 18:10 Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. 18:11 Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

[Chorus] Thy will be done, Lord, on earth as it is in Heaven. Make us patient in suffering, obedient in both love and sorrow; guide and protect all flesh and blood that goes against your will.


18:12 Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him, 18:13 And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. 18:14 Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.

Aria (Alto) "Von den Stricken..." et seq.


Von den Stricken meiner Sünden mich zu entbinden, wird mein Heil gebunden; mich von allen Lasterbeulen völlig zu heilen, lässt er sich verwunden.




To unbind me from the shackles of my sins, my Savior is bound. To heal me fully of the boils of vice, he lets himself be wounded.


Ach, mein Sinn, wo willt du endlich hin, wo soll ich mich erquicken?  Woll soll ich endlich hin? Bleib' ich hier, oder wünsch' ich mir Berg und Hügel auf den Rücken? Bei der Welt ist gar kein Rat, und im Herzen stehn die Schmerzen meiner Missetat, weil der Knecht den Herr verleugnet hat.




Ah, my mind,  where finally willst thou go, where shall I revive myself?  Where shall I finally go? Shall I stay here, or do I wish the mountains and hills behind me?  In this world I find no good counsel, and in my heart are the sorrows of my misdeed, for the servant has denied his Lord.


Betrachte, meine Seel', mit ängstlichen Vergnügen, mit bitt'rer Lust und halb beklemmt von Herzen, den höchstes Gut in Jesu Schmerzen, wie dir aus Dornen, so ihn stechen, die Himmelsschlüsselblume blüht; du kannst viel süsse Frucht von seiner Vermut brechen, drum sich' ohn' Unterlass auf ihn.




Give thought, my soul, with anguished pleasure, with bitter delight and half-anxious heart, to thy highest good in Jesus' sorrows, how from the thorns that pierce him the primrose, key to heaven, blooms for thee.  Thou canst pluch much sweet fruit from the bitter wormwood, therefore look unceasingly upon him.



Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen, geht aus euren Marterhöhlen, eilt — Wohin? — nach Golgatha! nehmet an des Glaubens Flügel, flieht — Wohin? — zum Kreuzeshügel, eure Wohlfahrt blüht allda!


Hurry, you tormented souls, heave your dens of misery, hurry — Where to? — to Golgotha! Take the wings of faith and fly — Where to? — to the hill of the Cross; that is where your powers will be revived.


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    • profile image

      Bostonian Banter 

      9 years ago

      Great detail and coverage. Lots of good stuff. Thanks.

    • profile image

      Zachary Uram 

      9 years ago



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