Bach’s St. John Passion is a dramatic musical work that tells the story of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion.
From other perspectives, it is a great work of art, a powerful religious experience and a Lutheran devotional event. And it forms the centerpiece of this year’s Boulder Bach Festival.
The St. John Passion will be performed under festival music director Rick Erickson at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver and Saturday, March 2, at Mountain View Methodist Church in Boulder. The Boulder Bach Festival Chorus and Players will be joined by tenor Tony Boutté as the evangelist, plus soprano Sarah Brailey, countertenor Ryland Angel, tenor Daniel Hutchings, bass-baritone Joe Damon Chappel and bass-baritone Adam Ewing.
Last year, Erickson decided to step out of the rotation of major works that had characterized the Bach Festival for many years and present a number of smaller works. This year, the festival returns to the familiar model of building the program around a larger work.
“I don’t know that we will always do what are called the major works,” Erickson says, “in part because the literature is so broad. We’re working on understanding Bach not as a grand artist but as someone who lived in a very rich culture. Sometimes, to meet the weekly working Bach of the cantatas presents a different view.”
But this year, he says, “it’s great to come to the St. John Passion. It’s a glorious work, and it seemed like the right choice at the right time.
“Of the two passions that exist by Bach [St. John and St. Matthew], the St. John Passion is the grittiest, it’s the earliest, but it is a powerful, dramatic explication. It tells the passion narrative opening with the Garden of Gethsemane, and stretches from there through the crucifixion.
“It is really one of the most gripping tales. Quite frankly, whether you are a person of Christian belief or not, it is a compelling story. It has highly dramatic confrontations with Jesus, Peter’s betrayal and denial, the inciting of mob violence, and the political plays between the secular authorities and the church authorities.”
It was written for Good Friday in 1724, during Bach’s first year in charge of music at two churches in Leipzig.
“Here’s Bach now arriving in Leipzig,” Erickson explains, “and the church authorities want a really gripping performance of the passion narrative. And Bach uses the various elements that are at his disposal.”
Those elements were defined partly by musical tradition, since there had been settings of the passion story written before then, and partly by the doctrinal considerations of the 18th-century Lutheran church. The narrative is told by the evangelist — a tenor soloist — reciting the Biblical text from the Gospel of John in Luther’s translation.
The soloists and the choir also take dramatic parts in the narrative, singing the words of Jesus, Peter, Pilate, the high priests, soldiers and the mob, among others.
The choir actually has many roles, dramatically representing the mob and other groups in the story, but also standing in for the faithful Lutheran congregant in the form of church chorales, which were very familiar to Bach’s audience. These portions of the passion were especially significant at the time, since the chorales were a treasured tradition of the Lutheran church, and one of the things that most clearly distinguished Lutheranism from the Roman church.
In addition to the Biblical narrative and the chorales, a third element of the passion text is free poetic insertions from Bach’s own time, commentary on the story set as solo arias. “And finally,” Erickson says, “you have the last movement of both the St.Matthew and St. John passions,” lengthy choruses on a poetic text that translates roughly into “Sleep Well, Jesus.”
“In both passions they’re big choruses, both long and very, very important,” Erickson says. “That’s because the Lutherans wanted to clarify that when you die you sleep, as opposed to floating around in heaven with saints.”
This is one of many doctrinal issues that would have been obvious in Bach’s time, but that audiences will not immediately recognize today. And while he studies those historical nuances, Erickson does not think that is especially important in a performance.
“I think it’s about hearing the music and the story,” he says.
“From a storyteller’s standpoint, from someone who really wants to not do a kind of a stained-glass, ‘This is a great sacred relic and we’re going to do it again because it’s so great,’ it’s of more interest to me to actually re-enter into the story so that it’s alive.
“That’s what I like to go for.”
The Boulder Bach Festival continues its season at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, at St. John´s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Mountain View Methodist Church in Boulder. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door, $10 for students and $5 for children with purchase of an adult ticket. Visit www.boulderbachfest.org.