Bach’s St. John Passion from Leipzig Church to Symphony Hall

By March 10, 2016Blog, Uncategorized

Christoph Wolff discusses St. John Passion.

On Tuesday night the Handel and Haydn Society was lucky enough to host a lecture and discussion about Bach’s St. John Passion with three extraordinary musicologists: Ellen Exner, Robin Leaver, and Christoph Wolff.

The speakers offered some insight into the piece ahead of H+H’s performances coming up on Friday and Sunday at Symphony Hall.

Ellen Exner began the evening with an explanation of how a passion differs from an oratorio. If you are a frequent H+H concertgoer, you might be familiar with oratorios by Handel such as Messiah, or Saul (coming up this spring to close H+H’s concert season). Oratorios usually take a biblical story and set them dramatically in music. Unlike an opera, they weren’t intended to be staged or acted, but nonetheless were meant for commercial concert performance. Passions, on the other hand, draw from one of the four gospels and were intended for performance in a church service rather than in a concert.

Robin Leaver described the 1724 Leipzig Good Friday Vesper service (Vespergottesdienst) where Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed. At 1:15pm, the church bells rang and the candles in the church were lit. The service began with a hymn, followed by part one of Bach’s Passion. This was followed by another hymn and an hour-long sermon from the pulpit. After that, part two of the Passion was performed. But at the end of the Passion, the service still wasn’t over: there was a motet and finally a closing hymn (Nun danket alle Gott). H+H’s performance this weekend is scheduled to run just over two hours with intermission, but the original church service would have been quite a bit longer!

The eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff finished the lecture with a discussion of the relationship between the music and text in the St. John Passion. In particular, he highlighted the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished), which comes after Jesus’s death. In its A and B sections, the aria reflects the two sides of the event: the sorrow of the crucifixion, and the joy of the resurrection. In fact, Wolff pointed out that the Leipzig congregation would have heard the aria’s upbeat B section as a preview of Easter, which would come two days later. They must have been eagerly awaiting Easter Sunday after the long Lenten season!

Wolff compared the two sides of “Es ist vollbracht” to the following paintings from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Listen to the aria and take a look at the paintings below and see if you can recognize the similarities.


The Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516).


The Resurrection from the same altarpiece.












The Handel and Haydn Society performs Bach St. John Passion on Friday, March 11, and Sunday, March 13. Buy your tickets now!