St John Passion

The Passio secundum Joannem or St John Passion[a] (German: Johannes-Passion), BWV 245, is a Passion or oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, the older of the surviving Passions by Bach.[1] It was written during his first year as director of church music in Leipzig and was first performed on April 7, 1724, at Good Friday Vespers at the St. Nicholas Church.[2][3]

First page of the autograph: Passio secundum Joannem

The structure of the work falls in two halves, intended to flank a sermon. The anonymous libretto draws on existing works (notably by Barthold Heinrich Brockes) and is compiled from recitatives and choruses narrating the Passion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John, ariosos and arias reflecting on the action, and chorales using hymn tunes and texts familiar to a congregation of Bach's contemporaries.[4] Compared with the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion has been described as more extravagant, with an expressive immediacy, at times more unbridled and less "finished".[5]

The work is most often heard today in the 1739–1749 version (never performed during Bach's lifetime). Bach first performed the oratorio in 1724 and revised it in 1725, 1732, and 1749, adding several numbers. "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß", a 1725 replacement for the opening chorus, found a new home in the 1736 St Matthew Passion but several arias from the revisions are found only in the appendices to modern editions.[citation needed]

First performanceEdit

Originally Bach intended that the St John Passion would be first performed in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, but due to a last-minute change by the music council, it was first performed on Good Friday (as observed by German Protestants) of 1724 in the St. Nicholas Church, shortly after Bach's 39th birthday.[6] Bach quickly agreed to their desire to move the service to St. Nicholas Church,

but pointed out that the booklet was already printed, that there was no room available and that the harpsichord needed some repair, all of which, however, could be attended to at little cost; but he requested that a little additional room be provided in the choir loft of St. Nicholas Church, where he planned to place the musicians needed to perform the music. He also asked that the harpsichord be repaired.[6]

The council agreed and sent a flyer announcing the new location to all the people around Leipzig. The council made the arrangements requested by Bach regarding the harpsichord and space needed for the choir.[6]

Musical architecture and sourcesEdit

The St John Passion is written for a four-part choir with soloists, as well as an instrumental ensemble of strings and basso continuo with pairs of flauti traversi and oboes, the latter both doubling on oboe da caccia. For special colors Bach also used lute, viola d'amore and viola da gamba, instruments that were already old-fashioned at the time.[citation needed]

In present-day performances the part of Jesus is often given to one bass soloist, Pilate and the bass arias to another. Some tenors sing the Evangelist – a very demanding part – and the arias. The smaller parts (Peter, Maid, Servant) are sometimes performed by choir members.[citation needed]

Bach followed chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible, and the tenor Evangelist follows exactly the words of that bible. The compiler of the additional poetry is unknown. Models are the Brockes Passion and a Johannes-Passion by Christian Heinrich Postel. The first scene is in the Kidron Valley, and the second in the palace of the high priest Kaiphas. Part Two shows three scenes, one with Pontius Pilate, one at Golgatha, and the third finally at the burial site. The dramatic argument between Pilate, Jesus, and the crowd is not interrupted by reflective elements but a single central chorale, #22 (note that this particular numbering is only used by the NBA).[7]

Part One
1 Coro: Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!
2a Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern über den Bach Kidron
2b Coro: Jesum von Nazareth
2c Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus spricht zu ihnen
2d Coro: Jesum von Nazareth
2e Evangelist, Jesus: Jesus antwortete: Ich hab's euch gesagt, daß ich's sei
3 Chorale: O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße
4a Evangelist, Jesus: Auf daß das Wort erfüllet würde
5 Chorale: Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich
6 Evangelist: Die Schar aber und der Oberhauptmann
7 Aria (alto, oboes, continuo): Von den Stricken meiner Sünden
8 Evangelist: Simon Petrus aber folgete Jesu nach
9 Aria (soprano, flutes, continuo): Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten
10 Evangelist, Maid, Peter, Jesus, Servant: Derselbige Jünger war dem Hohenpriester bekannt
11 Chorale: Wer hat dich so geschlagen
12a Evangelist: Und Hannas sandte ihn gebunden zu dem Hohenpriester Kaiphas
12b Coro: Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?
12c Evangelist, Peter, Servant: Er leugnete aber
13 Aria (tenor, strings, continuo): Ach, mein Sinn
14 Chorale: Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück
Lord, our Lord, whose glory is magnificent in all the earth!
Jesus went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron
Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus said to them
Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus answered, I have told you that I am
O great love, o love beyond all measure
That the saying might be fulfilled
Thy will be done, Lord God, at the same time
Then the band and the captain
From the bonds of my sins
And Simon Peter followed Jesus
I will follow you likewise with joyful steps
That disciple was known to the high priest
Who hit you so
Now Annas had sent him bound unto Caiaphas the high priest
Are you not one of his disciples?
He denied it
Oh, my sense
Peter, who does not think back
Part Two
15 Chorale: Christus, der uns selig macht
16a Evangelist, Pilate: Da führeten sie Jesum von Kaiphas vor das Richthaus
16b Coro: Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter, wir hätten dir ihn nicht überantwortet.
16c Evangelist, Pilate: Da sprach Pilatus zu ihnen
16d Coro: Wir dürfen niemand töten.
16e Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Auf daß erfüllet würde das Wort Jesu
17 Chorale: Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten
18a Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Da sprach Pilatus zu ihm
18b Coro: Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam!
18c Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Barrabas aber war ein Mörder.
19 Arioso (bass, 2 viole d'amore, lute, continuo): Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen
20. Aria (tenor, 2 viole d'amore, continuo): Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken
21a Evangelist: Und die Kriegsknechte flochten eine Krone von Dornen
21b Coro: Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!
21c Evangelist, Pilate: Und gaben ihm Backenstreiche.
21d Coro: Kreuzige, kreuzige!
21e Evangelist, Pilate: Pilatus sprach zu ihnen
21f Coro: Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben
21g Evangelist, Pilate, Jesus: Da Pilatus das Wort hörete, fürchtet' er sich noch mehr
22 Chorale: Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn muß uns die Freiheit kommen
23a Evangelist: Die Jüden aber schrieen
23b Coro: Lässest du diesen los, so bist du des Kaisers Freund nicht
23c Evangelist, Pilate: Da Pilatus das Wort hörete, führete er Jesum heraus
23d Coro: Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!
23e Evangelist, Pilate: Spricht Pilatus zu ihnen
23f Coro: Wir haben keinen König denn den Kaiser.
23g Evangelist: Da überantwortete er ihn daß er gekreuziget würde.
24 Aria (bass) e coro (with strings and continuo): Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen
25a Evangelist: Allda kreuzigten sie ihn
25b Coro: Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König
25c Evangelist, Pilate: Pilatus antwortet
26 Chorale: In meines Herzens Grunde
27a Evangelist: Die Kriegsknechte aber, da sie Jesum gekreuziget hatten, nahmen seine Kleider
27b Coro: Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen, sondern darum losen, wes er sein soll.
27c Evangelist, Jesus: Auf daß erfüllet würde die Schrift
28 Chorale: Er nahm alles wohl in acht
29 Evangelist, Jesus: Und von Stund an nahm sie der Jünger zu sich.
30 Aria (alto, viola da gamba, continuo): Es ist vollbracht!
31 Evangelist: Und neiget das Haupt und verschied.
32 Aria (bass) e coro (with string accompaniment, continuo): Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen
33 Evangelist: Und siehe da, der Vorhang im Tempel zeriß in zwei Stück
34 Arioso (tenor, flutes, oboes, continuo): Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet
35 Aria (soprano, flute, oboe da caccia, continuo): Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren
36 Evangelist: Die Jüden aber, dieweil es der Rüsttag war
37 Chorale: O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn
38 Evangelist: Darnach bat Pilatum Joseph von Arimathia
39 Coro: Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine
40 Chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Christ, who makes us blessed
Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas into the hall of judgment
If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him to you
Then said Pilate to them
We must not put any man to death
That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled
Oh great king, great at all times
Pilate therefore said to him
Not this man, but Barabbas!
Now Barabbas was a robber
Look, my soul, with anxious pleasure
Consider how his blood-stained back
And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns
Hail, King of the Jews!
And they smote him with their hands
Crucify him, crucify him!
Pilate said to them
We have a law, and by our law he ought to die
When Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid
Through thy captivity, Son of God has come to us the freedom
But the Jews cried out, and said
If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend
When Pilate heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth
Away, away with him, crucify him!
Pilate said to them
We have no king but Caesar.
Then he delivered him to them to be crucified
Hurry, you souls
There they crucified him
Write not, The King of the Jews;
Pilate answered
In the bottom of my heart
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments
Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be
That the scripture might be fulfilled
He was careful of everything
And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home
It is finished!
He bowed his head, and departed.
My precious Savior, let ask you
And, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two
The heart, in which the whole world in Jesus' suffering likewise suffers
Melt, my heart, in floods of tears
The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation day
O help, Christ, Son of God
And after this Joseph of Arimathea, asked Pilate
Rest well, holy bones
O Lord, let your dear little angels

Bach followed the Gospel of John but added two lines from the Gospel of Matthew, the crying of Peter and the tearing of the veil in the temple (in Version I, this second line was replaced by the line from the Gospel of Mark).

He chose the chorales:

For the words of the aria "Ach, mein Sinn" (#13), Bach used an adaptation of a 1675 poem by Christian Weise, "Der weinende Petrus".[8]

For the central chorale (#22) "Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, muß uns die Freiheit kommen" ("Through Your prison, Son of God, must freedom come to us) Bach adapted the words of an aria from the Johannes-Passion of Christian Heinrich Postel (1700) and used the melody of "Mach's mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" by Johann Hermann Schein. The architecture of Part Two shows symmetry around this movement, the music of the preceding chorus #21f "Wir haben ein Gesetz" corresponds to #23b "Lässest du diesen los", the demand #21d "Kreuzige ihn!" is repeated in an intensified way in #23d "Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!", #21b "Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig" reappears as #25b "Schreibe nicht: der Jüden König".[9][10]


Researchers have discovered that Bach revised his St John Passion several times before producing a final version in the 1740s.[11] Alternate numbers that Bach introduced in 1725 but later removed can be found in the appendix to scores of the work, such as that of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (and heard in the recording by Emmanuel Music directed by Craig Smith, cited below).[12]

The St John Passion was not Bach's first passion. While he was working as Konzertmeister (1714–1717) in Weimar, Bach possibly wrote a Passion, known as the Weimarer Passion, but it is now lost.[1] Sometimes while listening to the St John Passion today one can sense an older feel to some of the music, and some scholars believe that those portions are the surviving parts of the Weimar Passion.[1] Unlike the St Matthew Passion, to which Bach made very few and insignificant changes, the St John Passion was subject to several major revisions.[13] The version most familiar to us today is not the original version from 1724, but rather the version of 1739–1749.[14] In the 1724 version, the Recitative Movement No. 33 reads "Und die Vorhang im Tempel zerriß in zwei Stück; von oben an bis unten aus." (Mark 15, 33) and was in 3 measures. From 1725 on, this was replaced by the more familiar 7-measure quote from Matthew 27: 51–52 (except in the 3rd version, in which this was taken out altogether).[citation needed]

In 1725, Bach replaced the opening and closing choruses and added three arias (BWV 245a-c) while cutting one (Ach, mein Sinn) from the original version.[12] The opening chorus was replaced by O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which was later transposed and reused at the end of part one of the St Matthew Passion.[12] The closing chorale was replaced by a brilliant setting of "Christe, du Lamm Gottes", taken from the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23.[12] The three new arias are not known to have been reused.[3][15]

In the 1730s, Bach revised the St John Passion again, restoring the original opening chorus, removing the final Chorale (thus ending the work with the choral Movement No. 39), and removing the three new arias.[15] He also excised the two interpolations from the Gospel of Matthew that appeared in the work, probably due to objections by the ecclesiastical authorities.[12] The first of these he simply removed; he composed a new instrumental sinfonia in lieu of the second.[16] He also inserted an aria to replace the still-missing Ach, mein Sinn.[17] Neither the aria nor the sinfonia has been preserved.[citation needed] Overall, Bach chose to keep the biblical text, and inserted Lutheran hymn verses so that he could return the work to its liturgical substance.[18]

In 1749, he reverted more or less to the original of 1724, making only slight changes to the orchestration, most notably replacing the by-then almost obsolete viola d'amore with muted violins.[12] Also, Bach's orchestra for this piece would have been very delicate in nature because he called for many gamba strings.[clarification needed][19]

In the summer of 1815, Bach's Passions began to be studied once again. Parts of the St John Passion were being rehearsed and the St Matthew Passion was soon to follow.[20] Fred Wolle, with his Choral Union of 1888 at the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was the first to perform the St John Passion in the Americas. This spurred a revival of Bach's choral music in the New World.[21]

Congregational useEdit

While writing the St John Passion, Bach intended to retain the congregational spirit of the worship service.[18] The text for the body of the work is taken from the Gospel of John chapters 18 and 19.[18] To augment these chapters, which he summarized in the music, Bach used an elaborate body of commentary consisting of hymns, which were often called chorales, and arias.[22] He adhered to Martin Luther's translation of the Bible and made no noticeable modifications.[23] Bach proved that the sacred opera as a musical genre did not have to become shallow in liturgical use by remaining loyal to the cantus firmus and the scriptural word.[18] He did not want the Passion taken as a lesser sacred concert.[18] The text for the opening prayer, "Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm", as well as the arias, chorales and the penultimate chorus "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine", come from various other sources.[24] Two recitative passages, the first dealing with Peter's weeping after his betrayal and the second portraying the temple veil's ripping during the crucifixion, do not appear in the Gospel of John, but the Gospel of Matthew.[15]

A modern example originating in Communist Hungary demonstrates the congregational character of St John Passion. In the early 1950s musicians were allowed to play church music only in the frame of liturgy. However, the St John Passion is an almost complete Lutheran liturgy, focused on the Evangelium. Hence, by inserting four missing features, the whole Passion could be performed as if it were part of the liturgy.[b] There would have been no applause, either at the beginning or at the end. The Passion contains quite a few chorales that were in regular use in worship. The congregation and the audience, however, remained silent.[25][better source needed][26]


Es ist vollbracht: Alto enters after these first few bars of Viola da gamba solo. Continuo omitted
  • 'opening chorus': "Herr, unser Herrscher ..." ("Lord, our master, ..."). There is an orchestral intonation of 36 bars before the explosive entrance of the chorus. Each of these bars is a single stress of lower tones, weakening till the end of the bar. These bass beats are accompanied by the remaining instruments of higher tones, by legato singing the prospective theme. The last six bars of the orchestral intro produce a robust crescendo, ending with the loud shouts of "Herr, Herr, Herr!" in the first bars of the chorus. Soon, after the first part of the theme, comes the triple shout again, but this time, at the end of the bars, as a contra answer for the corresponding orchestral deep stresses at the beginning of the bars. Finally, the entire A section is repeated.[citation needed]
    "Herr, unser Herrscher" and "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" are very different in character.[17] The latter is full of torment in its text, but a serenely majestic piece of music. "Herr, unser Herrscher" sounds as if it has chains of dissonance between the two oboes and the turmoil of the roiling sixteenth notes in the strings. Especially, when they invade the bass, it is full of anguish and therefore it characterizes the St John Passion.[17]
  • commenting arias: The first part of the St John Passion includes three commenting arias. There is an alto aria, "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden" (From the bonds of my sins). This includes an intertwined oboe line that brings back many characteristics of the opening chorus.[17] Another aria is an enchanting flute and soprano duet, "Ich folge dir gleichfalls". In this piece the verbs "ziehen" (to pull) and "schieben" (to push) stimulate Bach's delight in musical illustration.[17] The third aria is a passionate tenor solo that is accompanied by all the instruments, "Ach, mein Sinn" (O my soul).[17]
  • the death of Jesus: "Es ist vollbracht! ..." ("It is accomplished; what comfort for suffering human souls! I can see the end of the night of sorrow. The hero from Judah ends his victorious fight. It is accomplished!"). The central part is essentially a viola da gamba solo and an alto aria. The theme is introduced by the viola da gamba gently accompanied by the basso continuo setting. Then comes the solo vocal interpretation.[citation needed]
  • closing chorale: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein ... (O Lord, let your dear little angels ...). This chorale – with alternative lyrics – is still in regular use in the congregations.[27] The beginning of the theme is a descending sequence, but in overall the theme is full of emotion as well.[16] Singing this chorale standalone, however, does not sound as a closing chorale, except if it is sung at the end of a real ceremony.[citation needed]


The text Bach set to music has been criticized as anti-Semitic.[28] This accusation is closely connected to a wider controversy regarding the tone of the New Testament's Gospel of John with regards to Judaism.[29]

Lukas Foss, who came to the United States in 1937 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, changed the text from "Juden" to "Leute" (people) when he conducted performances of the work.[28] This has been the trend of numerous mainline Christian denominations since the late 20th century as well, for instance, the Episcopal Church, when they read the gospel during Good Friday services. Michael Marissen's Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's 'St John's Passion' examines the controversy in detail.[30] He concludes that Bach's St John Passion and St Matthew Passion contain fewer statements derogatory toward Jews than many other contemporary musical settings of the Passion. He also noted that Bach used words for the commenting arias and hymns that tended to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from "the Jews" to the congregation of Christians.[29]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Steinberg 2005, p. 19
  2. ^ Williams, Peter. The Life of Bach, 114. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004.
  3. ^ a b Rathey 2016
  4. ^ Daw, Stephen. The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Choral Works, 107. Canada: Associated University Presses, Inc. 1981.
  5. ^ Steinberg 2005, p. 22.
  6. ^ a b c Wolff 2000, p. 291
  7. ^ "St John Passion – Bach".
  8. ^ Dreyfus, Laurence. The Triumph of 'Instrumental Melody': Aspects of Musical Poetics in Bach's St John Passion. In Melamed, Daniel R. Bach Perspectives, Volume 8: J. S. Bach and the Oratorio Tradition, 100–101. University of Illinois Press. 2011. ISBN 978-0-252-03584-5.
  9. ^ The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245 commentary of Michael Steinberg (2004)
  10. ^ Architecture and Sources of the St John Passion Archived 2011-07-07 at the Wayback Machine Neuer Basler Kammerchor (in German)
  11. ^ Wolff 2000, pp. 293–294.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Wolff 2000, p. 294
  13. ^ Wolff 2000, p. 297.
  14. ^ Melamed 2005, p. 72
  15. ^ a b c Melamed 2005, p. 75
  16. ^ a b Steinberg 2005, p. 25
  17. ^ a b c d e f Steinberg 2005, p. 21
  18. ^ a b c d e Herz1985, p. 58
  19. ^ Hochreither, Karl. Performance Practice of the Instrumental-Vocal Works of Johann Sebastian Bach, 11. Maryland, The Scarecrow Press. 2002.
  20. ^ Herz 1985, p. 94.
  21. ^ Herz 1985, p. 199.
  22. ^ Steinberg 2005, p. 20.
  23. ^ Wolff 2000, p. 292.
  24. ^ Wolff 2000, p. 293.
  25. ^ BWV 245, 10 April 2009, TajKéAp (in Hungarian)
  26. ^ A Deák téri János passió-előadások kulisszatitkaiból I. Archived 2012-08-02 at (in Hungarian)
  27. ^ see the score of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary
  28. ^ a b Steinberg 2005, p. 23
  29. ^ a b Steinberg 2005, p. 26
  30. ^ Marissen 1998.


  1. ^ Bach's Latin title is more literally "Passion according to John".
  2. ^ These missing features are, in order:
    1. Before the beginning of the service, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.", announced by the priest; this is the start of a Lutheran liturgy.
    2. Between the first and second part of the Passion, the priest gives a very short sermon, intended to be understood even by non-believers.
    3. The congregation prays the Pater noster together, after Jesus' death "Und neiget das Haupt und verschied" and before the aria-chorale "Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen".
    4. At the end, the blessing is given by the priest: "The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace." (Numbers 6:24–26).


  • Herz, Gerhard (1985). Essays on J. S. Bach. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press.
  • Marissen, Michael (1998). Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism, and Bach's St. John Passion. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195344349.
  • Melamed, Daniel R. (2005). Hearing Bach's Passions. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rathey, Markus (2016). Bach's Major Vocal Works. Music, Drama, Liturgy. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300217209.
  • Steinberg, Michael (2005). Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-802921-7.
  • Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit