Get in the scene! (Holy Week, Monday)

Posted on: 5 April 2020, by :

For Monday of Holy Week. This is the second post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020.

With this intense 10-minute opening movement of the Passion according to St John (Leipzig, Good Friday, 7 April 1724), Bach brings us — forcefully pushes us — into the drama of the events that led to Christ’s crucifixion. If you doubt its effect, try listening with eyes closed, for this is drama staged and watched in the mind’s eye. The German text translates as Lord, our ruler, whose fame in all lands is glorious! Show us, through your Passion, that you, the true son of God, at all times, even in the greatest lowliness, have been glorified!

It’s a framing: the carefully constructed context in which we are expected to receive the message in a particular way. But that framing comes scarcely at all from those words being sung, which are a non-dramatic, dedicatory prayer, asking to be shown Christ’s glory, that could have been set to music in another way entirely (and briefly). The incongruity between worthy churchy words and unsettling non-churchy music may seem baffling, as if we miss the point, or don’t understand theology sufficiently to get the point. It’s one of the most notable examples of music expressing what words alone do not express, or expressing what words do not even attempt to express.

A performance in March 2017 in Naarden by the Netherlands Bach Society directed by Jos van Veldhoven. To see more of it, from movement 2, click here. The full libretto with an English translation is here.

Bach’s intention was surely threefold: to deliver that prayer, to prefigure the first scene and the drama that unfolds from there, while simultaneously helping us (by disturbing our senses) to feel the emotional weight of all that Christ’s Passion implies. The big clue is in the words that follow: from movement 2 onwards the Gospel account itself is delivered, beginning from John 18 verse 1. We are thrust suddenly into the turbulent scene in the garden when Jesus is arrested with no mention of earlier episodes in the Passion story (the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, etc.) that are related in John 11 and 12. Why? — Because St John’s account is quite long and cannot all be squeezed into one evening’s drama over a few hours. Passion settings in the Lutheran tradition were designed for church performance on Good Friday and had to accommodate not only the Gospel narrative (verbatim, in German, and sung throughout) but also the interpolation of additional texts written by a librettist that interpret the scenes and aid devotion for both the individual believer and the congregation gathered together.