The Passion reimagined

Posted on: 1 April 2021, by :

This post, for Maundy Thursday, is in a series for Lent to Easter, 2021

Passion dramas in the Lutheran tradition, designed for performance in church during Holy Week, generally adhere to the Biblical text of one of the four Gospels, much of it sung by a narrator: in this method, actual persons (Judas, Caiphas, Pilate, etc., and Jesus himself) sing only when the Biblical account reports their spoken words. A different approach is taken in the Passion libretto published in Hamburg in 1712 by the poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes—Der für der Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbender Jesus (Jesus martyred and dying for the wickedness of the world)—which became extremely influential and was set by many composers over a forty-year period. Brockes conflated elements from the various Gospel accounts, paraphrasing them and elaborating upon them, and invented some additional speech for the characters. In this reimagined way we get to hear more of the characters’ thoughts and witness their emotional conflicts, particularly in the scenes constructed as soliloquies with declamatory recitatives. For today I’ve selected three of these special moments in the drama from the setting by Handel composed in c1716 and probably first performed in Hamburg in 1719, with extracts from the performance in April 2019 in the cathedral at Brixen by the NDR Choir and Le Concert Lorrain, directed by Stephan Schultz. The English translation is by Moritz Grimm, from the work’s complete libretto available here.

(1) Jesus is alone on the Mount of Olives prior to his arrest, or at least feels alone (his disciples have fallen asleep). He is deeply fearful and prays.

Aria: Jesus
My Father, my Father!
see how I suffer,
be merciful,
be merciful in my time of need!
My heart is breaking,
and my soul is anguished
even unto death.

Recitative: Jesus
The heavy burden of sins
weighs me down,
the terrors of the abyss overwhelm me,
a slimy quagmire that is bottomless
threatens to bury me;
the wild fires of hell force marrow 
and blood from my bones and veins.
And since as well as all these torments
I must endure your wrath, O Father,
beside which all tortures are slight,
there is no pain like mine.

Aria resumed: Jesus
If it is possible, if it is possible
that your anger can be assuaged,
then let this cup pass from me.
Yet, Father, it is not my will
but your will alone that must be fulfilled.
Aria: Jesus
Mein Vater, mein Vater!
Schau, wie ich mich quäle,
Erbarme dich, 
Erbame dich ob meiner Not,
Mein Herze bricht,
Und meine Seele betrübet sich
Bis an den Tod!

Recitative: Jesus
Mich drückt der Sünden 
Mich ängstiget des Abgrunds Schrekken,
Mich will ein schlammigter Morast,
Der Grundlos ist, bedekken;
Mir preßt der Höllen wilde Glut
Aus Bein und Adern Mark und Blut.
Und weil ich noch zu allen Plagen
Muß deinen Grimm, o Vater, tragen,
Vor welchem alle Marter leicht,
So ist kein Schmerz, der meinem gleicht.

Aria, resumed: Jesus
Ist's möglich, ist's möglich
Daß dein Zorn sich stille, 
So laß den Kelch vorüber gehn, 
Doch müsse, Vater, nicht mein Wille, 
Dein Wille nur allein geschehen!

(2) The apostle Peter has just denied knowing Jesus three times, the cock has crowed and he has wept bitterly. In a soliloquy he has already expressed his ‘unbearable agony’ of self-loathing and condemned himself as a ‘skulking sinner’ and in other extreme terms. Here, as the soliloquy continues, in his remorse he determines to seek forgiveness.

Recitative: Peter
But what, shall I perish in despair?
No, my oppressed heart,
my timorous spirit
shall entreat the wondrous kindness
and grace of my Jesus.

Aria: Peter
See, full of repentance I fall at your feet,
redeemer of sins.
Show me your mercy,
so that the Prince of Darkness,
who laughed at my failings,
may weep at my tears!
Recitative: Peter
Doch wie, will ich verzweifelnd untergehn?
Nein, mein beklemmtes Herz,
Mein schüchternes Gemüte
Soll meines Jesus Wundergüte
Und Gnad' anflehn.

Aria: Peter
Schau, ich fall' in strenger Buße,
Sündenbüßer, dir zu Fuße,
Laß mir deine Gnad' erscheinen,
Daß der Fürst der dunklen Nacht,
Der, da ich gefehlt, gelacht,
Mög' ob meinen Tränen weinen!

For more music for Holy Week, see the series from 2020.

(3) Jesus has been condemned by Pilate, mocked and brutally scourged. Here, his mother Mary reacts with horror as she watches her son being dragged off for execution and forced to carry the cross, and manages to speak with him briefly. With ‘a sword pierces my soul’ this text references the Stabat Mater.

Recitative: Mary
Oh God, oh God!
My son is dragged off,
is torn away!
Where are you leading him,
vile murderers?
To death, so I perceive.
Must I witness his death,
I, his afflicted mother?
How heavy is the weight of my sorrow!
A sword pierces my soul,
My child, my Lord, my God perishes!
For so many wondrous deeds,
is the cross now his reward?
Oh God, my son!

Mary: Must my child, my life, die?
And does my blood pour out his blood?

Jesus: Yes, I die for your good,
To secure your place in heaven.
Recitative: Mary
Ach Gott, ach Gott!
Mein Sohn wird fortgeschleppt,
Wird weggerissen!
Wo führt ihr ihn, 
Verruchte Mörder, hin?
Zum Tode, wie ich merke.
Hab' ich den seinen Tod erleben müssen,
Gekränkte Mutter, die ich bin?
Wie schwer ist meines Jammers Last!
Es dringt ein Schwert durch meine Seele,
Mein Kind, mein Herr, mein Gott erblaßt!
Ist den für so viel Wunderwerke
Nunmehr das Kreuz sein Lohn?
Ach Gott! Ach Gott! Mein Sohn!

Mary: Soll mein Kind, mein Leben sterben,
Und vergießt mein Blut sein Blut?

Jesus: Ja, ich sterbe dir zu gut,
Dir den Himmel zu erwerben.