Complete even though Uncompleted

Bach’s St. John Passion and its Dramatic History of Origin

Bach pulled out everything in his St. John Passion: the orchestra included almost every conceivable instrument in the original version of the piece. His lyricist used very pictorial language. Bach added a sea of musical affects to the powerful language, which in its diversity and complexity is overwhelming and, in the best sense of the word, “theatrical”.

When the court Kapellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach from Köthen took up his post as music director and Kantor of St. Thomas’s School in the early summer of 1723, the weekly performance and composition of cantatas for church services on Sundays and feast days became the focus of his artistic work. In addition, he was obliged every year to deliver a musical rendition of one of the four biblical passion narratives for the vespers service on Good Friday. The latter was undoubtedly the greatest challenge for the Kantor, as the length of a passion composition exceeds that of a cantata many times over. But because there was a strict ban on music-making during the six weeks of Lent in Leipzig, Bach had comparatively much preparation time at his disposal. And so he was able to put his own personal stamp on the event already for his first Good Friday vespers on 7 April 1724. However, he had to demonstrate sensitivity. The practice of figural passion music, which had also become customary in Leipzig since 1721, was (still) controversial. The interplay of sung recitation of a gospel text and the performance of freely texted arias and choruses, embellishing and reflecting on the biblical passion narrative in an atmospheric and often dramatic way, seemed to some contemporaries too much like “sacred opera.” For this reason also, Bach had to promise in his contract of employment as Kantor of St. Thomas in 1723 that he would “arrange the music in such a manner that it would not last too long, that it would also be made in such a way that it would not turn out operatic in nature, but rather would encourage the listeners to devotion.”

Dr. Michael Maul studied musicology, journalism and business administration. Since 2002, Maul has worked as a research assistant at the Bach Archive, and since 2018 he has been the artistic director of the Bachfest Leipzig. Maul is a member of the board of directors of the Neue Bachgesellschaft and academic supervisor of the Musikerbe Thüringen project. He is a lecturer at the University of Leipzig and at the Leipzig University of Music and Theatre.


Nevertheless, Bach pulled out all the stops for his St. John Passion, even the dramatic ones: already in the original version of the piece, the orchestra included almost every conceivable instrument (apart from brass instruments, the use of which in passion music was unthinkable). His librettist, whose name is unknown to us, used very graphic language and borrowed much from the famous libretto “Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus” (“The Story of Jesus, Suffering and Dying for the Sins of the World”) by the Hamburg patrician Barthold Hinrich Brockes (1712), which in turn contains forceful metaphors. Bach added an ocean of musical affects to the powerful language which is overwhelming in its diversity and complexity and “theatrical” in the best sense of the word. In view of this unmistakably dramatic strategy, it is not surprising that Bach and his librettist also borrowed textual material from St. Matthew’s passion narrative for the libretto, for example, for the description of the events around Golgotha immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, which is missing in the Gospel of St. John.

In the spring of 1725, when Bach was due to perform another passion music, he decided to present the St. John Passion again, but in a substantially altered version. He added three new arias and deleted older numbers. He replaced both the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Lord) and the closing chorus (“Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein” / Oh Lord, let your dear little angels) – the former with a large-scale arrangement of the passion chorale “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (Oh man, bemoan thy grievous sin), and the latter with an extended choral fantasy on “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” (“Christ, Thou Lamb of God”). The third version of 1732 was much more restrained. Apparently, the arias and choruses added in 1725 were largely removed; the dramatic text passages taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew were also deleted.

Four years later (1736) Bach made a meticulous fair copy of his St. Matthew Passion. It seems that towards the end of the 1730s he wanted to proceed in a similar manner with the St. John Passion. In any event, at that time he began compiling a final score. Strangely enough, Bach did not get beyond the first ten movements. The reasons for aborting the project “Completion of the St. John Passion,” which apparently was to lead to a new performance of the Passion on Good Friday 1739, are not exactly clear. In any case, they did not weigh heavily enough to prevent Bach from a further performance, which according to estimates must have taken place on Good Friday 1749 or even in 1750, the year of Bach’s death. In this performance, Bach returned to the original version in many details. In movements 19 and 20, however, he ordered re-instrumentations. There were also text changes in movements 9, 19, and 20 (see German Foreword). Much thought has been given to whether the changes were made for theological reasons or in order to mellow the forceful metaphors of the High Baroque poetry, which might in the meantime have been perceived as turgid. The interventions could, of course, also be due to the overzealousness of the main copyist responsible.

What is also striking about the surviving performance material for the fourth version of the St. John Passion is the large performance apparatus that becomes evident: according to the original parts, Bach scored the opulent continuo group this time (in addition to the low strings) with two harpsichords, an organ as well as – a singularity for Bach – a “Bassono grosso,” i. e., a contrabassoon. In addition, it seems that Bach experimented with the singer allocation for this late performance. It is in any event remarkable that with an already trembling hand, the aged Kantor copied out a separate part for “Petrus & Pilatus” on the occasion of this performance, which contains only these parts and otherwise dozens of tacet indications. According to the older sets of parts, these bass parts had been sung from the choir in the earlier performances – as had all the other actors.

It seems that in the performance of 1749/50, the singers performing the dramatis personae should neither sing the chorales nor the choruses, but be positioned separately from the other singers. If we interpret the sources correctly, then old Bach, in his last documented performance of the St. John Passion, experimented with a performance practice that was much closer to that of the 19th century than we generally assume today. Far more than before, this would have lent the dramatic St. John Passion the character of a passion play. However, this remains speculation, because ultimately none of the four documented versions has survived in a complete set of performance materials.

St. John Passion

Bach’s St. John Passion underwent several fundamental changes. Charus offers all surviving versions, including versions II and IV which were performed by Bach. 

Version I (1724)
Similar to version IV, but not reconstructable
The Movements 19 and 20 are available in instrumentation variants with violen d’amore and lute.

Version II (1725)
This Version deviates the most from the known versions and integrates the St. John Passion into the year of chorale cantatas.
The instrumentation correspondes to that of 1749 but with a slightly different in the oboes and without bassono grosso.

  • full score: Carus 31.245/50
  • vocal score: Carus 31.245/53
  • set of parts: Carus 31.245/69

Version IV (1749)
The version performed by Bach 1749 largely corresponds to version I and from Movement 11 also to the traditional version, which is often performed, but with partly clear text changes and a slightly different instrumentation.

  • full score: Carus 31.245
  • vocal score: 31.245/03
  • set of parts: 31.245/19

Full Score and performance material allow the performance of the 1749 version as well as the traditional version.

Traditional Version (1739/1749)
The traditional version with partially autographed score is stull performed most frequently.

This circumstance should, of course, not trouble those who today laboriously try to reconstruct one of the original versions or attempt their own solution. There is one thing Bach’s – sometimes pragmatic – treatment of his St. John Passion teaches us without any doubt. He gives the lie to all who claim that the surviving musical text is the only binding truth and that any embellishment or change extending beyond the written documentation is sacrilege. In every performance, Bach experimented with the disposition and tonal effectiveness of the piece. And right until the end, he could not or did not choose to commit himself to a binding form for the work. In this manner, he not only bequeathed to posterity a complete and at the same time uncompleted composition, but at the same time entrusted it with the task of achieving convincing “versions” themselves, with a mixture of humility, creativity and pragmatism.

Johann Sebastian Bach

St. John Passion (Version IV 1749)

With the unfinished revision (1739) as an appendix. The St. John Passion ranks among the great vocal works from Bach’s Leipzig years. In contrast to his other large-scale choral works, however, Bach never gave this work a definitive final form. 

St. John Passion (Version 1739) (App)

Bach’s St. John Passion is one of the most magnificent passion settings in the history of music. Four respectively diverging performances by Bach himself are documented. Bach began copying yet another differing fair copy, but it was completed by a copyist.

St. John Passion (Version II)

The St. John Passion ranks alongside the St. Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the Magnificat and the B minor Mass as one of the great vocal works from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Leipzig years. In contrast to his other large-scale choral works, however, Bach never gave this work a definitive final form.

St. John Passion (Version IV) (CD)

The St John Passion occupies a special place in Johann Sebastian Bach’s output. Hardly any other work survives in so many and, at the same time, such different versions. 

St. Matthew Passion

Every era hears and interprets Bach anew, and every era also evaluates the sources afresh and with new eyes. 40 years after the publication of the St. Matthew Passion in the New Bach Edition, Klaus Hofmann, Director of the Johann Sebastian Bach Institute Göttingen for many years and a contributing editor to the New Bach Edition, presents a new edition.

Thou very God and David’s Son

Bach wrote the cantata “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” as a test piece in connection with his application for the position of Cantor of St. Thomas. 

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