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Conductor’s Note: The Story of Bach’s St. John Passion

Editor’s note: Apollo’s Fires & Apollo’s Singers perform Bach’s St. John Passion in Ann Arbor on March 15, 2016. Jeannette Sorrell, the conductor of the group, shares this note as suggested reading ahead of the performance.

Apollos Fire 1 by Sally Brown
Photo: Apollo’s Fire. Photo by Sally Brown.

This will be a “dramatic presentation” of the St. John Passion. Though we will provide the complete libretto and translation, we invite you to disregard it during the concert, and let yourself watch the stage and contemplate the music. We will be singing in German but you only need to know the following:

The Story

The setting is Jerusalem in the year C.E. 33. A turbulent “overture” or orchestral introduction paints a musical picture of humanity’s distress and chaos, and of the tumultuous events about to unfold. We meet our narrator — the Apostle John, also called the Evangelist — who was Jesus’ most “beloved disciple.” John will relay his eyewitness account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

Scene 1 takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane in the evening. A band of men has arrived to arrest Jesus and take him to the High Priest for questioning. The High Priest’s soldiers were tipped off by Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Jesus is bound and led away. The scene concludes with an aria sung by the alto with oboes in sinuous dialogue, reflecting how Jesus has been bound and shackled in order to liberate us from the shackles of our sins.

In Scene 2, John tells us how he (the “beloved disciple”) and his comrade Simon Peter followed the soldiers to the palace and observed Jesus’ interrogation by the High Priest. As the night grows cold, bystanders recognize Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter denies it. By dawn, when the cock crows, Peter has denied Jesus three times. This had been predicted by Jesus just 12 hours ago, at his last supper with his disciples. Peter is filled with remorse and cries bitterly. The scene concludes with an aria sung by tenor (reflecting on the remorse that comes from sin); and a chorale (hymn) sung by the Chorus, asking God to teach us through our conscience.

After intermission, the Chorus tells us what will now unfold: Jesus will be led before a godless throng, falsely convicted, scorned and spat upon, all as the Word (the scriptures and Old Testament prophets) had predicted.

Scene 3 is Jesus’ trial before the Roman governor, Pilatus (in Latin) or Pontius Pilate. The Chief Priests have brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment, but Pilate tells them to take him away and judge him according to their own laws. The priests and the mob cry out that they do not have the authority to do put someone to death, since the Jews are governed by Rome. Pilate goes into the Judgment Hall and questions Jesus. Finding no fault in Jesus, he returns to the mob outside and offers to release him. But the mob wants a different prisoner released — Barrabas, a murderer. Then Pilate has Jesus flogged, hoping this will be enough to satisfy the mob. The scene concludes with an arioso sung by baritone (meditating on the crown of thorns that will pierce Jesus’ head, which will bear Heaven-scented flowers, a precious gift for us) and an aria sung by tenor, contemplating the image of Jesus’ blood-spattered body as a rainbow of hope in the Heavens.

In Scene 4, the soldiers in the Judgment Hall dress the flogged Jesus in the crown of thorns and a purple robe. Pilate brings Jesus outside to the crowd, again saying that he finds no fault in him. The priests and the mob cry, “Crucify him!” The exasperated Pilate tells them to take Jesus if they want, repeating that he himself finds no fault in him. The crowd replies that Jesus must perish as he claimed to be the Son of God. Pilate is frightened by the mob’s fury. He returns into the Judgment Hall again to ask Jesus, “Where are you from?” He begs Jesus to answer so that he can help him. Jesus replies only that Pilate has no power to help him — true power comes from above. Pilate tries to find a way to release Jesus. The mob outside tells Pilate that if he releases Jesus, he is going against Caesar, since Jesus made himself a King. Pilate brings Jesus out again and the crowd again cries, “Crucify him!” Finally Pilate delivers Jesus to be crucified. Jesus is led away, bearing his own cross to the Place of Skulls (Golgatha). The scene concludes with an aria for bass, calling us all as the people of God to run to Golgatha where salvation awaits us.

Scene 5 is the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Pilate writes an inscription that is placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The crowd wants Pilate to change it to indicate that Jesus is the one who said he was their Lord. Pilate has had enough of the mob and tells them, “What I have written shall be as I have written.” Then the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes — this is a wild and greedy race of words by the Chorus. In his final hour, Jesus sees his mother Mary standing by, as well as “the beloved disciple” (John). He asks John to care for Mary as his own mother. Then Jesus says, “It is fulfilled.” This is followed by a contemplative aria sung by alto, with a plaintive viola da gamba solo. Jesus breathes his last, and then an aria for bass and chorus reflects on the hope that Jesus’ death gives us: Are we now free from Death, because Jesus died for us?

In the short Scene 6, Nature responds violently to Jesus’ death: the veil of the temple is rent in two, the earth is shaken and graves are opened up. A short reflective arioso for tenor contemplates the frightening earthquake. The scene concludes with a sorrowful aria for soprano, lamenting Jesus’ death.

In Scene 7, John describes the burial of Jesus. The Chorus lays Jesus to rest by singing the beautiful and famous “Ruht wohl” (Rest well, my beloved, be fully at peace”). A brief epilogue by the Chorus contemplates the mystical hope in Jesus’s death and the ecstatic joy we will find in our own death, as we will be reunited with our Savior whom we praise eternally.

See Apollo’s Fires & Apollo’s Singers perform Bach’s St. John Passion in Ann Arbor on March 15, 2016.

What is it about Bach?

“I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” — Albert Einstein

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Recently, I stumbled upon an NPR interview with Sir András Schiff about his Well-Tempered Clavier project; in it Schiff shared his love of J.S. Bach and the special connection he feels to the composer.

As a bass player I’ve rarely had the good fortune of having solo pieces written by big-wig composers; instead, I’ve usually begged, borrowed, and stolen from cello, the violin, and the viola repertoires. It’s a blessing and a curse; I’m never made to perform only music expressly written for the bass, but I’ve also rarely had the pleasure of playing a piece written with my comfort and capabilities in mind. J.S. Bach is one of the many composers who never wrote for the bass, but whose music I’m perfectly happy to play anyway.

Bach is like snorkeling

gil shaham

Photo: Gil Shaham, who plays Bach Partitas on March 16, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

John Eliot Gardiner, the author of the Bach biography Music In The Castle of Heaven, jokes that Bach is like snorkeling. “Being in Bach’s music has that sense of otherness: it’s another world we enter, as performers or listeners. You put your mask on, and you go down to a psychedelic world of myriad colors” (Burton-Hill, 2014)

In my experience, every musician has an arduous yet ardent relationship with Bach. His music, like no other, seizes us, conquers our hearts and souls, and spits us back out slightly changed. Each listen brings a slightly new experience.

Bach and me

The first time I played music by J.S. Bach was in high school band. We used a Bach chorale each class to focus on phrasing and intonation. I looked forward to these fifteen minutes every day. I found that being embraced by the wholehearted reverberations of the other musicians’ Bach-playing left me with a kind of peace and calm unmatched by anything I’d felt before. Each detail of the chorale seemed minute and gargantuan at the same time, and I could find the patience to work on problem areas in my own playing because my love and respect for Bach was so great.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the first piece bass professor Diana Gannett assigned me was the Gigue in the First Cello Suite. Playing through a Bach Cello Suite is perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding acrobatic feats that I’ve forced upon myself as a bassist. I have listened to countless cellists perform Bach’s masterworks for cello, so my competitive self is disappointed when I fall short of the standard they’ve set; nevertheless, these cellists have also helped define my musical goals. Bach keeps. Bach keeps me humble while giving me unflagging energy for the process of becoming a better musician.

I would never consider performing Bach for an audience; I find that my relationship with Bach is about the intense personal experience of playing his music for my ears alone. It’s become a morning ritual, something I cannot live without.

As Schiff says in his interview, playing Bach is a work in process that never ends. He continues to say that there are new stations that you arrive at on your exploration of the mystery of his music, but you can only hope to see a wider horizon along the journey. I’ve only just begun my journey as a professional musician, and my love for Bach is sure to be what sustains me.

Are you a lover of Bach? If not, what piece of music or what composer is “sacred” to you?

Gil Shaham performs Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas with original films by David Michalek on March 26, 2014.

Take a break and listen to Mstislav Rostropovich play Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007


Burton-Hill, Clemency (2014, September 17) Can Any Composer Equal Bach? Retrieved on July 30, 2015.

What makes music sacred?

on left apollo's fire on right simon shaheen
Photo: On left, Apollo’s Fire, who perform Bach’s St. John Passion on March 15, 2016. On right, Simon Shaheen, who performs in Zafir on April 15, 2016. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Many people have a “sacred” song—one that especially resonates with or inspires. But what is the meaning of “sacred,” and what about music resonates so deeply? To try to get a sense of the answers to these questions, I asked surveyed a group of University of Michigan students about music that they consider sacred.

For some, a work calls to mind their religious origin and helps them seek a connection with a greater power. Hitomi, recent LSA music graduate, describes her sacred song: “The very first song that came to mind was Ave Maria. I feel that the lyrics evoke spirituality. It’s also a commonly known [religious] piece, so that’s why I associate the melody with connecting with spiritual existence. I experience a sense of serenity and calmness when I listen to Ave Maria. It’s like I’m getting cleansed from all of the negative feelings I might have at the moment.”

For others, like Abigail, a viola performance major, the “sacred” quality of music has to do with the context in which a piece was written. When asked about musical works that are sacred for her, Abigail explains: “Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is sacred to me; it’s very emotionally volatile. It’s especially dear to me because it was the last symphony Tchaikovsky wrote before he died, and there’s been so much discussion over what the symphony meant and whether it was a “suicide note.” I feel like the symphony is so emotionally intense that Tchaikovsky definitely had to have been going through something big in his life, but as far as I know, nobody’s really sure exactly what that was. I kind of like the mystery though — it leaves a lot more room for imagination.”

Monica, trumpet player in the Michigan Marching Band, holds a special affinity with the lyrics of her sacred song, Sara Bareilles’s Uncharted. Monica explains, “[The song] is about what to do when confronted with the unknown, when you are afraid of which direction to go in next, and about taking risks for yourself rather than follow what everyone else is doing. My favorite line is ‘compare where you are to where you want to be and you’ll get nowhere.’ [Uncharted is a song] of introspection, agency, and assurance. It suggests that ‘gold’ is not extra valuable just because everyone else seems to want it. Something ‘uncharted’ can be more valuable because you have the opportunity to make it mean as much as you want it to for yourself.”

Some songs are sacred because when we listen to them, they call to mind memories. Penny Stamps School of Art student and acoustic guitar enthusiast Hayden tells the story of her sacred song: “The Moon Song by Karen O made me cry the first time I heard it.” Hayden continues, “I was watching the movie Her on a long flight home from Ireland. I made it my mission to find out what the song [in the movie] was, and to learn it. I don’t really use my ukulele—you’ll usually find me jamming on guitar—but I picked it up so I could learn the Moon Song. [The song is] not even in my vocal range, but it gives me the warm fuzzies whenever I play it. I think that I like it so much because it brought me a dose of joy when I was sad to be a leaving a place where I wanted to stay, and on a mode of transportation that scares me to death. [The song] has that same dose of joy every time I plunk it out on my ukulele.”

Ryan, bassoon player in the Akropolis String Quartet, recalls the childhood memory tied to his sacred song, I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly. He says, “This might be a strange choice, especially because I will admit to knowing very few of the lyrics (just the famous chorus), and I haven’t listened to the studio recording of it in years. But, I associate that song with my deep childhood love of the movie Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. That movie taught me, in equal importance, the necessity of hard work and joy in the pursuit of my dreams (at the time, a career as a basketball player, but eventually music…). Since, the song has become a mental soundtrack much of the work I’ve put forth in life, and I have probably song the chorus out loud in front of people more than anything else I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I sing it in jest, sometimes I sing it sincerely—in private of course.”

Music can be sacred for many reasons. From Bach’s St. John’s Passion performed by Apollo’s Fire to the music of Andalucia in Simon Shaheen’s Zafir performance, there are many definitions of the sacred to explore through UMS performance in the upcoming season.

What’s your “sacred” music? What makes it sacred for you?

What music speaks to you?

Do you have a composer or specific piece of music that’s followed you throughout your life? Inspired by Sir András Schiff’s well-known love of Bach, I did an informal poll of current students and recent graduates at U-M School of Music, Theater, and Dance. Here are some of their responses:

word cloud of composers mentioned by students

Image: Music that speaks to music students, visualized.

I love anything by Bach – I find it really easy to learn and play. I think very linearly in music and not vertically (harmonically), and Bach’s piano works are typically all about the interplay of lines. — Christina Liu, ’12 M.M. Piano Performance & Chamber Music Performance

marlo williamsThere’s just so much there to work with, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is absolutely delicious and different every time depending on the emotional ingredients you put into it. It changes with your life. It’s like magic. — Marlo Williams, ’16 M.M. Double Bass Performance

My favorite composer changes weekly, but one piece I always return to is Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It’s beautifully quiet, tranquil, and has an element of darkness and sadness that I find incredibly alluring. Although I am no longer a violinist by trade, whenever the chaos gets to me, I always retreat to this work. — Gunnar Foster, ‘15 B.S. Mathematics

emily hoffnerAs a horn player, Mahler never stops speaking to me. There are just so many characters that he allows the horn to be in his symphonies…and so many soulful voices and colors. In 2012 I performed Mahler 7 with USO, and just last week I played it at a festival.  It reminds me of the “good ole days” at Michigan. — ‘14 B.M. French Horn Performance

Appalachian Spring & Beethoven 7. I played these my first year at Interlochen as a high school student. It was the first time I was in a really good orchestra. — Chris Livesay, ‘14 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

kat stiehI initially loved Apocryphal by Vinnie Sperrazza, a New York jazz drummer, because of its use of space and its instrumental effects. I keep returning to it and finding appreciation for it in new ways. — Kat Steih, ’14 B.S. Physics and Performing Arts Technology

The musical Sunday in the Park with George  because Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music have so much humanity embedded under every choice of note and word. His work opens up all my wounds and heals them at the same time. — Kevin Goldberg, ‘16  B.M. Music Directing and Conducting for Musical Theatre

zoe kumagaiMinuet I in G major from the Cello Suite No 1 by Bach. But I don’t have a very good explanation. It just feels good. — Zoe Kumagai, ‘14 B.M. Double Bass Performance

I’ve always been drawn to Tchaikovsky, and since my voice recently dropped into a proper tenor range, I’m learning Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin (which has always been one of my favorite operas). It’s such a huge joy, and I feel like I really connect with both the subtleties of the characters and the overt romanticism of the music. — Holden Madagame, ‘14 B.M. Vocal Performance

tessa-romanoAnything by Mozart because his coloratura for mezzo is so satisfying to sing. Also, I love the jazz standard called Misty because jazz is something I sing for myself, although I don’t really perform it.  — Tessa Romano, ’15 M.M. Vocal Performance

Brahms Requiem is up there on the list of pieces I could play all day and forever. — Rachel Paxton, ‘16 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

maren laurenceI am always drawn to Debussy’s music; to me, his music is magical. His music has a certain feeling of calmness that transports you into a fantasy. When I play it, I feel a story in everything.  — Maren Laurence, ‘14 B.M. Harp Performance

As far as the tuba goes, I always find myself playing the Arild Plau concerto, which is probably the most beautiful piece we have. It’s incredibly simple and elegant, which is a great contrast to the ponderous and bombastic music tubas so often play. — Mike Frasier, ‘14 B.M. Tuba Performance

libby-seidnerI return to Bach’s Partita for Solo Flute often as a performer because it provides never ending technical challenges, and has renewed meaning for me depending on where I am in my life.  — Libby Seidner, ‘15 B.M. Instrumental Music Education


matt-rynesThe piece I keep returning to is the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. No other piece walks the line between rapturous beauty and grotesque horror so convincingly. When I first heard the piece a long time ago, I was completely overwhelmed by its scale and sense of euphoria I felt by the finale. — Matt Rynes, ’14 M.M. Clarinet Performance


annika sokolofskyComposers who are awesome again and again: Donnacha Dennehy, Julia Wolfe, Evan Chambers (duh!), Dan Trueman, Alan Bern — Annika Socolofsky, ’14 M.A. Composition



If you’d like to see a musician play one of his all-time favorite composers, stop by one of Sir András Schiff’s three concerts February 16-20. More info at 

So, do you have a piece of music that you love to perform? Is there a composer or band that you just can’t stop listening to? Share below.

Jennifer Koh performs 2/6

Ken Fischer tells us about Jennifer Koh’s upcoming performance in Ann Arbor. Interested in going to the concert? Get more info:

A [brief] UMS History Presentation: Bach Family Tree

So many Johanns, so little time. We can’t wait for the UMS presentation of Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin at Hill Auditorium on Sunday, April 13, 2014, and what better way to prepare for a Bach-themed concert than with a family tree of this gifted and musically enriched family.

Questions or comments? Leave them below.

Inside look: Bach’s Mass in b minor

On March 24th Bach Collegium Japan will deliver a complete performance of J.S. Bach’s masterful Mass in b minor in Hill Auditorium. While this concert has always been a calendar highlight for us Bach enthusiasts, the natural disasters that shook the pacific region on March 11th have made the need for musical catharsis more important than ever.

If you haven’t heard, UMS committed to donate 50% of ticket purchases from March 16-24 to the American Red Cross Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Relief fund, an organization chosen by Bach Collegium Japan. I imagine the members of the Collegium will hope their performance of the Mass is as cathartic to this tragedy as the New York Philharmonic’s 2002 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 was in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The Bach Collegium could not be better suited to strike a universal chord than with the music of J.S. Bach, one of the most widely beloved composers in the history of Western Music. Local Bach lovers are many and passionate, and it is likely Hill Auditorium will be packed to the rafters. The Mass in b minor is one of Bach’s most transcendent compositions, insofar as it contemporaneously united Bach’s staunch Lutheranism with the textual backbone of the Catholic mass service.

Symbolically re-contextualizing the Mass in b minor like this is not far-fetched, particularly because the work’s first performance was at a charity concert in Hamburg 36 years after Bach died. Obviously, the Mass was meant to be part of a Catholic church service, but its immense length and the fact that Bach completed it only a year before his death prevented the work from achieving its intended purpose. The Bach Collegium Japan’s historical period instruments will present the Mass within an aural context akin to Bach’s own time and may even sound more ‘authentic’ than the first complete performance of the work in 1859 seeing as conductors in that period often re-orchestrated much older works to suit their modern ensembles.

The Mass in b minor is an enormous work lasting over two hours in length. It has four main sections that essentially consist of alternating chorus and small group or solo movements. Many parts of the work are well-known as excerpts, so try not to experience the complete Mass as a sort of ‘connect-the-dots’ from one familiar movement to the other. Although full of minute details, I believe the Mass has a pretty clear long-term emotional arc similar to the non-Bach work I mentioned earlier: Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9.

Beyond its trademark choral writing, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 uses an expanded brass section in its final, glorious movement and the Mass in b minor undergoes a similar coloristic journey from beginning to end. The first Kyrie sets a very dark, dense tone for the works thanks in large part to a general absence of brass instruments in the orchestral accompaniment. Plaintive, mournful movements such as the choral Kyrie, Qui tollis peccatta mundi and solo Qui sedes ad dexteram and Benedictus prominently feature flute or oboe obligatto (solo) parts against the individual singers or highlight these instruments against the larger vocal ensemble. Beginning with the Et ressurexit movement halfway through part 3 of the whole work, the trumpets and horns play a larger and larger role in the choral movements which are more triumphant in tone.

Of course, there are exceptions to the ‘rule’ I’ve laid out – prominent brass parts in the early Gloria in excelsis and Quoniam to solus sanctus movements and reflective minor keys of two of the final four movements – but, to my ears, there is a clear evolution in instrumental color from beginning to end of the Mass in b minor, just like Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9. This is a powerful development on the composition’s largest scale: there is a transformation from the penitent darkness of the opening Kyrie to the mature confidence of the calmly glorious Dona nobis pacem, which closes the work.

From an emotional standpoint, I cannot yet imagine the power of the angelically soaring trumpet parts as the Dona nobis pacem (“Grant Us Peace”) drives to its final cadence, culminating both Bach’s masterpiece and the communal prayers the audience and performers. Bach Collegium Japan’s 3/17 performance in Grand Rapids was certainly reported to be a cathartic event, with a special meaning captured in this final movement. As I already noted, 50% of the proceeds accrued between March 16-24 will be donated to disaster relief, providing a spiritual and tangible act of support for the victims and survivors of the devastating earthquake.