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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.