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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 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?