J. S. Bach’s St John Passion was first performed on Good Friday, 7th April 1724. This year we celebrate the 300th anniversary of this remarkable work. 
 
Bach is one of the most famous composers of the Baroque era and his work has been celebrated by many notable composers including Mendelssohn. 
 
The Chorale from the first part of St John Passion is recommended in the New Model Music Curriculum. 
 
Taking inspiration from Bach's use of written text, our activity explores some things to consider when writing songs based on poems. 
 
Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas. Bach is holding a copy of the six-part canon BWV 1076. 
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Johann Sebastian Bach 

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in March 1685 (21st March in the new calendar and 31st March in the old calendar) in Eisenach in Germany. Bach came from a family of musicians and was the father of many more. He was the youngest and eighth child of Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. 
 
When he was 10, Bach was left an orphan and moved in with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, who was an organist. During this period, he studied, performed and copied music, learning about key composers of the time as well as studying theology, Latin and Greek. 
 
Bach’s career influenced the different types of music that he wrote. In 1703 he was appointed as court musician to Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. His reputation developed and he moved to become organist at the New Church (now called Bach Church) in Armstadt. However, Bach upset his employer, firstly by insulting the singers he worked with and then taking extended leave without approval. 
 
After a role at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen, Bach returned to Weimar in 1708, taking on the role of Konzertmeister (Concert Master) at the Ducal court in 1714. During this period he focussed on composing keyboard and orchestral pieces. He also began work on a series of preludes and fugues for keyboard, which later became his famous piece “The Well-Tempered Clavier”. He also performed in the castle church and wrote a number of cantatas
 
In 1717, Bach was appointed Kapellmeister (Direct translation Church Master, but used to mean Director of Music for Monarchs and Nobles) for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and during this period, he focussed on instrumental works including the Orchestral Suites, Cello Suites and the Brandenburg Concertos. 
In 1723, he became Thomaskantor, director of church music in Leipzig. During this period, he wrote many more cantatas as well as continuing to write instrumental music for Collegium Musicum concerts. 
 
From 1740, he copied, transcribed, expanded or programmed music from earlier composers such as Palestrina as well as his contemporaries such as Handel. 
 
Bach died on 28 July 1750 from complications due to an unsuccessful eye treatment. 
 
Bach’s music was categorised by theme in 1950 by librarian and musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder, and his works are given “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” or BWV numbers, rather than the traditional “opus” numbers usually found on music compositions. 
 
Bach's legacy lives on, as Gramophone states: 
 
"Bach is to music what Leonardo da Vinci is to art and Aristotle is to philosophy, one of the supreme creative geniuses of history." 
Denkmal von Johann Sebastian Bach an der Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Image: Appaloosa 

St John Passion, BWV 245 

The "St John Passion" is the earliest surviving Passion written by Bach. The concept of a “Passion” is to tell the story of the suffering and death of Jesus through drama and / or music. The word comes from the Latin verb “patior” which means “to suffer or endure”. 
 
The "St John Passion" is made up of recitatives, choruses and arias, telling of the Passion of Jesus - how Jesus was captured, led before Kaiphas, the Jewish High Priest and Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, judged, crucified and put to death. The text is inspired by chapters 18 and 19 of John’s Gospel in the New Testament, plus elements of Matthew’s Gospel and Psalm 8. For the solo arias, Bach used poetry from popular works associated with the Passion by authors such as Barthold Heinrich Brockes, Christina Weise and Christian Heinrich Postel. The work also includes hymns that would have been familiar to the original audience. It is written in two halves, to be performed either side of a sermon. 
 
The Passion is narrated by the “Evangelist”, sung by a tenor, and the roles of Peter and Pilate are sung by basses. Soldiers, priests and the general public are sung by the four-part chorus. 
 
The piece was due to be performed at St Thomas’s church in Leipzig on Good Friday, 7th April 1724, but the premiere was moved by the music council to St Nicholas’s church. Bach agreed to the change of venue, but highlighted that the choir loft needed more space for the performers and pointed out that the harpsichord needed repairing before the performance. 
 
Bach modified the piece in 1725, 1730 and 1749. Christoph Wolff, the German musicologist, commented that “as the work accompanied him right from his first year as Cantor of St Thomas’s to the penultimate year of his life, for that reason alone, how close it must have been to his heart.” 

Activity 

Bach was inspired by a range of sources for the text of the "St John Passion". This month’s activity is to set a text to music or create a soundtrack for a piece of text, inverting our earlier activities adding words to a piece of music
 
If creating a song - setting the words to music to be sung - think about the structure of the written piece. Poems can be helpful as they can have verse structures similar to songs. 
 
If creating a soundtrack to a written text, consider whether the piece will be through composed - one long piece that is continuous, non-sectional, and non-repetitive - or whether sections will be repeated. Will the music be a background to the words, or interact with them, perhaps passing the melody between the voice and instruments? How will the music take inspiration from the rhythms of the words? 
 
 
Some things to think about: 
What instruments will you use? How will you ensure the voice can be heard clearly? 
Will you have an introduction or will the instruments and voice begin at the same time? 
How will the piece end? Will the voice and instruments finish at the same time, or will one finish before the other? 
Will you use the words as they are written or will you repeat parts of the text, for example to create a verse and chorus structure? 
If using a verse and chorus structure, will each iteration be the same or will you vary instrumentation, dynamics, tempo / speed or other elements? 
Will you just have a melody line, or will you include chords to support the melody? 
 
Consider how the words will be captured in the music. Bach uses music to enhance the meaning of the words in his compositions, for example in the "St John Passion" when the Evangelist tells how Jesus is flogged, the flogging is clearly heard, both in the singing and in the accompanying continuo. In some of his works, he uses ascending notes when the words refer to heaven. 
 
The Bool Trust suggest these poems for performances and we think they would be great inspiration for either songs or for soundtracks. 
 
For inspiration, here are some examples of Shakespeare Sonnets being set to music: 
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