Culture

On its 300th anniversary, Bach's iconic work becomes even more meaningful

Bach's work finds its place even today among the colors of the war in Ukraine

Bach's work finds its place even today among the colors of the war in Ukraine

"The timeless themes make this work so current and universal," says Michael Maul, a Bach scholar and director of the Leipzig Bach Festival. "Love and pain". Facing betrayal, grief. You don't have to be a devout Christian to feel that." Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. John Passion," along with Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony," is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of European music ever written. On its 300th anniversary, the work fits with the wars that threaten the world

A 33-year-old man is accused of a crime. He is arrested, tortured and dies on a cross. His loved ones, including his mother, are forced to watch his torture, powerless to intervene. The darkest chapter in the history of Christianity is described personally and vividly by a witness, the evangelist John, a close friend of the victim.

This is how the theme of "The Passion of St. John" by Johann Sebastian Bach can be summed up. The composition together with the "Ninth Symphony"  by Ludwig van Beethoven is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of European music ever written.

"The timeless themes make this work so current and universal," says Michael Maul, a Bach scholar and director of the Leipzig Bach Festival. "Love and pain". Facing betrayal, grief. You don't have to be a devout Christian to feel that."

Good Friday - April 7, 1724 - was the first Easter that the 39-year-old composer Johann Sebastian Bach spent in Leipzig. He had moved to the Saxon town only a year earlier, with his second wife Anna Magdalena and the four children from his first marriage. He had taken the position of "Thomaskantor" - becoming the director of the 54th choir of the church of Saint Thomas. It was challenging work and not always rewarding.

For the people of Leipzig, Bach, who was known as the former master of the nearby Köthen chapel, was by no means their first choice. "If you can't get one of the best, there's nothing to do but turn to someone in the middle," was a disappointed comment from the city hall at the time.

But Bach was ambitious and determined to prove himself by presenting a new composition during Holy Week, the central church musical event of the year. This Good Friday music was played after the "tempus clausum", a piece of musical abstinence that lasted throughout the Lenten period. It was the only time of the year when the Thomaskantor could draw upon all the musical forces of the city, which were otherwise spread over the four main churches of Leipzig

But despite the great attention Bach has received in Leipzig over the centuries, little is known about how his work was received by audiences at the time.

"We have yet to find a contemporary witness who actually discovered and wrote how he felt about this masterpiece," says Maul. And of course, there are no audio recordings. "Otherwise one might be surprised by some things: the aesthetics of the sound, the tempo."

Some listeners may have been overwhelmed by Bach's dramatic and sometimes aggressive music. One might also assume that the congregation was exhausted by the time it was all over—with sermons and “textual interventions,” all of which lasted nearly five hours.

On Good Friday 2020, Leipzig found itself in the middle of the pandemic. The normal prayer of the work was out of the question everywhere in the world. However, the Leipzig Bach Festival made history by developing a unique art project with a small group of creative minds.

At the time of Christ's death, at 15:00 p.m., a chamber music version of the "St. John Passion" was performed at Bach's tomb in St. Thomas' Church. It was broadcast live and the global Bach community was invited singing along. The video received millions of views.

The focus was on the project's creators: percussionist Philipp Lamprecht, piano artist Elina Albach and the charismatic Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjansson, who presented Bach's work primarily as a one-man show. Steven Walter, the artistic director of "Beethovenfest Bonn", also participated. Although Bach's music sometimes lost its color in this reduced form, the message of the "Passion..." came through even more clearly.

The successful project has since been carried out more than 50 times in different countries. "The Passion of St. John" is actually still a work that has a lot to tell us, even 300 years after the premiere, and it sounds different every time," says Albach. "With every performance, every concert, we have the feeling that we are telling the story again."

This was also the case during the Holy Week of 2022, when the footage of the massacre of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine shocked the world. "That day we played the 'Passion of St. John,'" recalls Albach. "And suddenly the crossover texts sounded like newspaper reports or news that reached us directly from Ukraine on the wire, so to speak..."

"Bach exposes, Bach accuses, but Bach also consoles," says musicologist Patricia Siegert. "He holds a mirror for all of us, full of thoughts about responsibility, love, life and death"./DW