St. John Passion (JS Bach)

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Autograph of the first page of the St. John Passion
Nikolai Church in Leipzig 1749

The St. John Passion ( Passio secundum Johannem , BWV 245) is, along with the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), the only completely preserved authentic Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach . It supplements the Gospel report according to John of the capture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ with chorales and freely composed texts and forms it musically in a line-up for four-part choir , vocal soloists and orchestra. The work, which lasts around two hours, is usually performed as concert music today , but has its original place in the church service and was premiered on Good Friday , April 7, 1724, in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig .



The Passion story , i.e. the biblical account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ , has always played a special role in divine services due to its central importance within Christian theology : It was often read out in divided roles, later sung in a solemn tone, with the action involved crowds were represented by turba choirs. Complete Passion settings are available as early as the 17th century, including three choral works by Heinrich Schütz (based on reports by Lukas , Matthäus and Johannes ) and a St. John Passion by Thomas Selle .

These “oratorical” or “concertante” passions set the Bible text literally to music, although it has been customary since the 17th century to record chorales, arias and pure instrumental movements. Bach's passions are also in the tradition of these works, which were intended to be performed in church services. They are to be distinguished from the "Passion Oratorios", which were first written at the beginning of the 18th century, deviate from the exact wording of the Bible and aim more at the emotional touch of the listener (see main article Passion (music) ). A work of this kind that was well-known at the time of Bach and was set to music several times was Jesus, Martyred and Dying for the Sin of the World by Barthold Heinrich Brockes . Some of the free poems that have found their way into Bach's St. John Passion are based on his text .

Work versions

The Johannes Passion is the earliest of the Bach Passion music known today. Since the composer's necrology mentions a total of five passions, of which, apart from the St. John Passion , only the St. Matthew Passion and the St. Mark Passion can be proven to have been lost, it is considered possible that Bach was involved in parts of the St. John Passion has resorted to an earlier work that a 19th century biographer dates to 1717, but about which no reliable statement can be made.

From the first version of the work, which was premiered on Good Friday 1724, only individual parts have survived, but they are very similar to the version widespread today. The main differences are a simpler movement, a shorter version of movement 33, which tells of the tearing of the curtain in the temple, and presumably missing parts for the transverse flute .

A large part of the changes made for the second performance in 1725 are now attributed to the fact that Bach did not want to perform the same version for two consecutive years, especially since he later reversed most of the changes. He replaced the opening and closing choruses with two chorals, "O man, weep your sin great" and "Christe, du Lamm Gottes", exchanged a number of recitatives and arias and created movement 33 in the form we know today. It has been assumed that some of the inserted movements come from a work that had already been written in Weimar and that the changes made Bach's Passion better fit the series of choral cantatas that he systematically wrote in the year 1724/25. Both assumptions are considered plausible, but cannot be proven beyond doubt.

In the third version (which cannot be dated precisely, 1728 or 1732), Bach reversed the main changes made in the second version. In addition, he removed - possibly due to an order from the authorities - all text passages that came from the Gospel of Matthew, i.e. a. the earthquake scene, as well as the sentences that directly related to it. To replace it, he added two movements that have now been lost, probably a tenor aria and an instrumental sinfonia .

At the end of the 1730s, Bach began a corrected copy of the original version of the work, which was possibly intended for a performance planned but not carried out in 1739. It breaks off in the middle of sentence 10 and was only continued towards the end of his life by a copyist who probably had the now-lost version from 1724. This copy was only partially corrected by Bach himself.

The last variant performed during Bach's lifetime dates from 1749. It essentially corresponds to the structure of 1724, but has been significantly expanded in the instrumental area and contains the longer movement 33. In addition, some of the free aria texts have been extensively repositioned; It is unclear to what extent these text changes, some of which destroy the text-music relationship, were initiated by someone else or were even made after Bach's death.

Due to the fragmentary nature of the tradition and changes, which are presumably based less on a final intention of the composer than on the needs of the respective performance and instructions from the authorities, there is no binding final version of the work. The version mostly performed today is a mixture of the unfinished new version from the late 1730s and the fourth version from 1749, without the later text changes in the arias.

Robert Schumann created a version of the St. John Passion in 1851.

Performance history

As a result of the Bach renaissance with the first re-performance of the St. Matthew Passion after Bach's death in 1829 in an abridged version, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy with the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin , this also became Johannes on February 21, 1833 under Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen -Passion brought to the first revival since Bach's death. The first recorded performance after Bach's death took place on Good Friday, April 20, 1832, in Bremen Cathedral. The local cathedral cantor Wilhelm Friedrich Riem was in charge . As early as May 25, 1815, it had been on Carl Friedrich Zelter's rehearsal schedule.

Text template

The St. John Passion consists of two parts, which are based on the theologically usual structure of the Passion Report in five "acts". The first part tells of the betrayal and imprisonment of Jesus (first act) as well as Peter's denial (second act). At this point the sermon usually followed in the service . The second part is much longer and tells of the interrogation and condemnation of Jesus by Pontius Pilate (third act), of crucifixion and death (fourth act) and finally of the burial (fifth act).

The text template in both parts includes not only the biblical report, but also chorales as well as freely composed choirs and arias .

The biblical account

The core of the text of the John Passion is represented by the Passion Report of the Gospel of John in the Luther translation ( Joh 18  LUT and Joh 19  LUT ). Compared to the reports of the synoptics , John places the divine nature of Jesus Christ in the foreground. The Passion therefore appears more strongly in the light of the return of the Son of God to his Father than of the earthly torments of the man Jesus of Nazareth .

In the text set to music, this is expressed, among other things, in the fact that Jesus' capture is dealt with very briefly: internal conflicts in the prayer of Getsemani are missing, as is the kiss of the traitor Judas Iscariot . Instead, Jesus makes himself known to the servants of the high priests and asks them to spare his disciples . During the interrogation by Pontius Pilate, Jesus appears to be superior and indifferent to his fate: He refuses to make statements or answers counter-questions. Even in the scene of the cross he seems sovereign and untouched by human suffering: he carries his cross himself and does not have to endure any mockery. Instead, he has still on the cross his beloved disciple to, his mother to feed. Finally, according to John, Jesus' last words are triumphant: "It is finished."

A biblical criticism in today's sense that elaborates such peculiarities was alien to Bach and his contemporaries. Therefore, aspects that are reported in other Gospels can be found in the text of the St. John Passion: In particular, the depictions of Peter's repentance after his denial of Jesus and the forces of nature after Jesus' death come from the Gospel of Matthew (shortened from Mt 26.75  LUT or . Mt 27.51 to 52  LUT ). Nonetheless, the free poetry and the choice of chorales have numerous references to the special features of Johannes' portrayal.

The chorales

Choirs, the texts of which are mostly taken from well-known evangelical hymns , are inserted into the gospel report . It is possible that Bach had suggestions from a lyricist for the selection of suitable stanzas, but it can be assumed that the composer was also able to contribute his own ideas on this point.

Acts one, two, four and five are each concluded with a chorale that reflects what has happened and points out its significance for the Christian community (sentences 5, 14, 37 and 40). If the scene changes are viewed as natural seams between the five acts, the transition from the third to the fourth act is in the aria “Eilt, ihr gefocht'nen Seelen”, which moves the setting to Golgotha . If one sees the transition instead in Pilate's last appearance, the third act is also ended with a chorale (movement 26). Five other chorales are unevenly distributed among the acts and often comment on the report from the point of view of the community in particularly significant scenes. The central Christian interpretation of the Passion event, according to which Christ frees the believer from original sin through his death and opens up the possibility of redemption , takes place in sentence 22 (“Through your prison, God's son”). Finally, a chorale opens the second part of the Passion (movement 15) and another accompanies the bass aria “Mein teurer Heiland” (movement 32), so that the version of the St. John Passion that is widespread today contains a total of twelve chorales.

The chorale texts are mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and go back to well-known hymn poets such as Martin Luther , Michael Weisse , Martin Schalling and Johann Heermann . An exception is the chorale “Through your prison, God's son”, which cannot be traced as a hymn verse. Movement 11 is the only text by Paul Gerhardt that contains two stanzas of the song “O world, see your life here”. His song “ O head full of blood and wounds ”, which plays a central role in Bach's St. Matthew Passion , is not represented in the St. John Passion.

The free poetry

The texts of the arias and the choirs in movements 1, 22 and 39 do not come from the Bible or traditional hymns. Their author is unknown and Bach research assumes that these freely added texts do not come from a single librettist. In particular, there is no reliable evidence that Bach himself was its author. Most of the aria texts as well as the chorus "Rest, you holy bones" are more or less free adaptations of sections of the Brockes Passion. This suggests that their author was mainly interested in putting together suitable texts to complete the oratorio, and none Developed ambitions to create a poetically original work.

The chorale text “Through your prison, God's son” (sentence 22) can be found in a St. John Passion attributed to Christian Ritter , the libretto of which was set to music a second time by Johann Mattheson . The stanza structure of movement 30 "Es ist vollbracht" (It is accomplished) shows remarkable parallels to another aria of this Passion, so that it is probably different stanzas of the same song text, which, however, has not been preserved as a whole. The originals for at least three arias from the Passion of Ritter come from Christian Heinrich Postel . Whether this also applies to the two texts used in Bach's St. John Passion cannot, however, be determined with certainty. The opening chorus, which is based on Psalm 8.2  LUT , the aria “Ach, mein Sinn” (sentence 13), which is largely identical to a poem by Christian Weises , and the aria “I also follow you,” have no archetype in Brockes' work with joyful steps ”(sentence 9), the origin of which is completely unknown and which in both text and music reports remarkably cheerfully about the discipleship of Peter, which immediately leads to the betrayal of Jesus.

The libretto of the St. John Passion expresses a specific emotional movement in each aria, which Bach puts into music in the sense of the baroque doctrine of affect . In particular, the insertions from the Gospel of Matthew allow arias to follow in sentences 13, 34 and 35 expressing repentance, suffering and sorrow. At the same time, however, the texts constantly focus attention on the significance of the event for the salvation of man.

Musical structure

As in the St. Matthew Passion , the plot is presented from four different perspectives:

  • Narrative perspective expressed by the Recitatives of evangelists , the persons involved and by the dramatic chorus -Partien ( Turbae );
  • Viewing perspective of the individual, represented in the mostly lyrical arias ;
  • Devotional perspective of the community, in the form of well-known Protestant church hymns (chorales);
  • Admonishing perspective, embodied by the elaborately designed opening and closing choirs;

The duration of the performance depends, of course, on the tempos chosen, on the pauses between the movements and the two parts, and on any abbreviations, and is generally around two hours.


In addition to the strings and basso continuo, the orchestra includes two flutes and two oboes . In individual movements, Bach also uses other instruments such as oboe da caccia , oboe d'amore , viola d'amore , lute and viola da gamba . Four soloists emerge from the four-part choir, whose roles are indistinguishable in the score - unlike in today's performance practice, the Jesus part and the singer of the bass aria are not explicitly assigned different singers.

Work overview

This overview follows the New Bach Edition.

NBA 1 BWV 2 shape occupation Start of text Instrumentation
Part great
Act I: Treason and Capture
1 1 Chorus Lord, our Ruler Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings 3 and continuo 4
2 a 2 recitative Evangelist (tenor), Jesus (bass) Jesus went with his disciples Continuo
b 3 Chorus Jesus of Nazareth Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 4th recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) Jesus speaks to them Continuo
d 5 Chorus Jesus of Nazareth Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
e 6th recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) Jesus answered Continuo
3 7th Chorale O great love Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
4th 8th recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) That the word might be fulfilled Continuo
5 9 Chorale Your will be done Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
Act II: Denial
6th 10 recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) But the crowd and the captain Continuo
7th 11 aria Old From the cords of my sins Oboe I, II and continuo
8th 12 recitative Evangelist (T) But Simon Peter followed Jesus Continuo
9 13 aria soprano I follow you too Flute I, II and continuo
10 14th recitative Evangelist (T), maid (soprano),
Peter (B), Jesus (B), servant (T)
The same disciple was known to the high priest Continuo
11 15th Chorale Who hit you like that Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
12 a 16 recitative Evangelist (T) And Annas sent him bound Continuo
b 17th Chorus Are you not one of his disciples? Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 18th recitative Evangelist (T), Peter (B), Servant (T) But he denied and spoke Continuo
13 19th aria tenor Oh, my mind Strings and Continuo
14th 20th Chorale Peter who does not think back Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
Part seconda
Act III: Interrogation and Flagellation
15th 21st Chorale Christ who saves us Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
16 a 22nd recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) So they led Jesus Continuo
b 23 Chorus If this weren't a culprit Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 24 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) Pilate spoke to them Continuo
d 25th Chorus We mustn't kill anyone Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
e 26th recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B), Jesus (B) That the word might be fulfilled Continuo
17th 27 Chorale Oh great king Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
18th a 28 recitative Evangelist (T) Pilate (B), Jesus (B) Pilate spoke to him Continuo
b 29 Chorus Not this one, but Barrabam Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 30th recitative Evangelist (T) But Barrabas was a murderer Continuo
19th 31 Arioso bass Behold, my soul Viola d'amore I, II solo and continuo with lute
20th 32 aria tenor Consider how his blood stained back Viola d'amore I, II solo and continuo
21st a 33 recitative Evangelist (T) And the soldiers braided a crown Continuo
b 34 Chorus Greetings, dear King of the Jews Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 35 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) And gave him strokes on the cheek Continuo
d 36 Chorus Crucify, crucify Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
e 37 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) Pilate spoke to them Continuo
f 38 Chorus We have a law Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
G 39 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B), Jesus (B) When Pilate heard the word Continuo
22nd 40 Chorale Through your prison, Son of God Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
23 a 41 recitative Evangelist (T) But the Jews shouted and spoke Continuo
b 42 Chorus You let go of this Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, oboe d'amore, strings and continuo
c 43 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) When Pilate heard the word Continuo
d 44 Chorus Away, away with that Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, oboe d'amore, strings and continuo
e 45 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) Pilate speaks to them Continuo
f 46 Chorus We don't have a king Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, oboe d'amore, strings and continuo
G 47 recitative Evangelist (T) Then he handed it over Continuo
24 48 aria Bass and choir (soprano, alto, tenor) Hurry, you troubled souls Strings and Continuo
Act IV: Crucifixion and Death
25th a 49 recitative Evangelist (T) There they crucified him Continuo
b 50 Chorus Don't write: the Jewish King Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
c 51 recitative Evangelist (T), Pilate (B) Pilate answers Continuo
26th 52 Chorale In the bottom of my heart Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
27 a 53 recitative Evangelist (T) But the soldiers Continuo
b 54 Chorus Let's not divide this up Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, oboe d'amore, strings and continuo
c 55 recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) That scripture might be fulfilled Continuo
28 56 Chorale He was well aware of everything Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
29 57 recitative Evangelist (T), Jesus (B) And from that moment on the disciple took her Continuo
30th 58 aria Old It is finished Strings, viola da gamba solo and continuo
31 59 recitative Evangelist (T) And bow your head Continuo
32 60 aria Bass solo and choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) My dear Savior, let me ask you Strings and Continuo
33 61 recitative Evangelist (T) And lo and behold, the curtain in the temple was torn Continuo
34 62 Arioso tenor My heart in which the whole world Transverse flute I, II, oboe da caccia I, II, strings and continuo
35 63 aria soprano Dissolve, my heart Transverse flute I solo, oboe da caccia solo and continuo
36 64 recitative Evangelist (T) But the Jews, because it was the preparation day Continuo
37 65 Chorale O help, Christ, the Son of God Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
Act V: Entombment
38 66 recitative Evangelist (T) Pilate then asked Joseph of Arimathia Continuo
39 67 Chorus Rest in peace, holy bones Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
40 68 Chorale Oh Lord, leave your dear little angel Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo
Sentences added in the second version (1725)
NBA BWV shape occupation Start of text Instrumentation Comments 5
1 II 244/35 Chorale O man, weep greatly for your sin Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo replaces No. 1 Lord our ruler ; later adopted in the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
11 + 245a aria Bass, soprano Heaven, tear, world, tremble Flute I, II and continuo inserted between no. 11 who hit you like that and no. 12 a and Annas sends him bound
13 II 245b aria tenor Smash me, you rocks and you hills Strings and Continuo replaces no. 13 Oh, my mind
19 II 245c aria tenor Oh, don't squirm so, troubled souls Oboe I, II and continuo replaces # 19 Behold, my soul and # 20 ponder, like his blood stained back
40 II 23/4 Chorale Christ, you Lamb of God Transverse flute I, II, oboe I, II, strings and continuo replaces no. 40 Oh Lord, let your dear angel out ; taken from the cantata You true God and David's son (BWV 23)


1 numbering according to the New Bach Edition
2 Numbering according to the Bach works directory
3 ie violin I, II and viola
4 ie cello, violone, bassoon and organ
5 numbering in "Notes" follow the NBA.

Recordings (selection)


Sheet music editions

The numbering of the sentences in the various editions is not uniform. This article follows the numbering of the New Bach Edition .

  • Wilhelm Rust: Passion music after the Evangelist Johannes. Volume 12.1 of the complete edition of the Bach Society , Breitkopf & Härtel, 1863. (online version of the score)
  • Carl Eberhardt: St. John Passion. Edition CF Peters, EP 8634 (score), EP 39 (piano reduction)
  • Arthur Mendel: Johannes Passion - St. John Passion. Score. Series II, Volume 4 of the New Bach Edition, Bärenreiter (BA 5037-01), also as a pocket score (TP 197) and as a piano reduction (BA 5037-90); identical to Deutscher Verlag für Musik Leipzig, DVfM 3093 (study score)
  • Arnold Schering: St. John Passion. Edition CF Peters, 1986, EP 579 (study score)
  • Gerd Sievers: St. John Passion. Edition Breitkopf, PB 3792 (score), PB 3811 (study score), EB 6280 (piano reduction by Günther Raphael)
  • Peter Wollny: St. John Passion, Version II (1725). Carus-Verlag (Stuttgart Bach Edition) CV 31.245 / 50 (score), CV 31.245 / 53 (piano reduction by Paul Horn)
  • Peter Wollny: St. John Passion, Version IV (1749). Carus-Verlag (Stuttgart Bach Edition) CV 31.245 / 00 (score), CV 31.245 / 07 (study score), CV 31.245 / 03 (piano reduction by Paul Horn)

Secondary literature

  • Hans Darmstadt : Johann Sebastian Bach - St. John Passion, BWV 245 . Analyzes and comments on compositional technique; with practical performance and theological notes. Klangfarben Musikverlag, Dortmund 2010, ISBN 978-3-932676-16-1 .
  • Alfred Dürr : Johann Sebastian Bach, The Johannes Passion . Origin, tradition, factory introduction (=  Bärenreiter factory introduction ). 3. Edition. Bärenreiter, Kassel / Basel / London / New York / Prague 1999, ISBN 3-7618-1473-9 .
  • Walter Hilbrands : Johannes Sebastian Bach as interpreter of the Bible in his St. John Passion . In: Walter Hilbrands (Ed.): Love language - understand God's word. Contributions to biblical exegesis . Brunnen, Giessen 2011, ISBN 978-3-7655-9247-8 , p. 271-285 .
  • Siegfried Kettling: "Lord, our ruler" . The St. John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach explained theologically and musically (=  Hänssler paperback ). Hänssler, Holzgerlingen 2002, ISBN 3-7751-3759-9 .
  • Christoph Rueger, Hans Gebhard: Johannes Passion BWV 245 . In: Hans Gebhard (Ed.): Harenbergs Chormusikführer - From the Chamber Choir to the Oratorio . Harenberg, Dortmund 1999, ISBN 3-611-00817-6 , pp. 69-71 .
  • Meinrad Walter: Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion . A musical-theological introduction; with 63 music samples. Carus-Verlag Reclam, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-89948-156-3 .

Web links


Sheet music and audio files

Further information

Individual evidence

  1. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, p. 15.
  2. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, p. 20.
  3. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, pp. 17-20.
  4. ^ Klaus Blum: Musikfreunde und Musici, p. 143ff. Tutzing 1975.
  5. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, p. 54.
  6. Frank Laffin: JS Bach: Johannes-Passion - Eine musical Analysis , p. 53, accessed on April 20, 2019 (PDF; 2.1 MB).
  7. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, p. 66.
  8. Alfred Dürr: The Johannes Passion. 1999, p. 56.
  9. St. John Passion - International Version , accessed April 21, 2019.