Passions (Bach)

Not to be confused with Passions (C. P. E. Bach).

As Thomaskantor Johann Sebastian Bach provided Passion music for Good Friday services in Leipzig. The extant St Matthew Passion and St John Passion are the best known Passion oratorios composed by Bach.

Passions composed and/or staged by Bach

According to his "Nekrolog", the 1754 obituary written by Johann Friedrich Agricola and the composer's son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach wrote "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus".[1] The double chorus one is easily identified as the St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion is the only extant other one that is certainly composed by Bach. The libretto of the St Mark Passion was published in Bach's time, allowing reconstruction based on the pieces Bach is known to have parodied for its composition, while the extant St Luke Passion likely contains little or no music composed by Bach. Which Bach compositions, apart from the known ones, may have been meant in the obituary remains uncertain.[2]

The St John Passion is shorter and has simpler orchestration than the St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion has been described as more realistic, faster paced and more anguished than the reflective and resigned St. Matthew Passion.

St John Passion

Main article: St John Passion

The St John Passion, BWV 245 is the first Passion Bach composed during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a tenure that started after the Easter season of 1723. Apart from the German translation of parts of the Gospel of St John and several Lutheran chorales, it used text of the Brockes Passion for its arias. The Passion was performed on Good Friday of 1724, 1725, 1732 and 1749.

St Matthew Passion

Main article: St Matthew Passion

The double chorus St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 was composed on a libretto by Picander for Good Friday of 1727 and/or 1729. After revision the Passion was performed again in 1736 and 1742.

St Luke Passion

Bach's copy of an anonymous St Luke Passion, BWV 246, was published in the Bach Gesellschaft Complete Works (vol. xlv/2) but is regarded as spurious, with the possible exception of the introduction to the second half.

St Mark Passion

Bach wrote the St Mark Passion, BWV 247 for 1731. Picander's libretto for the Passion was once thought to have been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in World War II, but the recovered copy seems to show that the work was a parody of music from the socalled Trauer-Ode, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, BWV 198, and that some choruses were used also in the Christmas Oratorio. There are several reconstructions of the Passion.

Other Passions

In his 1802 Bach-biography Johann Nikolaus Forkel repeats what is in the "Nekrolog" regarding the number of Passions composed by Bach. In his 1850 Bach-biography Carl L. Hilgenfeldt attempts to identify all five of the Passions mentioned in the "Nekrolog" and by Forkel. After mentioning the St Matthew, the St John, the St Luke and Picander's libretto of the lost St Mark, Hilgenfeldt mentions a Passion Bach would have composed in 1717, which was the last year Bach was employed in Weimar.[3]

Thus the "fifth" Passion possibly refers to Passion music Bach composed before his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, parts of which may have been recuperated in his extant Passions.[4] It may also refer to one of the Passion oratorio pasticcios Bach was involved in and/or to a setting of Picander's Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreitag über den Leidenden Jesum, published in 1725.[5]

Weimarer Passion

Main article: Weimarer Passion

Weimarer Passion, BWV deest, BC D 1, refers to the 1717 Passion mentioned by Hilgenfeldt. It appears to have been performed at the court in Gotha on Good Friday 26 March 1717. Bach appears to have recuperated some of its material in later compositions, notably in his St John Passion.[6]

Jesus Christus ist um unsrer Missetat willen verwundet

In the early 1710s Bach staged Jesus Christus ist um unsrer Missetat willen verwundet, a St Mark Passion, in Weimar.[7] Bach added some of his own chorale settings to that Passion which was probably composed by Gottfried Keiser[7] (older attributions of the original work are to Reinhard Keiser, Gottfried's son, and later to Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns).[8] This Weimar version is known as BC 5a.[7]

He staged a new version of this St Mark Passion pasticcio, BC 5b, in Leipzig in 1726,[9] and finally, expanded with some arias from Handel's Brockes Passion, again in the last years of his life (BNB I/K/2).[8][10]

Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreitag über den Leidenden Jesum

The Passion text included in Picander's Sammlung Erbaulicher Gedanken was published around the time (or shortly before) Bach started his collaboration with this librettist. Bach used six parts of this Passion libretto in his St Matthew Passion, but there is no indication he set anything else of this libretto. As such the Passion libretto was classified among the works spuriously attributed to Bach in the Anhang (Appendix) of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, as BWV Anh. 169.[11]

Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt

Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt, a pasticcio Passion oratorio possibly compiled by Bach's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, contains a few movements attributed to Bach, including the arioso for bass BWV 1088, and Der Gerechte kömmt um (an arrangement of a SSATB motet attributed to Johann Kuhnau). The pasticcio may have been performed in Leipzig in the late 1740s and/or the early 1750s.[12]

Stölzel's passion-oratorios

Bach knew a few passion-oratorios composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. He performed Stölzel's Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld on Good Friday of 1734.[13]

Die leidende und am Kreuz sterbende Liebe is a passion-oratorio by Stölzel composed in 1720. One of its arias, "Dein Kreuz, o Bräutgam meiner Seelen" was arranged by Bach as "Bekennen will ich seinen Namen", BWV 200.[14] Bach's arrangement, dated around 1742–1743,[15] was possibly part of a cantata for the feast of Purification of the Virgin Mary.[16]

Good Friday services in Leipzig

Bach's Leipzig Passions were performed at Vespers on Good Friday, alternating between the principal churches of St. Thomas (uneven years) and St. Nicholas (even years). The order of service was:[2]

  1. Hymn: Da Jesus an den Kreuze stund
  2. Passion, part 1
  3. Sermon
  4. Passion, part 2
  5. Motet: Ecce quomodo moritur in Jacob Handl's setting
  6. Collect & Benediction
  7. Hymn: Nun danket alle Gott

A more detailed layout of the Order of Service for Good Friday Vespers is as follows:[17]

# Congregation Choir Preacher and Ministers
1 Ringing of Bells As "de Tempore" song
"Da Jesus and dem Kreuze stund"
2 Passion (figural), Part I
3 Song
"O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig"
4 Priest enters the pulpit
Pulpit greeting
Announcement of Sermon
5 Song
"Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend"
6 Lord's Prayer prayed silently (?)
7 Reading of the Sermon text
Passion Harmony by Johannes Bugenhagen from the section on the Burial of Jesus
8 Sermon (about 1 Hr.)
9 Pulpit blessing
10 Passion, Part II
11 Motet Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacobus Gallus
12 Song
"O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid"
13 Collect
14 Song
"Nun danket alle Gott"

The first time a concerted Passion in two parts was performed according to this order of service was in 1721, when Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor, was given permission to perform the Passion he had composed in the St. Thomas Church. Four years earlier, Georg Philipp Telemann's Brockes Passion, TWV 5:1, performed in the New Church, was the first Passion Oratorio that had been staged in Leipzig.[18]


A first feature of the structure of the Passions Bach wrote for Leipzig follows from the order of service: the Passions needed to be in two parts, for performance before and after the sermon. A second structural feature specific for Leipzig is the recitation of the unaltered Gospel text, as in Leipzig it was not allowed to paraphrase the Gospel in Passion presentations: for this reason an unaltered setting of the Brockes Passion, which contained a lot of such paraphrasing loosely based on all four Gospel texts of Christ's Passion, was not possible, although Bach returned often to Brockes' text, choosing parts of its poetry as lyrics for commenting arias after recitations of the Gospel text. For this reason Bach's Passions for Leipzig are named after the Evangelist from whoms Gospel the Passion text is used.

Another characteristic of Bach's Passions are the chorales set in four-part harmony that recur often throughout the compositions. These chorales, representing a Lutheran tradition, were highly recognizable, both the text and the melody, by the audience for which he wrote his Passions. It is even surmised Bach intended the audience to participate by singing along with the chorales they knew.

Bach's Passions are set for an orchestra with strings, woodwind instruments such as oboes and flutes, and a continuo including organ. The Lenten period did however not allow usage of (festive) brass instruments like trumpets. The vocal forces include SATB choir (or double SATB choir for the St Matthew Passion) and vocal soloists. In Bach's time none of the vocalists were women: the high voice parts were traditionally sung by treble choristers.

The Gospel readings, set as a secco recitative for the Evangelist, complemented with recitatives and turba choruses by the characters and groups having direct speech in the text, are presented in parts of a few verses, alternating with commenting chorales and/or arias with a free verse text. In most cases the arias are preceded by non-Gospel accompagnato recitatives. Apart from these sections, Bach composed grand choral movements with which to open or close the two parts of his Passions.

Schematically, this is the structure of Bach's Passions:


Bach was Thomaskantor in Leipzig from late May 1723 until his death in 1750. The Passion music he programmed for the Good Friday services is largely documented. The St Matthew Passion, with its double choir and orchestra, was most likely written for the St. Thomas Church while it had two organ lofts, although Bach later also produced a version where the continuo instrument of the second choir was a harpsichord (instead of organ), so that a performance in St. Nicolas (with only one organ) was possible.

Bach's first Passion presentation, the St John Passion of 1724, led to his first documented conflict with the Leipzig Town Council. Because of the bad state of the organ loft and its instruments (the organ and an harpsichord), Bach did not want to stage his St John Passion in St. Nicolas, despite it being the turn of that church to host the Good Friday service. Having announced the plan, sharp communications between Bach and the official bodies of the town ensued, with Bach having announcements printed that the service was going to be held at St. Thomas. Ultimately the Town Council decided to pay for emergency reparations at St. Nicolas, and for a reprint of the announcements where the service was announced for St. Nicolas.[19]

Performance practice

In 1730 (in response to his perceived harassment by the officials and out of concern for the deteriorating condition in religious music), Bach wrote a treatise he entitled "Kurtzer, iedoch höchstnöthiger Entwurff einer wohlbestallten Kirchen Music; nebst einigem unvorgreiflichen Bedenkken von dem Verfall derselben." ("Short, but most Necessary Draft on a well-regulated Church Music, with some modest Thoughts on the Decline of the same"). In it, he outlines both what he thinks would be a well-regulated Church music and also the current circumstances he faced in Leipzig. For the vocal ensembles he states that for each of the main churches (Hauptkirchen), i.e. St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, and the New Church (Neukirche), there would be a choir with three voices per part, meaning three sopranos, three altos, three tenors, and three basses. A fourth choir (residual) with two voices per part would serve both St. Thomas and the University Church (Petruskirche).[28] This residual would also act as the concertists (soloists) in the cantatas and other vocal works.[29]

In 1982 Joshua Rifkin surmised Bach may have performed his large vocal works, like the St Matthew Passion, with only one voice per part,[30] an idea that was rejected by others.[31] However, while since the 19th-century Bach revival it was customary to perform the large vocal works with large bodies of performers, a tendency to perform these works with smaller ensembles was felt since the 1960s.[32]


  1. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola. "Nekrolog" (full title: "VI. Denkmal dreyer verstorbenen Mitglieder der Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften; C. Der dritte und letzte ist der im Orgelspielen Weltberühmte HochEdle Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, Königlich-Pohlnischer und Churfürstlich Sächsicher Hofcompositeur, und Musikdirector in Leipzig"), pp. 158–176 in Lorenz Christoph Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV No. 1. Leipzig, Mizlerischer Bücherverlag, 1754, p. 168
  2. 1 2 Boyd, Malcolm (ed.) (1999). Oxford Composer Companions J. S. Bach. OUP. ISBN 0-19-860620-6.
  3. Carl L. Hilgenfeldt. Johann Sebastian Bach's Leben, Wirken und Werke: ein Beitrag zur Kunstgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts. Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister, 1850, pp. 113–114.
  4. Amati-Camperi, Alexandra. "J.S. BACH: Johannes-Passion" at San Francisco Bach Choir website. March 2008.
  5. Picander (=Christian Friedrich Henrici). "Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreitag über den Leidenden Jesum" pp. 293ff in Sammlung erbaulicher Gedancken über und auf die gewöhnlichen Sonn- und Festtage. Leipzig: 1725 (collection of various texts by Picander published between Advent 1724 and Advent 1725)
  6. Bach Digital Work 1533 at
  7. 1 2 3 Bach Digital Work 1534 at
  8. 1 2 3 4 Friedrich Nicolaus Brauns: Markus-Passion at
  9. Bach Digital Work 1535 at
  10. Bach Digital Work 1680 at
  11. Erbauliche Gedanken auf den Grünen Donnerstag und Charfreitag über den Leidenden Jesum BWV Anh. 169 at
  12. Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt by Johann Christoph Altnikol et al.: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  13. 1 2 Andreas Glöckner. "Is there another cantata cycle by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel that belonged to Bach’s performance repertoire?" in Bach-Jahrbuch 2009.
  14. Bach Digital Work 0250 at
  15. D-B N. Mus. ms. 307 at
  16. BWV2a 1998, p. 202
  17. Ordnung der Vesper an den Leipziger Hauptkirchen am Karfreitag. Taken 23 April 2016 from
  18. Edward McCue. "The Passion Tradition" at
  19. Eidam, Klaus (2001). The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-01861-0. Chapter XVI.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Barthold Heinrich Brockes (Librettist) at
  21. 1 2 3 Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 at
  22. Wolff, Christoph. Bach, the Learned Musician. 2000
  23. 1 2 3 Lukas-Passion BWV 246 at
  24. Markus-Passion BWV 247 at
  25. G.F. Telemann-C.H. Graun-J.S. Bach-J.C. Altikol-J. Kuhnau Passions-Pasticcio at
  26. Bach Digital Work 0313
  27. Johannes-Passion BWV 245 at
  28. Spitta 1884, p. 241
  29. David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel. The Bach Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966. p. 124.
  30. Rifkin, Joshua (1982). "Bach's Chorus: A Preliminary Report." The Musical Times 123(377), 747–754.
  31. Eidam 2001, op. cit. Chapter XVIII.
  32. Fabian, Dorottya (2003). Bach performance practice, 1945-1975: a comprehensive review of sound recordings and literature. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 88. ISBN 0-7546-0549-3.


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