A Passion for Bach: why the St John belongs on the live stage at Easter

You may have heard the St John Passion – but how often have you actually listened to it? Tenor Mark Padmore explains how TS Eliot and the John Gospel are bringing its sacred meaning back to life

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Blake’s words of wisdom have never been less heeded than in our age of anxiety for preservation. Whether it is cryogenics or selfies or campaigning for endangered species – for better or worse, we seem obsessed with trying to keep hold of things.

Johann Sebastian Bach knew a different world. Eleven of his 20 children died before he did, and he had little expectation that much of what he composed would or could be preserved after his death. His St John Passion failed to attain a definitive, authoritative form – an attempt to produce a fair manuscript copy foundered in 1739 after 20 pages – and each of the four times that he performed it he had to make changes according to availability of instruments or players, or because of changes in theological fashion.

As with most of Bach’s music, the St John Passion fell into obscurity after his death in 1750 and it wasn’t heard again until Mendelssohn revived it in 1822. Another 50 years passed before Joseph Barnby performed it for the first time in England. Since then, though, it has become a staple part of the repertoire and receives performances each year from choral societies, symphony orchestras, church and cathedral choirs and specialist early music groups. It has been staged – including a memorable production at ENO where I appeared holding a live lamb – and has been recorded more than 200 times.

Paul Whelan in St John Passion at the Coliseum, London.
Paul Whelan in St John Passion at the Coliseum, London, in 2000. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Sitting at my computer, I can access facsimiles of the manuscripts and numerous editions, and I can listen to countless recordings on Spotify and YouTube. But in what sense is it ever possible to possess a piece of music? Is Bach’s St John Passion preserved in a score or on a CD?

There is something distorted – one could say, dysfunctional – in the relationship between classical music and recordings. Pretty much the entire repertoire was written for live performance – indeed most of it was written before recording was invented. Yet for many, classical music is provided by the huge catalogue of recordings instantly available on the internet.

There are, of course, many benefits to being able to access such an extraordinary resource but there are also some dangers. The first stems from the ease with which we become casually familiar with music. Like the Woody Allen joke – “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia” – we are led to believe that because we know how a piece goes, we actually know the piece. I would argue that there is always more to learn, more to discover and because music unfolds over time we can only ever hold an impression of a piece in our mind. The second danger is that we start to hear live performance passively, as if it were an aide-memoire to the unfolding of the familiar. We probably notice if something goes wrong but otherwise we can essentially allow a performance to remind us of what we think we know already. We hear, but we don’t listen.

The third danger is that our reliance on recordings encourages a strange connoisseurship whereby they are judged against one another. There is a misguided search for the definitive performance – as if there could be one single ideal interpretation. People pull out obscure vintage recordings in the way that someone might show with a vintage wine. This is where the record collection resembles the stamp collection – music becomes a possession rather than a process. The point is, we are in danger of losing touch with the greatest strength of classical music – its liveness. The unrepeatable, unpredictable nature of great music performed in the moment for that moment only.

Mark Padmore and Leigh Melrose in the St John Passion in 2000.
Mark Padmore and Leigh Melrose in the St John Passion in 2000. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Before the 20th century, if you wanted to get to know a piece you had to attend a live performance or get hold of a score and work through it on whatever instrument or instruments you had available. There is a wonderful chapter in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus in which Wendell Kretzschmar leads the local community through a course on great works by Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner. He hammers away at the piano, shouting out descriptions of the orchestration and musical structure as he goes. This gives a vivid idea of how difficult it is to get to know music – the effort involved in acquiring knowledge. Even if you lived in a city with a symphony orchestra and opera house you would hear only a handful of works in any one season. The thrill of hearing an orchestra play a Beethoven symphony you had only ever heard on a village piano would have been enormous.

How, then, can we encourage attentive, active listening? How do we communicate a piece to an audience with immediacy and urgency? And how can I avoid complacency when coming back to a work that I have known for 35 years and performed 150 times? One way is to question our own assumptions and preconceptions. We must remember that the Passion was not a standalone concert piece but was created as an integral part of a liturgical event – perhaps the most important of the year. It would have been performed during a three-hour service on Good Friday afternoon, a service that contained prayers, chorales, motets and organ improvisations as well as a very substantial sermon placed between the two parts of the Passion.

This year when I perform it with Britten Sinfonia we will start not with the wonderful, throbbing G minor string patterns and keening woodwind suspensions of the opening chorus, but with the first six verses of the John Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word … ” This should remind us of the liturgical setting but also focus our minds on the importance of the text; there really is little point in performing Bach’s Passion if you are not interested in what it might mean.

Instead of a sermon, Simon Russell Beale will read Psalm 22 and part of TS Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”. These great poems are full of resonance for the Passion story and they are chosen in direct response to the last line of the final chorale of Part 1 – “rühre mein Gewissen” – “stir up my conscience”. The performance will conclude with a motet written a hundred or so years before the Passion, by Jacob Handl – “Ecce quomodo moritur justus” – “behold how the just man dies”. This is a beautiful meditation on death Bach placed quite deliberately after the final chorale and it draws us away from a triumphal reading of the Passion story towards a more contemplative one.

The other defamiliarising element will be to perform without a conductor. This requires more rehearsal time and more responsibility for the performance by every player and singer. Bach lived before the invention of the “maestro” and, I believe, conceived his music as chamber music, relying on subtle gestures between the players and a high level of musicianship to guide the performance. The music should reach the listener unmediated by an interpreter, directly – “from the heart to the heart”, as Beethoven said about his Missa Solemnis.

Bach only heard the St John Passion four times – each time kissing it as it flew. We need to approach every performance as though it were our first – and might just possibly be our last.

  • St John Passion, with readings by Simon Russell Beale, is at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich (13 April); Barbican, London (14 April) and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (15 April). brittensinfonia.com
Mark Padmore

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