It is an amazing feeling, knowing that people have been singing their accounts of the Passion of Christ for at least 1,200 years.
On Tuesday night I sat in King’s College, Cambridge, listening to a powerful performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Presented by the Chapel Choir, other Cambridge choristers, the Academy of Ancient Music, a squad of first-rank soloists and conducted by Stephen Cleobury, we were once again confronted with one of the greatest artistic achievements in history.
Why do the Bach Passions still speak to modern man? And why was the death of Jesus – rather than His joyous resurrection – the prime motivation for these masterpieces? St Paul writes, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain”. With that in mind, what is it about his death that has so gripped our culture?
I have just received John Butt’s book Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity. Here he examines the Bach Passions in the context of modern man’s fascination with glories past. Such masterpieces provide a firm challenge to the contemporary conceit that the modern world is always improving. The growing popularity of hearing the Bach Passions leading up to the Easter season in our “post-religious” culture is an intriguing and exciting one.
The ritualistic recitation of Christ’s crucifixion probably began in the 4th century, and the singing of the Passion narrative has been going on from the 8th century. Singing has always been central to the Church. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice. The “song” of the Church, Gregorian chant, can be traced back to the songs of the Temple and synagogue. It is an amazing feeling, knowing that people have been singing the Passion for at least 1,200 years.
It wasn’t until the 15th century that more complex versions of a sung Passion began to emerge, the earliest example of a so-called motet Passion being attributed to Obrecht. Later there were famous examples by Byrd, Lassus and Victoria. After the Reformation, Luther’s friend and collaborator Johann Walther wrote responsorial Passions which became models for the Lutheran church. Within this environment the development of the “oratorio” Passions of the 16th and 17th centuries paved the way for J S Bach.
Before I encountered any of the great Bach Passions, I was aware of the crucifixion narratives. I’d heard them recited every year as part of the Church’s liturgy. On Good Friday we would hear St John’s account. Sometimes there would be a participatory aspect to the recitation, with the words of Christ delivered by the priest while other characters would be read by deacons or lay readers.
I have taken part in chanted Passions since my undergraduate days. Nowadays I am well used to singing the Narrator’s part in an English plainsong setting of the St John every year with a couple of Dominican friars in Glasgow, where my little choir interjects with the angry responses of the chorus. I am always awestruck at the stark, relentless nature of this way of doing it, and at the dramatic impact it has on the assembly as they relive the last hours of Christ’s mortal life.
To be honest, it is the spiritual highlight of my year, and I have real difficulty singing the final section. In the Catholic liturgy, at the words, “It is accomplished; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit”, the congregation fall to their knees and remain there in prayer before hearing the final part of the narrative, where the legs of the two thieves are broken and Jesus is pierced in his side. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus then take the body away and place it in a tomb. Every year I wonder if my voice is going to crack at the final phrase, which, strangely, is the only one which blossoms into a little melisma: “Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, there they laid the body of Jesus.”
It is not just the Bach Passions that are in ongoing dialogue with modernity. The figure of Christ himself, in his death and resurrection, is in constant, uncontrollable interplay with the mind of modern man.
Last week in Cambridge, I was in conversation with academics, theologians and creative artists about the St Luke Passion, which I am now about to set to music. We all found it curious that the great historical settings of the Passion seem to fillet a portion of Christ’s life, separating it from his early ministry and the post-crucifixion story. There were liturgical reasons for this, of course – the resurrection would eventually have its own musical treatment a few days later. But Bach’s greatest music is about the destruction of Our Lord; his resurrection music is not so memorable. (This could perhaps be said about most composers.)
Modern man, now more detached from his liturgical obligations than ever before, may be able, paradoxically, to see the crucifixion in wider contexts. Can a modern composer, in setting the great tragedy of Jesus, include the resurrection, the risen Christ’s early appearance on the road to Emmaus, and even the ascension? If so, why begin the St Luke Passion at Chapter 22 when Satan entered Judas Iscariot?
These are not simple questions. The “greatest story ever told” began with a terrified Jewish girl saying yes to a heavenly manifestation which brought news of her pregnancy. Bach’s music proves that the Passion of Christ has deep beginnings and profound resonance, even for modern man: he opened up a window on the divine love affair with humanity. The greatest calling for an artist, in any age, is to do the same.
James MacMillan is a composer and conductor.