Friday, April 6, 2012

On Bach's Passions

Of the Passion settings by J. S. Bach, the Matthew & John Passions are magnificent. What particularly moves me in them is the opening & closing choruses, the recitatives, and the "turbae" (numbers in which the chorus sings dialog from the passion text). The chorales & arias are lovely decorations, but if you take away Bach's dramatization of the Gospel text, all the life goes out of the work as a whole & it becomes nothing but so many pretty songs. The "passion" is gone. This is evident when you listen to the St Mark & St Luke passions of Bach, reconstructed (the same way Bach originally constructed them) from arias & chorales in his earlier cantatas. The words fit the music & all that, but the libretti (which survive although Bach's scores do not) are only the commentary; the thing itself is the passion text from the Gospels, and no one can reconstruct what Bach did with those texts in his recitatives & turbae. I have heard attempts to replace them with equivalent settings by other composers, but the results are uniformly boring. The loss of Bach's narrative music for the Mark & Luke passions is a tragedy over which I sincerely and deeply grieve.

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