I went with very good company last night to see Bach’s St John Passion at Exeter Cathedral. The choir and orchestra and soloists were fabulous, it was introduced well and set in the context of a devotional offering for the beginning of Holy Week.
The libretto (or “the script” if you prefer!) is anonymous – but obviously has big chunks of John’s Gospel (Luther’s translation) plus a couple of gratuitous extra bits from Matthew’s Gospel (Peter weeping after his betrayal and the temple curtain being torn.) It also has bits from Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – a free, poetic meditation on the passion story.
It must have been Brockes who was responsible for some of the remarkable poetry which I shall reproduce for you in English translation lest you find the original German a stretch!
Peter, who does not think back at all,
denies his God,
but then at a look of reproach
Jesus, look at me also
when i am reluctant to repent;
when i have done evil
stir up my conscience!
(presumably Bach’s librettist wanted this in which is why he included that Matthew bit!)
And this is strong stuff… (after Jesus is cruelly flogged…)
erwäge wie sein blutgefärbter rücken…
Ponder well how his back
all over is like the sky –
where after the deluge
from our flood of sins has abated
there appears the most beautiful
Rainbow as a sign of God’s mercy!
or – sung thus:
Brockes finds in these scenes of brutal violence a tiny flowering of redemptive hope – a sign of God’s promise – even when coloured in with blood and bruising… That’s powerful and emotive stuff… but this is the journey through Holy Week, and the life we will celebrate on Easter Day means nothing if the journey through death has not been followed. Jesus walked that path – that’s what this week is about…
Heartfelt thanks to Exeter Cathedral (and Bach and Brockes and anonymous librettist and choir and orchestra and soloists) for this gift in music and words.
PS… St John’s Passion also has the longest word I have heard sung in a serious religious work:
Betrachte, meine Seel’, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen,
Mit bittrer Lust und halb beklemmtem Herzen
Dein höchstes Gut in Jesu Schmerzen,
Wie dir auf Dornen, so ihn stechen,
Die Himmelsschlüsselblumen blühn!
Du kannst viel süsse Frucht von seiner Wermut brechen
Drum sieh ohn Unterlass auf ihn!
“Consider, o my soul, with anxious delight,
with bitterly troubled heart,
thine highest Good in Jesus’ sorrows,
how from thorns that pierce him
the flowers of the keys to heaven blossom for thee;
thou canst pick much sweet fruit from his wormwood,
therefore look unceasing upon him.”
(The flower in mind is the Primula)