Bach to Worship
The Liturgical Reconstruction of the St. John Passion
Josh Langhoff

The first time I heard J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion, I fell asleep. While this is not a point of pride, I am certain I was not alone. Bach’s passion oratorio is long; most recordings clock in at just under two hours. To connect its choruses and arias, the work’s most hummable music, the composer wrote lengthy passages of narrative recitative. Like the rest of the Passion, these recitatives are sung in German, sending most Americans’ heads nodding to their programs to figure out what is going on. At my performance, the musicians sang and played with impressive skill—I can still hear their sparkling soprano and flute aria “Ir folge dir gleichfalls”—and whoever wrote the program notes offered welcome historical context, but in concert the Passion seemed a work to admire, not to love. Also, the concert took place on a Sunday afternoon, and I had stayed up late the night before.

Recalling this incident in 2013, I was prepared to admire but not love a new “liturgical reconstruction” of the Passion on Linn Records, recorded by Edinburgh’s Baroque music specialists the Dunedin Consort. Instead, the recording moved me to tears.

The recording sought to recreate Bach’s Good Friday Vespers service of 1724, surrounding the central Passion with organ preludes and congregational hymns. albumn cover(James Brooks Kuykendall pondered such reconstructions in The Cresset’s Advent/Christmas 2006 issue.) It even directed listeners to a free download of a period sermon: in German. I never downloaded it. Even so, all that extra material added a half hour to the normal running time. Because I first listened to the Dunedin recording during my commute, there was no way to consult the liner notes during the recitatives. Yet hearing the Passion as part of a worship service, surrounded by enduring chorale melodies and familiar liturgical rhythms, rendered it at once grander and more intimate. After an opening congregational hymn, the wrenching dissonances of the first chorus heralded an epic in which I felt I belonged.

Liturgies create their own aesthetics. For example, the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy gave its structure to the requiems of Mozart, Verdi, and countless other composers whose music is heard more often in concert halls than in churches. While listeners might well hear these works as devotional exercises, their aesthetic splendor remains their universal selling point. Whether we submit to the power of Verdi’s “Dies Irae” or thrill to one of the dance movements from Bach’s keyboard suites, the principle is the same: we hear a composer working within a historical form. Freed from their original uses, pleas for divine mercy and courtly dances both become vehicles for the musician’s craft. This point is uncontroversial enough that it fades into the background when we listen to concerts and albums. Requiems and Passion oratorios are musical forms like symphonies and operas, only with different origin stories: they entered the world through the church.

The St. John Passion was the culminating work of Bach’s first year as a cantor in Leipzig, the job he would hold until his death in 1750. Despite my ignominious first encounter with the work, it actually tells the story of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion at a quick, attention-grabbing clip. In Bach’s hands, scripture butts up against anonymous poetry, and musical styles shift abruptly from arias to familiar hymn tunes, solo storytelling to fugal choral replies. In the work’s most breathtaking moments, the chorus radically transforms that sparkling “Ir folge” melody into violent calls for Jesus’s death, then abruptly swerves into familiar Lutheran chorales praising Christ for his sacrifice. Though Bach’s congregation probably did not sing along during the Passion, they knew the hymns, and so this entire complex structure was Bach’s way of implicating his congregation in the Good Friday message. By the time the chorus reaches the piece’s final movement, the heartrending third stanza of “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart,” downloading a sermon seems beside the point.

Normally after a moment of silence, a concert crowd would erupt into applause or a CD listener would turn on something else. In Dunedin’s liturgical reconstruction, the program continues. The University of Glasgow Chapel Choir sings a Renaissance motet by Jacobus Gallus. The choir, consort, and “congregation” chant a responsory, collect, and blessing. John Butt, the consort’s director and mastermind behind this whole enterprise, plays Bach’s organ prelude to “Now Thank We All Our God,” and everyone sings three stanzas. Only then does the work end.

On paper it seems anticlimactic. In practice, Dunedin’s liturgical trappings draw listeners closer to Bach’s music, but they do so in a counterintuitive way. I cannot claim that hearing the Passion surrounded by a bunch of German hymns and chanting made me a more pious listener. My commute did not suddenly turn into a worship service, because I do not understand German. What I understand is liturgy: the sound of a group of people collectively confessing their sin, singing praises, meditating on scripture, and generally going about the business of being the body of Christ. I know what that business sounds like because I have experienced it in real life.

By reconstructing a church service from 1724, the Dunedin Consort has not restored the Passion to its devotional roots or any such thing. When Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen and Robert Schumann first revived the St. John Passion in the mid-1800s, relocating it from church to concert hall, they emphasized its aesthetic splendor over its devotional use. The Dunedin Consort cannot hope to stuff the genie back in the devotional bottle; that job belongs to individual listeners, for whom aesthetic and devotional listening can happily coexist. Rather, the consort has re-aestheticized Bach’s masterpiece. By framing the Passion with “liturgy,” the consort makes us hear the work’s aesthetic splendor with new ears. (A liturgical reconstruction “turns the entire church service into an aesthetic object,” wrote one New York Times reviewer.) Just as Philip Roth employs the recurring narrator Nathan Zuckerman to render the stories of his novels more immediate, Dunedin uses a makeshift congregation as a familiar gateway to the Passion. Readers know Zuckerman isn’t real; listeners know Dunedin’s “congregation” doesn’t meet every week. Having duly suspended our disbelief once, we are prepared to abandon it altogether as we follow our guides deeply into their stories.

The idea of liturgical reconstruction fits naturally into the half-century-old Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, in which the Dunedin Consort is a relatively young entity. At their best and least pedantic, HIP musicians breathe new vitality into early music by researching its original performance contexts and performing on period instruments. To give one example of the rather intense devotion such practices inspire, in the year 2000 the conductor John Eliot Gardiner embarked on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Over the course of a year, he and his ensembles, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, traveled through Europe recording nearly all of Bach’s church cantatas on their corresponding days of the church calendar. In his book-length reflection Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner describes why his musicians stopped playing Bach with anachronistic modern instruments:

With their wire or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down and hold back was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, calls for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the wellspring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a
radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments. It was like learning a totally new language, or taking up a new instrument but with practically no one to teach you how to play it.

The HIP sonic contrast can be striking. In 2015, the Dunedin Consort reconstructed another service from Bach’s first year in Leipzig. St. Nicholas Church’s Christmas Vespers of 1723 included two big works: Bach’s Christmas Cantata BWV 63, at that point a decade-old piece the cantor had brought along to his new job, and the newly composed Magnificat in E-flat major. (Bach would later transpose the piece to D major, the version usually performed today.) During the Magnificat the alto soloist sings an aria on the text, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” accompanied by strings and a duet for two recorders. Accompanied on many recordings by a big modern orchestra with flutes covering the duet, the aria sounds fulsome and lovely, but also incongruous and opulent. The moneyed sound of a symphony orchestra ignores the text. In Dunedin’s equally lovely rendition, the humble, airy timbre of the recorders recalls hungry shepherds in a field, or the hollow moan of an empty stomach.

Like the Passion, Bach’s Magnificat moves fast and mixes things up, but not every BWV can be an unadulterated masterpiece. Despite wonderful choruses and the only instance of a Bach fanfare for four trumpets, the Christmas Cantata that opens the album suffers from a workmanlike soprano and bass aria that simply plods along, disrupting the musical momentum. Here we discover another aesthetic benefit of liturgical reconstruction. By placing the cantata within a larger service that also includes rousing hymns, fiery organ improvisation, a Gabrieli motet, and the relentless invention of the Magnificat, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort—like Bach before them—turn this momentum-killing aria into a minor slow spot, easily forgotten amid the brilliance. With its expansive scope, a worship service turns out to be a more forgiving musical structure than a focused seven-movement cantata. That was probably not Bach’s original intent, but judging by this recording, he learned how to use the fact to his advantage.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.

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