Music, Faith and Worship

Music, Faith and Worship

Bach’s St John Passion was to have been performed by The 18th Century Sinfonia and Chester Bach Singers two Sundays before Easter, traditionally known as Passion Sunday.  Its postponement to Sunday 28 February 2021 (and then again to October 17th 2021) because of COVID19 lockdown has prompted this reflection.

Trumpets sound a final high entry – choir sing their hearts out – a surprising downward shift in the bass line – an expectant chord – silence – (there’s a tear in my father-in-law’s eye) – four powerful chords and final cadence – rapturous applause – standing ovation.  Such is the power of music to stir human emotion, the potent mix of sound and silence .  My father-in-law was not a religious man (church three times a year – Christmas, Easter and Remembrance), yet the cumulative power of Handel’s Messiah, the closing bars of which I have described, stirred a deep and spontaneous emotional response.  A similar response happened to him towards the conclusion of a performance of Bach’s St.John Passion, as its immersive intensity culminated in reflective affirmation, after describing the tortuous and shattering events of Good Friday.

A kaleidoscope of human emotions can be ambushed by music when least expected, a power recognised and explored by musicians across the centuries, regardless of the nationality, creed, faith, age or experience of the listener.  The best music enhances celebrations, commemorations and worship in indefinable ways, as the individual listener responds to the craft of the composer, the skill of the performer(s), and the context of the experience.  In the Christian tradition music supports praise and prayer, both actively as in congregational singing of hymns and songs, and passively in listening to choirs, solo singers and instrumentalists.  The greatest composers skilfully set words using the combined power of rhythm, melody and harmony.  In the context of a church service it can be seen as a gift to God of the best that man can offer.  It is perhaps easiest to identify with this in the joyous music of Christmas, whether you are of a religious persuasion or not, but for Christians this is a celebration of God’s gift to humanity.  What humanity did to that gift led to the tragic event of Good Friday, known as the Passion of Christ, inspiring contemplative and often introspective music, before the celebration and leap of faith of Easter Day.

In protestant Germany the story of Christ’s Passion was recounted in church on Good Friday, continuing a tradition dating back to the first centuries of Christian belief, and by the early eighteenth century the oratorio passion had come to meet the devotional requirements of orthodox Lutheranism.  For many J.S.Bach’s responses to the Gospels of John and Matthew represent the pinnacle of this tradition in his two great Passions.  In them the story is narrated in a form called recitative, using the Gospel text interspersed with interaction from the chorus; poetic texts set as arias allow for meditation on the events described; all framed by two large scaled reflective choruses. Importantly the congregation is able to respond in the singing of chorales, we would call them hymns, which significantly use “I” rather than “We” to help the individual share “compassionately” in the sufferings of Christ, an aspect of Pietism that was on the rise at that time.

Martin Luther (1483-1548) considered community singing as important as the sermon in his reform of liturgy, with chorale singing being an assertion of faith and a spiritual commentary on the biblical texts.  These songs have one syllable per note, and the melodies are simple enough to be learnt by heart.  They were sung in unison, but simple harmonies were created so that they could be sung in four parts – soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  Schools or parishes were responsible for vocal training so that worshippers could become acquainted with music practice.  Luther himself composed thirty six chorales, often adapting folk melodies, and there is a legend that he questioned why the devil should have the best tunes.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the Cantor in Leipzig, a job entailing directing music in four churches, composing and teaching.  To say he was both talented and skilful would be a significant understatement, and one year into this job, in 1724, he composed the St.John Passion for the Good Friday Vespers on 7 April.  The context of its conception was as a devotional church service with a sermon separating its two parts.  It incorporates eleven congregational chorales with just eight different chorale tunes, so three are used more than once.  They intersperse the narrative at important moments, allowing worshippers opportunity for devotion and reflection through congregational singing.  As a Lutheran with great personal faith Bach owned an eight volume collection of Lutheran hymns published by Paul Wagner in 1697 called Andächtiger Seelen geistliches Brand-und Gantz-Opfer (The Spiritual Sacrifices of Devout Souls), which contained the words of more than five thousand hymns.  This was the source for the chorale movements in his passions and cantatas.  

Prayerful contemplation is invoked, for example, in the second chorale of St. John Passion, Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich, which is the fourth verse of Luther’s versification of the Lord’s Prayer.  It is sung in response to Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter struck out with his sword and cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  Jesus says to Peter, in the preceding recitative, “Put your sword in its sheath! Shall I not drink the cup, which My Father has given to Me?”  The congregation respond: 

Your will be done, Lord God, likewise on earth as in heaven, 

is therefore entirely apt and continues with the contemplation:

Grant us patience in time of sorrow, to be obedient in love and suffering;

check and guide all flesh and blood that acts contrary to Your will!

Bach’s musical underpinning of the text remains submissively in the minor key for the excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer.  Subsequent phrases modulate in turn to different major and minor keys, with “in Leidenszeit” (in time of suffering)  being a particularly poignant cadence because of its chromatic approach.  The chorale ends assertively in the tonic major.

When tunes are repeated Bach employs inspirationally different and expressive harmonisations to underline the significance of the words.  Considering just one of the tunes, Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod, verse 10 concludes part one, after Peter’s denial of Jesus.  Bach’s harmonisation surprisingly begins in the relative minor key and wanders through distant keys during the first four phrases, ending discordantly, underlining Peter’s total disengagement with the situation and subsequent abject regret:

Peter, who did not recollect, denied his God,

who yet after a serious glance wept bitterly.

Then to emphasise the reflective words in the next phrase Bach modulates assertively to the major key, signifying perhaps the transition to a Christian’s need for spiritual intervention in time of personal crisis.

Jesus, look upon me also, when I will not repent; 

when I have done evil, stir my conscience!

During his crucifixion Jesus gave instructions for his mother to be looked after by his favourite disciple (John), at which point the tune next appears, with he words of verse 20.  The melody is at the same pitch as before, and is harmonised mostly throughout in the a major key, the exception being a bitter-sweet chord on “Stirb” (die).  The words and the music underline Jesus’ authority, calmness and continued thought for others, despite the grotesqueness of his situation:

He took good care of everything in the last hour,
still thinking of His mother, He provided a guardian for her.
O mankind, do justice, love God and humanity,
die without any sorrow, and do not be troubled!

The final appearance of this tune, using the final 34th verse of the original chorale, occurs after Jesus’ death is recounted.  Unusually it is sung only by the choir, whilst the bass soloist sings an aria which poetically reflects on the tragedy that has just taken place.  Significantly lower in pitch, a more subdued mood is created, although it is mostly in the major key.  

  Jesus, You, who were dead, live now unendingly,

The third and fourth phrases are more intensely harmonised in the relative minor key:

in the last pangs of death. I will turn nowhere else

The chorale reaches its climax, confidently and straightforwardly harmonised, in the prayerful certainty of the last phrases:

but to You, who has absolved me, O beloved Lord! 

Only give me what You earned, more I do not desire!

Bach worked in the Lutheran tradition in Leipzig.  In the St John Passion he used his powerful and natural talents in the retelling and contemplation of an historic event from the Middle East one thousand seven hundred years earlier.  He responded using eighteenth century German musical language, and as we listen in the twenty first century and we can respond in our own ways, either acknowledging a world changing event, appreciating Bach’s amazing art, or commemorating the events of Good Friday.  Whether or not the listener is a Christian, it is hard not to be touched by the sincerity of Bachʼs Passion settings, including as they do not only descriptive and at times passionate narrative, intensely reflective arias, but also outstandingly dramatic choruses which strongly characterise roles of the chorus as a Jewish rabble, the Roman soldiers, or the Chief Priests and Pharisees.  But integral to all is the worshippers’ devotion and response in the chorales.  A lesser composer, maybe with a dismissive view of chorales as merely congregational, could have tossed them off in a matter of fact way, saving the real music for the trained musicians,  Not so Bach, as he gets inside the text and uses music to contextualise the worshippers’ devotions, using inspirational harmonies to subliminally facilitate their responses.  

Art at its most inspired is used to powerfully engage with devotion and worship in a Christian setting.  Whether the modern listener has a Christian faith or not will surely shape their reaction to this music.  For some the words will have no relevance at all, but I would assert that, whatever background and theological understanding you have, Bach’s faith will be felt in his music in the powerful integration of words and music.  Such is the greatness of his art.

The chorales referred to are to the found in the following editions: 

Barenreiter: 5,14, 28 & 32

New Novello: 9, 20, 56 & 60

Translations of chorales from:

© David Francis