Borrowing by Bach

We invite you to observe Good Friday with us as we present J.S. Bach's St. Mark Passion on Friday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m. in the Sanctuary. The performance will feature the BMPC Sanctuary Choir, Bryn Mawr Chamber Singers, and The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, with soloists Elizabeth Weigle, Misoon Ghim and Andrew Burgmayer. A free-will offering will be received.

Although his obituary tells us that Bach wrote five Passions, only two of them - St. Matthew and St. John - have survived complete. The first performance of the St. Mark Passion took place on March 23 in 1731, but subsequently, the score of the music disappeared. Tantalizingly, all that remained was Christian Picander’s libretto. However, after some keen detective work on Bach’s music, enough evidence surfaced to make a reconstruction possible. Of the many reconstructions attempted over the past 50 years, I was continually drawn back to the 2001 version, reconstructed by Johannes Koch.

Like his Mass in B minor, the St. Mark Passion is based almost entirely on the process of parody. This was the practice of “borrowing from yourself.” In parody, Bach used previously written music (for example, cantatas) and inserted new text. As early as 1873, Wilhelm Rust, music director at St. Thomas in Leipzig, realized that five movements from the St. Mark Passion had been parodied from the Trauer Ode, BWV 198, a funeral cantata composed in 1727 to commemorate the Saxon electress Christiane Eberhardine. This music provides us with two choruses and three of the five arias.

The remaining missing music divides itself into three groups: the 13 chorales; two of the five arias; the recitatives and turba (crowd scene) choruses that tell the Passion story. The chorales you will hear on Good Friday are exquisitely set by Bach and drawn from various cantatas. Similarly, the remaining two arias come from cantatas, substituting text by Picander for the original text.

The greatest challenge is that of the missing recitatives and turba choruses. Various composers have attempted to compose new music in the style of Bach, but none have succeeded. How does one perfectly imitate Bach? (Answer: it’s not possible!) German conductor Peter Uehling took a different path when he used an actor to recite the Passion story. Following Maestro Uehling’s example, the Passion story will be recited in English by several choir members, with the choruses, chorales and arias sung in the original German.

Fully aware that no reconstruction of a lost Bach work can ever equal what the composer himself actually wrote, our intention is to help make Bach’s third setting of the Passion story a stylistically coherent work, while at the same time revealing some of Bach’s greatest music which would otherwise be rarely performed.

To hear a wonderful 22-minute talk on the BBC about St. Mark Passion, click here.