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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 22.2 x 14.7 x 1.6 cm
TITLE Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion: Genesis, Transmission and Meaning by Alfred Dürr.
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xiii + 182p. Hard back. Price: £35.
ISBN 0-19-816240-5
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.
DESCRIPTION A comprehensive guide to the genesis, transmission, structure, meaning of this major work by Bach. This is an English translation (by Alfred Clayton) of the book originally published in German in 1988.
WORKS COVERED BWV 11, 23, 31, 37, 67, 106, 124, 128, 147, 153-4, 172, 174, 186, 198, 226-7, 232, 244, 245, 246-8, 769a, 846-69, 1046-51, 1080.
READERSHIP Scholars and students studying this major work by Bach.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Spelling out complex musicological problems addressed by Arthur Mendel for general readership while highlighting issues not properly addressed by him.

There is no other works that speak better of Bach’s turbulent life in Leipzig than St John Passion. This is the first passion which Bach performed as a newly appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig; it is also the last passion he performed at the time when signs of his failing health became obvious. In fact, Bach experienced with every performance—which he repeated four times during his tenure, viz. 1724, 1725, 1732(?) and 1749—various problems with the church authorities on many aspects of the work, the most vivid account of which must be the record in the church council minutes dated 17 March 1739: in it Bach is reported to have said that ‘it was only a burden’ to perform the work. A similar account of Bach’s dismay with the authorities can also be learnt from the score of the work ‘A’ (= D-B, P 28) which Bach started preparing that year but soon gave up after copying first 20 pages. Actually, the compositional history of the work is further complicated by many other factors, such as the questions of its origin and pre-history (e.g. written in Weimar?; performed in 1717 in Gotha?), available instrumentalists at each version and theological arguments regarding the text. The loss of the earlier score he wrote ‘X’ and many parts complicates these issues even further.

Dürr’s primary task is to spell out a very complex array of musicological problems addressed by Arthur Mendel (NBA II/4, Kritischer Bericht, 1974) for a more general readership while at the same time highlighting the issues not properly addressed by him.

Contents in brief
I. Genesis
Introduction: Did Bach compose a Passion before 1724?
1. Version I (1724)
2. Version II (1725)
3. Version III (c1730)
4. Version IV (c1749)
5. Score A
II. Transmission
1. The lost original score X (1724?)
2. The revised score (source A, c1739-1749)
3. The original parts
III. Meaning
1. Protestant settings of the Passion
2. The text of the St John Passion
3. Bach's music
4. Problms associated with the overall formal design and the different versions
5. Performance practice
Appendices: Problematical Points
Text of the St John Passion
 small but scholarly-flavoured
Dürr’s discussion of “Genesis” is concise but cautious, which is exemplary; while giving his readers all the essential background information on main sources, he provides much needed updates from the recent scholarship on each version. With it he argues convincingly how Bach changed from one to the next, how he arrived at his view, and how the work was effectively left in an incomplete state as it stands. All this technical discussion was contained within 30 pages of the book—the absolute minimum for this complex subject yet sufficient for non-specialist reader at whom this book was targeted. 
The main chapter of the book is “Meaning” where Dürr attempts to demonstrate Bach’s compositional techniques and his profound understanding of the message from the Gospel of St John through the examination of a broader historical background, biblical and free text to the discussion of specific issues relating to Bach’s treatment of the text and the structuring of the work. Selected examples are taken from Bach’s predecessors/contemporaries such as Ritter and Mattheson to illustrate his points convincingly. Overall, the author’s systematic approach successfully demonstrates not only what were Bach’s intentions and what were not (i.e. such external causes as the lack of performers and orders from church authorities), but also with the degree of certainty with which to be able to judge his evidence and argument. There are four specific thorny issues he discusses further separately in appendices (in smaller prints!). Dürr’s critical and balanced stance on some of the speculative readings of Bach’s intention proposed by Smend and Chafe is particularly noteworthy.

For a small group of scholars who are looking for new information, this book may be a disappointment, as it does not reflect the most up-to-date scholarship: it is a straightforward translation of the original published in German in 1988. Yet for the majority of readers, it will be an excellent reading, providing scholarly-flavoured guide for this major choral work. You will discover herein a fascinating series of episodes of the work’s unique compositional history. You will also gain some insight into this type of musicological research that uncovers the forgotten truths and values that are otherwise forever hidden.

Published online on 13 March 2001

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