Dimension: 22.2 x 14.7 x 1.6 cm
||Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion: Genesis,
Transmission and Meaning by Alfred Dürr.
||Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xiii + 182p. Hard
back. Price: £35.
||Oxford University Press,
Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, UK.
||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.
||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.
||Scholars and students studying this major work by Bach.
||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, Mus.ms.Bach 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
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.
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.
||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
||1. The lost original score X (1724?)
2. The revised score (source A, c1739-1749)
3. The original parts
||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
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
small but scholarly-flavoured
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