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The St. John Passion
April 8, 2004

  The crucifixion

The Crucifixion

MPR's Julie Amacher discusses The Passion with Bach scholar Thomas Lancaster.
audio What is a Passion?

audio Description of Part One

audio Is there a message of anti-Semitism?

audio A history of Bach's Passions
And what he wrote to illustrate the text

audio A description of Part Two

audio The characters portrayed by the singers
And the context of the original performance

audio The use of other texts in the St. John Passion
Are the Passions Bach's "operas"?

On April 7, 1724, the citizens of Leipzig crowded into the St. Thomas Church for Good Friday services. What they heard—in addition to a sermon—was a retelling of the Passion story as recounted in the book of John, set to music by their recently hired cantor, or city musical director, Johann Sebastian Bach.

In length and musical scope, the St. John Passion is no small work, but it has often been overshadowed by the even more imposing St. Matthew Passion that Bach produced a few years later. Yet for many listeners, the drama and pacing of Bach's first Passion setting give it a unique appeal. The composer Robert Schumann, for example, not only admired it, but preferred it, writing to a friend: "Do you know Bach's Passion According to St. John, the so-called little one? ... Don't you think it is much bolder, more powerful, and poetical than the Passion According to St. Matthew? ... How condensed, how full of genius, especially the choruses. And what consummate art!"

Our recording of the St. John Passion is a vivid, highly praised account by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by John Eliot Gardiner.

Use the links listed at the top of the page, to hear the commentary of Bach scholar Thomas Lancaster in conversation with MPR's Julie Amacher. They discuss what to listen for in this work, Bach's musical characterization and use of the orchestra, and the question of Bach's Passion in the light of anti-Semitism.

Recordings used on the April 9, 2004, broadcast
St. John Passion Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Orchestra: English Baroque Soloists
Chorus: The Monteverdi Choir
Soloists: Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the Evangelist; Stephen Varcoe, Jesus; Cornelius Hauptmann, Pilate and bass arias; Nancy Argenta, Ruth Holton, sopranos; Michael Chance, alto; Neill Archer, Rufus Muller, tenors
Label: Archiv 419 324

Ecce quomodo moritur iustus Jacobus Handl (Gallus): "Ecce quomodo moritur iustus"
Conductor: John Scott
Chorus: St. Paul Cathedral Choir
Label: Hyperion - CDA67398

About Thomas Lancaster
Thomas Lancaster is professor of music and director of the University Chamber Singers. He coordinates graduate studies in choral conducting, teaches courses in choral literature, and conducts and advises students on the master of music degree in choral conducting.

Thomas Lancaster  
Thomas Lancaster

Lancaster directs the annual University of Minnesota Bach Festival, which centers on Bach's major works, as performed by the University Chamber Singers and Bach Festival Orchestra (members of the University Symphony Orchestra), and includes related masterclasses, lectures, and recitals of chamber music.

As choirmaster of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul, Lancaster also conducts the Bach Chamber Players of Saint Paul, a professional orchestra that performs Bach's cantatas and other works with the church's Motet Choir. The choir has toured Europe and the church has become prominent for the commissioning of new music, including Stephen Paulus' church opera The Three Hermits, which was recorded under Lancaster's direction in 1997 on the d'Note Classics label.

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