Hadleigh Adams (center) as Jesus in Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the National Theatre, London, 2011

Simon Annand/ArenaPAL

Hadleigh Adams (center) as Jesus in Jonathan Miller’s production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the National Theatre, London, 2011

One of the most interesting discoveries in Bach research recently is a series of text booklets for the composer’s sacred vocal works. Surfacing little by little in St. Petersburg since the 1970s, the booklets were printed during Bach’s years in Leipzig, where he served as cantor of the St. Thomas School from 1723 to 1750, and distributed to members of the Lutheran congregation just before performances of his cantatas and passions. It is not entirely clear how the booklets made their way to Russia, though several seem to have come via the plundered Zaluski Library in Poland. But no matter what their origin, they are of great interest because they confirm the performance dates of a number of pieces and reveal adjustments that Bach made to the texts during the act of composition (the booklets were published in advance of the performances, often before Bach had written the music).

A twenty-four-page booklet that surfaced in 2009 contains the text of the now-lost St. Mark Passion, with the venue (St. Thomas Church) and the date (Good Friday, 1744) filled in by hand, apparently by Bach. This hints at what scholars have suspected for some time: that Bach may have had the text booklets printed himself in order to sell them to parishioners, much like the practice of selling opera librettos before opera performances, only without the accompanying candle (operas normally took place in the evening, hence the candle; Bach’s cantatas were performed at 7:30 AM, when no additional light was necessary).

The strong connection between opera and Bach’s church pieces is pursued in depth in Markus Rathey’s new book devoted to the music, drama, and liturgy of Bach’s major vocal works. Indeed, the composer’s use of operatic forms and gestures to enhance the drama of liturgical texts is a major theme for Rathey, who teaches at the Institute of Sacred Music, the Divinity School, and other divisions at Yale. The idea that Bach drew liberally from opera for his sacred works has been brewing for some time among specialists, but Rathey is one of the first to embrace it wholeheartedly and demonstrate its validity in convincing detail.

The second recurring topic in his book is Bach’s powerful treatment of emotional contrasts: humility vs. pride, sacrificial death vs. triumphant resurrection, ignorance vs. knowledge. In six chapters framed by a prelude and postlude, Rathey explores how these matters play out in the Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Easter Oratorio, Ascension Oratorio, and B-Minor Mass. Calling the essays “guides for informed listening,” he supports his points with citations from early theological treatises, descriptions of German Lutheran liturgical practices, discussions of Bach’s compositional methods, and examples from the music.

When Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723 to take up his cantorial duties, he signed a pledge to “so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.”1 To church leaders, opera was beyond the pale, a hotbed of scandalous plots and characters. But for Bach and his German contemporaries, the temptation to use operatic means to stir their church congregations was too great to resist. Opera offered narrative recitative, love duets and rage arias, turbulent choruses, and a host of other dramatic devices that could be put to good use in bringing the scriptures to life. Bach’s Weimar colleague Johann Gottfried Walther went so far as to term the church oratorio “a sacred opera.”

As Rathey notes, Bach did not have the opportunity to compose operas per se. But he exhibited a keen interest in the works being presented on a lavish scale at the Saxon Electoral Court in Dresden, and between 1732 and 1735 he paid homage to the royal family with at least eight secular cantatas subtitled dramma per musica (a drama in musical form). Presented in Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse or coffee garden or on the town square in Leipzig, these works were in truth mini-operas featuring allegorical or mythological figures—concise concert versions of the type of pieces that were being produced on stage.

Rathey examines in great detail the ties between these operatic works and the Christmas Oratorio, an ambitious narrative cycle of six cantata-like pieces performed on the six main days of the holiday season of 1734–1735. Scholars have known since the nineteenth century that when Bach faced the imposing challenge of writing the oratorio, he turned to several of his drammi per musica for material, recycling arias and choruses with new texts via a process called parody technique. Rathey focuses sharply on one of these works, Cantata 213, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Let us take care, let us watch), written for the birthday of the Saxon elector prince Friedrich Christian in September 1733. He demonstrates just how Bach was able to refashion the cantata’s music for the Christmas Oratorio fifteen months later, converting secular imagery into sacred with sublime effect.


Better known as “Hercules at the Crossroads,” Cantata 213 portrays the conflict of Hercules as he encounters both Pleasure (Wollust) and Virtue (Tugend). Following operatic conventions, Bach assigned the role of Hercules to an alto rather than to a tenor or bass, since on stage male heroes were normally represented by castrati singing in the soprano or alto range. After a festive opening chorus, Pleasure woos Hercules with a song of seduction, which is subsequently debated by Hercules and a nymph (Echo) in an unusual echo aria. After deciding to reject Pleasure, Hercules is welcomed by Virtue and the two celebrate their union in a love duet filled with erotic musings.

For the Christmas Oratorio, Bach transformed the festive opening chorus of Cantata 213 into an introduction for Part IV, Pleasure’s song of seduction into a lullaby for the baby Jesus in Part II, the echo aria into a dialogue of a faithful soul and the Holy Spirit in Part IV, and the love duet into a rhapsodic piece about God’s mercy, compassion, and love in Part III. Rathey shows that Bach’s musical sleight of hand in the love duet, for instance, was fully in line with Lutheran theological thought of the time, which described the entrance of Christ into a Christian’s heart as a spiritual marriage. Within this marriage Christ served as the protective bridegroom and the believer the receptive bride—a metaphor drawn from the Song of Songs in the Old Testament.

Bach presented such imagery elsewhere, most famously in the kissing duet “Mein Freund ist mein, und ich bin sein” (My friend is mine, and I am his) of Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, the voice is calling us), written four years before the Christmas Oratorio. But in the oratorio the direct borrowing of a love duet from an opera-like secular cantata underscores how calculating Bach was in using earthly means to achieve spiritual ends. “The transformation from love duet into a meditation of divine love was aided by the fact that Christmas, in Bach’s time, was understood as a demonstration of divine love,” Rathey writes. He goes on to say that the Christmas Oratorio as a whole reflects the threefold nature of Christ’s coming that is motivated by this love: his past entry into the flesh (the incarnation, Parts I and II), his present entry into the Christian heart (Parts III, IV, and V), and his future return for the Last Judgment (Part VI). Seen in this way, the Christmas Oratorio becomes, in Rathey’s view, an epic, six-part love story.

Although the use of operatic material to produce sacred music was widely practiced in Bach’s time, it was not condoned by all. Johann Adolph Scheibe, who touched off a lively debate in 1737 by characterizing Bach’s music as bombastic and confused, found the custom odious. He used the fictional cantor Pater Präses to make his case:

He had a sheaf of Italian opera arias stocked up, so whenever he needed a sacred aria for a Gloria setting, he made a parody out of a lovesick and sensuous opera aria, and performed it with all devotion, just as if opera and church music were one and the same, and as if one could sigh just as voluptuously, tenderly, and basely over the highest being as to an insensible beauty.2

In the nineteenth century, too, music historians were uneasy about Baroque parody technique, but for a different reason: it rubbed against the expectation of complete originality in composition that had been established by Beethoven. Only in modern times has Bach’s use of parody been fully accepted and admired. Rathey’s defense of it here, with the love imagery supported by Lutheran theological doctrine, takes us full circle back to Bach’s compositional workshop.

Another feature of the Christmas Oratorio discussed by Rathey is the way Bach and his librettist (most probably Picander, his favorite Leipzig poet) moved through the Christmas narrative, section by section. At important points they began with biblical citation (presented by the tenor Evangelist, as recitative), followed by the response of an individual (presented as recitative or aria, or both), followed by the response of the congregation (presented as a harmonized chorale or chorus). This progression provided a step-by-step musical and liturgical commentary to the biblical scripture, one that allowed contemporary listeners to enter into the narrative and become active participants in its trajectory. Rathey’s essay on the Christmas Oratorio—how it was composed, how its text reflects Lutheran exegesis, and how its music works—is the strongest in the book, and one looks forward to his full-length study of the work scheduled for release later this year.3


But the chapters on the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion are strong as well. Given the great length of the two works, Rathey does not attempt to cover them movement by movement but rather focuses on groups of pieces that illustrate central themes. The St. John Passion, written toward the end of Bach’s first year in Leipzig, reflects the view of Christ found in the gospel of the apostle John—that is, it portrays Christ’s sacrifice as a sign of his divine glory. To this end, Bach and his unknown librettist stressed the great contrast between Christ’s suffering and his eventual triumph over death.

Rathey explains how Bach emphasized this contrast time and time again in the music. In the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!” (Lord, our ruler, whose praise is glorious in all lands!), the choir, accompanied by forceful string writing, sings of Christ’s divine majesty. At the same time, the flutes and oboes play dissonant suspensions—the continuation of the tone of one chord into the following chord—that foreshadow the betrayal and agony that Christ will have to endure before that glory is realized. Bach portrayed the same dichotomy—Christ as victim/Christ as victor—even more vividly in the aria “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is accomplished!).

This lament in B minor is suddenly interrupted by heraldic fanfare material in the bright key of D major, played vivace by the strings, as the alto proclaims, “The hero from Judah triumphs with power.” This interlude foretelling Christ’s future resurrection soon comes to a halt, followed by a return to the mournful music and the reality of Christ’s agonizing death. The sequence in a normal da capo aria, i.e., one that returns to its beginning, is bright opening section, dark middle section, bright opening section repeated. In this case Bach reversed the sequence, turning operatic convention on its head to portray a thoroughly unconventional event.

Pompeo Batoni: Hercules at the Crossroads, circa 1753

Galleria Sabauda, Turin/Scala/Art Resource

Pompeo Batoni: Hercules at the Crossroads, circa 1753

A second element of the St. John Passion explored by Rathey is the theological concept of pro me—that is, what does the passion story mean for me, the individual believer? The St. John Passion contains the same narrative aspects as the Christmas Oratorio: biblical citations, individuals’ reflections upon the narrative, and community responses. The latter two interject “I” and “we” into the drama and in so doing convey Bach’s conception of the meaning of Christ’s death for the listener. In the aria “Mein teuer Heiland, laß dich fragen” (My precious savior, let me ask you), Bach juxtaposes the “I” and “we” elements contrapuntally, by having the individual, represented by a bass, pose the question “Can I inherit the kingdom of heaven?” and the congregation, represented by the choir, offer solace in the form of a consoling chorale.

In the St. Matthew Passion, Bach focused on contrasts once again, but this time between the love and the suffering of Christ. As in the St. John Passion, the duality is set forth in the opening chorus, in which the Daughters of Zion welcome Christ as the loving bridegroom of the believer while a choir of boy sopranos intone the chorale “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” (O lamb of God most holy), the German Agnus Dei associated with Christ’s sacrifice. Rathey draws on the seventeenth-century theological writings of Johann Arndt and Heinrich Müller to show how the Lutheran goal of unification with God—the spiritual marriage once again—is mediated through the word and sacraments:

Christ’s passion is the deepest demonstration of Christ’s love and the Lord’s Supper is the celebration and reminder of this love. This is confirmed by the way Bach and Picander set the words of institution in the St. Matthew Passion.

He suggests that the work is not just the saga of suffering that prevails in the gospel but rather becomes, through the addition of a Lutheran gloss, another story of divine love.

Rathey is to be praised for making the complex liturgical issues of Bach’s time understandable to the reader unversed in early Lutheran theological thought. His volume stands in contrast to that of another Yale theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, whose earlier study of Bach and the theologians of his day4 ventured deep into the exegetical forest without emerging to look closely at the music itself. One can quibble with the title of Rathey’s book: if the compositions discussed are Bach’s “major” vocal works, are we to call “minor” pieces such as Cantata 198, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (Princess, let one more glance), the majestic funeral ode written for Electress Christiane Eberhardine and later recycled in the St. Mark Passion, or the magnificent Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I had much grief), most probably performed for Bach’s Hamburg audition in 1720? Are any of Bach’s surviving cantatas, masses, or motets really “minor”? A few, perhaps, but almost everything Bach composed from the Weimar years onward bears the stamp of rich musical invention.

And one can raise an eyebrow at Rathey’s occasional use of colloquial phrases such as “Bach’s music underscores this ‘lovin’ feeling’” or “This aria exudes testosterone.” These expressions would be effective in public lectures, the origin of these essays, but they seem awkward in print. (There is also a touch of irony to the second expression, used in reference to the “Deposuit” from the Magnificat, since such operatic rage arias were commonly sung by castrati.) But these are small matters in a study that otherwise displays admirable elegance and clarity of thought.

An aspect of these works not covered by Rathey is the relative perfection of modern performances compared with those of Bach’s time. In the case of the Missa portion of the B-Minor Mass, which was presented to the Saxon elector in the summer of 1733, the performance parts for the instrumentalists and vocalists appear to have been prepared on site in Dresden at the last minute by the Bach family: Johann Sebastian, his wife Anna Magdalena, his oldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, and an anonymous scribe (possibly the eldest daughter, Catharina Dorothea). The group was working so quickly that when Bach proofed the materials and inserted additional performance indications, he sometimes entered them one way in one part and another way in another. On occasion he even assigned different tempos to the same movement: adagio and molt’adagio for the opening “Kyrie eleison,” and adagio and lente for the “Qui tollis.” Apparently there was no time to return and correct such inconsistencies.

Back in Leipzig, matters were worse. While Handel in London or Zelenka in Dresden could rely on professional scribes to prepare performance materials, Bach was dependent on the choristers of the St. Thomas School to serve as his amanuenses. Often no more than sixteen years old, the boys sometimes made disastrous mistakes. In the aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen” (If the tears on my cheeks are of no avail) from the St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the copyist of one of the violin parts accidentally left out two measures early in the movement and five measures later on. These omissions remained uncorrected, and one wonders how the violinists using the part coped with the missing measures during the performance.

Faced with composing and preparing vast amounts of music on a weekly basis, Bach had to deal with imperfections inconceivable to us today. An eyewitness account of a cantata performance during the Sunday service describes Bach working valiantly to hold the choir and instrumentalists together. The undoubtedly ragged St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion performances that his congregations heard on Good Friday must have been far different from the well-rehearsed, polished versions to which we are accustomed today.

Rathey concludes his survey with the Mass in B Minor. In the last decade of his life Bach seems to have turned his back on his official church duties. As far as we can tell, he composed only one or two new sacred cantatas during those years, and he left much of the conducting to assistants, one of whom claimed (in a document unearthed only recently) that he filled in for Bach for a full two years. Having attained the title of court composer to the Saxon elector in 1736, Bach was probably untouchable by his employers, the Leipzig Town Council. The council struck back in 1749 by auditioning a successor while Bach was still alive, and it treated his widow poorly once he was dead. But it seems to have been unable to remove him from office.

Bach used this sinecure to focus on private projects—the “Goldberg Variations,” the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering, and at the very end, the Mass in B Minor, his last great undertaking. Rathey presents the background of the mass before focusing on two features. The first, not surprisingly, is its operatic qualities—chiefly Bach’s use of two love duet–like pieces, the “Christe eleison” (“Christ have mercy”) and the “Et in unum Dominum,” to stress the personal, loving relationship between Christ and the believer. The second is its pronounced emphasis on architectural balance, reflected in Bach’s determination to create symmetrical structures in the Missa and Symbolum Nicenum (Nicene Creed). Both portions have designs that mirror the axial layout of Versailles and other Baroque royal palaces.

When composing the B-Minor Mass Bach once again borrowed from his existing store of secular and sacred cantatas. But the process was very different this time around. For the Christmas Oratorio, Bach was able to recycle existing arias and choruses mostly intact, since the exchange of texts was virtually seamless: rhymed poetry replaced by rhymed poetry written specifically to match the metrical pattern of the original. In the case of the B-Minor Mass, Bach had to exchange the madrigal poetry of the original German text with the unalterable prose of the Latin Mass Ordinary. This awkward substitution compelled him to rework the vocal and instrumental parts of the borrowed arias and choruses to a far greater degree than in the Christmas Oratorio. He turned this process to great musical advantage by refining the material one last time. In addition, he often used only sections of existing movements, selecting the best portions.

As a result, the Mass in B Minor is not just a recycling but a distillation of its models, a selective survey of some of the best pieces Bach composed over a thirty-five-year span. As Rathey points out, this, together with a text known throughout Europe, the absence of recitative, and an abundance of uplifting trumpets-and-drums dance music, gives the Mass in B Minor a unique stamp of universality. According to Bach’s Hamburg colleague Johann Mattheson, it was perfectly fine for a composer to borrow from existing music—as long as he paid back the loan with interest. Bach more than fulfilled this obligation in the B-Minor Mass.

Clearly it is the brilliant music of Bach’s major vocal works rather than their texts that has led to their continued popularity. But Rathey’s focus on the pieces’ drama and liturgy reminds us of the central importance of the words. For operas, the libretto booklets issued with their performances enhanced the entertainment value of the works and allowed the audience to follow the action. For Bach’s cantatas and passions, the stakes were higher: the text booklets opened the door to spiritual contemplation, contrition, and consolation.

The survival of the text of the St. Mark Passion, both in its previously known published form (a Picander volume from 1732) and the newly discovered text booklet, makes one lament all the more the loss of this very major vocal work. Although some of the movements can be reconstructed from Cantata 198, the passion as a whole has been lost. The text shows an unusual emphasis on chorale settings, which, following Rathey’s line of theological interpretation, suggests that Bach and Picander were allotting a new, more meaningful role to the community in the passion narrative. This would have been yet another approach to dramatizing the passion story by a composer whose store of musical invention seems to have been inexhaustible.