Theology in The St. John Passion
Eric T. Chafe writes that “music scholarship has recognized that the structure of the (St. John) Passion...was carefully designed with a great deal of musico-theological intent.” That is to say, Bach was very purposeful in his efforts to portray John's theological message through his music. This differs from his approach in the St. Matthew Passion, where a more Lutheran theology is presented. This is intriguing to note because “in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the distinguishing characteristics of the different gospels did not constitute a major interest of theology,” and “the work seems modern in its giving Johannine characteristics equality with, and even precedence over, Lutheran ones.” The theological message of John's Passion is rooted in the viewpoint that the crucifixion of Jesus was a “triumphant event.” Jesus is glorified on the cross and in his death, not just in the resurrection. There is a major emphasis on worldly/spiritual dualism—God becoming man and dying a mortal death as well as John's notion of God's eternal preexistence (In the beginning was the Word... (John 1:1)). This dualism is further realized in that Christ is glorified in abasement; at his weakest earthly moment, Christ is fulfilling his role as Messiah. This paradox is shown best in the “royal inscription” placed above the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus appears helpless, humiliated, and defeated at the scene of the crucifixion, but he is laying down his life with the complete power to take it up once again. Bach makes the intentions clear beginning in the first chorale, where the text says that Jesus has been glorified in humility. Bach is setting up this theological viewpoint of John's as the main theme of the Passion. Within this statement of “glorification in abasement,” Bach shows musically “all the traditional external signs of worldly suffering, lamentation...” These accompany the more uplifting...
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