Princeton Pro Musica collaborates with the regional based Baroque ensemble La Fiocco for a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion at Princeton University's Richardson Auditorium on Sunday, March 19, at 4 p.m.
In order to share some thoughts prior to the performance, Princeton Pro Musica artistic director Ryan James Brandau offers the following excerpted statement regarding the work first performed on Good Friday, 1724:
Bach's St. John Passion opens and closes with extensive movements for chorus, with orchestra (the final chorus is followed by a chorale). In between, the musical material of the St. John Passion unfolds across several temporal planes, each with its own text type, purpose, and style.
One layer is that of the biblical narrative — the actual words from John, chapters 18 and 19, outlining the actions and conversations that make up the story. An “evangelist” (a tenor soloist) and other figures from the bible (Jesus, Pilate, et. al.), recite this prose, as music, in a form of heightened speech called recitative.
Bach intermittently presses pause on the biblical narrative, slows down time, and steps aside from the immediate action in a second layer: solo arias. Here, the text is not biblical prose but highly emotive devotional poetry that reflects on some aspect of the action we’ve experienced.
The remaining layer (is the) chorales. These movements, sung by the chorus, accompanied by the full orchestra, present hymn tunes, harmonized in four parts, with poetic texts, set syllabically, in regular phrase groups.
In Bach’s own church, the congregation likely would have sung along. Thus the chorales offer the community gathered a moment for collective contemplation.
The opening chorus of the Passion establishes one of its principal themes, a paradox: that “Jesus, at the moment of greatest abasement, has become glorified.”
One sometimes overlooked feature of Bach’s church music, meant not as facile entertainment but as a conveyance of a biblical text and concomitant significance, is that it’s sometimes meant to be fiendishly difficult. The challenge is sometimes part of the aesthetic and religious experience.
Additionally, in another statement, LaFiocco founder Lewis R. Baratz provided the following thoughts about the history and the involvement of the period music ensemble engaged to present the work in its original tonality.
La Fiocco’s original purpose was to cultivate local musicians in Bucks County who were interested in performing music of the Baroque era on period instruments. After becoming a nonprofit in 2011, the mission changed to introducing and educating people of all ages to the music of the Baroque and early Classical eras as well as the aesthetic and historical contexts of the music performed.
La Fiocco’s initial musicians were mostly local to Bucks County and the environs. Today, most musicians come from New York and Philadelphia; others come from as far as Boston and North Carolina to perform with La Fiocco.
Some of the highlights of La Fiocco include concerts that featured the countertenor voice, with several young artists who have since gone on to perform at the Metropolitan opera and on stages throughout Europe.
Period ensembles perform on instruments that are either originals or copies of 17th and 18th century originals. But it goes beyond that; the players need to be experienced in historical performance techniques and completely understand what their instrument is capable of doing and how to play it expressively.
For example, modern orchestras strive to achieve a uniformity of sound, with the power and expression needed to fill a large hall whereas musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries relied on a wide range of articulations to inflect meaning into their music. Modern orchestral performers are trained from an early age to be 100 percent faithful to the written score—indeed, composers of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are often explicit in details concerning dynamics, phrasing, tempo, and other expressive devices.
Historical performance practice, on the other hand, demands knowledge of historical context and the ability to understand the rhetorical, religious, or dance-like qualities of the music, and then the performer must have the technical ability to inflect these qualities through the use of articulation, phrasing, rhythmic alteration, and ornamentation.
Despite Bach and Handel being on concert programs for well over a hundred years, music manuscripts and prints from the 17th and 18th centuries are still being rediscovered, transcribed, and edited all the time. There remains a wealth of little-known repertory in Western European libraries; my own research for two years in a Belgian library introduced me to more than 400 virtually unknown works by composers working in early 18th-century Brussels.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, works of both well-known and more obscure composers came to light. The amazing manuscript compiled in part by J. S. Bach of the music of Bach relatives of his father and grandfather’s generation disappeared after World War II with the Soviet Army’s return home, and it turned up in 1999 in, of all places, Kyiv, and was returned to Berlin with approximately 5000 other manuscripts.
Today’s performers of Baroque music often bring a great deal of excitement and creativity to their work. They’re not the stuffed shirts of past days. And there are many areas we are just rediscovering, for example: Mesoamerican music, a legacy of Spanish colonialism found today in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and in South America. The religious music tradition of this culture has a history mired in brutality against the indigenous peoples, something we are only beginning to understand. And even closer to home, there has been recent research into the contributions of Americans of African descent, especially the contributions of the Hemings family, who are generally acknowledged to be the sons and grandchildren of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and their close relatives, the Scotts, who descend from Sally Hemings’ older sister. So there is much work to do still and much to share with our audiences.
St. John's Passion, Princeton Pro Musica, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, March 19, 4 p.m. $25 to $60. www.prince-tonpromusica.org.