This March has truly been a Bach spectacular in Boston. Starting with Boston Baroque’s St. John Passion in late February and Musica Sacra’s B Minor Mass last weekend, the exposure will continue with all-day birthday celebrations on March 21st at First Lutheran Church, with St. John again at Emmanuel Music, and the Handel & Haydn Society’s St. Matthew Passion on the 27th; the spectacle concludes at King’s Chapel with a rarely performed Bach work readers probably have not heard before.
Though musical settings of the Passion story were quite common in the Baroque era, only Bach’s two towering masterpieces are often performed today. Where Bach only occasionally interjected contemporary words into the gospel text for arias and choruses, other composers such as Handel and Telemann used the famous text of Hamburg poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes who wrote a libretto where the entire story was told in his own words.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s published obituary stated that he wrote five settings of the passion story. The St. John and St. Matthew are the only two that were preserved; the other three scores are lost. In the case of St. Mark, though, we are indebted to Bach’s librettist Picander (who also supplied texts for the choruses and arias for the St. Matthew Passion). Apparently, Picander was so pleased with his work that he saw fit to publish the libretto in part III of his “Ernst-, Scherzhafften und Satyrischen Gedichte” in 1732, reprinted in 1737.
Bach first performed his setting of the Passion according to St. Mark on Good Friday in 1731. With Picander’s libretto in hand, several musicologists, composers, and performers have tried their hand at reconstructing the St. Mark Passion in recent decades.
As he was preparing the Bach Gesellschaft modern editions for publication, German musicologist Wilhelm Rust noted that the choruses and aria texts of the St. Mark Passion shared the poetic meters of the ones found in the Trauer-Ode, Cantata 198, written for the funeral of Queen Christiane Eberhardine in 1727. The Queen occupies an interesting place in history in her own right: Her spouse, Augustus the Strong, had secured for himself the Polish throne after agreeing to become a Catholic convert. Christiane Eberhardine refused to renounce her Lutheran faith and chose to live in exile in Leipzig where she was much beloved.
Diethard Hellmann used Rust’s discovery of the libretto similarities for his musical reconstruction, published in 1964. The King’s Chapel Choir gave the American premiere under the baton of Daniel Pinkham in 1973, with repeated performances in 1980 and 1998. Pinkham was one of the pioneers of Boston’s early music scene and gave many premieres of rediscovered works of the Renaissance and Baroque under the auspices of the King’s Chapel Concert Series that he founded in 1958.
Preserving the instrumentation for BWV 198, the Passion is scored for flutes, oboes d’amore, violins, viola, gambas, and continuo. The recitatives and dramatic choruses familiar from John and Matthew are doubtless gone forever, but this partial reconstruction, adding an aria from another cantata and chorales from elsewhere in Bach’s oeuvre to the bones of No. 198, combines some of the finest pages of Bach’s mature church music. Since the original arias and recitatives for the Evangelist are lost, the gospel text will instead be read in English from the King James Bible.