The Two Passions of J.S. Bach « Catholic Insight

As we begin Holy Week with this Passion Sunday, it is fitting to suggest some music to fit the season, here the two settings of the ‘Passion’ put to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. According to sources, Bach wrote five ‘Passions’, orchestral chorales based on the final days in the life of Christ, but only two have come down to us: Saint John’s and Saint Matthew’s, both profound, musically rich and complex, whose depths can never really be fully plumbed, but always appreciated. They are two of my favorite works during this Lententide, but the hope embedded in this music may provide peace and serenity your souls, that beauty transcends all time, all epochs, all crises and calamities.

The first composed is set to the words of the Gospel of Saint John, which premiered on April 7, 1724, at Good Friday Vespers. Two centuries on, April 7, 1933 also marks the day that beer was legalized again in the United States after the silliness of Prohibition, something Bach would likely have appreciated. But, for now, we are in Lent, the beer will have to wait, and the Passion – in more ways than one – is upon us:

His second Passion chorale is based on the text of Saint Matthew, first performed three years hence, on April 11, 1727, a longer and more complex musical work. But both pieces savour the genius of Bach, and we may glory therein, as they, as Bach always intended, give glory to God.

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