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Bach Books



Hearing Bach’s Passions, Updated Edition


Updated Edition



J.S. Bach Works:

BWV 244, BWV 245


Daniel R. Melamed



New York, USA


April 2016 (originally 2005)




204 pages


HB / PB/ Kindle


Oxford University Press


HC: ISBN-10: 0195169336
ISBN-13: 978-0195169331
PB: ISBN-10: 0190490128
ISBN-13: 978-0190490126


J.S. Bach's two surviving passions--St. John (BWV 245) and St. Matthew (BWV 244)--are an essential part of the modern repertory, performed regularly both by professional ensembles and amateur groups. These large, complex pieces are well loved, but due to our distance from the original context in which they were performed, questions and problems emerge. J.S. Bach scholar Daniel Melamed examines the issues we encounter when we hear the passions performed today, and offers unique insight into J.S. Bach's passion settings.
Rather than providing a movement-by-movement analysis, Melamed uses the J.S. Bach repertory to introduce readers to some of the intriguing issues in the study and performance of older music, and explores what it means to listen to this music today. For instance, J.S. Bach wrote the passions for a particular liturgical event at a specific time and place; we hear them hundreds of years later, often a world away and usually in concert performances. They were performed with vocal and instrumental forces deployed according to early 18th-century conceptions; we usually hear them now as the pinnacle of the choral/orchestral repertory, adapted to modern forces and conventions. In J.S. Bach's time, passion settings were revised, altered, and tampered with both by their composers and by other musicians who used them; today we tend to regard them as having fixed texts to be treated mith respect. Their music was sometimes recycled from other compositions or reused itself for other purposes; we have trouble imagining the familiar material of J.S. Bach's passion settings in any other guise.
Melamed takes on these issues, exploring everything from the sources that transmit J.S. Bach's passion settings today to the issues surrounding performance practice (including the question of the size of J.S. Bach's ensemble). He delves into the passions as dramatic music, examines the problem of multiple versions of a work and the reconstruction of lost pieces, explores the other passions in J.S. Bach's performing repertory, and sifts through the puzzle of authorship.
Highly accessible to the non-specialist, the book assumes no technical musical knowledge and does not rely on printed musical examples. Based on the most recent scholarship and using lucid prose, the book opens up the debates surrounding this repertory to music lovers, choral singers, church musicians, and students of J.S. Bach's music.


Buy this book at:

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Source/Links: Oxford University Press
Contributor: Aryeh Oron (September 2017)

Hearing Bach's Passions by Daniel Melamed

William Hoffman wrote (March 30, 2016):
Th full article, "Passion season / Bach season" can be found at: Passion season / Bach season | OUPblog


Hearing Bach's Passions, Updated Edition: On-Line Book Review

William Hoffman wrote (April 29, 2016):
Daniel R. Melamed, Hearing Bach’s Passions, Updated Edition (New York, Oxford University Press, 2016).

A decade after the first edition (2005), Daniel R. Melamed, Professor of Music at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music, University of Indiana, has published an “Updated Edition” with a new “Preface” of 13 pages with a narrative bibliographic account, “For further reading and listening,” and an updated Index.

As Melamed observes (p. v) the past decade has yielded “the discovery of new [historical] sources” and books that “help us imagine eighteenth-century passion music in its own time” as well as “writings and performances that offer a firmly modern perspective.” These initially involve three recent scholarly studies of Bach Passion endeavors: the first Bach-published passion libretto, the 1744 perhaps definitive version of the “lost,” concise, chorale-driven St. Mark Passion, BWV 247; a printed libretto of the 1725 radical chorale version of the St. John Passion, BWV 245; and a printed libretto of the equally different Gottfried Heinrich Stözel poetic passion-oratorio, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (A lambkin goes and bears our guilt), based on Paul Gerhardt’s popular passion poem, performed by Bach at the Good Friday St. Thomas Church Vespers, 1734.

A fascinating exploration of source-critical issues is found in Melamed's Hearing Bach's Passions. They involve the gulf that separates us from the world in which Bach created and presented musical Passions. Melamed examines the original conditions, particularly the uses of double forces in Matthew, BWV 244; the various versions of John, BWV 245; six versions of the pastiche "Keiser-Hamburg" St. Mark Passion; the challenges of parody and reconstruction in Mark, BWV 247; and the anonymous Luke Passion, BWV 246, with its spurious attribution and tenuous connections to Bach performances.

Melamed, part of the wave of younger, provocative Bach scholars led by Peter Wollny and Michael Maul at the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, was the first writer to explore in depth the breadth of Bach’s multiple Passion presentations since the Englishmen Charles S. Terry (1926, Oxford University Press) and Paul Steinitz (1978. Scribner’s). Going beyond the previously-known gospel-quartet oBWV 244-247, dominated by the monumental St. Matthew Passion and the dramatic, multi-faceted St. John Passion, Melamed examines significant, scholarly issues that also take into account Bach’s other annual Passion endeavors, almost entirely in Leipzig (1723-49). These were first revealed in Andreas Glöckner’s “Bach and the Passion music of his contemporaries (Musical Times Vol. 116, 1975: 613-16, and Bach Jahrbuch 63, 1977: 75-118).

In his new preface, Melamed outlines the three recent scholarly discoveries found in the Bach Jahrbuch, the annual, German-only Bach essay periodical, and the biannual English-language on-line Bach Network UK ( These are the tips of the proverbial iceberg of the poetic passion texts “that became enormously popular in Lutheran Germany in Bach’s time,” observes Melamed (p. viii). Dominant was the most-popular text of Barthold Heinrich Brockes, set in part by Bach in the St. John Passion and modeled in his St. Matthew Passion, and set in full as poetic Passions by Telemann, Händel, Keiser, and Mattheson, based in Hamburg where both the poetic Passion-oratorio and liturgical oratorio-Passion form developed in the first decade of the 18th century. The numerous settings and many performances are outlined in the Bach Cantata Website published article, “B.H. Brockes: Brockes-Passion - Musical Settings & Performances,”

Melamed points out that, coincidentally, about the mid-1720s Bach in Leipzig and Telemann in Hamburg composed and presented annual Lenten Passions embracing both literal gospel text and poetic commentary. Bach observing the Good Friday vesper requirement. Requiring further research, Melamed specifically points out, are the possibility that Bach performed other composers’ Passions, particularly Handel’s “Brockes Passion,” and Bach’s performances of two annual church service cantata cycles of Stözel in the later 1730s. These two topics were, until recently, virtually ignored by most other Bach scholars. Found on-line at the Bach Cantata Website (BCW) is an English translation of Glöckner’s Bach Jahrbuch 2009 article, “Is there another cantata cycle by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel that belonged to Bach’s performance repertory?,”, as well as the BCW “List of Stölzel's cantatas performed by Bach,”, complied by Kim Patrick Clow, and performance dating, 1735,, and 1736,

In addition to new sources connected to Bach’s passion repertory, Melamed points out (p. xi) the now-available on-line original sources of Bach’s manuscript scores and performing parts sets ( “Much of what we have learned about the performance of Bach’s passions in his time, largely from these source,” is now found in recordings of various versions and editions in the past 10 years, notes Melamed. In particular is the important liturgical context of the Passions as found in John Butt’s recent recording of the St. John Passion Historically-oriented performances on recordings “now represent a choice, not just a default,” says Melamed. (Recently, Butt has released a recording reconstruction of the 1723 Christmas Vespers in Leipzig, featuring Bach’s Magnificat in E-flat Major, BWV 243a, and Cantata BWV 63, “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (Christians, engrave this day), with congregational chorales,

(The importance of technology such as recordings and on-line sources is becoming increasingly apparent to Bach students and scholars, beyond mere enthusiasts. Of note is Paul Elie’s book, Reinventing Bach [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012], ”the story of how one composer precipitated two revolutions in music and technology” in the 20th century, pioneered by Pablo Casals, Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, and Glenn Gould, although steeped in the 19th century. Further, the historically-informed performances initiated by the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt in his “complete” Bach cantata recordings have precipitated others such as Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki in their cantata recordings to provide alternate renditions of movements as well as reconstructions and alternate realizations that have expanded and enhanced the awareness and understanding of Bach’s music.)

At the same time, Melamed repeats a theme sounded in his original edition of Hearing Bach’s Passions: “Lost Bach is still lost.” Yet, the search goes on and the band plays on. No musical sources have been found for the St. Mark Passion or probably will be. “There are still big gaps in what we know about versions” of the great John and Matthew Passions because of the loss of original sources, says Melamed. In addition, Bach’s performances of other composers’ Passions and his 1740s pasticcio Passions are being documented, examined and published.

Most notable are Bach’s three performances of a so-called “Kesier/Hamburg St. Mark Passion” as well as the “Keiser-Handel Brockes Pasticcio Passion,” in a comprehensive, scholarly current Wikipedia on-line study (no author identified),; “St Mark Passion (attributed to Keiser) - Wikipedia, the free ... - 179k - similar pages Jesus Christus ist um unsrer Missetat willen verwundet is a St Mark Passion which originated in .... Bach combined the passion with seven arias from Handel's Brockes Passion for a new performance around 1747. Some of these arias replaced ....”

Meanwhile, “the desire to reconstruct lost Bach continues,” says Melamed, such as the recently-recorded realization of the Köthen Funeral Music, BWV 244a, drawn from choruses and arias involving the Matthew and Mark Passions. Another example is the dramatizing on video of the Matthew and John Passions through the staging of British director Peter Sellars, observes Melamed. This represents a vestige of the 19th century perspective, Melamed suggests, perhaps tilting to the camp of the traditionalists. (Uri Golomb on the Bach Cantata Website has written extensively on the staging of Bach’s Passions, see “Hierarchies and continuities in televised productions of Bach’s Passions” (2010),

Turning to recent books on the Bach Passions (p. xii), Melamed finds that two scholarly studies of the theology in the St. John Passion “clearly illustrate the difference between considering musical work as a historical object and considering the way it is heard in our own times,” says Melamed. Eric Chafe’s Bach’s Johannine Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) emphasizes that to understand Bach’s musical choices, one should know Lutheran theology, and in the context of contemporary thinking in Bach’s time from a historical view, says Melamed. While Melamed has reservations about Chafe’s emphasizes on theological themes, such as in the context of musical elements of harmonic treatment, he finds that Chafe’s book “asks what musical and theological concepts were directly relevant to the time and place of Bach’s texts and music.” Chafe provides the theological points of reference Bach and his audience had and are appropriate to Bac’s music today, says Melamed.

Andreas Loewe’s JSB’s St. John Passion: A Theological Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2014), goes beyond historical theology to add current “generalized assertions of facts or meanings in the Gospel narrative,” says Melamed (p. xiv). This “received theology” is contingent on the writer’s personal perspective. In addition, Loewe, like Sellars, also unpacks and displays some 19th century romantic baggage.

At the same time, both Chafe and Loewe “speak in the present tense, asserting what Bach does and how a piece works,” says Melamed (p. xv), while “there are two very different ways of thinking about the past and about musical objects that come from it.” Now, “this is precisely what the essays in this book are about – different ways of confronting the musical past, especially when the contemporary understanding of a work is held up against its present day meaning,” Melamed emphasizes.

A third recent book about the Bach Passions, John Butt’s Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions (Cambridge University Press, 2010), is really about “a philosophical reflection on ways of listening to music,” says Melamed, specifically “about how we think about him [Bach] and relate to his time.” “It is centered on the question ‘Was Bach modern?’ Butt asks to what extent Bach’s musical approach, illustrated by the two surviving passion settings, John and Matthew, displays features of modernity in respects like the conception of time, ‘voice,’ and narrative.”

Butt’s Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity “belongs to a line of criticism most prominently represented by the esthetic philosopher Theodore W. Adorno,” says Melamed, citing the essay “Bach Defended Against His Devotees” (MIT, Prisims, 1995, Adorno “addresses the apparent clash in Bach’s music between” Middle Ages influence (the surface of the music) and Enlightenment thinking (music’s true essence).

The nature of the Bach music’s true essence is taken up from the perspective of a changing view of time represented by the music of Bach and Mozart (c.1750), in Karol Berger’s Bach’s Cycle and Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), Melamed points out. Berger devotes a chapter to the St. Matthew Passion, as a “representative of an older way of thinking about time,” says Melamed.

(Berger’s “There Is No Time Like God’s Time,” Chapter 3, is summarized in “Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244: Early History (A Selective, Annotated Bibliography), Prepared by William Hoffman (April 2009), at the BCW,, scroll down to No. 31. Berger also summarizes Melamed’s “The Double Chorus in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 57: (2004), 3-50, in a footnote (p. 364). This article appears in Melamed’s Hearing Bach’s Passions, Part 2, Chapter 3, with the question: “Is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion really for double chorus and orchestra.”

(Entry No. 29 in the BCW article gives an overview of Melamed’s book: <<The essential theme of this study is that today we hear Bach’s Passion settings “distantly removed from their original contexts” as written for liturgical events and performed with concomitant conventions (Preface v). Melamed points out two key features of Passions in Bach’s time: They were heard “against the background of other liturgical and devotional music and of contemporary operas” while “Passion settings were revised, altered, and tampered with both by their composers and by other musicians who used them.” Melamed shows that the key to understanding the almost 300-year-old SMP is the shape, use, and meaning of the performing forces as Bach determined them in his definitive 1736 version. Melamed provides three appendices tables showing the six dialogue sections, a comparison of the SJP and SMP performing forces, and the Picander libretto of lyric movements within the Gospel narration.>>)

Melamed’s new “Preface to the 2016 edition” closes with the “governing question”: “whether we should consider Bach old-fashioned or modern. The argument can be made that this question is more about us then it is about Bach.” While citing a suggestion that Butt’s book could also be called Modernity’s Dialogue with Bach, Melamed: Unchanged in 10 years is the “something in Bach’s music that keeps suggesting, generation after generation, that we can learn something by delving into it,” as well as “appreciating the ways in which discoveries in Bach’s music are different from those that might have been experienced in Bach’s lifetime. Either way, whether you are after the historical past or the living present, there is something there for you.”

Linda Gingrich wrote (May 9, 2016):
This is a very late posting, but I finally found time to read Will Hoffman's review of Melamed's Hearing Bach's Passions. Thank you for it, Will, I really enjoyed reading it and have saved it to my Bach folder. Regarding the reference to Uri Golomb's review of filmed Passions, you all might be interested to know that my conducting teacher and mentor, Abraham Kaplan, conducted a fully staged St Matthew Passion in the mid-70s as part of the San Francisco Opera Merola program. I don't think it was filmed, unfortunately, or if it was, it's probably moldering in a vault somewhere. Abe took a lot of flack in the press ahead of time for conducting something so unheard of, but it had a huge impact on the audience. Amazingly one of my singers actually saw a performance and, in his words, "It blew me away!" After the first performance the reviewer who had given Abe the hardest time actually retracted his scathing comments. And someone whom Abe had invited actually became blazingly angry with him because it made the story so real that he didn't know how to deal with it. Abe's stories about this performance inspired my own semi-staged performance of the St John Passion six or seven years ago.

Although this isn't cantata related, perhaps this topic will inspire some discussion on the list?

Julian Mincham wrote (May 9, 2016):
[To Linda Gingrich] Jonathan Miller staged a version of SMP for the BBC some 25 years ago (from memory!). I think it must have been one of the first.

Robert Cornfield wrote (May 9, 2016):
[To Julian Mincham] This version played twice at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, at the theatre now called The Harvey. First time about 20 years ago and the second about 10.

William Hoffman wrote (May 9, 2016):
Thank you for adding to the discussion. I have not had a chance to Google the topic but there are stagings of Bach's Coffee and Peasant Cantatas and possible the Hercules Cantata BWV 213, which are mini operas as drammi per musica; also, a possible semi-staging of the Christmas Oratorio. I'll soon be reviewing Marcus Rathey's new "Bach's Major [Sacred] Vocal Works: Music, Drama & Liturgy." It's what I call Bach's Christological Cycle (the "lost" 5th cycle of Kirchenstuecke?), the term coined by Eric Chafe. Further, in Rome, c/1706-09 Handel participated in semi-stagings with costumes and backdrops of sacred oratorios, notably Good Friday and Easter Sunday at prince's homes. and here's a whole genre of German serenades. Also Handel's Samson was staged at Covent Garden in 1958 and later at the Met with Raymond Leppard conducting.

Linda Gingrich wrote (May 9, 2016):
The number of staged performances of various Bach works is quite amazing. Is this because we have become more audio/visual? Do we sometimes need the visual to help us connect with some works? Or are Bach's Passions and cantatas inherently visual? On the flip side, as part of an article I wrofor the Choral Journal a few years ago exploring allegorical relationships among a group of Bach cantatas, I presented some ideas regarding simple stagings to visually enhance those connections. Several of the peer reviewers reacted almost as if I had committed sacrilege! (Shades of Abe Kaplan's experience! One did like the ideas, though.) Do we threaten a work's integrity by experimentation, or do we enhance it?

Obviously some have opted for enhancement!

Julian Mincham wrote (May 10, 2016):
[To Linda Gingrich] It's fascinating to consider what, of Bach's output, was actually staged in his lifetime or under his direction. The best bet is obviously some of the 'secular' cantatas. BWV 212 (Peasant) reveals a number of approaches to the introductions and codas of the arias which may well have been composed with specific dramatic action in mind. Who Knows? However it would seem that someone as naturally experimental and as sensitive to dramatic presentation as Bach, might well have seized upon opportunities of presenting works operatically whenever the occasion arose. Unfortunately, though, there are no contemporary accounts of such events.

Linda Gingrich wrote (May 9, 2016):
That reminds me, I did see a sort-of staged version of the Coffee Cantata a bunch of years ago. Not particularly well done, unfortunately. I've also been pondering the visual qualities of the music on the page, how often Bach visually, even graphically, connected music to text. Years ago a prof in a class showed us what I think was an organ prelude on Durch Adam's Fall. He pointed to the snaky bass line--quite a visual image! Perhaps Bach had a strongly visual imagination as well as Baroque sensitivity to text.

William Hoffman wrote (May 10, 2016):
[To Linda Gingrich] Performances by Bach (1729-40s) at Zimmermann's Coffee House could have included semi stagings and, of course, women singers. These involved drammi per musica with printed libretti. It's also possible at other venues in those mansions on the town square of Christiane Mariane von Ziegler and others.


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