Yesterday afternoon,  my husband and I had the rare opportunity to attend the Washington National Cathedral Choir and Baroque Orchestra’s performance of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion under the direction of Michael McCarthy.

The choral ensemble, numbering less than forty, consists primarily of youth from the St. Albans School for Boys and the National Cathedral School for Girls.  Choral men are professional musicians from the greater Washington and DC area.   Their youthfulness added so much to this splendid occasion. 

The soloists were outstanding and included Ole Hass as Evangelist, James Haffran as Christ, Elizabeth Weigle as the soprano voice, Roger Isaacs as countertenor, Matthew Smith as tenor, and Bobb Robinson as Baritone and in the role of Pilate.  I particularly enjoyed Ole Hass and Roger Isaacs’ voices, although each was excellent.

While no recording of that event is currently available, I have found accessible versions of some of the beautiful lyrics, reflecting and sometimes directly taken from John’s Gospel and occasionally the Gospel of Matthew:

Here the Tenor sings the sad story of Peter’s Denial:

Ach, mein Sinn,
Wo willt du endlich hin,
Wo soll ich mich erquicken?
Bleib ich hier,
Oder wünsch ich mir
Berg und Hügel auf den Rücken?
Bei der Welt ist gar kein Rat,
Und im Herzen
Stehn die Schmerzen
Meiner Missetat,
Weil der Knecht den Herrn verleugnet hat.

In English:

O, my senses, where will you end?
Where shall I refresh myself?
Shall I stay here? Or do I desire to drag myself through trial and tribulation?
In the world, there is no counsel, and in my heart there are the pains,
my misdoing, since Thy servant hath renounced his master.

Chorale: (to the now familiar Bach tune, All Glory, Laud, and Honor, and sung by a choral ensemble at the dormition church in Jerusalem in May, 1995)

In meines Herzens Grunde,
Dein Nam and Kreuz allein
Funkelt all Zeit und Stunde,
Drauf kann ich frölich sein.
Erschein mir in dem Bilde
Zu Trost in meiner Not,
Wie du, Herr Christ, so milde,
Dich hast geblut’ zu Tod.

In English:

Deep in my heart
Thy name and cross alone
Shine all the time and every hour,
For that I may rejoice.
Appear to me in that likeness
As comfort to my need.
How Thou, Lord Christ, so meek and mild
Has bled Thyself to death.

Soprano Solo:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren.
Erzähle der Welt unde dem Himmel die Not:
Dein Jesus ist tot!
Zerfließe, mein Herze…

In English:

Melt, my heart, in floods of tears
In honour of the Lord most high.
Tell the misery to the world and to the heavens,
Thy Jesus is dead!
Melt, my heart…

(Catherine Bolt singing with the Brandenberg Concerto)

and finally, this chorale:

Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in sein’m Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft, ohn ein’ge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am Jüngsten Tage!
Alsdann vom Tod erwecke mich,
Daß meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

The English:

O Lord, let Thy dear (little) angels,
Carry my soul when my end comes
To Abraham’s bosom:
Let my body in its resting chamber
Gently repose, without pain or grief,
Till Judgement Day!
Awaken me from death,
That my eyes may behold Thee
In all joy, O Son of God,
My Saviour and my Throne of Grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, hear my prayer,
I will ever praise Thee!

Sung here by the Cologne Cathedral Boys Choir

From the Notes:

Bach wrote his St. John Passion in 1724 when the composer was cantor at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Germany….Clearly a man of profound faith, his motivation was less to do with bold secular gestures than an affirmation of a personal credo.

Through the sixteenth centruy, the evolution of a style best described as an oratorio Passion came to the fore, where other sacred texts were interpolated with the Passion text as a means of broadening the dramatic scope….musicians in north Germany broke new ground by introducing instruments to the delivery of the Passion and by adding arias and hymnody as a means of punctuating the flow of the (Palm Sunday) recitation. (Michael McCarthy)