On this 322nd anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, I thought I would post something that I have found quite wonderful while lately listening to his great passions, the St. John and St. Matthew. Bach was very familiar, as one might expect, with the hymns of his tradition. He had grown up with these hymns, many of which had more than a dozen verses. He not only arranged hymns in his chorale books and organ works, but used them generously in his cantatas and passions. For example, it is quite common for Bach to conclude a cantata with a hymn relevant to that cantata’s topic. Bach even built some cantatas completely around such hymns (e.g., BWV 4, 80, and 93). We still sing some of these “chorales” today, and any hymnal worth their salt has at least a few of them.

Recently I have been struck by the way Bach interwove the hymns of his church into his passions. The chorales in the passions are always sung by the choir. This phenomena is a good illustration of how much Bach had internalized not only the Scriptures, but also the hymn texts of his day. Please allow me to give you some examples:

St. John Passion
In Gethsemane, Jesus is found by the crowd. They say they looking for “Jesus of Nazareth,” to which Jesus replies, “I have told you that I am he; so if ye seek me, then let these people go!”

Here Bach capitalizes on the image of Jesus giving himself over to suffering while he tells the crowds to “let the others go,” and uses the seventh verse of Johann Heerman’s hymn Herzliebster Jesu:

O mighty love, O love beyond all measure,
Which thee hath brought upon this way of torment!
I lived amongst the world in joy and pleasure,
And thou must suffer.

Moments later Jesus tells Peter, “Put back thy sword in its scabbard! Shall I the cup not drink which my Father hath given me?” Bach inserts the fourth verse of a Martin Luther hymn, Vater unser im Himmelreich:

Thy will be done, Lord God, alike
On earth as e’en in heaven’s realm.
Give us restraint in time of pain,
Obedience both in love and woe;
Guard and guide every flesh and blood
Which counter to thy will doth strive!

The next St. John passion chorale comes after someone strikes Jesus for the manner in which he answered the high priest. The chorale inserted is verses 3 and 4 of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben” (Upon the Cross Extended):

Who hath thee now so stricken,
My Savior, and with torments
Such ill upon thee laid?
For thou art not a sinner
Like us and our own children,
From evildoing thou art free.

I, I and my transgressions,
Which to the grains are likened
Of sand beside the sea,
These have in thee awakened
The sorrow that doth strike thee
And this most grievous host of pain.

When Peter denies Christ, Bach’s hymn asks God for faith not to act as Peter did. The Chorale that begins the second part summarizes the story of the crucifixion. Still later, after Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world, else my servants would fight that I not be handed over unto the Jews; but my kingdom is not from there,” Bach inserts another two verses (verses 8 and 9) of Johann Heerman’s Herzliebster Jesu:

Ah King so mighty, mighty in all ages,
How may I fitly thy devotion publish?
No human heart could ever now imagine
What it should give thee.
I cannot with my reason ever fathom
To what indeed thy mercy may be likened.
How can I then the acts of thy compassion
In deed repay thee?

Another interesting use by Bach of a German hymn comes when he is on the cross and gives the care of Mary his mother to his beloved disciple. “See thou,” Jesus says, “this is thy mother.” A Chorale written by Paul Stockton follows:

He of all did well take heed
In those final moments,
On his mother still intent,
Gave to her a guardian.
O man, ever do the right,
God and man love dearly,
Die then free of every pain
And yield not to sorrow!

St. Matthew Passion

Right from the start of the St. Matthew Passion Bach begins incorporating chorales. In that famous beginning, Bach cites Nikolaus Decius’ German “Agnus Dei,” reminding one of the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Anselmic doctrine of redemption as satisfaction rendered through the blood of Christ is a crimson thread that runs through Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthew from beginning to end”*:

O Lamb of God, unspotted
Upon the cross’s branch slaughtered,
See ye, — what? — see him forbear,
Alway displayed in thy patience,
How greatly wast thou despiséd.
Look — where, then? — upon our guilt;
All sin hast thou borne for us,
Else we had lost all courage.
See how he with love and grace
Wood as cross himself now beareth!
Have mercy on us, O Jesus!

A few minutes later, after Jesus has told the disciples that he is going to be killed in Jerusalem, Bach uses Heerman’s Herzliebster Jesu:

O dearest Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That such a cruel sentence hath been spoken?
What is thy guilt, what were the evil doings
Thou hast committed?

It seems to me that Bach oftentimes uses the chorales in the St. Matthew Passion to symbolize
the response of the disciples, which in turn symbolizes our response. Later Jesus tells the disciples that one of them will betray him. Several anxious “Is it I?” follow, sung by the choir. Bach seizes this opportunity to cite Paul Gerhardt’s O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben:

‘Tis I, I must be sorry,
With hands and feet together
Bound fast, must lie in hell.
The scourges and the fetters
And all that thou hast suffered,
All this deserveth now my soul.

Still later in the work, the frenzied crowd sings the words of the Jews while hitting Jesus, “Who smote thee?” they sing. Bach again turns to Gerhardt’s O Welt, sieh hier dein Leben:

Who hath thee thus so smitten,
My health, and thee tormented,
So evilly abused?
Thou art indeed no sinner
Like us and our descendants;
Of evil deeds thou knowest not.

After Peter denies Christ a third time, the beautiful aria Embarme Dich (“Have Mercy, Lord”) is sung. Bach follows this with a very poignant chorale written by Johann Rist, verse 6 of his Werde munter, mein Gemüte:

Though I now have thee forsaken,
I will once again return;
For thy Son hath reconciled us
Through his agony and death.
I deny no whit my guilt;
But thy mercy and thy grace
Are much greater than the failings
Which I ever find within me.

Of course, at several points in the work Bach uses Gerhardt’s translation of Bernard of Clairvaux which we know today as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” For example, when Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him, Bach cites one of this chorale’s many verses:

I will here by thee stand now;
O put me not to scorn!
From thee will I go never,
While thee thy heart doth break.
When thy heart doth grow pallid
Within death’s final stroke,
E’en then will I enfold thee
Within my arms and lap.

When Jesus remains silent before Pilate’s questioning, Bach cites Gerhardt’s “O Sacred Head” which marvels at Jesus’ power in constraining himself. If Jesus is able so well to refrain from defending himself, controlling even his tongue, we should have confidence to trust him in all things:

Commend thou all thy pathways
And all that grieves thy heart
To the most faithful keeping
Of him who ruleth heav’n.
To clouds and air and breezes
He gives their course to run,
He will find pathways also
Whereon thy foot may walk.

When the soldiers strike Jesus on the head, Bach turns to this Gerhard’t famous chorale again:

O head of blood and wounding,
Of pain and scorn so full,
O Head, for spite now fettered
Beneath a crown of thorns,
O head, once fair and lovely,
With highest praise adorned,
But highly now insulted,
All hail to thee, I say!
Thou countenance so noble,
At which should shrink and quail
The mighty world’s great burden,
How spat upon thou art;
How pale thou art become now!
Who hath thine eyes’ bright light,
Alike no other light once,
So shamefully abused?

Finally, when Jesus “yields up the ghost,” Bach uses Gerhardt’s “O Sacred Head” as the final chorale of the work:

When I one day must leave here,
Yet do thou not leave me;
When I my death must suffer,
Come forth thou then to me!
And when most anxious trembling
Hath once my heart possessed,
Then free me from my anguish
Through thine own fear and pain!

As the illustrations show, Bach’s use of chorales in the Passions show how deeply he meditated on the Holy Scriptures, and also how well he knew the hymns of the church. The hymns themselves provided him a treasury of Christian reflection in the Scriptures where he could find the most sublime expression of gospel sentiment for each moment in the suffering of Christ. May we all learn to reflect so profoundly on the Lord and his suffering and death as Bach did.


*Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 95.