Helmuth Rilling occasionally stops in the midst of rehearsal, and, with somewhat exasperated patience, asks, “What is most important?” And answers his own question: “Clarity. We must be together.” He has a funny, telling gesture-- the choir yells or slops its way through some passage, and he stops them, grimaces, wipes both sides of his mouth—as though cleaning off drool or spilled food. It is cute; the choir giggles. But the point is made. Clarity must be achieved, before nuances or “interpretation” can be of any value.
Bach’s St. John Passion presents us with the canonic three fronts upon which we must fight for clarity: language, pitch, and rhythm. The first is the singer’s peculiar charge, and particular battle: given a text, we must make that text clear to our listeners. In terms of this particular work and its role in the liturgical calendar, one could argue that language is the most important element with which Bach works. We do well to remind ourselves, now and then, that Bach's job in Leipzig was, at base, to save souls; and in his urgency to reach his listeners, he uses pitch and rhythm to clarify his presentation of text, to render it all the more effective and compelling. The words of the Passion story, and their power to change the hearts of his parishioners, were his highest priorities. Not that he ever composes less than glorious music, or that his incredible musical invention and imagination can really be separated from his text setting; but his priority is to get the text out where listeners can hear it and be edified by it, learn from it.
Bach’s text is a compilation from three sources: the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John, contemporary poetry which explores emotional and theological questions raised by this narrative, and familiar (to his target audience) chorale verses. Each type of text is important; each requires careful presentation by the performers. Some conductors and ensembles, honoring Bach’s primary purpose in presenting this work, choose to translate these texts into the native language of the performers and audiences for particular performances; most ensembles, though, sing the Passion in its original German, out of consideration for Bach’s considerable art and skill in setting that language. The accents, rhythms, and sentence structure of German determine, to a startling degree, Bach’s rhythmic patterns and melodic contours; and these patterns and contours don’t necessarily fit another language so well. Most performers, and listeners, want to experience Bach at his musical best; we are not so compelled by his evangelical fervor, any more, that we are willing to compromise his art.
Nonetheless, it helps me, as singer and as conductor, to assume that the meaning of the text is paramount, and that the rest of what happens stems from it. It also helps to assume that Bach fully intended that his listeners understand the words he had set-- and that he succeeded in bringing this about. The buildings in which Bach and his fellow church musicians performed were highly reverberant spaces, constructed of stone, glass, and wood; clear verbal expression was very difficult. Voices could not be too “fruity”—they had to be relatively free of vibrato by modern standards, clear and unwavering in pitch, bright and somewhat “cutting” in quality. They had to be light enough in production that they could easily sing all the coloratura Bach required of them, clearly and absolutely in tempo. Loud, heavily produced, broadly-colored voices would cloud the acoustic; and details—including all the details which make words comprehensible—would be lost. A detached, almost staccato articulation would also have been necessary--a legato approach, in choral singing especially, would caused pitches in a reverberant acoustic to smear together, distorting on all three fronts: language, pitch, and rhythm.
German is a good language to sing, in dealing with such requirements. The consonants are strong, the vowels are clear, and there are “stops” between words—all of which, when presented with a clear, bright, light, detached vocal production, contribute to a text’s comprehensibility in a difficult acoustic environment. And the accompanying instrumentalists, responding appropriately to the singers’ priorities and needs, provide the same sort of lightness, articulation, and word-influenced accents—in fact, I suspect that an awful lot of what we now expect from “baroque” instrumentalists, in terms of style, articulation, volume, etc., is based not only in the physical nature of their instruments, but in the needs of the singers who collaborated with these instruments almost three hundred years ago, and who insisted that their words be heard and understood. If singers and instrumentalists alike are compelled to perform with this verbal comprehensibility in mind, compelled to communicate the Passion text to listeners, they will of necessity rein in and channel their resources, expending their energies far differently than they would be required to do in concerted music composed a hundred years and more later, when orchestra size and volume, as well as performance halls, had grown and changed to such a degree that composers were confronted with a very different set of priorities.