‘By the end of the piece, you feel that you have undergone the full spectrum of human emotion: there is rage and violence, love, tenderness and deep sorrow.’
On 17 March, the Cathedral choir is performing the St John Passion and Chapter Clerk, Phil Hamlyn Williams, asked Charles Harrison, our Deputy Director of Music who is conducting the performance, to tell him more about this work described by many as one of the supreme achievements in classical music. He began by getting Charles briefly to describe the piece.
‘It’s an oratorio, so it belongs to the same family of works as Handel’s ‘Messiah’: a setting of a sacred text for choir, soloists and orchestra. The action begins with Jesus’s arrest, and concludes with his death on the cross. The toughest job is done by the tenor soloist who narrates the evangelist’s part; it requires extraordinary stamina and dramatic range.’
‘So, it’s liturgical really?’
‘Its first performance was at a church service on Good Friday in 1724. We are offering it as a concert, but one which comes within the context of our preparations for Holy Week and Easter. For some, the performance will be a devotional experience, for others, it may be purely about the music. It is certainly much more dramatic and vivid than most church music, and almost operatic in places.
The work is in two sections, which would have been separated by a pretty lengthy sermon (a feature we are not including in our version!). In many other ways, our performance will be very similar to the premiere: children will be singing the treble line; the orchestra will play original eighteenth-century instruments (or copies); and we are using ‘baroque pitch’ which is slightly lower than modern pitch.’
‘Do these unusual instruments need specialists to play them?’
‘Very different techniques are required: for example, the bows used on the stringed instruments are much shorter than modern ones, and this has implications for the way the music is shaped. The Baroque Players of London are all top-notch instrumentalists, and completely at home with the conventions of period performance. The leader of the orchestra, Nicolette Moonen, has spent many years working with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, perhaps the world’s highest authority on baroque playing styles.
‘What is like to work with a musician of that calibre and experience?’
‘It is a huge privilege, and there is so much to learn from collaborating with someone of Nicolette’s standing. When she first came to perform with us, I was a little apprehensive about taking to the podium, but also very keen to establish a good relationship with Nicolette and the orchestra. She was quickly impressed by the choir, and made a point of congratulating them early in the rehearsal; after that, everything flowed very naturally and happily, because we all shared the same goal of bringing to this wonderful music to life.
Nicolette writes: “I love working with the Lincoln Cathedral choir. Their two musical directors imbue the choir with great commitment and energy.
I will never forget the expression on the faces of all the children who sang in their first John Passion in 2010. There was this huge sense of achievement, elation and happiness. It was a musical experience that they and all their listeners in the audience will surely always remember. I would like to single out one of the young singers, Phoebe Kirrage, who sang the role of the maid. I have simply never heard that role sung so well and so naturally. It touched me to the core and will always stay with me.”
‘Going back to the baroque orchestra, how do these period performance conventions influence the overall sound?’
‘There is a lightness and agility which allows much more detail to arise from the music: to draw an architectural comparison, a modern orchestra is perfect for the ‘macro structure’, generating magnificent arches and landscapes in sound; the baroque orchestra is ideal for zooming in on the exquisite carvings of the ‘micro structure’.’
‘You talked about the evangelist’s part: how do all the other performers fit in?’
‘The choir sings all the words attributed to groups of people, including the soldiers who arrest Jesus and the Pharisees in the judgment hall; they have some of the most intense and dramatic music, for instance when the crowd is screaming for Jesus to be crucified. The soloists have arias that take a step back from the action and offer a ‘commentary’ or emotional exploration of the biblical text. Jesus’s works are sung by a bass, and there are sections for Pontius Pilate, Peter and other smaller parts. The audience has a role too: scattered throughout the piece are Lutheran hymns (many of whose tunes are still widely used today); we invite the audience to join in with some of these, as the congregation would have done at the first performance.’
‘Will the audience have to sing in German, then?’
‘The hymns they will sing will be in English, but we are performing the rest of the piece in its original language. German is very expressive, and the sounds of the words are often very apposite to their meaning. I think the language forms a large part of the work’s identity. We are providing a simultaneous English translation which will be projected onto a screen near the stage.’
‘What are the challenges in preparing a performance of the St John Passion?’
‘The choral parts are technically very difficult – they lie very high in the voice, the lines are long and sometimes extremely fast, and they jump around in an unpredictable, angular way. Considering how much Bach worked with singers, it is surprising that he continued to write such tough music for them, and gave them so few opportunities to breathe! We are working with children, some as young as 9, so we must take care to plan rehearsals that are not too tiring, and which bring all the elements of the performance together on the day of the concert.
The choir has to know not only its own part, but also how their music fits in with the rest of the piece – the drama of it often depends on a very rapid interaction between soloists and chorus. Then there is the highly-charged emotional content; the choir must understand that, and be able to communicate it across the huge spaces of the Cathedral’s nave.’
‘And during this rehearsal period, the choir continues to sing daily services in the Cathedral?’
‘Absolutely. We sing eight services each week, and we are also fitting in a recording for the Naxos label this term.’
‘The St John Passion is widely regarded as one of the supreme achievements in classical music. How does it earn that status?’
‘That is a tough question, because part of the answer lies in actually experiencing the music. People hearing it for the first time, even those who do not listen to much classical music, find it has a genuinely transcendent quality. By the end of the piece, you feel that you have undergone the full spectrum of human emotion: there is rage and violence, love, tenderness and deep sorrow. Part of its appeal lies in this kaleidoscopic and constantly-shifting variety; the orchestral sounds, the deployment of voices, and the underlying moods rarely stay the same for long. It is a piece that keeps you engaged from the outset.
Bach’s amazing gift for drawing out specific human emotions in sound is matched by his complete technical mastery of musical form. This exquisite balance of form and content is what we find so satisfying and elusive in the great works of Shakespeare, Leonardo and Michelangelo; the technique is so fluent and assured that you are unaware of it, and somehow pass beyond the thing itself (the music, poem, sculpture or painting) to a different place.’
‘Finally, what will be distinctive about this performance, and how does it fit in with the life of the Cathedral?’
‘The really important thing is that it is live. There has been a proliferation of recordings, and many of them are available at the click of a mouse. That is good in many ways, but I sense that people are actively seeking out live performances, where there is direct communication between the audience and the musicians. The feeling of corporate concentration and enjoyment in the audience is another important element, and part of the whole experience.
We are seeing a resurgence of interest in singing in this country; television documentaries, competitions and figures such as Gareth Malone are doing wonderful work here. For those whose curiosity has been piqued, this is an opportunity to witness a slice of our choral heritage in action. That children can perform to such high professional standards is pretty amazing, and in itself is something worth seeing.
The Cathedral serves many purposes, and it reaches out to people in different ways. 3000 people joined us for the carol service on Christmas Eve, so there can be little doubt that the Cathedral is still a deeply important focus for many in the region. With this performance, we are building on that relationship, and hoping to offer something of great musical quality, artistic integrity and spiritual value.’
Tickets are available from the Cathedral Shop (01522 561644) and online at http://www.lincolncathedral.com/shop/more-info/st-john-passion