People and Genres

26 Passions: Bach and Beyond

In this chapter you will

  • continue learning about how Bach interpreted the Bible in his Passions
  • survey how other composers since Bach have explored the same New Testament stories
  • consider in comparison with these the treatment of the story in film scores as well as rock operas

Continuing Our Exploration of Bach’s Passions

The last chapter introduced Bach’s Passion according to St. John and Passion according to St. Matthew, including a chance to hear them. As you listened to these works, which of the things that you read about (either in the chapter or in the links with further information) were you able to hear and notice for yourself? Bach places a musical “halo” around the words of Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion by having strings double the melody. The absence of that “halo” when Jesus utters his cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” adds additional poignancy to that moment. The St. Matthew Passion also features a repetition of the chorale melody associated with the hymn known in English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Each time it occurs, it is a half step lower. Few will detect this consciously with their ears, but if we are made aware of it, we get a sense that this recurring melody functions almost like a “countdown” to the climactic event of the death of Jesus. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the fact that there are aspects of music that can be experienced by any listener and others that may require not just studying music in general but looking at the score and/or reading commentaries on the work.

This is true not only of a musical exploration of the Passion but of the story itself. Does the story about the suffering of Jesus make sense on its own if one does not know anything else about him prior to reading/hearing it? The same question may be asked about Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, which begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, as the location is traditionally known. (Mark and Matthew refer to the place where Jesus went with his disciples after the Last Supper as Gethsemane, while John says it was a garden.) In any telling of the story of Jesus’s suffering and crucifixion, there is an assumption of awareness on the part of the hearer not only of the narrative and what precedes it but of Christian theology. Why in general would someone make music about an execution? It only makes sense when we recognize how story, history, theology, and other layers of interpretation are all woven together.

Jeffrey Baxter asks, “Did you know that Bach’s brilliant halo-like effect of accompanying strings to frame all of the words of Jesus (sung by a bass) was inspired by a similar use, 100 years earlier, by Dresden composer Heinrich Schütz in his ‘Sieben letzte Worte’ [Seven Last Words], where a duo of violins frame all of Jesus’ words? Bach goes a step further by using a whole orchestra of strings, and then stops them cold at Jesus’ last words (in the Matthew gospel), ‘Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?’ [My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?].”[1]

Tim Smith writes of the libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the pen name Picander, “Picander’s role was to slow down the drama, providing points of repose where one could dwell on a single emotion. These musical events are called ‘arias’ which literally means ‘air.’ You might think of an aria as a moment to catch your breath and discern the deeper meaning. Its purpose is to personalize the story for individuals. Picander wanted to help us feel the underlying message very deeply. Of the twenty-eight arias in the St. Matthew Passion, all are in the first person singular (I, me) except for one.”[2] The choice of language reflects the Protestant emphasis on translation and intelligibility, and this also influenced these Passions and made them different from earlier works in Latin.

Other aspects of the original performance set it apart from any you’re likely to hear today. Markus Rathey writes,

A listener in the early twenty-first century goes to a performance of the passion intending to listen to Bach’s music. The St. John Passion, because of its length, is normally the only piece on the program. In 1725 the St. John Passion was part of the Good Friday vespers, and was embedded in a liturgy:

Hymn “Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund”
Bach, St. John Passion (part 1)
Hymn “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend”
Bach, St. John Passion (part 2)
Motet “Ecce, quomodo moritur justus” (Jacobus Gallus)
Collect prayer
Biblical verse “Die Strafe liegt auf ihm” (Isaiah 53:5)
Hymn “Nun danket alle Gott”

Taking into account that a seventeenth or eighteenth century sermon took about one hour, we can realistically assume that the entire vespers service lasted at least three-and-a-half hours. Bach’s setting of the passion narrative would have occupied the most time, but each of its parts, about one hour in length, was balanced by a sermon of approximately the same length.

Not only was the temporal framework different, but the liturgy also contributed to a synthesis of meaning for the passion. The liturgy began with a hymn of the congregation, Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund (“As Jesus hung upon the cross”), a chorale based on the Seven Words of Christ on the cross. The hymn is already a summary of Christ’s passion  before the first chord of Bach’s passion setting has sounded.[3]

There was thus, in a very real sense, an element of congregational participation in the event, irrespective of how one answers the question of whether the congregation would have sung along with the chorale hymns in Bach’s Passions. The hymns and the sermon provided a context for Bach’s work very different from what one experiences today in a concert hall (or in a YouTube video).

We will consider the genre of the oratorio (a musical drama that is sung but not acted out) in more detail in connection with the life and work of G. F. Handel, when we will also discuss why Handel’s most famous work, The Messiah, although sometimes called an oratorio, doesn’t actually fit that category. Oratorios were usually composed for the performance hall as art music, so while Handel was controversial for composing works on sacred themes for a secular venue, Bach moved in the opposite direction, composing oratorios for use in church.[4]

One could dig into many other topics in connection with Bach’s Passions and other works, such as whether the anti-Semitism of his era and his church tradition find expression in the libretto and the music. The Gospels themselves came to be interpreted as blaming not only Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus but the Jews as a people for all time. Given that the first Christians were themselves Jewish, it is hard to know how much they can be judged responsible for the way that the later predominantly Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) church interpreted them. Whatever one’s view on that topic, that history of interpretation is a profoundly disturbing one. The Passion plays that began to be performed in the middle ages were an influence on musical Passions, and those plays certainly fostered anti-Jewish sentiment and actions. As Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains on National Public Radio, “Civil authorities were concerned about bloodshed in the wake of these plays. According to James Shapiro, in 1338 the authorities in Freiburg, Germany, prohibited churches from performing anti-Jewish scenes. In 1469, the Frankfurt government ordered special measures to protect Jews during the performances. And in 1539, the authorities in Rome banned Passion plays after years of violence.”[5] Whether one is considering Bach’s Passions or the Gospels themselves, it is appropriate to ask how they may need to be viewed and handled differently than they were in the past in an effort to acknowledge the harm caused in the past and prevent it from being perpetuated in the present.

Bach, like many other composers, made revisions to his own works, providing an opportunity for you to get a glimpse of the creative process the composer was engaged in not just before a work’s premiere but still thereafter. This raises the question of which version of a work should be performed and considered definitive. Composers sometimes not only made changes but undid them, eventually preferring their earlier choices, making it difficult to simply assume that the last version the composer published or had performed is definitive. Having had a chance to reflect on some of the details of Bach’s creations, before proceeding to other musical explorations of the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, think about some of the choices composers have to make, using the questions below to help you do so. We will add some additional questions to these later in the chapter when we turn our attention to film scores’ treatments of the story.

Questions That Confront Composers

  • Where do you start telling the story? Where do you end?
  • What should crucifixion sound like musically? What does crucifixion look like, and how does music contribute to listeners conjuring up that mental image?
  • How does theological interpretation of the story affect musical choices? What feelings should music on this theme evoke?
  • What does the death of Jesus mean? What is its significance, and how do you know that? What, if anything, does it accomplish and how? How is the significance of the event conveyed through text, music, and the combination of the two?
  • Do you include in your musical work only biblical material or other text as well?

Passions beyond Bach

Let us turn now to other works in this same genre. Bach wasn’t the first, nor was he the last, to compose a Passion. Some works are closely related but bear a different title. Some add the story of the resurrection alongside the account of the crucifixion. These differences may be not only musically but theologically significant.

A work that is clearly not intended for liturgical use is Krzysztof Penderecki’s “St. Luke Passion.” It was nonetheless composed to be performed in church at least in the first instance, as it was commissioned to commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of Münster Cathedral. Penderecki, like that church, was Roman Catholic, and the fact that he composed this work in Communist Poland should not be missed, as Communist countries have historically imposed restrictions on the public expression and practice of religion. We will encounter other composers in Eastern Europe during that era who navigated the challenges of whether and how to express their own religious perspectives in their music. For Penderecki, that the composition of religious music represented a form of rebellion against Communism was more important than any connection with his own personal faith and perspective. Ironically, even as his choice of texts and themes was perceived as rebellious, his modern musical style was criticized by some as merely jumping on the bandwagon of modern atonality (about which you will learn more in chapter 30 on Arnold Schoenberg). Despite the work’s challenging musical language and style, many listeners nonetheless find they can appreciate it and it connects with them emotionally and/or spiritually.[6]

Arvo Pärt is the most performed living composer at the time of the writing of this book. He has created a number of works that set or draw on biblical texts, among which is his Passio (St. John Passion).[7] This work needs to be included here if for no other reason than it raises an interesting question: What vocal range do you assume that Jesus should sing in? There are tendencies in the choice of vocal ranges both for specific religious figures and for lead roles in general. Most female vocalists are categorized as soprano (singing the highest notes), mezzo-soprano, and alto. Male voices range from tenor (singing the highest notes) to baritone and bass. Most often in operas and oratorios, the lead male character is a tenor, and Jesus is not normally an exception. With this in mind, listen to at least some of Pärt’s setting.[8]

What do you think of his decision to have Jesus be a bass? The relatively sparse instrumentation compared with other settings of the Passion story? The way the organ accompanies his words, perhaps not unlike Bach’s use of strings?

As another relatively recent example from this genre, here is Italian composer Sergio Rendine’s work that debuted in 2000, Passio e Ressurrectio Domini Nostri Jesus Christi.[9]

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection continues beyond the crucifixion to include the events of Easter. Its open ending, with the voice of Jesus addressing Mary Magdalene and her response of recognition, is profound and powerful (read the story in John 20:11–18 if you aren’t familiar with it). For the apostle Paul in the New Testament, it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that together accomplished salvation, not his death alone (see, in particular, 1 Corinthians 15:17). Whether or not Ešenvalds, a Baptist, had Paul’s emphasis in mind, his work and others like it raise a question about the genre of the musical Passion: Is it enough for the story of the crucifixion alone to be set to music and serve as the focus of piety and devotion, or is it incomplete if it fails to continue to Easter and the resurrection?

Even when unaccompanied by music, texts from the Bible may connect with an individual reader’s own personal experience in surprising and powerful ways. When set to music, this may make the emotional impact greater still. Scottish composer James MacMillan shares an example of this from his own experience:

Composers talk about their own music in dispassionate terms. They have to, because they can’t really predict its impact on listeners. Recently in Holland there was a performance of my St Luke Passion, which includes a passage in which Christ addresses the women of Jerusalem and talks about barrenness; and at that point in the piece I noticed a couple in the audience gripping each other very, very strongly, as if something had really touched them. Perhaps they couldn’t have children themselves. I’d never thought about that before, and it reminded me that there are things in my work that have implications for people because of their own circumstances. I think a lot of composers get private approaches, either face to face or through correspondence, from people who’ve found a work particularly affecting.[10]

MacMillan is the composer not only of the St. Luke Passion mentioned in the quote but also of St. John Passion and Seven Last Words from the Cross. As we saw in the case of Bach, MacMillan also provides an opportunity to explore how a composer who is a person of faith acts as a biblical interpreter, setting different biblical material on the same theme, the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus. Considering that more than one composer explores the same or related texts and themes, comparing their choices allows one to better understand the compositional process as well as trace the ongoing influence of Bach’s compositions on those who have followed him.

Jesus’s Cinematic Sufferings

As we turn our attention to film scores, we should ask how movies use words, images, and music to convey a story, including any theological meaning. It can be useful to ask general questions before turning to specific ones. Think about what you would do if you were making a Bible epic about the life of Jesus and were providing direction to the film score composer about what you wanted during the crucifixion sequence.

Questions to Ponder

  • What music would seem appropriate to the depiction on-screen of a crucifixion?
  • How, if at all, should Jesus’s crucifixion sound different from that of others executed by the Romans in the same way?
  • What musical mood is appropriate to the crucifixion of Jesus? Is this a moment for sorrow and lamentation? Should those who approach the event through the lens of Christian theology rejoice at salvation accomplished through Jesus’s death, understood as an atoning sacrifice? Should the emotions one feels be mixed, and if so, how might a filmmaker and a film score composer evoke those mixed emotions?
  • How does one convey narrative drama in a well-known story, and what part does music play in that?
  • How does one convey theology in music that accompanies acting and visible scenery?
  • What instruments should be used? Modern orchestral ones associated with film scores, Middle Eastern ones reflecting the time and place of events, or some combination of the two?
  • When, if at all, should there be silence? Where are there crescendos? What is happening on-screen at those moments?
  • How long does the crucifixion scene take?

Here are some examples that you should watch as well as listen to, since they are films and not only music. First, here is part of the crucifixion scene from the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told.[11]

Here is the treatment in the movie King of Kings from 1961.[12]

The more recent movie The Passion of the Christ is entirely devoted to the suffering and death of Jesus. Nevertheless, a few minutes provide a good basis for comparison with the other movies mentioned that start the story of Jesus much earlier than Gethsemane. Here are two clips from the movie that illustrate some of the interesting filmmaking choices (and, if you listen closely, how music and other sounds are used).[13]

The music is by composer John Debney. The lyrics from the Passion of the Christ soundtrack can be found online in places, having originally been shared on lyricist Lisbeth Scott’s website. The use of Aramaic is noteworthy but not unexpected given the movie’s use of Latin and Aramaic for the dialogue rather than English or any other modern language. The very inclusion of words sets this soundtrack apart from many others. Unlike the words of Bach’s Passions, however, these are not included with the expectation that hearers will understand them, because unlike the film’s dialogue, the lyrics that are sung are not accompanied by on-screen subtitles.

There is an interview with the composer, Peter Gabriel (better known for his rock music), about the score he composed for the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, the soundtrack for which was released as an album titled Passion. Jesus Christ Superstar is also a depiction that many will be familiar with. Its crucifixion scene is set within the context of a musical-theatrical reinterpretation of the story of Jesus told from Judas’s perspective, all of which sets it apart both from the oratorios and from the movie soundtracks we have considered thus far. This rock opera (it isn’t a musical, since all parts are sung and none of them is spoken) has been given multiple cinematic and onstage renditions that have interesting differences among them as well.[14]

Before leaving this topic, reflect once again on the fact that composers like Johann Sebastian Bach deserve to be considered theologians and/or biblical interpreters. How do they perform the tasks associated with these roles differently because they use music in the process? Do filmmakers and film score composers engage in theology and/or biblical interpretation differently than composers of art music? Keep in mind that even without a visual depiction or musical accompaniment, information from beyond the text always impacts our understanding of it. When you imagine the crucifixion scene in your mind as you read about it, you will likely fail to notice that the shape of the cross is not specified. The tradition about this may be correct, but the New Testament Gospels do not specify its shape. Not only filmmakers and composers but you as a reader are influenced by sources outside the text, including artwork that both reflects and in turn influences the history of interpretation of the text.

For Further Reading

Axmacher, Elke. “Aus Liebe will mein Heyland sterben”: Untersuchungen zum Wandeln des Passionsverständnisses im frühen 18. Jahrhundert. Neuhausen-Stuttgart: Hänsler Verlag, 1984.

Chafe, Eric. J. S. Bach’s Johannine Theology: The St. John Passion and the Cantatas for Spring 1725. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cooke, Phillip A. The Music of James MacMillan. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019.

Franklin, Don O. “J. S. Bach and Pietism.” Pietisten 8, no. 1 (1993).

———. “Viewing the Poetic Texts in Bach’s Matthew Passion from a New Perspective.” Bach 46, no. 1 (2015): 29–48.

Golomb, Uri. “Liturgical Drama in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.” Goldberg Early Music Magazine 48 (2006): 64–73.

MacMillan, James. A Scots Song: A Life of Music. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2019.

Parsons, George, and Robert Sholl, eds. James MacMillan Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.


  1. Note that the words Jesus is said to have uttered come from the beginning of Psalm 22. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew are thereby indicating that Jesus was reciting a Psalm in the midst of his suffering. You may wish to read that Psalm in its entirety and ponder whether awareness of the Psalm as a whole changes your impression of what those words mean on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.
  2. Tim Smith, “The Words of Bach’s Passion: Its Bible, Poetry, and Chorales,” accessed September 14, 2022,
  3. Markus Rathey, "Johann Sebastian Bach's 'St John Passion' from 1725: A Liturgical Interpretation," Colloquium: Music, Worship, Arts 4 (2007) pp.123-139.
  4. Victor Lederer, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look (New York: Continuum, 2008), 11.
  5. NPR, “Profile: History of Passion Plays and Why Jews Are Concerned about Renewed Anti-Semitism Resulting from Mel Gibson’s Film ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” Weekend Edition Sunday, February 22, 2003.
  6. Performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic licensed to YouTube by WMG.
  7. Chapter 33 is devoted to Pärt. On his Passio, see Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 122–39.
  8. This recording by the Mogens Dahl Kammerkor is shared on YouTube by the Mogens Dahl Koncertsal.
  9. Soloists Chorus and Orchestra of the Marrucino Theatre at Chieti, here conducted by Marzio Conti. Licensed to YouTube by Naxos.
  10. Andrew Palmer, Encounters with British Composers (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), 293. MacMillan discusses how he has been drawn to the Passion of Christ as a theme in James MacMillan, “God, Theology, and Music,” in Composing Music for Worship, ed. Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003), 40–42. See also MacMillan’s discussion in the same work of how, in his words, “music seems to get into the crevices of the human-divine experience” (p. 36).
  11. The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens. Copyright MGM 1965. Clip licensed by the Movieclips YouTube channel.
  12. Shared on the Memória Cinematográfica YouTube channel. Buy or rent the complete movie on YouTube here.
  13. Music licensed to YouTube by SME. Shared on the kinobscura YouTube channel. Buy or rent the complete movie on YouTube here
  14. The 1973 movie by Universal Pictures is the first of many film versions of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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