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The Christic Imagination - II

In her reflection on the Good Friday Liturgy Rita Ferrone writes:

The choice of John’s Passion is pivotal. Jesus reigns from the cross. His hour of glory is on the cross, for it is not simply an instrument of his humiliation and suffering but the access point of life and salvation for those who believe.

Bach's faith-filled imagination sublimely proclaims this truth in the majestic opening chorus of his Saint John's Passion, "Herr, unser Herrscher:"

The hammer-like repetition of "Herr, Herr, Herr" and the sinuous melodic line that follows resounds both plaintive and triumphant.

Lord, our sovereign Lord, your glory reigns in every land. Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are ever glorified, even in the most profound humiliation.



About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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"Herr, unser Herrscher": The most terrifying opening chorus, perhaps the most terrifying moments for the listener in all of  music, that I know. 

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to hear (twice!) a brilliant performance of the St. John's Passion (BWV 245) by the Yale Schola Cantorum with Julliard415 and members of the Yale Baroque Ensemble, under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki.

The opening chorus is so powerful musically, and the believer's prayer to "see" the glory of Christ even within his deepest humiliation is exactly the right question, istm. (The reworked1725 version starts with admonishing humankind to "bewail your great sin" and completely changes the focus.)

Bob, I would quibble a bit with your choice of words in describing the music. Hammer seems harsh and directed downward, whereas I heard it as a shout of praise rising upward or crying out, to God's glory, "Lord, Lord, Lord, our ruler, whose fame in every land is glorious!" The suffering motif emerges in the stabbing notes of the flutes and oboes against the running 16th notes.

At any rate, I have never before been so palpably aware of the fact that JS Bach was composing for liturgy. This work was composed for Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig. (Indeed, the congregation would hear a one hour sermon between part one and part two!) The text of the opening chorus is in the form of a collect (only slightly modified). And the intention of that opening is both deeply sensitive to the scriptures (see also John 12:27-28) and keyed to the central axis of the Good Friday liturgy. 

Here is Suzuki conducting the Bach Collegium Japan. admittedly different but for anyone reading who has not heard the piece, this could give an example of it.


I believe that the performance you attended (twice!) will be broadcast this evening at 9:00 on WQXR-FM. I suspect it will be streamed.

The greatness of Bach's creative imagination is that his sacred music can be interpreted and heard in a multitiude of ways. The performance I've been listening to is that of John Eliot Gardiner whose choir is larger than the one Suzuki employs in the version on youtube, making perhaps for the striking impression of the repeated "Herr" who must "show us." I think of John Donne's "batter my heart."


Paul Elie also blogs today about Bach's St. John's Passion.  He says that Bach himself heard it only a few times in his whole life because it was liturgical music and would be performed only once a year, and he had to get the proper musicians to perform it right. 

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