“In order to preserve the good order in the Churches,” Counsel Dr. Steger wrote, “so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such a nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.” Bach readily ignored all instructions, and produced an impressive number of cantatas during his first year on the job. However, the Passion, according to John, probably first heard on 7 April 1724, represents a special case.
For starters, we really don’t know if Bach wrote the St. John Passion during his first year in Leipzig. Some scholars suggest that it was actually first performed in April 1723 as part of a possible entrance exam for the Leipzig position. Others believe that some version of the work was first heard during Bach’s visit to Gotha in 1717, while others insist that it was first sounded in Saint Nicholas church on Good Friday, 7 April 1724.
But there is more! The work was performed at least four times during Bach’s lifetime, and for each new presentation Bach substantially modified the work. Today we are left with four different Passions according to John, and performers and editors happily pick and choose from amongst the riches. And if you think that the work history is somehow confusing, you should try reading through the discussions and arguments concerning the historically intended way of performing it!
J.S. Bach: St. John’s Passion