Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s twenty-one Passions represent the final stage of a long tradition of oratorio Passions in Hamburg, a tradition that can be traced back to 1643.1 Bach himself distinguished between the oratorio Passion and Passion oratorio when he asked Georg Michael Telemann on 6 December 1767 about Passion performances in Hamburg:“is it presented in the historic and old manner with the evangelist and other persons [i.e., in the manner of historiæ, or oratorio Passions], or is it arranged in the manner of an oratorio with reflections, as is the case in Ramler’s oratorio [Der Tod Jesu]?”2 Whereas in many parts of Germany “modern” Passion oratorios had already replaced the “old-fashioned” oratorio Passion, the Hamburg clergy, among them the conservative head pastor of St. Catharinen, Melchior Goeze, adhered to the traditional form; this was abandoned only in 1789 with the reform of Hamburg church music after Bach’s death. Therefore Bach had to perform a new Passion according to one of the gospels for the main churches every year.

Because of the peculiarities of their compositional history and their numerous borrowings, Bach’s Passions are presented in the edition in four volumes corresponding to the individual Evangelists, rather than in chronological order. They were modeled in scoring, scope, and musical demands on Georg Philipp Telemann’s works from his last decade.3 These Passions tell the story of Jesus’ suffering and death through one of the gospel texts, with roles allocated to specific singers. Larger groups of people (the disciples, high priests, or the crowd) are represented by the chorus. Traditionally the biblical narrative was framed by choruses or simple chorales. At high points in the story, arias and choruses interrupted the narration, commenting on and interpreting those passages in order to move the listener to devotion and penitence.

The music director in Hamburg presented the same oratorio Passion during Lent in each of Hamburg’s five main churches, as well as in several secondary churches. Performances were given according to a fixed rotational scheme, starting with St. Petri as the oldest parish and ending with St. Michaelis as the newest. The following order of Sundays in Lent (and churches) was prescribed for the Passions: Invocavit (St. Petri), Reminiscere (St. Nicolai), Laetare (St. Catharinen), Judica (St. Jacobi) and Palm Sunday (St. Michaelis).4 Furthermore, from the Thursday after Judica until Good Friday, Passion music could be heard almost daily in one of the secondary churches. Normally, this music would consist of the annual oratorio Passion, but in some instances performances of Passion oratorios are documented there as well.

The texts for the Passions were printed in large numbers each Lent, and the sale of these librettos to the congregation was an important source of supplemental income for the music director. The texts of the chorales were printed in full, along with the corresponding chorale numbers in the Hamburg hymnal. Thus, the congregation was apparently meant to sing along during the chorales.

The Hamburg Passions of the late eighteenth century are relatively short, lasting little more than an hour in performance, because they were used in regular Sunday services in Lent, not in the context of a separate Passion service, as in the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig. According to Johann Mattheson, the traditional two-part division of the Passion, framing the sermon, was abandoned in 1755.5 In comparison to oratorio Passions performed elsewhere, the biblical story in the Hamburg Passions starts at a later point and ends immediately with the death of Jesus; the dramatic natural events following the Savior’s death and burial are omitted, except in four of the five St. John Passions.

From the late seventeenth century onward, the Hamburg Passions followed a fixed annual sequence of gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Both Telemann and Bach adopted this sequence as directors of the Hamburg church music; it was interrupted only once, in 1769, when Bach directed his first Passion and gave a St. Matthew Passion instead of a St. John. In light of the four-year cycle, it would have seemed natural for works to be revived every few years; yet none of Bach’s Passions is identical with its predecessors. The texts for the arias and choruses were newly chosen, and these movements do not always interrupt the biblical narrative at the same points. The selection and arrangement of these movements, and most likely also of the chorales, was the responsibility of the music director alone, and was not subject to any preliminary censoring by the Hamburg clergy. Bach did not produce new settings of the biblical passages and chorales each time, but generally preferred to reuse the earlier settings. Changes were made only when necessary for transitional passages whenever arias or other movements were replaced.

None of the Passions performed by Bach during his time in Hamburg represents an entirely original composition. Rather, they are pasticcios that contain varying amounts of Bach’s own creative work. The use of music by other composers does not follow a fixed procedure, but ranges from borrowing with little if any modification, to alterations of register or instrumentation, to more substantial revisions in order to adapt the music to the circumstances in Hamburg. Bach’s main source of pre-existing Passion music was Gottfried August Homilius, but he also extensively borrowed arias and choruses from Georg Benda and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Borrowings from J.S. Bach and Telemann, on the other hand, are generally limited to biblical passages, primarily turba choruses, and chorales.

Since Passion performances in Hamburg started at the beginning of Lent (or sometimes even on the last Sunday before Lent), Bach was anxious to finish the main work on each new Passion by the end of the preceding year. The entries for the Passions in Bach’s estate catalogue (NV 1790) confirm this, in that they list two successive years: one the date of composition and the other the year of the performance, the latter corresponding with the date in the printed librettos. The present edition always refers to the year of the first performance to avoid misunderstanding.

For performances in the Hamburg churches the music director had at his disposal no more than eight singers (individually as soloists and together as the chorus) as well as the Ratsmusiker and their assistants; that is, around fifteen instrumentalists. Two players covered both the flute and oboe parts, so that pairs of flutes and oboes could not be used at the same time. The continuo player was part of the ensemble, and was therefore not necessarily the organist of the church in which the performance took place. The performing material for the Passions normally includes transposed organ parts because the organs in St. Catharinen and St. Nicolai were tuned a whole step higher than regular pitch, and the organs in St. Petri and St. Jacobi were tuned a minor third higher; only the organ in St. Michaelis was tuned to Kammerton.6

Because C.P.E. Bach’s Passions are pasticcios, most of them are not transmitted in full scores, but rather as individual parts and single movements in autograph. In a few cases, Bach’s instructions to the copyists regarding the use of various exemplars for the preparation of the parts have also been preserved.

The adaptation of the Passions to the liturgical conditions and practical performance circumstances in Hamburg rendered them of little use for services outside of the city. The sources for these works are therefore limited to the printed librettos (which generally survive in several copies); the original manuscript parts, which later became part of the collection of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin; and individual movements in autograph score, some of which belong to the permanent collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz, and some to the collection of the Sing-Akademie.

Ulrich Leisinger
General Editor

1. For a concise discussion of Bach’s Passions, see Miesner, 65, and Clark, esp. 97–106. On the context of the Passions, see Sanders. For a preliminary evaluation of the Passion material in the collection of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, see Leisinger 2002, 107–19.

2. “ist solche nach historischer u. alter Art mit den Evangelisten u. anderen Personen vorgestellt oder wird sie nach Art eines Oratorii mit Betrachtungen, wie z. E. die Ramlerische, eingericht?” See CPEB-Briefe, 1:132–36.

3. On Telemann in Hamburg, see Hans Hörner, Gg. Ph. Telemanns Passionsmusiken. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Passionsmusik in Hamburg (Leipzig: R. Noske, 1933) and Jason Benjamin Grant, “The Rise of Lyricism and the Decline of Biblical Narration in the Late Liturgical Passions of Georg Philipp Telemann” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2005).

4. Passion performances were not given on Oculi, the Third Sunday in Lent, since this day was traditionally reserved for installation music (Juraten-Einführungsmusik) at St. Michaelis; see Barbara Wiermann, “Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachs Gottesdienstmusiken,” in Frankfurt/Oder 1998a, 90–91. The dense succession of Passion performances had to be modified whenever the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) fell on a Sunday during Lent or anytime during Holy Week.

5. See Mattheson’s Plus Ultra, vol. 4 (Hamburg, 1756), 656–57; cited in Ulrich Leisinger, “Forms and Functions of the Choral Movements in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion,” Bach Studies 2, ed. Daniel R. Melamed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 75. But according to an annotation in the original set of parts to the 1789 St. Matthew Passion, in that year at least, the Passion was again performed in two parts, before and after the sermon. See introduction to CPEB:CW, IV/4.6.

6. See Leisinger 2002, 117; see also Sanders, 134–35.