musica Dei donum


Bach's St Mark Passion reconstructed by Koopman

During 1999 and 2000 Ton Koopman presented his own reconstruction of the lost St Mark Passion by Johann Sebastian Bacb. Below I give my view on this reconstruction on the basis of a live performance which I attended in Utrecht and listening to the CD recording of this reconstruction afterwards.

As you will know the music Bach composed for the St Mark Passion has gone lost completely. Several attempts have been made to perform this work. Different solutions have been looked for. Every reconstruction is based on the assumption that Bach re-used previously written music. That is the only way to perform this piece, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this is what Bach did. It is not impossible that he composed new music. For the arias, choruses and chorales the music is taken from other works. The recitatives are problematic. I think Bach hardly ever re-used recitatives. They are so closely linked to a certain text that it is almost impossible to adapt them to other words. Therefore sometimes music by contemporaries is used, or music from another period in order to make a clear distinction with Bach's own music.

Ton Koopman wasn't satisfied with the solutions others have found. I quote from the booklet to his CD recording: "Acting as though I were one of Bach's pupils, I imagined myself being given the following assignment in a composition lesson: 'Here is a libretto; set it to music using whatever you find in the works I wrote up until now (1731). What you do not find, compose yourself'".
Hence I think that Ton Koopman's edition has to be assessed on the basis of these two questions: a) does the music he has chosen match the text?; b) does the music he composed himself indeed come close to the style of Bach or his time?

As far as the first question is concerned: during the live performance I sometimes didn't believe what I heard. Listening again to the CD recording confirmed my impression that regularly text and music don't match. From time to time the accents are on different places. Sometimes there are not enough notes for the text, and then the last note is simply repeated. It happens that in a repeat a word is shortened. For instance, in the bass aria "Mein Heyland, dich vergeß ich nicht" in the second line the bass first sings "Ich habe dich" and later - otherwise the text is too long for the music - "ich hab'". I can't remember that ever happening in any of Bach's works. In the aria "Angenehmes Mord-Geschrey" there are melismas which I think are inappropriate regarding the text. In the second chorus on the words "Creutzige ihn" the accent is on the wrong syllable: the second.
Secondly, the recitatives. They sound like everything except Bach. On some places there are reminiscences of Bach's recitatives, in particular in parts of the texts which are almost exactly like those in the other passions. But on the whole they sound very strange. There are many modulations, but they don't always make sense. As in the arias here are strange accents too. Sometimes a part of a recitative closes with a falling fourth, and then a short piece of text follows, like a vermiform appendix. Sometimes a phrase ignores the comma in the text, on other places there is a split in the middle of a sentence. On several places a note is repeated three times at the end of a phrase, which seems very unnatural to me. The evangelist regularly sings melismas - again that seemed very strange. I checked the St Matthew Passion: in the whole first part it happens only once - on "zittern (und zagen)", a highly emotional passage. Bachs recitatives are often surprising, but nevertheless logical. I haven't been able to discover any logic in Ton Koopman's recitatives. They are rather disorientated.

Some other aspects.
Some turbae are so elaborated that they lose their impact - compare them with the very powerful turbae in the St John Passion.
Obviously Ton Koopman thought the number of arias was too small. He added one: "Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hügel", an aria Bach used in the second version of the St John Passion (1725) as a replacement for "Ach, mein Sinn". He seemed not happy with that one - it was removed later and never used again. It is a rather operatic piece as frequently used in 18th century passion oratorios. Like in the St John Passion it is sung directly after Peter's denial. But Ton Koopman has done more. He has given the role of Peter to a tenor - in both other passions it is a bass. As a consequence this aria gets a personal character, as if Peter is speaking here. But you don't find any kind of 'personalisation' of the arias in Bach's passions. Obviously Bach didn't want a link between a person and an aria. All the arias are related to the audience. In this case: the listener should think that he himself is like Peter and that in his place he would have denied Jesus as well. Therefore it is no surprise to find an alto aria in the St Matthew Passion and a tenor aria in the St John Passion after the denial of Peter (a bass). In this respect Bach's passions are strikingly different from the passion oratorios of his time, in which arias are given to Peter, Judas and even Jesus. Koopman's decision is a very strange change of Bach's concept.

There are two duets in this reconstruction. (There is only one in the St Matthew Passion, none in the St John Passion). For the duet of soprano and alto "Er kommt, er kommt, er ist vorhanden" Koopman uses a duet from Cantata 4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden). A very unfortunate choice, since that is a chorale cantata, every section of which is an arrangement of the chorale. That chorale has twice as many lines as the aria. So there are four lines left. The last two lines of the aria are repeated several times. Bach has used chorale melodies in his arias, but this is different. The continuous repetition of these two lines (and here music and text also don't match very well) is an indication that this isn't the best choice to make. And here Koopman ignores Bach's habits again. If Bach uses a chorale melody in his works, he always sticks to the text of the original chorale. He never uses an existing chorale melody for a new text. That would have been very confusing for the audience in his days.
I also question the version of the chorale "Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn". It is a strophe from Luther's chorale "Ein feste Burg". It is sung here in a rhythmic version, but I think those were out of fashion in Bach's days. Just compare this with the closing chorale of Cantata 80.
Only the opening and closing choruses seem more satisfying to me. Otherwise I find the version by Simon Heighes (recorded by Roy Goodman) more convincing.

But the question remains whether the St Mark Passion should be reconstructed at all. It would be worth the effort if any of Bach's music would still exist. But if we start to try to reconstruct every text which we know a composer has set to music, where will it end? Why not try to compose p.e. Schütz' Dafne or Monteverdi's Arianna?

Johan van Veen (© 2000)