Music for the Masses

St John Passion chorales score - first page
Our part of the score, with my annotations above the score line on how it should be performed on the day. 

My head is still stuffed with the most wonderful music today, so it's time to take a break from my usual bloggage.

On Sunday I sang the chorales in Bach's St John Passion at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon, as part of a project put together by English Touring Opera (ETO). Our performance was reviewed in The Guardian yesterday, which has kept the music in my head and the good feelings going well into today.

I must admit I was a bit daunted at first. I can't read music, it's a challenging piece, and it's not the kind of thing I usually perform or listen to. However, the WMC Choir component was a scratch choir, so there would be plenty of people like me there. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Can a scratch choir perform to the standards expected by ETO with just four rehearsals? It seems we can, as long as you do your homework. There were practice tracks to sing along to courtesy of Cyberbass and the whole thing is available on YouTube. The latter looks like a classical music version of karaoke, with the various components of the score moving along to the music, and a translation line running underneath.

Scrolling text and music version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
Scrolling version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
The left shows the sung parts, the middle is the strings and organ, and the right the other instruments. 

The first three rehearsals with Mike were fun and full of laughter, especially when he demonstrated correct breathing with the aid of a squeezy tomato sauce and lemonade bottles. They were a stretch for me, particularly when some of the pauses in the score were crossed out, but doable. Our role in the chorales was to be the ordinary people commenting on proceedings, and so the ETO had our pieces translated into English by the likes of John McCarthy, Rowan Williams, John Sentamu and Marina Warner.

The fourth rehearsal on Sunday was with the ETO and my first experience of performing with classically trained musicians. Jonathan Peter Kenny, the conductor, gave us no quarter despite having an imperfect piece but with a huge chunk of soul in mind. This would take the performance back to Bach's original intention, when it was sung in church as a community witness of faith with the congregation singing the chorales. It truly is a piece for the masses rather than the hoi polloi, but that didn't mean a sloppy performance was expected of us.

"You sang beautifully, but it might have been in Zulu, which I can't understand", was a typical remark from him. I giggled at this point as I have sung in Zulu. "Remember, text, text, text. I want the audience to hear what you're saying and be involved with the performance, yes? Look at them and draw them into the piece."

He was also a very dramatic and energetic conductor, roaming amongst us during the rehearsal and we took bets on whether he might fall off the stage later that evening. Sadly, he was a little more restrained in the performance.

The opera singers were a revelation. As a soprano I was drawn to Susanna Fairbairn's technique. I noticed she relaxed and bent her knees slightly for the trickier parts of the score, and when she stood next to me, I could hear her emphasis on the consonants like 'b' and 'p'. It sounded like she was spitting them out. As for mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, I never knew so much sound could be expelled from so tiny a frame.

Part of the running order, with our instructions for when to sit and stand without making a noise
As for the performance, for me it was extraordinary, even though we weren't dressed up for the occasion. The opening chorus was so loud, I thought it was going to raise the roof. The orchestra - the Old Street Band - played period instruments and had quite a different sound, which to my ears added grandeur to the piece.

I was particularly struck by the lute with an enormous neck, which is called a theorbo. I also spoke to one of the flute players during the interval. Hers was a wooden, less complicated instrument compared to today's, like a cross between a flute and a recorder. She told me it's her favourite instrument to play and the silver rings are purely for decoration. It seems even musical instruments can have a bit of bling.

At the end everyone was in tears - choirs, audience, orchestra, and our conductor. As I left the building to come home, I overheard a couple of the audience say "That was amazing!" That's a good enough review for me.

A lot is written about the inaccessibility of opera. The cost of tickets is high, you need to dress for the occasion, and it's usually sung in a foreign language. I'm glad those criticisms - and my preconceptions - were blown apart by this amazing project. Around 30 local choirs will be involved in the tour around the country, including a gospel choir. I'd love to hear that.


  1. Oh you make me feel really guilty! Cirencester Choral is doing the St John Passion next term, but I've dropped out just for that performance because I have sung it SO MANY TIMES! Both in English and in German. And we're singing it in English, which I hate. Crucify! Crucify! just doesn't sound the same as Kreuzige! Kreuzige!
    I often play the final movement, "Ruht wohl" ("Sleep well") as an instrumental piece if I'm playing organ for a funeral. It is so beautiful and so moving.

  2. I was hoping you'd read this Victoria! It seems St John Passion is flavour of the month (ish) as The Bath Choral Society are singing it next year. We were invited to come along and try them out for Handel's Messiah next month, with a view of staying on for St John Passion.

    Ours were the only pieces sung in English, and thus most important as they'd be the only ones most of the audience would understand. The conductor also said they'd be surprised as they'd have just got used to the piece being sung in German and then we open our mouths and it's in English!

    There weren't any surtitles, apart from a general statement at the start of each piece, so the audience would know where we were in the story and could just focus on the music. The conductor said he attended a concert in Poland once, with the surtitles in Polish. He doesn't speak Polish, but he read every single surtitle.

    "Ruht wohl" is gorgeous, that's what's running through my head at the moment. I also love the drama of the opening "Herr unsere Herr" :)

    1. Well, you shamed me into doing the St John after all!

    2. Goodness Victoria, I hope you enjoy it! I shall have to come and see you perform it. Do you think they'll allow some audience Participation? It'll be hard not to join in now I know some of the pieces ;-)

    3. I forgot to say that German has to be the best language for bad happenings. As you say kreuzige is much more dramatic compared to crucify, and schlecht just has to mean bad!


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