Friday, March 29, 2013

Six Bach Dances: Part I: Passion Sarabandes

The rhythms of dance are at once wax earthly and celestial, calling the listener to join his corporeal form to a timeless continuance. No dance wants to end and no composer understood this innate property better than Bach, whose dances not only in suites but also sacred choral works remain sculptures of rhythmic perpetuity as they within hold the most expressive harmonies. 

Here on this Good Friday I would take a look at three movements from Bach's two surviving Passions. All three are built on sarabande rhythms in 3/4 time and make use of the room within the sarabande for both gentility and passion.

I. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Tenor Aria, Ach mein Sinn

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

The St. John Passion's counterpart to Matthew's more famous Erbarme dich, the tenor aria Ach mein Sinn is Peter's turmoil after his threefold denial of Jesus. Yet where the Erbarme dich is a haunting, twining torment in the memory, Ach mein Sinn is an extroverted display of furious self abasement. Where the twists and turns in the Erbarme dich seem as Peter's sin again and again trickling into his mind, they here seem daggers amidst the din of dissonance, halting dotted rhythms, and rising and falling phrases. 

II. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Chorus: Ruht wohl

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

The stately sarabandes which close both of Bach's surviving passions have been variously referred to as  lullaby-like. This is somewhat appropriate, given the gentle flute and oboe parts above and the falling figures, suggestive of laying-down, which both pieces also share. Rising-and-falling figures, the lullaby-rocking, if you will, also contribute to the soporific mood, but the grieving leaps in the chorus and descending chromatic bass are bitter contrast to the sweet gentility of the rhythm.

III. St. Matthew Passion, BWV.244: Chorus: Wir setzen uns

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

Here the more regular sarabande rhythm creates a more persistent, sepulchral tone while the sudden shifts into dissonance draw an expressive interiority within the scene-painting of Christ's burial. The contrasting emotions of grandeur in the sarabande rhythm and tenderness in the falling figures, of personal grieving in leaps and communal grieving in vertical dissonance, and the death of Jesus the Man and Christ the Lord coalesce into one unfolding both immanent and transcendent.


Little, Meridith & Jenne, Natalie. Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach. Indiana University Press. 1991, 2001.

Stapert, Calvin R. My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co. 2000.

Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. 2005.

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