State of the Arts

S38 E6 | CLIP

The Dryden Ensemble: St. John Passion

In Princeton, the Dryden Ensemble uses period instruments to perform Bach’s St John Passion, first played for Good Friday services in 1724.

AIRED: May 30, 2020 | 0:06:50

[ Operatic singing ]

Matus: The Dryden Ensemble is a Baroque ensemble

using period instruments,

focusing on repertoire of the Baroque period,

using the instruments that would have been used at the time.

Terry: It's an excellent chamber music group,

specializing in music

from 18th century and 17th centuries.

[ Singing continues ]

McKinley: These instruments certainly create the sounds

that were heard then.


Narrator: One of the most monumental works at that time

is J.S. Bach's "St John Passion,"

the story of Jesus' crucifixion

told in a performance lasting over two hours.

It was first performed at Bach's church

in Leipzig, Germany,

on Good Friday in 1724.

In March 2020,

the Dryden Ensemble in Princeton performed the dramatic work

as part of their 25th anniversary season.


McKinley: This production of the "St John Passion"

is an attempt to recreate

what Bach did in the 18th century,

in 1724.

Narrator: Celebrated Renaissance and Baroque music conductor,

Scott Metcalfe, based in Boston,

joined Dryden for the special occasion.

Metcalfe: Besides having a chorus that's modeled on Bach's,

we have an orchestra which is about the same size

as he would have had.

And our orchestra

is all composed of period instruments,

so instruments that are of the type

that Bach would have known in the 18th century.

[ Viola de gamba plays melody ]

Terry: So this is the French seven-string viola de gamba.

There's a very remarkable solo

when Jesus is saying his last word,

Es ist fertig.

"I am dead. I am finished. It is finished."

The viola de gamba plays an obbligato

and then accompanies an alto singer.

-[ Sings operatically ]




Matus: This is a bassoon.

It's a copy of an instrument from around 1700.

It has a more flexible tone than it's modern counterpart.

I can take it to a really bright nasal sound,

or I can take it in to a more dark subdued place

depending on what I choose

for that given moment in the piece.



Wallace: This is viola d'amore,

and there are two movements in the "St John Passion"

that were written for two violas d'amore.

[ Viola d'amore plays melody ]

They usually have six or seven main playing strings

that go over the bridge, like violin strings,

and you play them with the bow,

and then they have an equal number of strings

under the bridge

that are just vibrating sympathetically

when the upper strings are set in motion.

And that adds to the shininess of the sound.

-[ Sings operatically ]





[ Piece resolves ]

Metcalfe: The Evangelist narrates the events

of the "Passion,"

from Jesus' arrest to the Crucifixion and death,

and in between the narrative,

are inserted arias and choruses and chorals,

in which, the singers reflect

on the events that are being narrated.

Narrator: The Evangelist narrates the Gospel story

in a style known as recitative,

a kind of heightened speech that's sung.

[ Sings operatically in German ]

Several times, however,

his part becomes much more dramatic.

McStoots: One of these is at the denial of Peter,

where, as we remember from the Biblical story,

that Jesus tells Peter,

"before this night is over, you will deny me three times."

And then as the evening of Jesus' arrest goes on,

he, in fact, does deny Jesus three times.

And then I sing a passage of recitative that says,

"and Peter suddenly realized what he had done

and went out and wept bitterly."

And that music is set to this gorgeous series

of extremely dissonant suspensions

over a very sort of tortured bass line.

[ Singing continues ]



[ Chorus sings operatically ]

McKinley: One of the most amazing things

about the music of Bach is that

it's very complex

on many levels,

but yet, he can project a certain emotion,

and you feel it as a listener.

[ Singing continues ]