Passion, Proof against the Pandemic

With an extraordinary performance of the St. John Passion, the Leipzig Bachfest will be bringing the world together on Good Friday in Johann Sebastian Bach's church of St. Thomas – and the global Bach community is invited to sing along.

In many places it is a tradition – sometimes going back more than 100 years – to perform a Bach Passion during the week before Easter. Many people all over the world regard it as an indispensable ritual to listen to or actually sing Bach’s settings of the story of Jesus’ Passion during Passiontide. For all of them, blanket cancellation of these Passion performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic means, unusually, having to go without one deeply emotional event in the musical calendar.

This is why the Leipzig Bach Festival is bringing together the whole music world in Bach’s church of St. Thomas and giving everyone the chance to take an active part in a unique concert project: on Good Friday, 10 April, at the hour of Jesus’ death (3pm, CEST), a chamber music version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous St. John Passion will be performed at his tomb, and the global Bach community is invited to sing along.
The concert will be livestreamed via the Bach Archive’s Facebook channel. MDR KULTUR and MDR KLASSIK will be video streaming this special concert from 3pm (CEST) via the Internet as well as on Facebook, and will broadcast a recorded version on the radio at 7pm (CEST) and on MDR television at midnight (CEST). The concert will then be available on ARD Mediathek. The concert will also be broadcast on ARTE Concert. Prominent musicians from countries including Malaysia, Canada, the US, Austria and the Netherlands will perform by video link.

The performance is being held in collaboration with Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk and is made possible thanks to donations from the Chorherren zu St. Thomae Foundation and the Neue Bachgesellschaft e. V. It is supported by our partners the Ludwigsburg Festival and other festivals which, owing to the pandemic, are unable to hold the concert as part of their programmes this year and will be actively participating with their own respective audiences: BACH – We are FAMILY!

On Good Friday, 10 April, at the hour of Jesus’ death (3pm, CEST), a chamber music version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous St. John Passion will be performed at his tomb, and the global Bach community is invited to sing along.

296 years ago, on Good Friday 1724, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion was performed for the first time. It was the most extensive work to date by the cantor of St. Thomas’ in Leipzig, newly appointed in 1723: for two hours, the congregation followed the musically illustrated Passion of Jesus Christ. Many – together with the choristers of St. Thomas’ – joined in the singing of Bach’s immortal chorales and from them drew strength for difficult times. To this day, millions of people all over the world find comfort and hope by performing and listening to this unique music.

Passiontide 2020 is overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of performances of Bach’s Passions worldwide – a ritual for music lovers for nearly two hundred years – have been cancelled owing to the restrictions on movement in place everywhere. To give the global Bach community a chance to actively participate in a Bach Passion in spite of this, the artistic director of the Leipzig Bachfest had an extraordinary idea: the performance of a chamber music version of the work, produced by PODIUM Esslingen, played by a small number of musicians by Bach’s tomb in St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig with the participation of the serving Thomaskantor, Gotthold Schwarz, and streamed free of charge around the globe – with an invitation to Bach choirs and music lovers from all over the world to join in singing the chorales.

Prof. Dr. Michael Maul, Artistic Director of the Leipzig Bachfest:
»At this year’s Bachfest in June entitled BACH – We are FAMILY!, nearly 50 Bach choirs from all continents were to celebrate the greatest Bach family festival of all time in Leipzig and make music together in all kinds of ways. Owing to the pandemic and the resulting border closures and restrictions on movement, this will no longer be possible. This is why, by advancing this very special production of the St. John Passion to Good Friday – originally scheduled to take place on 13 June on Leipzig’s Market Square with 5,000 people singing along – we hope to have the global Bach family singing together at least once, virtually: at the right time in the right place. Of this I am certain: it will be a very moving event for all of us.«

The actual Passion story will be performed by just three musicians. The production by PODIUM Esslingen won a coveted Opus Klassik award in 2019 as the ›Most Innovative Concert of the Year‹. In it, the Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson tells the story of Jesus’ Passion on the basis of Bach’s Passion, taking on the role of the Evangelist and all the other characters – and also conducting the virtual choir. »Eight years ago I visited St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig for the first time. I had a bunch of flowers in my hand and tears in my eyes. Both of these I laid on Bach’s tomb slab. Ever since that moment, I have dreamed of singing in St. Thomas’ Church. On the coming Good Friday this dream will be fulfilled, in unimaginable circumstances. I am very grateful and hope that Bach-lovers all over the world will sing with me.«

Harpsichordist Elina Albach and percussionist Philipp Lamprecht take the role of the orchestra, while for the chorales – besides the five singers in St. Thomas’ Church led by Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz – the artists and Bach choirs who were invited to the 2020 Bachfest will be participating by video link. In addition to which, all the viewers at home are invited to sing along. For the purpose, the Bach Archive and publishers Carus-Verlag will be providing a digital programme booklet with the music to download. Prof. Dr. Michael Maul: »Fantastic Bachfest artists such as Ton Koopman, Klaus Mertens, Rudolf Lutz, Miriam Feuersinger, Martin Petzold, members of the THOMANERCHOR Leipzig, the choirs of Bachfest Malaysia and the J. S. Bach Foundation of St. Gallen, as well as the Ottawa Bach Choir have agreed to take part in the performance from their living rooms. I would like to thank all the performers, the Chorherren zu St. Thomae Foundation, St. Thomas’ Church, the Neue Bachgesellschaft and Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk for this magnificent cooperative effort in difficult times. ›BACH  We are FAMILY!‹ – this is truer now more than ever!«

For David Chin, who together with his Bachfest Malaysia musicians will be contributing a chorale to the performance, this broadcast is also of huge importance: »Bachfest Malaysia is beyond grateful to have been invited to sing at this special, virtual performance, during the pandemic and on Good Friday. All chorales in Bach’s passion are very personal and reflective. The one which we have been assigned (›O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohn‹, BWV 245,65), is very fitting for what we as global citizens are going through at the moment, as the chorale begins by calling to Christ for help. The piece reminds us that although we are poor and weak, we will continue to give thanks, and are subject to God’s will, because the Master Himself has gone through all the sufferings for us.«

Ton Koopman, President of the Leipzig Bach Archive and recipient of the City of Leipzig Bach Medal, is also enthusiastic: »I know how hard my colleagues led by Michael Maul have worked during the past two years on preparations for ›BACH – We are FAMILY‹. We were all longing for the Bachfest. With pilgrims from all over the world, it would really have been a magnificent ›Bach Esperanto‹ occasion. It is all the more comforting to know that on Good Friday we can make this idea audible, at least virtually. And the great thing is that in 2020 I’ll be able to take part at least once during Holy Week in a performance of a Bach Passion!«

The performance will also be a means of providing support for the numerous freelance musicians who, of all those who work in the cultural sector, are the most severely affected by the consequences of the pandemic. All the participating musicians are freelancers. In addition, donations will be collected during the streaming. Over the coming weeks and months, these will be used to enable freelance musicians to take part in different musical offerings and streaming formats in the places in Leipzig where Bach worked.
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion
Good Friday, 10 April, 3pm (CEST)
Live from St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig

Link to the trailer:

To the overview