Bach’s St. John Passion in Leipzig: celestial voices, unbearable beauty

Listening to Bach’s St. John Passion at St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Germany, was an ethereal and indescribably moving experience.  It was Good Friday and we were in Leipzig to hear the Thomanerchor, the boy’s choir that has been performing sacred music in Leipzig for over 800 years (they board and study in the town).  Johann Sebastian Bach was once the choir master of the Thomanerchor, and he is buried in the church where they sing.  The choir and the church musicians were performing St. John Passion, which tells the story of the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of John.  It was composed by Bach at Leipzig and was first performed there on Good Friday in 1724.

We couldn’t see the choir or the musicians because were above us in a balcony and we also couldn’t use the libretto provided by the church since we don’t know German.  Although I would have preferred to see the choir and follow along with the libretto, I believe the circumstances forced us to listen more closely and it underscored the spiritual quality of the music.  And it was spiritual–until the music started I was expecting a concert, but this was a religious service: a sad, moving, eloquent service.  I keep coming back to a word I learned reading Dante: empyrean.  It’s the name for the dwelling-place of God and of blessed, celestial beings so divine they are made of pure light, and the source of light and creation.  All the voices were gorgeous, but now and then an even more lovely voice would emerge from the empyrean for a solo, and I’d want the sound of the voice to stay in the room with me, just a while longer, please, stay in the sound of the room with the rapt audience and HOB beside me occasionally squeezing my knee.  Most of the people were crying and when the music ended what happened was even more poignant—we all just sat there quietly.  No one clapped.  It was quiet and still for a few minutes, and the music left the room and slowly people began to blow their noses and shuffle their clothes and stand up.  It was time to leave, so we went outside into a silent, heavy snowfall, and walked back to our hotel.

How we got to Leipzig: train from Berlin.

Where we slept: Motel One Leipzig.  Price: €69 for a double.  Recommended: yes.


St. Thomas Church interior (photobombed by dude in a glowing-boob track suit).


Felix Mendelssohn, not Jesus in the stained glass: Lutherans are keeping it real.  Mendelssohn re-discovered Bach and restored his popularity.


Bach was cantor here from 1723 – 1750.

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