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I follow you with Joyful Steps from St. John Passion for soprano, 2 flutes, and continuo

April 3, 2016: Ying Fang, soprano; Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway, flutes; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Paolo Bourdignon, harpsichord

The St. John Passion has always stood somewhat in the shadow of the more extensive St. Matthew Passion, which is the work that reawakened public interest in Bach when Mendelssohn revived it in 1829. But the less elaborate St. John Passion, Bach’s first large-scale vocal work for Leipzig, holds it own well-deserved place in the repertoire. Passion performances alternated annually between the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche, but Bach agreed to perform the St. John Passion in the Nikolaikirche, whose turn it was in 1724, only after they agreed to make more room in the choir loft and repair the harpsichord. He performed the work again the following year, after making revisions, in the larger Thomaskirche. In fact, a definitive version does not exist because he made further revisions for performances in 1732 and 1749.

Bach (or his anonymous librettist) drew his text for the St. John Passion not only from St. John’s Gospel, but from the famous Passion poem by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, texts by Christian Heinrich Postel and Christian Weise, and even from St. Matthew’s Gospel. The work, like the St. Matthew Passion, tells the story of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, and entombment through narrative from the Gospel text dispersed among recitatives of the Evangelist and Jesus, as well as lesser characters, and several brief choruses. These he intersperses with arias for personal reflection of believers and well-known chorale tunes with new harmonizations, framing the whole with monumental choruses.

The lovely soprano aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” occurs in Part One following the Evangelist’s recitative narrating that Peter followed Jesus, and thus makes a believer’s personal statement that “I will follow likewise.” Bach represents this musically by having the voice enter and the flutes following together at a short interval. But the believer also needs Christ’s “drawing” and “shoving” to follow the right path, which Bach introduces through chromaticism and hesitations. The return of the joyful opening section rounds out the ternary form symmetrically.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

Text and Translation

Ich folge dir gleichfalls

mit freudigen Schritten

Und lasse dich nicht,

Mein Leben, mein Licht.

Befördre den Lauf,

Und höre nicht auf,

Selbst an mir zu ziehen,

zu schieben, zu bitten.

—after Christian Weise

I follow you likewise

with joyful steps

and will not leave you,

my life, my light.

Convey your path,

and do not stop,

continue to draw me,

shove me, urge me on.

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