Rich Jevons talks to St Peters Singers Music Director Simon Lindley about the Good Friday concert of Bach’s St John’s Passion at Leeds Minster.
RJ: Firstly, for those not already familiar, could you tell us about St Peters Singers and your role with them?
SL: SPS is a choir around forty voices strong founded in 1977 by Harry Fearnley who appointed Dr Simon Lindley as Music Director – a position he still holds. Since formation the Choir has held weekly rehearsals at Leeds Minster (formerly Leeds Parish Church).
What particularly appeals to you about Bach’s St John’s Passion?
The vivid portrayal of Christ’s last week on earth beginning with the procession into Jerusalem on the morning of the first Palm Sunday and taking us through to His death on the Cross of Calvary and subsequent burial. Bach’s music is hall-marked by a wonderful use of drama and pathos; traditional Lutheran Chorale Hymns heighten the experience and beautiful vocal solos adorn the musical textures. Major male roles are taken by a tenor (described as the Evangelist or narrator) and a Bass who sings the words of Christ.
Could you place it in the context of Bach’s life and work?
Bach had just moved to Leipzig and the important post of Kantor or Director of Music. He was to hold the office for 27 years until his death in 1750. The St John Passion of 1723 was the first of its creator’s major choral works – to be followed by the St Matthew Passion in 1729 with the glorious Christmas Oratorio and immortal Mass in B minor following much later.
How was it received in its day?
The work formed the major part of the main church service on Good Friday so it would have been received with a degree of devotional response and much respect.
How does the work tell the Passion narrative?
By means of narrative recitative, choral involvement and commentary by means of reflective vocal solos.
Is the libretto Biblically based?
Most certainly – being based almost exclusively on the Gospel of St John. For wholly dramatic ends, the composer sets a couple of verses towards the end of the work representational of the tending in Twain of the Veil of the Temple from the top to the bottom – these verses come from St Matthew’s gospel account rather than St John’s.
What place does sacred music have in a secular world?
Bach used the same elements of Baroque musical style whether setting sacred or secular texts. The strength of the sacred is hugely significant.
Do you have to be a Christian to appreciate its power?
The power is of universal appeal, whether you are a believer or not.
What would you like your audience to take away with them?
The sense of humanity shot through with beauty and pathos shown throughout by music and words alike.
St Peters Singers perform St John’s Passion on 19 April 2019 at Leeds Minster. See St Peters website