PHILADELPHIA (RNS) Think Christmas, and carols come to mind: “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel.” But think of the other great Christian season — Holy Week and Easter — and most people draw a musical blank.

The Choir and Orchestra of First Presbyterian Church offering Cantata 79, J.S. Bach, during worship on Reformation Sunday in October, 2013. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Gay

The choir and orchestra of First Presbyterian Church offering Cantata 79, J.S. Bach, during worship on Reformation Sunday in October 2013. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Gay

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That’s a shame, say church music experts, because the great trove of Holy Week music is firmly rooted in church, where, depending on location, tradition and taste, believers hear everything from folk music to Gregorian chant, from classical requiem Masses to Passions by modern composers.

“The music written for Holy Week is some of the richest in our literature,” said David Ludwig, dean of artistic programs at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

On Palm Sunday there’s “All Glory, Laud and Honor” by Theodulph, bishop of Orleans. On Maundy Thursday, many churches will sing the African-American spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord?” And often during Lent there’s “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels) by Cesar Franck.

But setting the bar is Johann Sebastian Bach, whose two Easter masterpieces, “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew Passion,” have so moved listeners through the years that what began as one congregation’s prayer is now performed in concert around the world throughout the year.

This week, First Presbyterian Church in Center City, Philadelphia, is bringing Bach back to his Good Friday roots by presenting his “St. John Passion” as he did — not as performance but as prayer. Though the Gospel is solemn, it is as much about hope and glory as it is about death.

Here the retelling of John’s Holy Week story will be interspersed with sermons, meditations and congregational hymns, as it was during Bach’s day. It’s a rare and ambitious undertaking for a local congregation.

Rehearsing last week, music director Andrew Senn reflected on the piece, which emanates from the Lutheran Reformation tradition. “Seventy-five percent of the text is straight out of John’s Gospel,” said Senn, an Episcopalian raised a Lutheran and now conducting in a Presbyterian church. “It has to be important to every Christian denomination.”

At First Church, the backdrop befits Bach: An 1872 sanctuary. Stained glass. Intricately carved pulpit. Red velvet cushions. This is a church.

The event is a “one-off,” said Senn, who has Bach’s monogram tattooed on his shoulder. The presentation replaces the congregation’s customary “Seven Last Words of Christ” Good Friday service. This year, with the makeup of his choir, the liturgical cycle featuring the Gospel of John and the musical mood of the congregation, things came together to justify the effort and expense of the work.

His choir of 18 and his imported baroque orchestra may be half the size of some of the big stage productions. But his paid, all-audition choir is clearly up to the task. Tenor Jeffrey Halili, a deacon at the church who sings the critical evangelist role, is a professional opera singer. Like the Jewish cantor’s task during the High Holy Days, his job is to make the text clear, he explained.

Tenor Jeffrey Halili, a deacon at the church who sings the critical evangelist role, is a professional opera singer. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Halili

Tenor Jeffrey Halili, a deacon at the church who sings the critical evangelist role, is a professional opera singer. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Halili

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But for all the effort to be clear, most at First Church on Good Friday will need the text translation, since the words are being sung in their original German. It was not an easy decision for the church, Senn said, adding that only in Bach’s German can “the sharp closing consonant sounds” so vital to the story emerge. And because the frequent reference to Jews makes the “St. John Passion” controversial to some, the word “Jews” is being replaced by “Judeans.”

A congregational presentation of “St. John’s Passion” is “unheard of, certainly in the U.S.,” said Christopher Cock, director of choral and vocal activities at the Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso University. Even when performed in church sanctuaries, as often happens, the work takes concert form.

For one, there’s the matter of time. Churchgoers may find a three-hour sit on Good Friday to be a bit much. Then there’s the cost of hiring an orchestra and the need to have strong soloists. With so many superior performances available, the professor said, “There is a danger it can become music of only specialists.”

The Rev. Jesse Garner III, pastor at First Church, first heard his calling to ministry during a performance of the “St. John Passion” while a freshman at Yale. He attended out of support for a friend in the orchestra. “I wanted to be a good friend,” not to hear the music, he said.

“I was so deeply moved by everything that evening that I got up the next morning and went to the university chapel. It was the first time I’d been in it all year.” The subject, and Bach’s handling of the subject, he said, brought him “one of the three or four seminal moments in my life.”

Whether listeners this year experience a personal epiphany or simply some good music, music director Senn considers the Passion a no-lose proposition. “Open yourself up. Take a risk. Give it a whirl.”



  1. Too bad all this beautiful music is connected to Lutheranism.
    Luther hated the Jews so much – he inspired Hitler.

    Music is too good for something as base as religion. What a shame it is used for that purpose.

    • “what man means for evil, God offend uses for good” you’re a sad person athist max, it would take a merciful God to redeem you…..but hope lives eternal…ps your statements only effect the unacknowledged.

      • @William,
        No. I’m not the least bit sad.
        But I think it is worth noting that beautiful music is rich on its own and the sad thing is to use it in service of superstitions like God and such.
        Mozart’s “Requiem”, for example, is not improved by being heard in a church except that the acoustics are usually much better there than in a VFW hall.

        As for your comment that “what man means for evil, God often uses for good” is nothing but the spectacularly childish “ends justify the means.”
        I’ll overlook the appearance that you were justifying Hitler as part of a Godly plan. You don’t seem to realize the can of worms that opens.

        • The music was inspired by God. The composers wrote in in praise of God. Who are you to tell them they shouldn’t do that? Angry militant atheists refuse to let anyone be happy. If you don’t want to believe in God, don’t.

          • @Mark,
            “music was inspired by God”
            Doubtful, since God is unlikely.
            Happiness is knowing you aren’t faking it. Try it.

    • Max, I am sorrowed that your bitterness over the horrors of the Holocaust is aimed at Bach and Luther. Both have impacted millions and millions positively. Luther was named the 3rd most influential person of the last millennium. He certainly was a flawed human, like all of us, atheist or believer. You are always welcome at St. Paul’s Lutheran, Glenside. Come and absorb the beauty of the music. We actually have choir members that are not believers, but enjoy the enrichment.

      • Bitterness is the healthiest reaction to this:

        “…the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”
        – Adolf Hitler (following the position of Martin Luther), Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 11

        Church is a wonderful, reaffirming place if you believe in the doctrine – and a wonderful joy to be with like minded folks whose company you enjoy and whose kindness is very real.

        But the price for endorsing it and accepting it is too high.
        Thanks for the invite though.

  2. Do the faithful go to atheist websites and troll as the angry militant atheists do at religious sites? What a miserable life they must lead, gaining happiness by trying to offend Christians.

    • @Mark,
      I knew that was coming.
      This is a religious news service website – and it is indispensable which is why I donate to it.

      I study religion and its effects on society the same way a scientist studies pathogenic viruses. I am looking for ways to resist and halt the spread of this affliction called religion.

      Today Jews are being rounded up in Ukraine
      because the Russian Orthodox Church is gaining strength in the new Russian Czar (a historically religious post) once held by Stalin and now held by Vladimir PUTIN.

      You see, religion of all kinds is a cancer on our culture.
      I eagerly await the day when the atheists outnumber the religious. It is time to put this horrible nightmare into the trash bin of history.

      • You don’t “study religion”. You look for ways to denigrate the faithful. You’re not an atheist, you’re a Satanist-in-denial.

        “Today Jews are being rounded up in Ukraine because the Russian Orthodox Church is gaining strength…”

        It’s false that they’re being rounded up. Flyers were passed out. It turns out they were nothing more than a political dirty trick, playing on our fears by invoking the Holocaust (also satanist in nature). Ukrainian Jewish leaders recognized this immediately. If you can look past your hatred for a moment read Abe Foxman’s accurate description (in USA Today) of the situation in Ukraine and what Ukrainian Jews are really facing. But I suspect you’ll continue to blame all Christians.

        • @Mark T,
          I most certainly study religion. The decade long rise of the Russian Christian Orthodoxy and its reconnection to the Czar Putin is a growing danger to the world. Sorry you don’t know that.

          As for ‘satan’ there is no reason to believe in ANY gods, including satan – it is just another superstition. Hitler was a Catholic – not a satanist by the way.

          Religion belongs in the dustbin.
          The imaginary God takes credit for all the good that people try to accomplish and none of the bad which it supposedly so tenderly gifted us with.

          Any music used in the service of such a God is wasted – like throwing “pearls to swine” to quote the famous bigot, Jesus (Matthew 7:3).

    • JEWS are being rounded up in the Ukraine because the Russian Christian Orthodoxy has regained power thanks to the new Czar, Vladimir Putin.
      Once the Czar was Stalin. Now it is Putin.

      And look what Christianity will ALWAYS do with power!
      Religion is cancer.

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