Thursday April 9 2020
Although attending a performance of the Passion isn’t possible this Easter we can be reminded of how important Bach’s music was to Britten, Pears and Imogen Holst, and take a quick look at how their own edition of the St. John Passion evolved.
Bach was a staple in the lives of Britten, Pears and Imogen Holst, as he has been for countless musicians. His music imprinted itself on Aldeburgh. If one takes into account the Festival, and various other events such as those of ‘Bach at Long Melford’ and ‘Good Friday at the Maltings,’ nearly two hundred performances of Bach’s work, including eight St. John Passions, occurred between 1949 and 1976. Only Purcell, Mozart and Schubert come close to that average in terms of most frequently performed composers at Aldeburgh during Britten’s lifetime.
In March 1948 Holst conducted a performance of the St. John she had organised in the Great Hall at Dartington School, where she taught. The number of musicians she worked with on this occasion (one instrumentalist to a part and only twenty-two singers) was close in scale to those which Bach had originally intended. The audience were able to follow an English language translation of the text she had prepared with one of her students, Gerald MacDonald. A copy of this translation exists in the Archive today. Rosamund Strode was contacted fifty years after the 1948 performance by McDonald’s widow and presented with a photocopied version.
The translation was part of a tradition inspired by the likes of John Troutbeck and Thomas Lacey to provide an English version of the text that would match not only the meaning of the original Lutheran text, but also deal with the tricky issue of metre.
When Holst came to Aldeburgh to work as Britten’s assistant in the early fifties she collaborated with Pears on a new translation, each tackling a different facet; Holst, focussing on the Choruses and Chorales as she had at Dartington, and Pears, also a confident speaker and reader of German, concentrating on the arias and recitatives. In 1954 she conducted the first Festival St. John Passion. Pears sang the Evangelist (a role that was becoming a specialism of his repertoire) and Britten played the continuo.
By the time of the next St. John performance at the Festival, Holst had taken up the role of Artistic Director and she put forward the idea of pairing this work with another major religious piece of early music. In 1957 the Passion was paired with Dieterich Buxtehude’s The Last Judgement. In 1961 Holst devised a series of five concerts entitled Music of Venice 1500-1750 to play beside the St. John which included the vocal music of Monteverdi, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Grandi, Capello and Merulo.
In 1960 Pears made his first recording the St. John Passion with David Willcocks directing the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and the Philomusica of London. For this project, yet another English language translation was prepared. The chorales, choruses and arias were written by Andrew Raeburn, whereas the narration was Pears’ responsibility.
Pears’ work with Holst was, however, to gain still wider recognition. Their translation featured in the Proms performance at the Albert Hall on the 26 July 1967. For this, Britten contributed a continuo score, formulated during his days of playing keyboard in 1954 and in subsequent performances. By 1967, however, he had assumed the role of conductor (continuo was played by Philip Ledger).
This Holst, Pears and Britten edition of the St. John was published by Faber Music. Britten eventually made a recording of it with Decca at the Snape Maltings in 1971. Here he conducted soloists Pears, Alfreda Hodgson, Heather Harper, Jenny Hill and Robert Tear, with Gwynne Howell singing Jesus and John Shirley-Quirk as Pilate. The Wandsworth Boys’ Choir was directed by Russell Burgess and all were accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra.
As the new home of the Festival the Maltings was an appropriate and ideal recording venue. On Good Friday of 1971 it had played host to a performance of the St. John under Britten’s direction. By that stage the Hall had established a tradition of an annual Easter Passion performance. Many performances of the work have taken place there since, and will again in the future.