Performing a new translation of Bach’s St John Passion

I first worked on the St John Passion as a young undergraduate music student. In 2001, my first conducting teacher, Christopher Shepard, was directing a Bach festival at my old high school, and he invited me to work with him as a repetiteur on the St John (as well as to conduct Buxtehude’s Jesu Meine Freude).

In his introduction to the Festival program, Chris wrote that he hoped that the pupils who took part would ‘see beyond their difficult hours of preparation for this Festival to forge their own relationship with the music of Bach which will last a lifetime’—this has certainly been true for me. I was, at that stage, a very green conductor, and the discipline of learning Bach’s chorales and getting to grips with his incredible counterpoint was a real turning point in my musical development.

And so it has been a great privilege to have spent the last months working on the world premiere of a new English translation of the Passion by Australian tenor Christopher Steele. It has also been a bit of a mental workout—I know every movement of the Passion practically off by heart in German, so learning the new text (and using it to refer to the movements in rehearsal!) was a challenge. No point asking to rehearse ‘Zerfließe, meine Herze’ when the scores refer to ‘The tears of my heart’, after all!

Christopher Steele’s translation takes Bach’s music—and not an existing bible text—as its starting point. This approach is most clearly successful in the recitatives, which now flow as easily in English as they do in German. This makes the job of telling the story much easier for the Evangelist than trying to superimpose the King James bible over music written to fit a German text. There were a few trickier moments to address in the text of the choruses (particularly the fast, fugal movements), and this is where it was really helpful to be working with a contemporary translator whom I could email with questions during the rehearsal process—Chris was able to respond quickly with alternatives that we could try out in rehearsal.

For an assessment of the impact of the new translation on those for whom it was intended—the listeners—I spent some time after the performance circulating among the audience and inviting their feedback. Overwhelmingly, there was a sense of real pleasure at having been able to follow the narrative arc of the story, and to have been able to understand the detail directly without having to refer to a printed booklet or to surtitles.

For me, this is a huge vote of confidence in Christopher’s work, and it’s my hope that his translation will be performed many times in future and, hopefully, published. I am glad to think that our performance of this work in Canberra for Easter 2012 may play some part in bringing this new translation to many more listeners.

    —David Mackay, 9 April 2012