Opera + Classical Music Features

Music for Holy Week: Spy Wednesday – Handel’s ‘Brockes-Passion’

For today’s Holy Week offering, Sam Smith considers a work by Handel that deserves to be far better known.

Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus, more commonly known today as the Brockes-Passion, was written by German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes in 1712, and went through thirty or so editions over the following fifteen years. Many composers set it, including Reinhard Keiser (1712), Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), Johann Mattheson (1718), Johann Friedrich Fasch (1723) and Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1725). In fact, so popular was the text that the Easter fortnight of 1719 in Hamburg saw performances of four versions by Keiser, Telemann, Mattheson and Handel.

Handel probably wrote his Brockes-Passion in 1716, utilising the librettist’s own preferred 1713 revision of his text, although its first performance ever was possibly the one in Hamburg on 3 April 1719. While Brockes’ text and Handel’s version were extremely popular for a period, though far more so in Germany than England, both fell out of favour as they did not suit the tastes of later generations. However, the elements that made it unpopular with, for example, nineteenth century audiences are those that are most likely to fascinate us today since they are not to be found in the Passions with which we are more familiar.

Brockes added reflective and descriptive poetry into the texture of his Passion, and alongside Jesus, the Evangelist and all of the characters who feature in the Passion story, the work features a Daughter of Zion, who sings substantially more than any other individual, and several Faithful Souls. The chorus as well constitutes the Chorus of Faithful Souls on some occasions, the Christian Church on others and the Chorus of Soldiers when required. The text can be highly wrought and is often fiery. This may explain its later unpopularity as it is hard to picture, for example, Victorian audiences being impressed by Peter proclaiming ‘my bowels screech on glowing coals’ as he expresses remorse at having denied Christ.

Clearly, however, the text was the perfect vehicle for Handel’s music as it enabled the composer to maximise the power and drama that imbues so much of it. For example, ‘Erwäg, ergrimmte Natternbrut’, sung by one of the Faithful Souls, sounds like an operatic aria that was designed to show off the talents of the tenor soloist as much as anything else. Similarly, there are several occasions when the pace and bluntness seem to demand the type of theatricality that Handel was so adept at providing such as when the Chorus of Soldiers cries ‘Seize him! Strike him dead!’ or in the short, verging on abrupt, exchanges between Jesus and Peter, John and James. In fact, although the piece lasts for nearly three hours, it contains 104 items and so, excepting some arias that can last several minutes, they are worked through at a pace that feels highly dramatic.

At the same time, some of the music, and particularly several of the chorales, feel deeply devotional and rather more in the style of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. For example, the Daughter of Zion’s ‘Gott selbst, der Brunnquell alles Guten’ features a series of melancholic three note motifs played on solo oboe as well as other instruments. Of course, the Brockes-Passion preceded either of Bach’s creations, and there are several ways in which it influenced the St John Passion, but even when Handel shows he is more than capable of being as ‘pious’ as Bach, he uses his own style to make that ‘piety’ feel unique. For example, the Daughter of Zion’s ‘Die ihr Gottes Grad’ versäumt’ feels so heartfelt and moving that it goes beyond itself to appeal to us in a way that a poignant operatic aria might normally do so. 

The soprano Faithful Soul’s ‘Den Himmel gleicht’ is framed by the type of violin solo that it is hard to envisage Bach ever inserting into one of his Passions, and yet that fact makes its inclusion no less valid or moving here. Perhaps because of Handel’s grasp of drama, Jesus’ proclamation ‘If it is possible / that your anger can be assuaged, / then let this cup pass from me’ feels extremely real, rather than as if it merely represents a stage that he must inevitably go through in a Passion. All in all, in the same way that Peter Sellars’ stagings of Bach’s Passions engage us by emphasising our own place in the experience and personal journey with Christ, so Handel’s work does the same through the use of the Faithful Souls and the Daughter of Zion whose very words could so easily be our own.

There are many recordings of the work, particularly over recent years in which there has been a welcome revival of interest in the piece, but our top recommendation has to be Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music’s 2019 version, released for the tercentenary of the first performance. Handel’s original manuscript is lost and, with the previous critical edition of the score having been produced in 1965, this recording represents the culmination of the AAM’s work with several musicologists to produce a new version, edited by Leo Duarte. The research, among other things, rediscovered sixty-three bars of music that had gone missing, and restored entire instruments that had been omitted from later editions. The recording was taken from a live performance in the Barbican Hall on Good Friday 2019, which helps provide a sense of immediacy to what can at times feel a very visceral work, and, with the soloists including Robert Murray, Cody Quattlebaum, Elizabeth Watts, Ruby Hughes, Tim Mead, Gwilym Bowen, Nicky Spence, Rachael Lloyd and Morgan Pearse, it all sounds exceptionally fine.


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Music for Holy Week: Spy Wednesday – Handel’s ‘Brockes-Passion’
AAM / Egarr @ Barbican Hall, London