300 years on, it's time to champion Handel's Brockes Passion

Sandy BurnettWed 13th March 2019

...plus, how you can help the AAM's project

One of the key roles for period instrument ensembles these days, it seems to me, is to get unjustly neglected pieces of music the recognition they deserve. Handel’s Brockes Passion is a great case in point: this is a work that Baroque music lovers have always heard of but rarely heard. 2019 offers a perfect opportunity to set that right; the Academy of Ancient Music with Richard Egarr, choir and a top lineup of soloists are performing Handel’s Brockes Passion at the Barbican Centre in London on Good Friday, three hundred years after its first known performance in Hamburg during Holy Week in 1719. And it’s that performance that will form the basis for our new recording on AAM’s own label. 

Anniversary aside, it’s high time anyway for a fresh look at this amazing work, for which unfortunately no autograph score survives. The authoritative Halle Handel Edition’s version of the score dates back to 1965; since then a couple of new sources have come to light, and by investing in the latest scholarship we’re co-opting that latest knowledge into this edition.  For example, 63 bars of music have turned up that belong right at the start of the overture, so we’re putting them back in. And in terms of scoring, there’s evidence to suggest that the wind section was more extensive than previously thought, so you’ll hear four oboes rather than just a pair, alongside two bassoons in this recording: a bigger, and better, wind section. 

As you would expect from such an unstoppable tunesmith as Handel, his Brockes Passion score is full of great tunes to die for.

Shall we get the B word out of the way at this stage? Bach – Johann Sebastian – is the gateway for the Passion world for most of us, but his masterful John (1724) and Matthew (1727) Passions are both indebted to Handel’s Brockes Passion which comes before it.  The likeness is especially obvious in the John; for those listeners familiar with Bach’s earlier surviving Passion setting, listening to the Brockes Passion for the first time sets up several 'aha' moments. The off-beat interjections of 'Wohin?' in the aria Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen are one of the most nerve-wracking moments for any choral singer in Bach’s St John – counting and concentration are a must. And yet we find on listening to this Brockes Passion that Handel got there first; aria title, text and interjections are all to be found in Handel’s earlier setting; even the key is the same. 

Secondly, I always flinch at the moment in the John Passion where Pilate’s brutal scourging of Jesus gives way to the ethereal tenor aria Erwäge, which compares Christ’s blood-stained back to a rainbow in heaven.  An extraordinary, unforgettable, ghastly image - again, on closer inspection, we find that Handel and Brockes got there first. As for the Matthew, with its opening chorus featuring a dialogue with the Daughter of Zion: in Handel’s Brockes Passion we encounter the Daughter of Zion as a living, breathing allegorical character, who even jumps into the narrative at one point and interacts with Jesus.

But enough of the comparisons - the Brockes Passion can, and should, stand as a masterpiece in its own right.  Primarily it’s a piece of poetry, a passion oratorio libretto that Barthold Heinrich Brockes wrote in 1712.  Pulling no punches, Brockes actually called his text 'Jesus martyred and dying for the wickedness of the world', or in the original, 'Der für der Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbender Jesus' – don’t you just love German adjectival clauses? And although Handel’s is the best known setting today, Brockes designed his text to be an off the shelf job open for any composer could use. We believe that at least 13 composers set this text, including three that the teenaged Handel spent time with in his Hamburg years: Keiser, Telemann and Mattheson. 

Rather than relying on a single passion account, Brockes drew on all four Gospels in his libretto – in a procedure charmingly referred to as 'harmonising the gospels'. The timeline of the story isn’t exactly what we might expect either; it starts with the Last Supper and ends with Christ’s death on the cross. The agony and the brutality of what’s happening is unflinchingly portrayed, so much so that one recent English translation of the Brockes Passion has toned down the violence in order to make it less jarring to modern ears. But why would you want to do that? The shocking aspects of the storytelling, and the music, are what the Brockes Passion is all about, and central to the Baroque world view that produced it. So in our new definitive, scholarly version, expect no punches to be pulled; we’re tackling the horrors of the Passion narrative head on.

Lastly, the Academy of Ancient Music is actively seeking your involvement in making this exciting new project happen. There’s the chance to sponsor an aria, role, recitative or chorus in the recording, and you can also help us to publish this new Brockes Passion edition so that other ensembles, whether they be amateur and professional, can perform this fantastic work in the future all over the world. Bringing unjustly neglected works back into the limelight is key to what we do, and engaging with this Brockes Passion will be well worth it. Visit the AAM website to find out more.

Sandy Burnett's picture

Sandy Burnett

Broadcaster, presenter and lecturer Sandy Burnett is Hogwood Fellow with the Academy of Ancient Music (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

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