“Johannespassion” (Part I) by Johann Sebastian Bach – Pronunciation guide for choirs

14. March 2021

Translation of and pronunciation guide for
the choral parts of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
“Johannespassion” (Part I)

As an ambitious choir, you will sooner or later come across Johann Sebastian Bach’s choral works.

Bach worked 17 years as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, that means he was the artistic leader of the Thomaner choir for which he wrote numerous works.

One of them is St. John’s Passion or “Johannespassion” which I want in parts to analyze here.

In this article you will find a detailed pronunciation guide an all choral parts in the first part of “Johannespassion”.

Whether you are a choral singer or a choir conductor aiming to perform St. John’s passion, this guide will support you regarding German pronunciation.

Historical background of the “Johannespassion”

The “passio secundum Johannem” (BWV 245) is one of two surviving passions written by the German baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. It is based on chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible and was premiered on Good Friday, April 7, 1724 in Leipzig and is . Bach revised it several times, adding and replacing parts of it. Compared with the “Matthäuspassion”, the “Johannespassion” has been described as “more extravagant, with an expressive immediacy, at times more unbridled and less ‘finished'” (Wikipedia). For further information on the historical background of Bach’s “Johannespassion”, look here.

Choral singing

Singing in a choir presents different challenges than singing as a soloist.

First of all, we must realize that a choir is a bunch of individuals acting as one collective group. You could compare it to a shoal of fish: It consists of many individual fish who act harmoniously together, giving the impression that it is ONE large fish.

There are, however, two main differences between a choir and a shoal of fish:

⇨ If the fish do not work together co-ordinately and harmoniously, their survival is in danger.

⇨ Fish do not have an ego.

The role of a conductor for that matter is to accept every singer’s individual personality and ability and nevertheless combine them to a homogenous, harmonious unity, acting as ONE.

Basics for a good choir sound

There are a few basic things to keep in mind for making a good choir sound:

Consonants: Sing consonants at exactly the same time.

Vowels: Vowels have gradations. Make sure that every choir member knows perfectly well which sound to choose and how to produce it.

Diphthongs: get sure on how long to hold the first vowel and when to speak the second one. (We’ll treat this matter later in the text.)

Legato/marcato: Consonants will help you to express both, either by smoothly combining them to a fluid sound or by using them to put emphasis on certain parts.

Breathing: There is the concept of choral breathing, meaning individual breathing also during long notes so that the overall sound is not destroyed. On the other hand, it is important that you carry out caesuras together, for example when there is a comma, a full stop or an exclamation mark.

Word emphasis: It is always a good recommendation to read the text first and become clear on which words are emphasized and sing accordingly. Remember, one of the goals of the music is to support the meaning of the text.

That said, let’s dive right into the choral part of St. John’s passion and look at it thoroughly phrase by phrase:

1. Chorus

Herr unser Herrscher,                                      Lord, our master,
dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist.                  Whose fame in every land is glorious.
Zeig uns durch deine Passion,                              Show us through your passion
dass du, der wahre Gottessohn,                             that you, the true son of God,
zu aller Zeit,                                             through all time, 
auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,                           even in utmost lowliness,
verherrlicht worden bist.                                  have been glorified.

Herr unser Herrscher: Lord, our master

The whole piece starts with a word that is quite challenging to pronounce: “Herr”

The E of “Herr” is open and the double R at the end must be rolled. It need not be done so excessively here ,but nevertheless articulated well as this will give additional colour and underline the pleading character of this word.

The R in “unser” should be at least carried out as one-flap R. If this were a spoken text or an art song with one singer performing only, we could make this last R a schwa-sound (similar to the a-sound in the English word “ago”). In a choir part, however, it is essential that all consonants are pronounced very clearly. Furthermore, it will make it easier to achieve the correct vowel sound.

The double R in “Herrscher” – you might have guessed it – is rolled. You can use it to put additional stress on the word and make your interpretation more vivid.

The “-er” on the other hand, may either be rolled (one-flap) or treated as a vocalic R. The decision which version to take is, of course, up to the conductor who must ensure that all choir members pronounce the sound in the same way.

Having heard so much about the different German R-sounds, you might want to read on here on this topic.

“dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist“:
whose fame in every land is glorious

As a choir you can use the S, L and Rs in this phrase to sing fluidly without interrupting the line while at the same time using them for clear articulation and rhythm.

The (closed) U in “Ruhm” and the (open) A in  “Land(en)” are the vowels we dwell on (helped by Bach’s musical setting) and “dessen”, “in allen” and “herrlich ist” are the rhythmical impulses.

“Zeig uns durch deine Passion”: Show us through your passion

The Z is a so-called combination consonant (affricate), meaning it consists of two sounds and is pronounced [ts]. To learn more on the Z, head over to this article.

Whenever you have to sing a diphthong as in “zeig” or “deine” on a long note, you can use this simple rule of thumb: The first vowel (in this case an [a]) is sung for roughly three quarters of the note. Then make a smooth transition to the second vowel and finish with the final consonant. Practice to carry out this transition with tongue movement alone as moving the jaw would have a negative impact on both your pronunciation and your singing. (Here you will find a blog post on German diphthongs.)

The U in “uns” and “durch“ are open.

If you pronounce the R in “durch” or not is up to your conductor. I always recommend to do a one-tap R which makes it easier to preserve the colour of the vowel.  The use of a vocalic R [ɐ] requires that ALL choir members know how to produce this sound correctly; otherwise we have a mixture of vowel sounds ranging from [ɔ] via [ua] to [a].

Normally, “Passion” is pronounced with the stress lying on the O, touching the I only slightly. In this case, however, Bach prolongs the I by setting it onto two sixteenths and you will of course sing it accordingly but without putting too much emphasis on the I.

“dass du, der wahre Gottessohn“: that you, the true Son of God

Here we have

▻ three open vowels, “dass”, “Gottes”,
▻ one vocalic R, “der”
▻one schwa-sound, wahre” and
▻ three closed vowels “du”,“wahre“ and „-sohn“.

Normally, „Sohn“ would be pronounced with a voiced S, but here, following the unvoiced S of “Gottes”, this is nearly impossible. Do not overdo it and allow yourself to speak just one stressed, unvoiced S in “Gottessohn”.

„zu aller Zeit, auch in der größten Niedrigkeit“:
through all time, even in utmost lowliness

Again, we have the Z in “zu” and “Zeit”; make sure to pronounce them as combined consonants.

 “Zeit” and “auch”: remember what we said earlier about diphthongs on long notes: prolong the first vowel sound for about three quarter of the note and then smoothly change to the second vowel.

The ß in “größten” is an unvoiced S, the Ö preceding the S-sound is closed.

“Niedrigkeit”: here we have two I-sounds, one closed (“nied”), one open (“ig). The G in “ig” here  is pronounced as CH-sound (the light version of it [ç]). If you want to learn more about the different CH-sounds in German, you might find this article interesting.

“verherrlicht worden bist”: have been glorified

The “ver-“ contains a further one-flap R, whereas the double R in “-herrlicht” must be rolled, similar to the R in “worden”.

2b. and 2d. Chorus

“Jesum von Nazareth”: Jesus of Nazareth

Normally, we would of course say “Jesus von Nazareth”, yet Bach sometimes uses the Latin ending of the different cases, in this case the accusative.

The first S in “Jesum” is voiced which is pretty helpful for underlining the hysterical touch of this scream.

“Jesum” is screamed twice before it is further described as “von Nazareth”:

both A in “Nazareth” are closed, the E in the same word is open. Despite the fact, that “Nazareth” is written with an H at the end, do not pronounce an English th-sound. It’s just a T.

3. Choral

Oh große Lieb'                                         Oh great love,
oh Lieb' ohn' alle Maße                                oh love beyond measure
die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!              that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden             I lived with the world in delight and joy
und du musst leiden.                                   and you have to suffer.

“Oh große Lieb, oh Lieb ohn‘ alle Maße“:
oh great love, oh love beyond measure

Try to sing this line as legato as possible.

Except for “alle” and the Ablaute, all vowels are closed here.

Whenever there is a B written at the end of a word – as here in “Lieb’” – always pronounce it as P.

“die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße“:
that brought you to this path of martyrdom

The emphasis of this line lies on “Marterstraße”, especially on the syllables “Mar-” and the “-stra-“. So, no matter how the setting of the music and how much your choir wants to dwell on the eighth notes, raise the tension until you reach “-straße”.

The I in “die” and “diese” are closed, the one in “dich” is open.

Make sure that every choir member speaks the CH of “dich” and “gebracht” correctly – they are different! Otherwise, you’ll have a mixture of CH, K and SCH.

The S in “diese” is voiced, whereas the ß in “Marterstraße” is unvoiced and the A preceding the ß is closed.

The first R in “Marter” must be pronounced articulately (I recommend rolling it); the second you should carry out as one-flap R, not as schwa-sound as this would change the vowel colour.

“Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden“:
I lived with the world in delight and joy

Do not be tempted to make a break after “mit”, the climax of this line is “Lust und Freuden”

Apart from the first E in “lebte” we have only open vowels here.

Pronounce the T in “mit”, “Welt” and “Lust” with confidence and make sure to do so together and at the same time. (Not quite sure how to form a perfect German T? Head over to this article.)

“und du must leiden”: and you have to suffer.

This line has two stresses, one on “du” (as a contrast to “ich” in the preceding line) and the other on “leiden” (as contrast to the pleasure and joy).

The combination of the two consecutive Ds of “und du” may be a challenge for you at first but as a choir it is essential that you make both sounds clearly audible. Bear in mind, however, that the D in “und” is actually pronounced as T.

5. Choral

Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich                       Your will shall be done, Lord God, both,
Auf Erden wie im Himmelreich.                                on earth as it is in heaven.
Gib uns Geduld in Leidenszeit,                               Give us patience in times of suffering,
Gehorsam sein in Lieb und Leid;                              that we obey in love and suffering;
Wehr' und steur' allem Fleisch und Blut,                     Restrain and guide all flesh and blood
Das wider deinen Willen tut!                                 that acts against your will!

“Dein Will gescheh, Herr Gott, zugleich“:
Your will shall be done, Lord God, both

Bearing in mind that the W of “Will’” is a voiced sound, you may go to the W a bit earlier than the eighth note and prolong it a tiny bit before saying the open I.

Although tempting, do not make the first E of “gescheh” closed but pronounce it open.

Depending on the conductor and because there is a comma written after “gescheh” (as well as after “Gott”), you might make a small caesura here.

Again, the double R in “Herr” must be rolled.

“auf Erden wie im Himmelreich“: on earth as it is in heaven

Pronounce the E of „Erden” with a tiny glottal onset. It need not be strong but nevertheless audible. In no case do we want a combination of the two words to “auferden”. Make a clear distinction so that your audience can hear two words.

The R in “Erden” need not be pronounced, make it an [e:ɐ].

Use the voiced character of the Ms of “im” an “Himmelreich” to your advantage and dwell a bit on them, keeping the line together.

“Gib uns Geduld in Leidenszeit“: give us patience in times of suffering

Although the words “Gib” and “Geduld” end with a “soft” plosive, remember to pronounce them at the end of a word as P, respectively T.

When L follows N in “in Leidenszeit” be careful that no shadow vowel sneaks in. You can avoid this by bringing the tongue into the position of the L while still saying the N.

The Z following the NS in “Leidenszeit” may be a challenge; after all, it is the sound [nsts]. Nevertheless, you have to make sure to pronounce all four sounds very clearly!

“gehorsam sein in Lieb und Leid“:
that we obey in love and suffering

Audibly pronounce the H in “gehorsam”: it is not a silent H (as for example in the word “gehen”) but consists of the prefix “ge-“ and the adjective “-horsam”.

The O and A in “gehorsam” are closed.

Here again, we have a glottal onset with “in” and it is important to make it audible without overdoing it. Maybe your conductor (or you, if you are a choir conductor) makes a small caesura before the “in”.

Remember to pronounce plosives at the end of “Lieb” and “Leid”, turning B into P and D into T.

“wehr und steur allem Fleisch und Blut“:
restrain and guide our flesh and blood

Use the voiced W of “wehr” to colour your performance, that is: dwell on it for a fraction of the quarter note.

“Steur” is difficult, even for German choirs who, knowing that the word normally is “steuer”, tend to sing it like that and thus make two eighth notes out of the quarter.

However, Bach was German, and I think he knew what he did in applying that word to a single quarter note. So, let’s apply the same rule as for every German diphthong and prolong the [ɔ] for approximately three quarters of the quarter note and then end it with the [øɾ] as late as possible.

We have a consonant cluster in “und steur” ([ntʃt]]; make sure that every single sound is clearly audible.

Make the D at the end of “und” a T.

“das wider deinen Willen tut!“: that acts against your will

There is no difference in pronunciation between the words “wieder” (again) and “wider” (against), the I is always closed.

As “Willen” (with an open I) is a bit more emphasized than “wider” I would recommend dwelling a bit on the W in “Willen”only.

The U in “tut” is closed.

11. Choral

Wer hat dich so geschlagen,                            Who has struck you thus
Mein Heil, und dich mit Plagen                         my saviour and with torments
So übel zugericht'?                                    so evilly treated you?
Du bist ja nicht ein Sünder                            You are indeed not a sinner
Wie wir und unsre Kinder,                              like us and our children
Von Missetaten weißt du nicht.                         of wrongdoing you know nothing.

Ich, ich und meine Sünden,                             I, I and my sins
Die sich wie Körnlein finden                           that can be found like grains
Des Sandes an dem Meer,                                of sand by the sea,
Die haben dir erreget                                  have provoked for you
Das Elend, das dich schläget,                          this misery that assails you
Und das betrübte Marterheer.                           and this tormenting martyrdom.

“Wer hat dich so geschlagen“: Who has struck you thus

Except for the O in “so” and the A in „geschlagen”, every vowel in this line is open.

The R in “wer” is not rolled but a vocalic-R [ɐ]; make sure that every choir member know exactly how to produce the correct sound.

The T and D in “hat dich” must be pronounced separately so that they can be clearly distinguished. Although the tempo is relatively slow, you might want to practice that part until it can be easily carried out by all choir members.

The S in “so” is voiced.

Depending on dialectal background, the two E in “geschlagen” are sometimes even a challenge for German choirs 😉. Here is the solution: the first E (“ge-“) is pronounced [Ɛ] whereas the second E (“-en”) must be pronounced [ə].

„mein Heil, und dich mit Plagen so übel zugericht‘?“:
my saviour and with torments so evilly treated you?

Paradoxically, EI (“mein”, “Heil”) does not have an I-sound in it. Always pronounce this spelling as [ae].

Similar to the line above, articulate the Ds of “und dich” separately.

The main vowels in “Plagen”, “so” and “übel” are closed as is the U in “zugericht”.

„Du bist ja nicht ein Sünder“: you are indeed not a sinner

The sound of J in “ja” is comparable to the Y-sound in “yes”; make sure that no H sneaks in before the [ʝ], unlike the CH in “nicht”.

Make the S in “Sünder” voiced and the Ü open (!).

„wie wir und unsre Kinder“: like us and our children

The I in “wie” is closed, the ones in “wir” and  “Kinder” are open.

Pronounce the final Rs in “wir” and “Kinder” as vocalic Rs.

Both U in „und“ and „unsre“ are open.

Remember to make the D at the end of “und” a T.

„von Missetaten weißt du nicht“: of wrongdoing you know nothing

The double S in “Missetaten” tempts to stress this sound by dwelling on it. However, I urge you to make all S in this choral (also in “weißt”) as softly as possible.

Prolong the open I of “Misse-“ as long as possible and use the S as smooth transition to the open E.

Differentiate the T and D of “weißt du” clearly.

„Ich, ich und meine Sünden“: I, I and my sins

This line should be performed with more emphasis = forte!

Make a small caesura after the first (and maybe even the second) “ich” to underline the despair of realisation.

Also, pay close attention to articulate the CH in the right way but without overdoing it.

The Ü in “Sünden” is open.

„die sich wie Körnlein finden des Sandes an dem Meer“:
that can be found like grains of sand by the sea

The S in “sich” and “Sandes” are voiced.

The S at the end of “des” followed by the S at the beginning of “Sandes” must be connected as follows: prolong the open E in “des” and set the S (without break!) a tiny bit before the actual note of “Sa-“.

Also connect “Sandes” with “an” without interruption of the legato line. Here, the glottal onset is not as important as the legato.

„die haben dir erreget“: have provoked for you

No shadow vowel before “die”!

The first E in “erreget” is open, the middle one is closed and the last one is open

Roll the R but at the latest possible point and without overdoing it.

“das Elend, das dich schläget“: the misery that assails you

You see the comma after “Elend”? This is the reason why here we have to make a small caesura by separating the Ds of “Elend” and “das”.

In “dich schläget” we seem to have a consonant cluster. Considering that CH and SCH are just one sound, however, we can break down the six consonants into three sounds which makes it still a cluster but hopefully a less intimidating one.

I do admit, however, that the CH followed by SCH can be a challenge. The good news is: it can be managed by practice.

“und das betrübte Marterheer”: and this tormenting martyrdom

Here, “und das” must be connected by “imploding” the first D and exploding the second one.

The R in “betrübte” and “Marter-“ must be rolled, at least carried out as a one-flap R but never omitted completely!

The B in “-trübte” is pronounced as P, the double E in “-heer” is closed.

12b. Chorus

“Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?“: Are you not one of his disciples?

Due to the high tempo it is not only nearly impossible but also unwanted that a choir pronounces every consonant of “bist du”. In fact, if you carry it out as “bis-du”, rapidly followed by “nicht”, this will be the most authentic sound.

The G in the NG in “Jünger” must not be heard (an English example for that sound is “ring”). However, to make the agitation clearer, I recommend prolonging the NG-sound instead of dwelling on the Ü.

Also, there is a glottal onset between “Jünger” (which ends in a vocalic R) and “einer”.

14. Choral

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,                            Peter, who does not recollect
seinen Gott verneinet,                                     who denies his God,
der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick                            who yet at a serious glance
bitterlichen weinet.                                       weeps bitterly.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,                                 Jesus look upon me, too,
wenn ich nicht will büßen;                                 when I do not want to repent;
wenn ich Böses hab getan,                                  when I have done evil
rühre mein Gewissen!                                       stir up my conscience!

“Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück“: Peter, who does not recollect

Make a caesura after „Petrus”.

The E of “Petrus” is closed, the U is open.

The combination of TD in “nicht denkt” may be pronounced letter by letter or again carried out with an imploding T, followed by an exploding D.

The case of “denkt zurück” is a bit different as we have two successive plosives in “denkt”, K and T, followed by the Z. Here, you prolong the N of “denkt” and go on by pronouncing [kts] as (almost) one sound (Remember: German Z is [ts]).

„seinen Gott verneinet“: who denies his God

Most of the consonants in this line support the legato.

The S of “seinen” is voiced.

Your tongue can prepare the G of “Gott” already while still saying the N of “seinen” so that there is no audible break.

Make the R in “verneinet” a one-flap R, it will help getting the vowel colour right.

“der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick“: who yet at a serious glance

As you know, “der” is pronounce with a vocalic R.

Make sure that no shadow vowel sneaks in before the D of “der” or “doch” and pay attention to the correct pronunciation of the CH in “doch”

Let there be an audible glottal onset before “auf”, “ein” and “ernsten”.

Pay attention to the word “Blick”: no shadow vowel must be heard.

„bitterlichen weinet.“: weeps bitterly.

Both I in “bitterlichen” are open and have the same colour. Normally the syllable division of “bitter-” is “bit-ter-”. However, in choir singing it is recommended to divide as follows: “bi-tter-“ as this version sounds a lot better.

„Jesu, blicke mich auch an“: Jesus, look upon me, too

Make a short caesura after “Jesu” (comma!) but pay attention that there is no shadow vowel before “blicke”.

Bear in mind that the CH-sounds of “mich” and “auch” are different.

“wenn ich nicht will büßen“: when I do not want to repent

Use the W of “wenn” and “will” and dwell on them a bit.

Pay attention to the CH in “ich” and “nicht” (the sounds are alike)

The Ü of “büßen” is closed and the ß unvoiced.

“wenn ich Böses hab getan“: when I have done evil

The W of “wenn” is voiced.

Make the Ö of “Böses” closed; if you are not sure how an authentic German Ö (or German Ü for that matter) sounds, you might want to read this article and/or that one.

„rühre mein Gewissen!“: stir up my conscience

Both R in “rühre” should be rolled.

The H in “rühre” is not pronounced but simply indicates that the preceding Ü is closed and long.

The E in “Gewissen” is open and the double S is unvoiced.

End of Part I.