Rita Ferrone, editor

Performing the Passion is a documentary produced by Margot Fassler and Jacqueline C. Richard at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 2009. It features a contemporary performance of the 1725 version of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Simon CarringtonPerformers and scholars from Yale and elsewhere appear in the film. They describe and reflect upon this great work of musical art and the experience of performing it.

The following study guide is intended for groups of adults. It may be used in settings such as adult education programs, retreats, small faith communities, choir and sacred arts gatherings, and schools. This guide is written for the group leader who will shepherd the discussion and who will insure that all present are invited and encouraged to participate. (A handout of the discussion questions is provided below.) The introductions and questions may be adapted to those who participate, and simplified or shortened as needed.

Alternatively, the guide may be used by individuals as a self-study project, in which case journaling would take the place of discussion.

The film has been divided into two sections for the purposes of this study guide. The time frame for the study is three hours, including introductions, discussions, and a break. For large groups, additional time may need to be allotted.


Arrange the seating so that the participants form small groups (4–6 persons).
Materials: Handout, means of projection for the videos, white board or large sheet of paper, markers.

Begin (20 minutes)

  1. The leader welcomes everyone. If the participants do not already know one another, allow time for introductions within the small groups. Ask the participants to share their answers these questions: How familiar are you with the music of J.S. Bach? With the St. John Passion (very familiar, somewhat familiar, not at all familiar)? What do you find engaging about his music, if you are familiar with it?
  2. On a large sheet of paper or a white board, have the participants brainstorm a list of as many themes of the Passion of Jesus that they can think of (suffering, betrayal, etc.). In small groups, discuss: If you were preparing a creative musical presentation of the Passion today, what themes would you want to bring forward and why?

View Part I

Invite the participants to view the first portion of the video: “Performing the Passion, Part I.” (30 minutes)

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. In the 1725 version, shown in the video, the first theme that appears is human sinfulness and the call to repentance (“Humankind, bewail your great sin.”). Later, we hear about Peter’s betrayal and the joy and difficulty of being a follower of Jesus. How do these themes compare with the ones you identified before watching the video? In your view, how do the themes of the Passion that Bach brings forward—the sin of humankind and the path of discipleship—affirm or challenge audiences today?
  2. Several aspects of musical preparation for performing the Passion were discussed in the video: how rehearsals are ordered, how soloists prepare for their roles, vocal techniques, etc. What impressed you as you watched these preparations for performing the Passion? Were there any surprises or questions raised for you? Discuss the implications of what was said in the film concerning musicianship.
  3. At one point in the video the observation is made that for Bach’s audience, “The chorales are the high point.” Why was this the case? For you as a listener today, how do the various musical forms (recitative, arias, chorales) make a difference in how you engage with the music? With the story?
  4. In its original liturgical setting, the first part of the Passion was followed by a one-hour sermon. Why do you think the sermon was inserted here, rather than at the end of the work? If you had to preach after having heard this much of the story, what sort of message would you proclaim?

BREAK (20 minutes)

View Part II (42 minutes)

Re-gather the group to view Part II of the video.

produced by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music
with support from The Lilly Endowment, Inc.
©2009 Yale Institute of Sacred Music

Reflect and Discuss (30 minutes)

  1. The charge that Bach’s St. John Passion is anti-Jewish is discussed in the video. What facts or observations in that discussion particularly impressed you? According to Christian theology “all of mankind is responsible” for the Passion. Therefore no one group bears the blame for the death of Jesus. Do you think this is well understood today? Why or why not?
  2. Rather than dwelling on the violence of the Crucifixion, St. John’s Passion presents us with an account of the glorification of the Son of God. How is the glorious quality of the Passion expressed in Bach’s portrayal? When the viola da gamba accompanies the words of Jesus from the cross, “It is finished,” what feeling does the music evoke in you? What is finished?
  3. A commenter in the video says, “The hero of Judah, Jesus, has won the struggle for all of us.” Bach expresses the intensity of this triumph in the music. But he then returns to the very intimate and personal response of the believer—a mixture of sorrow and hope. Why do you suppose Bach did not simply end on a triumphant note? Why do “floods of tears” follow, and what does this say about our human response to the Passion?
  4. A Eucharistic theology emerges in the final portion of Bach’s musical work. Jesus is the Paschal lamb; sins are forgiven and death is overcome through his suffering and triumph. How are these elements related to the Lord’s Supper / celebration of the Eucharist, as you understand it?
  5. The motet by Jacob Handl, inspired by Isaiah 57, starts with the words: “Behold how the righteous one dies / and no one takes notice; / the righteous are taken away, / and no one pays attention.” What does this text reveal about Christ’s Passion? What response does this ending invite from the listener?

Conclude (8 minutes)

Ask the participants to reflect on what they have learned in this study, and to identify an insight they want to remember. Depending on time, they may name that insight aloud to the whole group, or in their small groups, or to the person next to them.

Direct their attention to the list of materials for further reading, which appears on the handout, and encourage them to read them.

Conclude by thanking all who participated.

Click for PDF: Performing the Passion Participant Handout

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Ferrone, Rita. (2015) “Study Guide to Performing the Passion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 5. Available at: https://ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

Volume 1.2 Spring 2015

Cover Yale ISM Review Volume 1.2 Spring 2015

In This Issue

On the Cover

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

Jews, Christians, and the Passion of Jesus

A Study Guide to Performing the Passion

Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

Jesus Weeps

I Am the Door of the Sheepfold

Kongo Triple Crucifix

Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art