Bach's Holy Dread

In the St. John Passion, Bach's art of holy dread assumes unprecedented dimensions. The almost outlandish thing about “Herr, unser Herrscher” is that it does not simply take the point of view of the mourners and the mockers. It also adopts the perspective of the man on the Cross, gazing up and down. Aspects of the music that seem catastrophic acquire a triumphant tinge. The rhythm conveys mysterious vitality: the second time the “Herr!” chords sound, they fall on the second and fourth beats of the bar, in a kind of cosmic syncopation. A single note is lobbed from one section of the ensemble to another, giving a sense of ever-widening space. The sixteenth notes in the violins unspool almost continuously, suggesting the transmission of the Lord's name through all lands.

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