St. John Passion

Many players contact me asking for advice on playing the two numbers in J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion and how to tune their instruments for this piece. The two numbers in question are No. 19 (or 31) Betrachte, meine Seel, and No. 20 (or 32) Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken.

The following is intended to answer some of these questions although there is no definitive answer to the question of tuning and players should try the alternatives and decide which suits them best.  I have also provided free downloads in pdf format of scordatura versions of the parts kindly supplied by Tom Georgi which some players may find useful. (see below under Alternative tunings)

No accordatura was indicated by Bach and the various original manuscripts are all notated in normal ‘sounding pitch’ notation.  I have usually played these numbers in c minor tuning (C, g, c’, e flat’, g’, c”).  However, this tuning does create awkward fingerings particularly in no. 31 Arioso, and both parts have places in no. 32 where the player is required to jump to higher positions for short passages in a way that seems anachronistic and unnecessary.  Having said this, many players use this tuning and I have edited scordatura parts for this tuning which can be downloaded below.  There are two versions of the second viola d’amore part with slightly different fingerings.

St John the Apostle

Michael and Dorothea Jappe in their ‘Viola d’amore Bibliographie” (Amadeus 1997) suggest several tunings including a fourths tuning in g which I have found does not suit the strings most of us have to use for most of our playing as it requires too high a tension. (see below)

Tom Georgi’s scordatura parts for g minor tunings, with either low or high b flat, are intended to make for easier solutions to all the cross fingerings in the two arias, and also to make good use of the usual set of commercially available strings. This is a modern solution – there are no original 18th century works for this particular version of a g minor tuning that we are aware of. In this version, which is similar to Ariosti’s use of scordatura, the treble clef means the player uses violin fingerings on the top 4 strings of the viola d’amore, the alto clef applies violin fingerings to the 4 middle strings of the viola d’amore (strings 2 – 5) and the bass clef applies violin fingerings to the bottom 4 strings of the viola d’amore. (Ariosti used alto clef for the four top strings, baritone and bass clef for the lowest strings.) Accidentals are good for the whole bar, but only in the octave they are indicated in.

Alternative tunings:

C, g, c’, e flat’, g’, c”

To download scordatura parts for this tuning (pdf files) click here:

viola d’amore 1

viola d’amore 2

viola d’amore 2 alternative fingerings

D, g, d’, g’, b flat’, d”

To download scordatura parts for this tuning (pdf files) click here:

viola d’amore 1

viola d’amore 2

D, g, b flat’, d’, g’, d”

To download scordatura parts for this tuning (pdf files) click here:  

viola d’amore 1

viola d’amore 2

Jappe suggestions:

E flat, b flat, e flat’, g’, b flat’, e flat”

C, g, c’, e flat’, g’, c”

(C), g, d’, g’, c”, e flat”

English Translations of the two arias:

No. 19: Betrachte, meine Seel

Ponder, my soul, with anxious pleasure,
with bitter delight and half-uneasy heart,
in Jesus’ agony your highest good;
how, for you, out of the thorns that pierce him,
the key-of-heaven flowers blossom!
You can break off much sweet fruit from his (bitter sorrow) wormwood,
so behold him without ceasing.

No. 20: Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken

Consider, how his blood-tinged back,
in all aspects is just like the sky..
Thereon, after the floodwaves
of our sins’ deluge have passed by,
the most beautiful rainbow
remains as a sign of God’s grace!
Translation: Michael Marissen