top of page

Mark Passion


Reconstruction (1744)

In 2017 Robert Koolstra made a reconstruction of Bach's lost Mark Passion. This version is being performed worldwide. Below you can find more information about this project.

Click here to see the full score!



Bach’s St Mark’s Passion (1744) as reconstructed by Robert Koolstra (2017)

The music journal Musikalische Bibliothek of 1754 published an obituary or short biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, who had died in 1750. It was probably written by Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola. The Obituary mentions five passions written by Bach, ´of which one is for double chorus´, undoubtedly the St Matthew Passion. The number five and the double chorus – that is the only information we get. As we now know of only two passions, Matthew and John, the conclusion must be that three were lost.

It was in the nineteenth century that the possibility was first suggested of retrieving at least one of them in various roundabout ways, namely the St Mark’s Passion. We do have the full libretto, the text of arias and choruses written by the poet Picander, the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici, who regularly supplied texts for Bach´s vocal work. Picander included the text of the St Mark´s Passion in his collected works Ernst, Scherzhafte und Satyrische  Gedichte (1732), and added that this passion  music had been performed in St Thomas´s  in Leipzig, on Good Friday 1731, conducted by the composer himself. In 2009, the libretto for a later performance, on Good Friday 1744, turned up in St Petersburg. This version differs in a number of places from the 1731 libretto: there are two extra arias and one of the chorales is left out. This latter version is the basis for the present reconstruction and the 2017 performance. Copies of a number of separate parts existed in a private collection, which was lost through fire in 1945.

In cases where aria and chorus texts in the St Mark´s Passion correspond with the poetic structure, the metre and number of syllables in texts of other works by Bach, we may conclude that the music in those other works will correspond with the lost scores of the St Mark´s Passion as well. It appears that the so called Trauerode, the funeral music of 1727 for the Electress Christiane Eberhardine von Brandenburg Bayreuth, mirrors the structure of the St Mark´s Passion. A catalogue of Breitkopf, the publishing company, lists a manuscript of an anonymous St Mark´s Passion with the opening chorus ´Geh, Jesu, geh zu deiner Pein´, which is the opening text of Picander´s St Mark libretto. The same catalogue also lists the forces for the passion, which are identical with those of the Trauerode, two flutes, 2 hobos, two gambas, lute, four-part string ensemble, continuo, choir, evangelist and singers.

In musicology, the term ‘parody’ means basically the reworking by a composer of one of his existing works into a new piece. This was very common practice in the eighteenth century. The modern notion of a piece of art as a unique, highly individual creation, never to be repeated was alien to the eighteenth-century mind. It is assumed that about a fifth of all Bach’s work is parodied. Some composers surpassed Bach in this respect, and adopted other composers’ material into their own compositions, a practice known as ‘pasticcio’.

What was the idea behind recycling for these composers? Lack of time cannot have been an important consideration, because adapting music to a new text, with consequences for the scoring and all sorts of adjustments for the perfection of the product, is also very time-consuming. And besides, Bach was an efficient and fast worker. The musicologist Paula Furie has shown that there are two aspects to this phenomenon called ‘parody’: improvement and recurrence. It is conceivable that Bach was rather pleased with his Trauerode, which was a great success in his day, but realised that this work could not be performed again, since we all – including Electresses – die only once. Making a parody would offer the possibility to perform the music again, based on new text and performed in a different liturgical setting. Repeat performances were also very common because very few of Bach’s religious works were ever printed. Other Lutheran churches showed little interest because Bach’s music tended to be well beyond the average church choir’s abilities. Another obstacle may have been the generous scoring of much of his work.

It was not unusual for Bach to return to previous work for years and years, polishing and touching it up. We now have, for instance, four versions of the St John’s Passion.  And St Mark? The 1744 version of the St Mark’s Passion is in all probability a reworking and improved version of the 1731 passion music. Some researchers insist that sources of the St Mark’s Passion can be found in Bach’s music prior to 1731, but may also exist in music of a later date. Parts of the Christmas Oratorio (1734-35) are based on earlier work by Bach, but some may well be parodies of the original music in the St Mark’s Passion. The recitatives for the passion Bach could of course not adopt from previous work; they had to be composed on the text of St Mark’s gospel, although some of the recitatives and ‘turbae’ may have been very similar to their counterparts in the John and Matthew.

Some scholars think that the St Mark’s Passion must have been composed largely of parodies, and they point to the typical configuration of relatively few arias and many chorales. St Matthew has fifteen arias, St Mark has eight; Matthew has thirteen chorales and Mark fifteen, and it is to be remembered that St Matthew’s is a much longer work than (the 1744) St Mark’s. Fewer arias – an aria slows down the action, and is the believer’s reflection on it – make for increased pace; the chorales, the melodies of which are usually quite familiar, will make the listeners more emotionally involved. The Bach scholar Eduard van Hengel assumes that the St Mark’s Passion – saturated as it was with chorales – was an answer to the criticism levelled at the St Matthew’s Passion performed in 1927 and 1929; parishioners had felt that it went beyond the regular liturgy and was far too operatic.

Since 1964, twenty-one different versions of this passion music have been performed, and the producers all used the parody procedure, or opted for a pasticcio of works by both Bach and others. Ton Koopman reconstructed the passion in 1999 and wrote new recitatives for it.

Was this the final verdict on reconstructing St Mark’s Passion? According to Robert Koolstra, the harpsichordist and continuo player of the Luthers Bach Ensemble (Groningen), this is not the case. His recent reconstruction is quite different again from previous attempts. He firmly believes that Bach’s music, St Mark’s gospel text and Picander’s poetry are intimately connected, and served as sources for one dramatic piece of art. In his opinion, the text of the libretto is like the libretto of an opera, or the scenario of a TV serial with a continuing tension. As a matter of course, Koolstra studied the decisions made by earlier scholars and adopted some of them, but he felt that borrowing from Bach’s other compositions merely on the basis of the poetic structure and metre of the texts was not always satisfactory. Musical expression was of prime importance for him: in the baroque period, the music expresses, depicts and represents what is written. He therefore studied the 202 cantatas, looking for those pieces that rendered the text in its musical expression. An illustration of this process is the aria in which the soprano anxiously announces the arrival of Judas, “Er kommt, er kommt, er ist vorhanden” (19). Its structure and atmosphere dovetail with the Trauerode aria “Verstummt, verstummt, ihr holden Saiten”.

Part I ends in a cliffhanger. After Jesus’s arrest, the listeners are left behind with the disciples, who are shattered and scattered (24). In the chorale that ends this part, the believers sing how much they want to stay with Jesus, but he is gone and deported from Gethsemane (25). Then the interval. After the interval – originally the time for the sermon, of course- the tenor sings “Mein Tröster ist nicht mehr bei mir”, and the listeners are immediately back in the dramatic course of events, “where is Jesus?” (26)

Dramatic tension increases towards the end, with grief at, and gratitude for, Jesus’s death. Koolstra himself feels that the superb bass aria “Will ich doch gerne schweigen”, in which the silence observed by Jesus is depicted, is the dramatic climax of the passion. This aria is followed by a prayer to God for the vindication of Jesus. But after the shrill and murderous cries demanding his crucifixion (37, borrowed from the St John’s Passion), the mood changes. Soprano and bass sing the praises of the “Angenehmes Mordgeschrei” (38), a pleasant and lively melody in which the beneficial aspect of the murderous cries are highlighted: Christ’s death and sacrifice mean eternal salvation of damned souls! Good Friday is then a day of celebration. When the recitative quotes Jesus’s last words, “Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast Du mich verlassen?” (43), the following chorus replies with “Keinen hat Gott verlassen” (44), that is “God has not forsaken anyone”. This particular piece of music comes straight from heaven, with just the oboes and high strings, and initially even without continuo. Picander wrote Chorus instead of Choral here in the 1744 booklet.

Robert Koolstra wrote the recitatives, since we have none by Bach himself, but he used models from Bach’s other passions. Some of the phrasing is quite descriptive, as for instance in the scene where Peter is agitated and nervous, running up the steps to the temple after Jesus (27, Und er folgte Ihn nach von ferne””). In the recitatives, Pilate can be recognised in the introductory miniature motif of two identical notes followed by the fourth below (35).

It is unlikely that the performance of this reconstruction of the St Mark’s Passion in March 2017 was identical with the one in Leipzig in 1744. But the music is largely Bach’s music, with Koolstra’s recitatives which are faithful to the master’s intentions.  


prof. Marlite Halbertsma

Translation Ite Wierenga



Paula Furie, A critical study of five reconstructions of Bach’s Markuspassion BWV 247 with particular references of the parody technique, Thesis University of Pretoria 2010 (pdf),_BWV_247 (Eduard van Hengel)

Interview with Robert Koolstra 19th January 2017

bottom of page