Learning Bach’s St. John Passion

Exciting update! I just discovered that the words to my least favorite track (see below) are in the hymnal, even though it’s not a chorale. Hallelujah!

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is performing Bach’s St. John Passion in April. Since I’m preparing six recitals for April (awesome/oh shit!), I decided to get an early start learning the Bach. This is my typical routine:

  1. Flip through the score. Estimate based on the number of pages how long it will take to memorize. Good news: Our score, the Stuttgarter Bach-Ausgaben Urtext edition, is deceptively long. Pages 150–183 are an appendix. Woot!
  2. Listen to the recording a few times. Decide on my favorite and least favorite tracks.
    Favorite: CD 2, Track 35

    Least favorite:  CD 2, Track 41 (slow tempo with long rests = off-book torture)

    Least favorite runner-up: CD 2, Track 25 (keeping the weg and mit dem straight will be a nightmare)

  3. Recite the text in rhythm with the recording two or three times.
  4. Sing the piece at the piano straight through from beginning to end, mistakes and all.
  5. Work on individual movements.
  6. Memorize. I do this by repetition out loud and in writing. Since I spend a lot of time waiting for and riding public transportation, I am the crazy person mumbling in foreign languages to myself. My colleagues have their own memory tricks and devices. The funniest are mnemonics; for example, “Frieda shoulda gotten funky” for “freude schöner götterfunken.”
  7. Test myself by singing along with the recording.

Steps 1 through 4 take one week, step 5 will take about two weeks, and step 6 will take an eternity. Luckily, since we performed James MacMillan’s St. John Passion in English last year, that saves me from looking at the translation.

See you in April!

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