Playlist: The best of Bach for Eastertide


Our pick of Bach’s passions, cantatas and oratorios

Looking for classical music to tide you over the Easter weekend? Bach has you covered.

Happy birthday Johann Sebastian Bach! The Baroque composer was born on this day – 21 March – in 1685. Appropriately, that’s also the first day of spring  – a good birthday for a composer whose music, for many, is inextricably linked with the season of Easter.

Here’s some of the Bach we’ll be enjoying over the Easter weekend.

The Cantatas

Although he wrote a good deal of secular music, Bach – like most composers of his age – spent most of his professional life writing and directing music for the church. Consequently, he wrote well over 200 sacred cantatas (sometimes up to one a month) to provide music for the busy church calendar. 209 survive to the present day and of these, around 25 were written for the period starting on Easter Sunday and ending on Pentecost, four weeks later.

Touchpress pick: Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret BWV 31 (1715)

With such a broad range to choose from, where do you even start to pick favourites? It’s lucky we have a long weekend ahead of us to dive into these beautiful works. Bach’s cantatas vary in length, but some are are 20-30 minutes from start to finish – perfect to dip into on a Sunday afternoon.

Touchpress pick: Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen BWV 66 (1724)

The Passions

It’s fair – if flippant – to say that Bach had a passion for Passions. According to one obituary, he composed at least five: one named for each of the Evangelists, and a fifth work from 1717 nicknamed the Weimarer Passion. Of these, only the St John (1724) and St Matthew (1727) Passions survive, each scored for orchestra, choir and soloists singing in Bach’s native German.

Touchpress pick: ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ from the St John Passion

Although nowadays Bach’s Passions are usually performed as complete concert programmes, they would originally have been performed as part of the Good Friday Vespers church service as a way of telling the story of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. Part one would happen before the sermon and part two, after. What would it take to keep you in church for over three hours? Some glorious music, that’s what.

Touchpress pick: ‘Erbarme dich’ from the St Matthew Passion

The Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 (1725)

Unlike Bach’s ‘other’ famous oratorio – Christmas – the Easter Oratorio doesn’t have a narrator. Instead, four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) play the parts of two of Jesus’s apostles and the two Marys, who visit Jesus’s tomb on the third day and find it vacant.

The work first came to life on Easter Sunday 1725 as a cantata; Bach upgraded it to oratorio status ten years later. The ebullient, questing pulse of the opening chorus – ‘Come, hasten and run’ – is guaranteed to lift even the dullest of winter-tinged spirits.