Composers Datebook®

Tan Dun's "Water Passion"

Tan Dun (b. 1957) – Water Passion (Stephen Bryant, bass; Mark O'Connor, violin; ensemble; Tan Dun, cond.) Sony 89927

Composer's Datebook - 20210908


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September 08, 2021


The year 2000 marked both the arrival of a new millennium and the 250th anniversary of the death of the great German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

The International Bach Academy in Stuttgart decided to mark the occasion by commissioning four very different composers to write four new passion settings, one each after the Gospel accounts of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A German composer, Wolfgang Rihm, was chosen for the St. Luke Passion; a Russian, Sofia Gubaidulina for St. John’s; an Argentine, Osvaldo Golijov for St. Mark’s; and a Chinese composer, Tan Dun, for the Passion according to St. Matthew.

And on today’s date in 2000, Helmuth Rilling conducted the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew.” Tan said he was struck by the references to water in St. Matthew’s gospel, so his setting includes seventeen large, illuminated bowls of water, positioned on stage in the form of a cross. These divide the chorus, with three percussionists and a group of additional soloists stationed at the four points of this cross.

In Tan’s “Water Passion,” natural sounds of water mix with a wide range of vocal techniques, including Tuvan throat singing and the stylized virtuosity of Peking Opera.

Music Played in Today's Program

Tan Dun (b. 1957) – Water Passion (Stephen Bryant, bass; Mark O'Connor, violin; ensemble; Tan Dun, cond.) Sony 89927

On This Day


  • 1841 - Czech composer Antonin Dvorák, in Nelahozeves;

  • 1894 - Dutch composer Willem Pijper, in Zeist;

  • 1933 - American composer Eric Salzman, in New York City;

  • 1934 - British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (whose last name, despite its spelling, is pronounced "Davis" by the British);

  • 1934 - Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick, in Toronto;


  • 1613 - Italian nobleman, composer, lutenist, and murderer (of his first wife and her lover) Don Carlo Gesualdo, age c. 53, at his castle in Gesualdo;

  • 1949 - German composer and conductor Richard Strauss, age 85, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen;

  • 1991 - American composer Alex North, age 80, in Pacific Palisades, Calif.;


  • 1961 - Earle Brown: "Available Forms I" for 18 players, in Darmstadt;

  • 1971 - Bernstein: gala premiere "Mass (A Theater Piece)" at the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., choreographed by Alvin Ainley, directed by Gordon Davidson, and conducted by Maurice Peress (Bernstein shared a box section with members of the Kennedy family, including Senator Ted Kennedy and his mother, Rose; Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis did not attend this performance); A dress rehearsal performances of this new work was also open to the public and specially-invited members of Congress the preceding day;

  • 1975 - Paul Chihara: "Ceremony V (Symphony in Celebration)," in Houston;

  • 1994 - Michael Torke: "Javelin," by the Atlanta Symphony, Yoel Levi conducting;

  • 1995 - Lou Harrison: "New First Suite for Strings," in Majorca, by the Stuttgart Symphony, Dennis Russell Davies conductin;

  • 2000 - Tan Dun: "Water Passion after St. Matthew," in Stuttgart (Germany), with vocal soloists Elizabeth Keusch and Stephen Bryant, violinist Mark O'Connor, cellist Maya Beiser, and percussionist David Cossin, and the orchestra of the Bach Academy conducted by the composer; This work was one of four passion settings commissioned by the International Bach Academy to honor the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in the year 2000 (see also: Aug. 29 Sept 1 5).