St. Matthew Passion

bach-image-163x300passionSt Matthew Passion

St. Matthew Passion
Bach composed The St. Matthew Passion for Good Friday and first performed it in Leipzig April 11, 1727. Today, we generally associate the word “passion” with an intensity of feeling or enthusiastic commitment, typically in the context of a romantic attachment or one’s work. The dictionary reminds us that a primary definition of ‘passion’ is quite different: “An enduring of inflicted pain, tortures, or the like; (a) the suffering of Christ on the cross, or his sufferings between the night of the Last Supper and his death. (b) One of the gospel narratives of the passion of Christ.”

Richard Freed notes that: “Recitations of the Passion appeared in Christian religious observance as early as the fourth century. Musical settings came into the picture before the end of the twelfth century, and polyphonic treatments in the fifteenth. Significant contributions to the genre came from English and Italian composers in the latter century, and from Bach’s great compatriot Heinrich Schütz in the seventeenth.

By the time Bach composed this work, the Passion as a musical form had become a prominent feature of Protestant observance, particularly in the German states. … In general the German Passion took the form of a large-scale oratorio, its text based primarily on one of the Gospels (as translated by Martin Luther) but including also contemporaneous material either created specifically for the oratorio or adapted for it, and in many instances embellished with numerous chorales.”

The librettist for the St. Matthew Passion was Bach’s friend Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700 – 1764), who used the pseudonym “Picander” for the numerous poems and texts for cantatas and oratorios he wrote. Though the St. Matthew Passion itself was never lost, it fell from view completely. Bach himself apparently performed it only two or three times and, as with many of his other large works, it was overlooked for three quarters of a century following his death.

The twenty-year-old, Felix Mendelssohn, undertook to correct this situation by unearthing the Matthew Passion and directing the historic performance of the work in Berlin on March 11, 1829. This successful rescue effort of Mendelssohn’s not only achieved widespread recognition for the Matthew Passion as the towering masterwork it is, but also opened the way to a revival and new appreciation of Bach’s other works.

My teacher, Helmuth Rilling, one of the greatest Bach conductors ever, writes of the St. Matthew Passion: “The St. Matthew Passion is assuredly one of the greatest masterpieces ever composed in the history of music. In specifically measurable respects, it is Bach’s longest work, and it also calls for the largest array of performing forces he ever used in a single composition: two complete choruses and two complete orchestras in addition to the numerous soloists. I would say the Matthew Passion is the most important of Bach’s works, sharing that distinction only with the Mass in B minor.

“Bach composed this work, as he did also his St. John Passion, using the complete text of the Gospel—in this case, Chapters 25 and 26 of St. Matthew—unabridged, since every word of this text was important to him, and he followed the story of the Passion very closely. In addition to that, there is a second layer of text: these are contemplative passages from the pen of Picander, commenting on the story as it unfolds. And the third layer of the text, of course, comprises the wonderful chorales which appear throughout the entire work.

“As in many other oratorios, especially in stories of the Passion, the story itself is given to the Evangelist. While we can observe that the Evangelist, on one side, testifies—he tells us the story—there are also moments, and these are most beautiful ones, in which he seems to become overwhelmed by the story itself, becoming very expressive, touched and moved by the story which he himself tells.

“All of the persons represented in this story have solo parts, and in the St. Matthew Passion these are many: there are the servants, there are the maidens, there is the high priest, and so on. One of the solo roles is that of Jesus himself. Bach surrounds the part of Jesus with the strings of the first orchestra, giving this figure his halo, a radiant light around this Son of God that sets him apart from all the other persons represented in the work. There is one very special moment, however, in which he is not accompanied by the strings: this is very special, the moment his also loses his halo, when he says, ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani!’—’My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ At this very touching moment, when he loses his faith, he also loses his halo.

“We come to the question, why is the St. Matthew Passion so important and so moving for so many people? I think it is because Bach very obviously tries to touch upon so many basic human problems. He speaks about love, he speaks about hate, he speaks about betrayal, and of many other things that were problems for his time and are still problems in human situations in our own time. And I think in this touching music Bach can address these problems and say something that still has profound meaning for us today.

“Besides that, we have a very personal aspect to the work, and this is shown in Bach’s position toward his text. In one of the final choruses, by which point Christ has already died, the soldiers gather and speak the words, ‘Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen’—’Truly, this was the Son of God’—and there we find a number of notes in the bass line of the chorus: just 14 notes, and these 14 notes, I think, must represent Bach’s own name. His ‘name number’ is 14 [the letters of the name BACH being Nos. 2, 1, 3 and 8, respectively, of the alphabet], and so he underscores his personal identity with the story of the Passion in his own name—certainly a very special way to demonstrate his own position in respect to those words of the soldiers, and the story of the Passion.”
In the St. Matthew Passion Bach calls on the members of the oboe family of instruments often to explore specific emotional meanings suggested by the text. The oboe da caccia helps to express tragedy and anguish. Bach’s use of the oboe d’amore expresses to perfection the close ties between Mankind and the Savior, moving from heartfelt tears to a true commingling of grace and devotion.

“The work is laid out in two large parts. Part I begins with the anointing of Jesus in Bethany and ends with his arrest; Part II covers his trial and crucifixion. For his 1736 performance of the
work, Bach replaced the relatively simply chorale which had been his original ending for Part I with the remarkable fantasia for double chorus which now concludes it: “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross.” The great choruses that introduce and conclude each of the work’s two parts, as the revered scholar Karl Geiringer observed, “Form the pillars supporting the mighty work without participating in the development of the drama.”

T. Herbert Dimmock