Program Notes: J.S. Bach St. Matthew Passion

Sometime in the Middle Ages, Christian churches began observing Holy Week by retelling the story of Christ's crucifixion in music. Those beginnings were simple—Bible verses set to chant melodies—but eventually they would culminate in one of the most ambitious musical compositions of all time.

When J. S. Bach came to write his St. Matthew Passion in the 1720s, the Passion, as a musical form, had grown to allow orchestra, choirs, and non-scriptural choruses and arias. But even by the standard of the Baroque Passion, the Passion According to St. Matthew is exceptional for its musical richness and its grand scope.

Dramatically, the point of view shifts continuously, from the narrative of the Evangelist, to the actual words of Jesus and his disciples, to reflections that speak for the individual believer. In Bach's hands, the effect that the Passion gives is a single, sustained, somber meditation—appropriate for a work that was first performed as part of a church service.

In contrast to his earlier St. John Passion, this work was influenced by the Pietism movement in the Lutheran Church.  Pietism emphasized personal faith, versus the Lutheran Church's perceived traditional stress on doctrine and theology.  As a result, the St. Matthew Passion is passionate and heartfelt; the solo arias are especially personal in their reflections on the events that are portrayed.

The St. Matthew Passion was probably first performed on 11 April 1727 in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, and again in 1729, 1736, and 1742. The 1736 revision (with some possible later adjustments) is what is generally known as the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244. Felix Mendelssohn was famously responsible for a revival of this work; he edited a manuscript that he had received as a gift from his grandmother and conducted a performance in Berlin in 1829, perhaps the first performance outside of Leipzig.  However, he made significant cuts, of ten arias, seven choruses, and some chorales. 

Excerpts of the work were performed on the American television program Omnibus in 1957 in the episode "The Music of J.S. Bach." The presenter and explicator was Leonard Bernstein, who introduced the St. Matthew Passion as "that glorious work that started me off on my own private passion for Bach." The St. Matthew Passion has been presented in staged performances. Typically, these are done with all performers in street clothes or neutral costumes, the orchestras on stage, the soloists singing without scores, and the words acted out in a solemn fashion, with only a minimal stage set.

In consideration of the story to be told, the words are treated with great importance; one can see an operatic influence in the way the music works in collaboration with the libretto.  Picander, pen name of the poet who wrote libretti for Bach, wrote text for recitatives and arias, and for the large-scale choral movements that open and close the Passion. Other libretto sections came from publications by Salomo Franck and Barthold Heinrich Brockes.  The Biblical texts are from Matthew 26–27 (Luther’s translation) and also from the Song of Songs. Finally, eleven chorales (Lutheran hymn tunes) are used.

The words of the Evangelist and the named characters (Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilate, the High Priest) are taken directly from Scripture, using recitatives, vocal passages that imitate spoken language, usually in free tempo. 

The words of Jesus usually receive special treatment. In this work, they are accompanied not by continuo alone, but also by the entire string section, using long, sustained notes and "highlighting" certain words, thus creating an effect often referred to as Jesus's "halo." Only his final words, in Aramaic, Eli, Eli lama asabthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), portraying his physical death, are sung without this "halo.”

The chorus has a dual role: portraying group roles (disciples, the crowd), the words directly from Matthew’s Gospel; and acting as a commentator, in chorale tunes with verses that reflect back upon the action. The chorales are distinguished by varied harmonizations, which effectively color the emotional content of the words.

Additionally, choruses with a mixture of chorale tunes and poetry—chorale fantasias—are used to “bookend” the major sections of this work. In the St. Matthew Passion there are three such extended choral movements: the opening chorus ,"Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen" (Come, you daughters, help me lament); the conclusion of Part One, "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" (O man, lament your great sin ); and the final chorus ,"Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" (We sit down in tears).   

The arias meditate on and react to the events of the Passion, interpret the Gospel texts, and represent the responses and thoughts of the soul.  The arias are interspersed between sections of the Gospel text. They are sung by soloists with a variety of instrumental accompaniments, typical of the oratorio style. Obbligato instruments are equal partners with the voices, as was customary in late Baroque arias. In the arias Bach often uses word painting, as in "Buß und Reu," where the flutes start playing a raindrop-like staccato as the alto sings of drops of tears falling and in "Blute nur," where the line about the serpent is set with a twisting melody.

Overview and Highlights

Part One

The first scenes are in Jerusalem.  The opening chorus sets the tone, establishing Jesus as both the bridegroom and the sacrificial lamb:  "Suddenly the chorus breaks into two antiphonal choruses. 'See him!' cries the first one. 'Whom?' asks the second. And the first answers: 'The Bridegroom, see. See Him!' 'How?' 'So like a Lamb.' And then over and against all this questioning and answering and throbbing, the voices of [the treble] choir sing out the chorale tune, 'O Lamb of God Most Holy,' piercing through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption. The contrapuntal combination of the three different choruses is thrilling. There is nothing like it in all music." – Leonard Bernstein

Jesus announces his death. Next, the intention to get rid of him is expressed. A scene in Bethany shows a woman anointing his head with valuable oils. In the next scene, Judas Iscariot is negotiating the price for handing Jesus over.  With a great contrast of mood, the preparation for the "Easter meal" (Osterlamm) is described, and the Passover meal itself, the Last Supper, foreshadowed by the announcement of betrayal. The disciples ask Jesus over and over again, “Herr, bin ichs?” (Lord, is it me?); this phrase is repeated eleven times; each disciple, except for Judas, the actual betrayer, questions anxiously.

After the meal they go together to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. At the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his followers several times to support him, but they fall asleep while he is praying in agony. It is there that he is betrayed by Judas's kiss and arrested. While soprano and alto mourn Jesus's arrest, the chorus makes angry interjections (“Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!” Release him, stop, do not bind him!).  In a dramatic highpoint the chorus furiously demands against those who arrested Jesus "Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle/ Mit plötzlicher Wut/Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!" (Smash, ruin, devour, shatter with sudden fury the false betrayer, the murderous blood!).  

Part I closes with a stately and expansive four-part fantasia on the chorale “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (O mankind, mourn your great sins), reminding us that Jesus was born of the Virgin to become the intercessor and acknowledging mankind’s great sins and the sacrifice Jesus is making to secure redemption. The sopranos sing the cantus firmus, the other voices embellish aspects of the chorale words.

Part Two

In the opening movement, the alto soloist sings of looking anxiously for Jesus, who is missing, and for whom she fears the worst.  The chorus sings words from the Song of Songs, offering to help her in her search.  

The first scene of Part Two is an interrogation at the High Priest Caiaphas, where two witnesses report Jesus having spoken about destroying the temple and building it again in three days. Jesus is silent to this, but his answer to the question if he is the Son of God is considered a sacrilege calling for his death. Outside in the courtyard Peter is told three times that he belongs to Jesus and denies it three times; then the cock crows.  Peter remembers this, and flees, “weeping bitterly.” This is followed by the heart- wrenching aria “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy), in which the soloist asks that these tears bring forgiveness for this faithlessness, the violin obbligato weeping along with the soloist.

In the morning Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate. Judas, overcome by remorse, kills himself. Pilate interrogates Jesus, is impressed, and is inclined to release him. (It was customary to release one prisoner for the holiday.) Pilate is supported in this by his wife. But the crowd, given the choice to have Jesus released or Barabbas—a thief, insurrectionist, and murderer—declares with one voice "Barrabam!".  Then the crowd calls for Jesus to be crucified. Bach uses the musical device known as the sign of the cross to set these harsh words.  The chorale that follows immediately changes the mood: remarking on how strange and wonderful it is that the “good King pays his subject’s obligation,” using an anxious and restless harmonization of the chorale tune “Herzliebster Jesu.” The exquisite recitative “Erhat uns allen wohl getan” (He has done good to all of us) and aria “Aus Liebe/Will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love/My Savior wants to die) follows.  Then an additional outburst of”Let him be crucified” shatters the mood andintensifies the effect of the aria’s poignancy.

Pilate gives in to the crowd, washes his hands claiming his innocence, and delivers Jesus to torture and crucifixion. At Golgotha Jesus and two others are crucified and mocked by the crowd. Even Jesus’s last words are misunderstood. Where he cites Psalm 22, "Eli, Eli" (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), he is thought to have called Elijah. He dies. 

St. Matthew describes the tearing of the temple curtain and an earthquake—depicted graphically by the orchestra. In the evening Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the corpse for burial. The bass recitative and aria,“Mache dich, mein Herze”), comforting in its gentle rocking movement, asks for a pure heart, so that he can make a precious grave there for Jesus. The following day officials remind Pilate of the talk of resurrection and ask for guards and a seal for the grave to prevent fraud.  

In a dialogue with the chorus, each soloist (starting with the bass and rising through tenor, alto, and soprano), says farewell and expresses gratitude to Jesus, while the choir echoes “Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!” (My Jesus, good night!). The work closes with a grand-scale chorus in da capo form. Choir I and II are mostly in unison for the first part, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder“ (We sit down in tears), but are in dialogue in the middle section—choir II repeating "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!" (Rest gently, gently rest!), and choir I reflecting "Your grave and headstone shall be for the anxious conscience a comfortable pillow and a resting place for the soul. In the highest bliss the eyes fall asleep." These are the last words, marked by Bach himself p pp ppp (soft, very soft, extremely soft), before the first section repeats.  The very last chord is marked with a poignant leading tone in the oboe, like a final sob of grief.

Patricia Jennerjohn


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