Soloists for Bach Missa Brevis & Cantata 21

Soprano Caroline Jou Armitage started singing in her crib before the age of one, according to her mother, but studied piano and violin from kindergarten through high school instead, as was customary for most children of Taiwanese immigrants. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in economics, she began formal studies in voice and later performed the roles of Laetitia in Menotti’s Old Maid and the Thief and Lucy Lockit in Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera in the Bay Area, and in Paris, Papagena and the First Lady in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Most happy in the realm of early music, Caroline has participated as a vocal soloist in the Baroque Academy at the Amherst Early Music Festival and has sung as a soloist in Carissimi’s Jephthe. She has also sung as a chorister in several local groups since 2010—most notably, the California Bach Society. Caroline dedicates this solo performance with CBS to her musical instructors Karen Clark, Paul Flight, and Tamara Loring.


A renowned countertenor, Paul Flight has performed works by John Adams, Leonard Berstein, and Unsuk Chin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony, the Berkeley Symphony, the Cincinnati May Festival, and the Norwegian State Opera. In 2003 he sang the title role in Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for Oakland Opera Theater. He made his debut at the Kennedy Center in 2008, singing the first countertenor role in Adams’s El Niño, and in August 2010, he made his debut at the Edinburgh International Festival singing the third countertenor role in that work. At California Bach Society’s award-winning performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 2016, Dr. Flight sang the aria “Erbarme Dich.” He is a former member of such distinguished ensembles as the Waverly Consort, Theatre of Voices, Pomerium Musices, and the New York Collegium.


Tenor Jonathan Thomas, a native of Lawrence, Kansas, moved to San Francisco in 2014 and has since appeared as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony in Carmina Burana, led by Ragnar Bohlin, Monteverdi’s Magnificat from the Vespers of 1610, and Pérotin’s Sederunt Principes, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. He has performed as a soloist in numerous concerts and recordings in the Bay Area, including Handel’s Messiah with Cantare Con Vivo, a French Baroque concert with Chora Nova, and Cappella SF’s album Facing West, among others. Before coming to San Francisco, Mr. Thomas completed opera apprenticeships at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Des Moines Metro Opera. He has performed concert and opera repertoire throughout the Midwest, including Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Laertes in Hamlet, Don Curzio and Basilio in Le Nozze di Figaro, and the role of the Raven in the world premiere of Robert Kapilow’s Summer Sun, Winter Moon with the Kansas City Symphony. Jonathan received his bachelor of music in vocal performance from the University of Kansas. He currently sings with the chamber choir Cappella SF and as an AGMA member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.


Sepp Hammer’s voice has been described as showing “warm baritone gravity” (The Boston Globe). Recently with the California Bach Society, he sang the role of Christ in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the bass solos in Charpentier’s Le reniement de Saint Pierre, Zelenka’s Missa Votiva, and Bach’s cantata Aus der Tiefe. Other concert engagements include Rutter’s Mass of the Children with the Solano Symphony, Zelenka’s Gloria with Chora Nova, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs with the Contra Costa Chorale, and, with various ensembles, Charpentier’s Messe des Morts, Schütz’s Symphoniae Sacrae, Bach’s Magnificat and B Minor Mass, Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, Schubert’s Mass in G Major, and the Requiems of Brahms, Fauré, and Duruflé. Since 2016, Sepp has been a member of the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale. In recent seasons on the opera stage, he has appeared as Pistol in Verdi’s Falstaff with Cinnabar Theater, the Speaker in The Magic Flute with Pocket Opera, Malatesta in Donizetti's Don Pasquale with North Bay Opera, and in the role of Wagner in Gounod’s Faust with Opera San Jose. His opera roles also include Escamillo in Carmen, Aeneas in Dido and Aeneas, the title role in Don Giovanni, John Proctor in The Crucible, and Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro.

Charpentier with 5 gambas!

The program for A Charpentier Showcase includes works written for chorus and soloists with strings, typically violins and violas, and perhaps one viola da gamba.  But our ensemble is five gambas and two flutes.  We asked Paul Flight, why five gambas?  He writes: "Truth be told, I heard Jordi Savall's Le Concert des Nations performing the music with gambas, and I liked the delicate timbre of the viols.   I think the addition of two flutes gives a lovely smoothness as well."

Listen to this excerpt and see what you think:  Maestro Savall leading the soloists and players in the Missa "Assumpta est Maria"



Program Notes: A Charpentier Showcase


Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was a French composer of the Baroque era.  Exceptionally prolific and versatile, Charpentier produced compositions of the highest quality in several genres. His mastery in writing sacred vocal music, above all, was recognized and hailed by his contemporaries.  And yet, his music was also controversial during his lifetime; he had as many vociferous detractors as supporters. What is most striking to modern listeners is probably the transparent emotion expressed in his music, giving it an extraordinarily modern sensibility. He is best known for his noble and often achingly poignant religious works, but his secular love songs dazzle with their simplicity and unmannered charm, and other works reveal a wicked wit.

Charpentier was born in or near Paris. He received a good education and entered law school in Paris when he was eighteen, but he withdrew after only one semester. He spent several years in Rome, probably between 1667 and 1669, and studied with Giacomo Carissimi. There he acquired a solid knowledge of contemporary Italian musical practice and brought it back to France.

Upon his return to France, Charpentier began working as house composer to Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, who was known familiarly as "Mlle de Guise." She gave him an apartment in the recently renovated Hôtel de Guise. For the next seventeen years, Charpentier composed a considerable quantity of vocal works for her, among them Psalm settings, hymns, motets, a Magnificat setting, a mass and a Dies Irae for the funeral of her nephew Louis Joseph, Duke of Guise, and a succession of Italianate oratorios set to non-liturgical Latin texts. Throughout the 1670s, the bulk of these works were for trios. Then, about 1680, Mlle de Guise increased the size of the ensemble until it included thirteen performers. In the pieces written from 1684 until late 1687, the names of the musicians appear in the margins of Charpentier's manuscripts—including "Charp" for himself beside the haute-contre (high tenor) line. 

During his years of service to Mlle de Guise, Charpentier also composed for "Mme de Guise," Louis XIV's first cousin. It was in large part owing to Mme de Guise's protection that the Guise musicians were permitted to perform Charpentier's chamber operas in defiance of the monopoly held by Jean Baptiste Lully.

In 1679, Charpentier was singled out to compose for Louis XIV's son, the Dauphin. Writing primarily for the prince's private chapel, he composed devotional pieces for a small ensemble composed of royal musicians, an ensemble that, with Mlle de Guise's permission, could perform works he had earlier composed for the Guises. By early 1683, when he was awarded a royal pension, Charpentier was being commissioned to write for court events such as the annual Corpus Christi procession.

By late 1687, Mlle de Guise was dying. Around that time, Charpentier entered the employ of the Jesuits.

Stained glass, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Stained glass, Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

From late 1687 to early 1698, Charpentier served as maître de musique (music master) to the Jesuits, working first for their collège of Louis-le-Grand and then for the church of Saint-Louis. Once he moved to Saint-Louis, Charpentier virtually ceased writing oratorios and instead primarily wrote musical settings of Psalms and other liturgical texts.

Charpentier was appointed maître de musique for the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris in 1698, a royal post he held until his death in 1704.


Salve Regina, H. 24

Salve Regina (Welcome, Queen) utilizes triple choirs (two full choirs and a trio) and recalls the stylistic elements of the oratorio, as Charpentier skillfully manipulates the musical texture by combining and separating the three choirs, and using the small choir in the most dramatic gestures of the piece, especially in the astounding “Ad te clamamus section,” with its powerful dissonances that describe a painful descent into a “valley of tears.”


Nisi Dominus, H. 150

Psalm 127 (Unless the Lord built the house, those who built it labored in vain) has been set by many composers; its colorful imagery invites the composer’s imagination.  Written for four voices and light accompanying instruments, the work is introduced by a tenor solo.  The “Vanum est vobis” section is a treble duet that seems to pay tribute to Monteverdi with its lively rising lines on the word “surgite” (arise).  This is followed by a quiet four-part setting alluding to sleep, and then jumps vigorously into the words “Ecce heriditas Domini filii.” A bass solo then leads into the final triple meter “Beatus vir” and the rousing final doxology.


Litanies de la Vierge, H. 83

Litanies de la Vierge (Litanies of the Virgin) was composed under the auspices of Mlle de Guise. This work, also known as the Litany of Loreto, is represented in a volume of nine different settings, scored for a variety of vocal and instrumental forces, taking advantage of the personnel added by Mlle de Guise after 1680.  This particular setting requires six voices, two viols, and continuo.  The voice parts are notated with the names of the performers, including Charpentier’s name for the haute-contre (a very high tenor part, found in many French Baroque vocal works, sung in our performance by the altos).   With the exception of the opening and closing chorus, directed towards the Holy Trinity and towards Jesus (the Lamb of God), the remaining seven verses request the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and praise her mystical qualities and spiritual virtues.  The settings alternate between trios of the upper three voices, the lower three voices, and the full chorus, and also move between stately homophony and elegant counterpoint.


Missa “Assumpta est Maria” H. 11

Missa “Assumpta est Maria” (Mass “Mary is taken up into heaven,”) the last of Charpentier's many mass settings, is considered his greatest work in the genre. It was first performed at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, probably during the Feast of the Assumption in 1699. Its grandeur suggests that it accompanied considerable ecclesiastical display. Charpentier's decision to place the climax at the Creed's affirmation of belief in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" would have had political resonances at a time when tensions between church and monarchy in France were high.

Throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, the mass sung in France remained outside the stylistic currents affecting other forms of secular and sacred music. Most of the masses that could be heard in Paris and in the provinces during the reign of Louis XIV were either plain-chant or polyphonic, sometimes written decades previously and adapted to the taste of the day by instrumental accompaniments.  Consequently, the eleven vocal masses left by Charpentier assume an exceptional brilliance, written in a much different “concertante” style. The manuscript indicates that early performances separated its sections with motets, instrumental music, and organ improvisations.  The mass ends, as did all masses written for the French king, with a short “God Save the King.”


Motet pour les trépassés, H. 311

The text of Motet pour les trépassés (Motet for the Deceased) comes from the book of Job. This text was often used for funeral services. The writing is for double choir, interspersed with trios and soloists.  The middle section is quite dramatic; the translated text is “Oh my Lord, why have you made me a target?”  The setting is recitative-like, starting out with a solo voice and then joined with others. The cries of “Heu” sound like cries of pain.


Following the motet is the “Agnus Dei” from Messe Pour Les Trépassés (Mass for the Deceased). It is written for double chorus in concertante style. The writing is hushed and simple. The first and third “Agnus Dei” are sung by the full choir. A low trio is assigned to the middle verse, which is distinguished by longer vocal lines with elegant ornamentation.

– Patricia Jennerjohn

Program Notes: Jul, Jul—A Scandinavian Christmas

Jul, the Scandinavian Christmas holiday, is celebrated throughout December and traditionally until St. Knut’s Day on January 13. The main celebration and the exchange of gifts takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24. St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated during Advent, on December 13. It is a charming holiday that celebrates a Roman saint who wore candles on her head to light her way as she carried food to persecuted Christians in hiding. A wish for light and warmth is understandable at this time of year in the dark and cold of Scandinavia.

The Christian Christmas celebration was incorporated into the old Norse tradition of a mid-winter festival that celebrated the recent harvest and looked forward to spring.  The Norse festival was well known as far back as the fourth century; the merging of that festival with Christian traditions occurred in the eleventh century.

A central aspect of the pagan Germanic celebration of midwinter was to eat and drink well, and in modern times is represented by the Julbord—a buffet, eaten at lunchtime. This may include herring, gravlax (salmon which has been cured in sugar, salt, and dill), smoked salmon, and other cold meats, cheeses, salads, pickles, and different types of bread. There will also be warm, savory foods such as meatballs, sausages, meat-stuffed cabbage rolls, jellied pigs’ feet, lutefisk, and oven-roasted pork ribs. Vegetables such as potatoes and red cabbage will also be served. The dessert of the Julbord might be a selection of sweet pastries, cookies, and other home-made sweets. To wash all that food down you can have some glogg, which is sweet mulled wine, and coffee to finish off the meal. Another holiday dessert is a rice pudding with raspberry jam or cinnamon, usually eaten during the evening after people have exchanged their presents.

Scandinavia has contributed many traditions that we see celebrated in the United States, such as Advent wreaths, candles, and calendars. Christmas seals were first seen in Denmark.  And the Scandinavian culture in turn adopted other European Christmas traditions, such as the German Christmas tree and the Dutch Santa Claus.

The musical traditions are equally charming. Scandinavian national music, often based on folk songs, blends cheer and melancholy into a unique sound. Perhaps this reflects the extremes of their climate—midnight sun at midsummer and darkness at midwinter. We present a broad range of music from this culture, from simple folksong arrangements to sophisticated Classical, Romantic, and modern settings of traditional and modern texts.

Bereden väg för Herran (Make way for the Lord) is a hymn with lyrics written in 1812 by Frans Michael Franzén,. Describing Jesus coming into Jerusalem, it is a popular Swedish Advent song.

Himmelriket liknas vid tio jungfrur (The kingdom of heaven is like unto ten virgins) is a traditional Advent song from Värmland, an area of western Sweden that borders on Norway. It uses the tale of the wise and foolish virgins to urge us to prepare properly for the coming of Christ.


Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)   A Danish composer, Nielsen’s interest and background in folk music had special resonance for Danes, and this was intensified during the nationalistic movements of the 1930s and during World War II, when singing was an important basis for the Danes to distinguish themselves from their German enemies. Thus, while outside Denmark Nielsen is largely thought of as a composer of orchestral music, in his own country he is more of a national symbol. These two sides were officially brought together in Denmark in 2006 when the Ministry of Culture issued a list of the twelve greatest Danish musical works, which included three by Nielsen.

Towards the end of 1923, Nielsen composed three Christmas carols, all of which were published just before Christmas of that year. They were originally for solo voice and orchestra, and were later set as SATB arrangements. The settings are fresh and uncomplicated, and preserve the folk nature of the songs.  We present two of them here.

Hjemlige Jul (Secret Christmas)

Himlen mørkner stor og stum (Heaven’s gloom a world apart) 


Ludvig Norman (1831–1885) was a Swedish composer, conductor, pianist, and music teacher. Together with Franz Berwald and Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, he ranks among the most important Swedish symphonists of the 19th century.

Jordens oro viker (Earth’s concerns give way to peace)   Although not explicitly presenting a Christmas theme, this motet does create an atmosphere of peace and serenity, much needed during this dark time of the year. Set for double chorus, it is sturdily homophonic, building to resonant climaxes, and resolving peacefully on the words “The heavens will explain all.”

Staffan var en stalledräng (Stefan was a stableboy) is a traditional song with many verses, from Mockfjärd, a tiny town in the center of Sweden. It is the tale of a stableboy who rides off in pursuit of the Christmas star, making sure that he is well fed and supplied with brandy for his year-long journey.    


Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Hvad est du dog skjøn (How fair is thy face)   Grieg’s Fire Salmer (Four Hymns), Opus 74, for baritone soloist and mixed choir, was his final composition, composed in the second half of 1906. He adapted melodies from L.M. Lindemann’s collection Older and More Recent Norwegian Folk Tunes, an anthology upon which he drew heavily throughout his career. These motets are particularly notable for their harmonic inventiveness: Grieg is very adept at adapting the modes of his source material—neither major nor minor—and at harmonizing it in a manner which sounds and feels authentic. The language of the texts is an interesting puzzle in itself.  Called “Bokmål” or “Riksmål,” it is actually more Danish than it is Norwegian, and reflects the centuries during which Norway was, effectively, a colony of Denmark. It seems that the musical aspect, the tunes themselves rather than the words, is what interested Grieg: “These melodies are so lovely that they deserve to be preserved in an artistic costume,” he wrote in his diary on September 15, 1906.

Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea)   Norway has a long relationship with the sea and sailing, so this text has great meaning for this country. This beautiful and serene setting of the Marian hymn is well known and beloved. Originally set for voice and piano in 1893, Grieg later made this arrangement for SSAATTBB chorus in 1898.


Henrik Rung (1807-1871) was a Danish composer, singing teacher and conductor. Rung was born in Copenhagen. In 1851 he founded the Cæciliaforeningen, serving as its chairman from 1851 to 1871.

Kimer, I klokker (Ring out, ye bells)   Nikolaj Grundtvig wrote this hymn text in 1856. The following year, in 1857, Rung composed the melody (and later published a version for four voices). He wrote melodies for many of Grundtvig’s hymns, despite the fact that he was not a church musician. 


Ivar Widéen (1871-1951) was a Swedish organist and composer. Widéen was greatly inspired by the music of Richard Wagner, Edvard Grieg, and August Söderman. He had a prominent role in Swedish choral music. He was principal conductor of the Småland Sångarförbund (choral society) and led that choir at annual national choir festivals. 

Gläns över sjö och strand (English title: Star of Bethlehem)   These words are the opening lines of a poem written by Viktor Rydberg, appearing in his novel Vapensmeden


Trond Kverno (b. 1945) is a contemporary Norwegian composer. He received degrees in church music, music theory, and choir direction from the Oslo Conservatory of Music, now the Norwegian Academy of Music, and was a professor of music there. He is known for his liturgical compositions. Church music has spearheaded major new developments in music in Norway throughout the post-war period, in terms of both musical innovation and institutional renewal. 

Ave maris stella, another setting of this hymn by a Norwegian composer, notable for its complexity and dynamic range. Quiet lyrical passages alternate with vigorous sections in irregular rhythms.

Corpus Christi Carol is a Middle English hymn (or carol), first found in a manuscript written around 1504. The original writer of the carol remains anonymous. The earliest surviving record of the piece preserves only the lyrics and is untitled. It has survived in altered form in the folk tradition as the Christmas carol “Down In Yon Forest.” The text is not specifically on a Christmas theme, yet a number of composers (including Benjamin Britten) have associated this work with Christmas. Kverno’s melancholy setting translates the Middle English into Norwegian.


Hugo Alfvén (1872–1960) became known as one of Sweden’s principal composers of his time. Alfvén’s music is in a late-Romantic idiom. His orchestration is skillful and colorful, reminiscent of that of Richard Strauss. Like Strauss, Alfvén wrote a considerable amount of program music. Some of Alfvén’s music evokes the landscape of Sweden.

Julsång (Christmas carol) was written in 1934 for the Siljan District Choir. The setting is simple, yet subtle and unusual harmonic shifts give it a unique color.


Ivar Widéen

På krubbans strå (In the manger straw) is a sweet and understated setting of a hymn from the Swedish Psalm Book, addressing Jesus in the manger.


Gustaf Nordqvist (1886-1949) was a Swedish composer, church musician, and professor. He served as organist at the Church of Adolf Fredrik in Stockholm 1914–1949 and as a teacher of harmony at the Stockholm Conservatory 1925–1949. 

Jul, jul, strålande jul (Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas) is Nordqvist’s most famous and beloved work. It has been subject to many interpretations in Sweden, other Scandinavian countries, and internationally by singers, choirs and orchestras. The song was one of the most popular Christmas carols in Sweden during the 20th century. The lyrics describe Christmas as white and snow-filled, depicting all the Christmas blessings, with a wish that Christmas bring light and peace to the world


Fredrik Sixten (b. 1962) is a Swedish composer, cathedral organist, and conductor. He was the conductor of Gothenburg’s boys choir between 1997 and 2001. Today he is the cathedral organist of the Härnösand Cathedral. His music has been extensively recorded and performed.

There is no rose of such vertu  This piece was written for and dedicated to the Sofia Vokalensemble of Stockholm. This hymn to the Virgin praises her as singularly worthy of the miraculous conception and birth of the Christ Child. The setting is a mysterious and sonorous joining of graceful melodic lines and veils of complex chords.


Otto Olsson (1879-1964) was a Swedish composer and one of the greatest organ virtuosos of his time. He used his strong background in counterpoint, combined with an affinity for French organ music, to create his late Romantic style of composition. He explored polytonality in his work, an advancement not found in other Swedish works of the time. 

Guds Son är född (God’s Son is born) is part of a set of Advent and Christmas songs Olsson wrote in the first part of the 20th century. The melodic line is passed to various voices, while the rest of the choir provides wordless harmonic support, until the final two verses when all the voices unite in four-part harmony for a joyful finish.


Program notes by Patricia Jennerjohn.

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Our program for the holiday concert Jul, Jul

We're excited to announce the program for our holiday concert, Jul, Jul—A Scandinavian Christmas, on December 2-4.  This concert is rich with breathtakingly beautiful Yule-tide songs and carols.  We'll be singing in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, English, and Latin, in a program ranging from traditional folk carols to works by Gustaf Nordkvist, Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg, and Fredrik Sixten. Join our celebration of the light shining through the darkest time of the year!

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Jul, Jul—A Scandinavian Christmas

Friday, Dec. 2 in San Francisco; Saturday, Dec. 3 in Palo Alto; Sunday, Dec. 4 in Berkeley

Bereden väg för Herran

Himmelriket liknas vid tio jungfrur

Hjemlige jul

Himlen mørkner stor og stum

Jordens oro viker

Staffan stalledräng

Ave maris stella

Hvad est du dog skjøn

arr. Anders Bond (1888–1980)

Swedish folk melody

Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)


Ludwig Norman (1831–1885)

arr. Anders Öhrwall (1932–2012)

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)



Kimer I klokker

Glänz över sjö och strand

Ave maris stella

Corpus Christi Carol


På krubbans strå

Jul, jul, strålande jul

There is No Rose of Such Virtu

Guds son är född

arr. Ole Faurschou

Ivar Wideen (1871–1951)

Trond Kverno (b. 1945) 


Hugo Alfven (1872–1960)

Ivar Wideen

Gustaf Nordkvist (1886–1949)

Fredrik Sixten (b. 1962)

arr. Otto Ohlsonn (1879–1964)


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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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Kairos Youth Choir in the Opening Chorus

Berkeley’s premier youth choir, Kairos has offered comprehensive vocal music education to children ages 6 to 15 for over twenty five years.

The youth choir is featured in the opening chorus of our St. Matthew Passion performances. John Eliot Gardiner compares that movement to the immense altar paintings from the 16th century, where an entire story is told, with different scenes playing out at the same time. Following that idea, we can imagine a procession of mourners in the streets, with death bells sounding in the bass part in the orchestra. Witnesses of what has been happening in Jerusalem (Choir I) invite onlookers (the believers, or Daughters of Zion, Choir II) to join them, and speak of Jesus’ suffering, including him carrying the wood for his own cross.

Gardiner says: “The music seems entirely complete … and we marvel at how smoothly [Bach] makes room for a series of antiphonal exchanges between his two choirs and orchestras. But there is still more to come: at the moment when the first choir refers to Jesus as a bridegroom, and then as a lamb, Bach brings in a third choir with the chorale “O Lamb of God, unspotted,” in an abrupt expansion of the sound spectrum: a G Major chorale within the E minor context of the main piece. Sung in unison by a group of trebles, the effect must have been stunning.”

The congregations in Leipzig, where the St. Matthew Passion was first performed on the afternoon of Good Friday in 1727, would have heard this chorale, also known as the German Agnus Dei, earlier that day at the conclusion of the morning service.

Our St. Matthew Passion concerts feature members of Kairos' Aphaia and Agape choruses. In addition to performing at the all-Kairos winter concert each December, Aphaia and Agape choristers sing at the Junior Bach Festival and other events throughout the year, and are regular guests at KPFA radio. Kairos presents a fully staged musical play every spring, showcasing educationally rich stories such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Fiddler on the Roof. In recent years, Kairos has toured Norway, Denmark, Italy, Greece, and Austria.

Kairos founder and conductor Laura Kakis Serper received her degrees in music education and voice performance from University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music as well as Westminster Choir College and Aspen Music Institute. Her Greek heritage inspired the name of Kairos Youth Choir and its choruses. Kairos [Kah-ee-ros] means time measured by quality, the moment when all things work together in harmony. Aphaia is the Goddess of Light; Agape means Love.

Ms. Kakis Serper is also the director of choral music at The Crowden School, and is a former artistic director of San Francisco Boys Chorus. She was recognized at the California State Senate for her excellent musical service to the community through Kairos Youth Choir programs.

Kairos, with director Laura Kakis Serper and pianist and composer Arkadi Serper in front, after a successful concert at the Votivkirche in Vienna, Austria • Photo by Geoffrey Biddle