Holy Week 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Introduction

Since I attended a thrilling performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Saint Thomas Church in New York City this week, directed by John Scott, I’ve been thinking about how some artistic works in this world (like the St. Matthew Passion) deserve a lifetime of study. Milton’s Paradise Lost comes to mind. Which are those works for you? As for the St. Matthew Passion, don’t just take it from me: In an interview on NPR British tenor Ian Bostridge has said, “I think the St. Matthew [Passion] is one of the greatest pieces in the Western repertory, and to start one’s journey of understanding that work is a very important point in anybody’s life.” Preach it, Ian.

Photo by Chris Boland www.bolandactorheadshots.co.uk
Photo by Chris Boland http://www.bolandactorheadshots.co.uk

Here are some of my thoughts: Even though both Bach’s St. Matthew and Milton’s Paradise Lost come from geniuses (and I don’t use that term cavalierly), neither Milton or Bach produced these works when they were young or quickly or in a single period of composition. Milton had been mulling over the creation of an epic poem in English for years. Then when he did write it, he was freaking blind and dictated a handful of lines (the poem is over 10,000 lines long) each day, with most of the composition spanning 1658 to 1663. The poem wasn’t published until Milton was almost 60 in 1667. Then he revised it again for the 1674 printing, the version that we use most commonly today. John_Milton_signatureLikewise, Bach had written four annual cycles of church cantatas by the time of the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday, 1727. Four, people. Do we have any idea what that means? It means he wrote a mini-opera for every single Sunday of the year not once, not twice, not even three times, but four times—all this while he was running the Thomas Kirche school, composing a lot of other works for Leipzig funerals and municipal events, composing still other works that Bach was just interested in, teaching private students, leading the music for Thomas Kirche worship services, being father to at least ten living children (Bach fathered twenty children between his two wives), etc. He’s busy. And he had acquired enormous experience by the time he began composing the St. Matthew Passion, perhaps around 1725. It was first performed in 1727, revised again around 1731, revised and performed again in 1736, and revised still again between 1743 and 1746 to the version we know and use today. 500px-Johann_Sebastian_Bach_signature.svg My point is, if it took Milton and Bach that much time to come up with the works, we should expect that it will take us some time to really appreciate them. I’ll admit that I’m not sure how crowd-friendly Bach’s St. Matthew will be on this forum, and I realize it’s rather self-indulgent of me. Still, if I want to make a modest study of it across my life, I might as well use this opportunity, and I hold out hope that some of you might latch onto it too.

To sum up some introductory material:

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is divided into two parts, covers two chapters of the Bible (Matthew 26 and 27), and has two parts to each scene—the text from the Bible and then commentary from a soloist or from the choir.

Okay. This work is HUGE. It’s scored for two choirs, two orchestras (one for each choir), an additional children’s choir, about ten mini-soloists from the choir, two major soloists (the Evangelist who sings the text from Matthew and Jesus who sings his own lines), and still four more soloists who sing the librettist Picander’s poetic insertions. If you work in performance production, you probably feel dizzy right about now at the prospect of putting on such a work. It’s huge.

It’s also LONG. It’s made up of 78 different numbers, divided into the two parts mentioned above. It usually takes somewhere between three and four hours to perform depending on how fast the conductor takes the tempo on various parts. stmatthewChorus I usually represents the Jewish people from the story while Chorus II often represents the faithful of Zion. When they sing together, it’s for emphasis and is usually either as the Jewish mob or as a contemporary (not Biblical) church community. The soloists stand in for all believers reflecting on the story (although, as we’ll see, I think the final soloist stands in for Bach particularly). The most important dramatic parts to know are the Evangelist (who sings the text from Matthew 26 and 27) and Jesus (who sings Jesus’ words). The style of music for the soloists includes

  • recitative: less poetic text, more like speaking, and tends to propel the narrative forward
  • aria: more poetic text, often more melodic, and tends toward reflection

The style of music for the choir includes

  • dialogue between the two choirs (and in Bach’s time the choirs would have been on separate sides of the church, increasing the back-and-forth effect)
  • turba: a style of settings of texts from the Jewish people in the passion story that comes from passion traditions of the Renaissance and baroque periods, often polyphonic, emotional, and disjunct
  • musical insertions in various solos that comment on the text
  • homophony in a hymn/chorale-like setting—in many ways these chorales form the unifying backbone of the work and bring the story into the musical tradition that 18th-century Germans knew best

Here’s a bit more introductory material: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion tells the story of Jesus’ passion, specifically his anointing, suffering, arrest, and crucifixion as it is recorded in Matthew chapters 26 and 27 in the Bible in German from Martin Luther’s translation. Bach was German, this is the Bible he knew. Bach had a helper to write texts for his sacred-dramatic works, a librettist (which is also the name for the author of the texts set to music in opera) named Picander (who, in a reversal of many amateur artists today, had a background in law and wrote this poetry to supplement his income). Bach and Picander conceived of the Passion like an opera and divided it into scenes. After each scene from the Bible, Picander inserted a poetic text the commented on the preceding material, providing a chance to reflect on what had just happened. Bach took it a step further and inserted twelve more chorales in addition to Picander’s libretto to build in further commentary and reflection. What’s more, these chorales drew from the popular German chorales (hymns) that were used in church each week, so everyone knew them, and it was a way of folding the contemporary audience directly into the story of the Passion.

I’ll just say right here, right now that what I’m about to do this next week, dividing it up and tossing little bits of it onto this blog is nearly criminal. Also like Paradise Lost, so much of the excitement, drama, and insight of this work is in the interaction among its parts. Taking a number here and there out of context is supremely unsatisfying. So go see/hear the whole thing on your own. I can only hope that this whets your whistle.

Bach's seal
Bach’s seal. Can you see his initials J, S, and B?
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3 thoughts on “Holy Week 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Introduction”

  1. Okay, I’m super excited for this countdown. I know virtually nothing about the St. Matthew Passion, and I’ve always wanted to become acquainted with it. Oh boy oh boy. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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