Palm Sunday 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Kommt ihr Töchter and Erkenne mich, mein Hüter

Are you still reading? Even after all that German in the title? Oh, good. The post itself is in English. 🙂

The chorus in the St. Matthew Passion acts like a character all its own, and it introduces the work with “Kommt ihr Töchter” or “Come, ye daughters.”

Set in Jerusalem a solemn introduction in the orchestra opens the entire Passion with this piece in the key of E minor, the minor key with one sharp. In German the word “sharp” is Kreuz, also the word for “cross,” so this is considered the key of of the crucifixion. A steady low E sounds throughout the opening, firmly establishing the crucifixion context, and the plodding rhythm combined with a winding melody in the violins makes it sound like a processional to the cross. (I liked the processional feel for featuring this piece today on Palm Sunday too.)

Chorus I invites, “Come, ye daughters, help me lament, behold!” And Chorus II responds, “Whom?” Chorus I responds, “The Bridegroom!” Next Chorus I calls, “Behold him!” Chorus II responds, “How?” And the answer comes, “Like a lamb.” You can see the responsory set up from the camera’s long shot at 3:33. Right around that same time yet another treble choir enters (here made up of women but originally written for children). They sing a more familiar Lutheran chorale melody that plunks eighteenth-century Germans (Bach’s audience) right in the middle of the drama the piece portrays.

This opening number highlights the relationship of Jesus to the church as a bridegroom to his beloved as well as his submission as a lamb, thus folding together the tragedy of the story and affection for Jesus. And it also simultaneously folds together Bach’s day and ancient Jerusalem. Are you impressed? Bach is that good.

 

This next clip is to give you a flavor for how the chorales punctuate the work. But this clip doesn’t start with a chorale. Don’t worry—it’s coming. These chorales are a type of music, similar to what we think of as hymns, and they are in a style distinctly different from the rest of the Passion. Chorales came from the Reformation as Luther wanted a more communal form of musical worship. In intent, form, accessibility, and use they are the complete embodiment of laypeople’s musical worship for Bach’s audience.

The chorales featured here are the first two of five that share a then-commonly-known melody. You may recognize it even now. The melody came from the composer Hassler and was originally a romantic love song. Over time sacred words were added to the tune instead, and it became a well-known chorale in the Lutheran tradition.

As I mentioned in the introductory post, throughout the Passion the chorales and solos follow after the words from the St. Matthew text in the Bible; they comment on what has occurred. Here, the Evangelist begins with narration from Matthew, and then Jesus sings, telling how all his disciples will be annoyed with him before the night is out. Then the chorale comments.

The chorale conveys the disciples’ protest—they won’t be annoyed! All together—both choirs and both orchestras—standing in for those listening and for the church community at large, the chorus sings,

Much good has befallen me.
My shepherd, take me to thee.
By thee, source of all good things,
Know me, my keeper,
Thy mouth has refreshed me
With milk and sweetmeats.
Thy spirit has favored me
With many a heavenly longing.

[Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,/ Mein Hirte, nimm mich an!/ Von dir, Quell aller Güter,/ Ist mir viel Gut’s getan./ Dein Mund hat mich gelabet/ Mit Milch und süßer Kost;/ Dein Geist hat mich begabet/ Mit mancher Himmelslust.]

What follows the chorale is another scene with the Evangelist, Jesus, and then Peter, who declares that he will never be annoyed with Jesus. Jesus responds that Peter will go so far as to deny him three times that night before the cock crows, and Peter replies he would die first.

At this point comes another commenting chorale, with the same melody as the one before it but in a lower, more somber key. The chorus sings,

I would stand here beside thee;
Do not then scorn me!
From thee I will not depart
Even if thy heart is breaking.
When thy heart shall grow pale
In the last pang of death,
Then I will grasp thee
In my arms and lap.

[Ich will hier bei dir stehen,/ Verachte mich doch nicht!/ Von dir will ich nicht gehen,/ Wenn dir dein Herze bricht;/ Wenn dein Haupt wird erblaßen/ Im letzten Todesstoß,/ Alsdann will ich dich faßen/ In meinen Arm und Schoß.]

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