Holy Monday 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich

This number is about crying.

Peter's Denial, east window of Soham Parish Church Photo by Steve Day
Peter’s Denial, east window of Soham Parish Church
Photo by Steve Day

I’ve had a hard time knowing what to say about this one or at least where to start; the sound is just so heartbreaking. This is the alto aria that comments just after Peter denies knowing Jesus the third time, and then the cock crows. You really should listen to the Evangelist’s line when he recounts how Peter “went out and wept bitterly” [ging heraus und weinete bitterlich]. There’s weeping in that line.

After the Evangelist’s tragic line, the next thing we hear is this solo violin lamenting, wandering and winding downward. Talk about portraying both Peter and Jesus’ loneliness. The violin begins a whole aria of weeping, “Erbarme dich” or “have mercy.” Bach pairs many of the vocal solos in the Passion with one or two other instruments in striking duets, and I’ve heard some claim that this piece is one of the most beautiful pieces both for solo violin and for alto voice in all concert repertoire.

The meter is in 12/8, which means that there are twelve eighth notes in each measure, divided into four groups of three, or four beats with three pulses in each beat. This means, first of all, that with twelve pulses in each measure, there is a lot of time between downbeats (the first beat of each measure), especially given the slow tempo. All of this extra time simulates the slow-motion time warp that accompanies deep grief, and Bach makes use of long notes that feel like they’re being sustained to a breaking point. Besides a full twelve pulses in each measure, the division of each beat into three also highlights the turmoil and pathos in this scene because the groups of three (which make a triple meter) create a cyclical, doubling-back feel rather than the progressive forward pacing of a duple meter. What’s more, four groups of these cyclical turns gives Bach a lot of space to have repeating descending motifs, like tears slowly running down a face.

The key is B minor with two sharps or Kreuze (the German word for sharps), perhaps inferring cross-like pain for Peter as well as for Jesus. B minor is also the very pained minor version of the other key with two sharps—D major—which is known for being a bright and vibrant key. Thus, the key of this number is the direct inverse of great optimism and happiness, as if on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

The performance linked above shows the musicians making an audio recording. Everyone is casually dressed, but you can tell that Anne Sofie von Otter is anything but casual in her approach to the piece. She gets into it, gesturing more than she probably would if it were a live performance. She also gives a brief interview after the piece. I hope you like this musical meditation on what I think is one of the saddest moments recorded in scripture.

Erbarme dich

Have mercy,
My God, for my tears’ sake;
Look hither,
Heart and eyes weep before thee
Bitterly.

[Erbarme dich,/ Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen!/ Schaue hier,/ Herz und Auge weint vor dir/ Bitterlich.]

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6 thoughts on “Holy Monday 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Erbarme dich”

  1. Truly one of the most heart wrenching solos ever written for an alto. This aria and the Agnus Dei in the B Minor tell me that Bach had a soft spot for altos.

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  2. Just listening to these now. And after the many testimonies of the weekend, perhaps it is all more meaningful now.
    Technical question – this is a fairly large and diverse ensemble. Is this pressing the limits of ensemble work without a musical conductor? And in her gesturing is she, in fact, acting a bit of the lead in this setting? Did I see the pianist’s hand conducting at one point?
    It’s beautiful!

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    1. That’s a good question. As for pushing the limits, I think the reason they can do it is because I’m guessing that like a string quartet they practice and perform together often and know each other really well. Beyond that I think you identified the two main ways they’re staying together. The organist is, I think, the official conductor, and he’s holding down that role while also playing. But in the interview that follows the aria, the leader of the ensemble specifically said that all they had to do was listen to what Anne Sofie von Otter did with the line, and then they just followed her lead. So she’s acting somewhat like the leader as well. I hope I get to perform more chamber music in my life because it fosters so much watching and feeling small and very precise signals for a unity that can be hard to find in large-scale music making.

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