Today’s clip comes just after Judas has given the betraying kiss and the captors lead Jesus away. As I’ve said in these posts, most of the solos and choruses in this work comment on the story of the passion, and over the years many scholars, critics, and the like have made a big deal about Bach’s psychological insights in these musical commentaries. So, what are the emotions and psychology of the church community at this scene of betrayal? Shock? Fear? Anger?
Bach grabs all of these in this duet accompanied by choral interjections. The beginning is rather shocking, although we’re not accustomed enough to the musical styles in Bach’s day to recognize its shock value now. It starts with violins and winds but no continuo. What’s a continuo? Continuo is to baroque opera kind of like the rhythm section is to a rock and roll band: it’s the group of instruments that holds everything together, and without it, you don’t really have classic rock and roll (or in this case, baroque dramatic/operatic music).
As pictured here the continuo is most basically a cello and an organ or harpsichord, maybe a lute (as pictured above). In the baroque period the director often was the harpsichord player as seen here. That person and the cellist provide the bass notes and the base of the harmony. They improvise, embellish, and they unify the ensemble. The continuo is, well, continuous. They’re always there. They hold it together.
Except suddenly, in this number, the continuo is gone. When Jesus is carried away, Bach writes it so that the bottom has literally fallen out. All we’re left with is treble instruments and treble voices, like the lamenting daughters of the Old Testament. And all of these parts have notes that are sustained across beats. When written, this means they’re tied together, just like Jesus is bound and led away. I’m telling you, Bach makes everything meaningful somehow or another.
The soprano and alto mournfully sing “So is my Jesus captured now” [So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen], and then, over these long, tied notes from the soloists, Chorus II (representing the faithful) loudly protests: “Loose him, do not hold, do not bind him!” [Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!], which really sounds so much more intense in German than in English.
The real anger is in the upcoming thunder, however, as Bach turns loose the full force of the pain and outrage at Jesus’s unjust arrest through the chorus. You know something is going to happen around 3:13 when the other half of the choir stands. Suddenly both choirs combined together as well as the full orchestra (continuo too) unleash in furious indignation at the traitor, Judas. All at once, like a crack of thunder and sudden deluge of rain, the basses launch everyone into these fast, note-heavy lines:
Have lightnings, has thunder vanished in the clouds?
[Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?]
It sounds and feels like a dark storm system that billows and rolls over itself as it bears down across the sky. The bass instruments are back, everyone dives into a rapid triple meter, and the individual parts clamor one after the other in successive entrances. Of all the thousands of things I’ve sung, this section of the St. Matthew Passion right here is definitely one of the most memorable and thrilling. The “Blitze” and “Donner” (lighting and thunder) strike back and forth only one or two beats apart across the two choruses (about 3:47). When Bach performed this, the two choruses were across from each other up in balconies, and recreating this storm shooting back and forth across the audience was probably one of the best special effects in Leipzig in the whole eighteenth century.
The chorus takes a grand pause and then jumps into the next part of the text, calling for Judas’s condemnation:
Open your fiery pit, O hell;
Wreck, ruin, engulf, shatter
With sudden force
The false betrayer, the murderous blood!
[Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,/ Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle/ Mit plötzlicher Wut/ Den falschen Verräter,das mördrische Blut!]
They’re not messing around.
*Just a note about versions. Choosing the version of each piece to use is one of the most difficult decisions for me in these posts. Today I opted for one in which the sound quality and even the soloists aren’t quite as strong as in another option, but I hope that the wide shots of this one with a big ensemble give a better sense for the drama of the work as a whole and of this number in particular. If any of these pieces strike your fancy, I’d recommend hunting around for other versions as well just to see different interpretations.