Yesterday I wrote about continuo. Continuo (essentially the rhythm section of baroque opera, the harpsichord/organ and cello) developed because recitatives needed it. Recitatives developed because the members of the Florentine Camerata, which was a bunch of smart, famous Renaissance men in Florence, got so inspired by the ancient Greeks’ theories and writings on the expressive power of music that they tried to recreate it. Voilà: opera.
The Florentine Camerata’s whole idea behind the ideas that led to opera was to match the expressive power of sung Greek drama. The way the Greeks described it, music seemed to possess inexplicable, even divine power. But to get to this musical power, Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo’s father), Guilio Caccini (who experimented with expressive music before the first operas), Jacopo Peri (who composed the first opera either in 1597 or 1600), and other composers felt that the music of this sung drama should approximate and follow the natural word accents of speech. An unmetered, improvisational, and text-heavy form of dramatic solo vocal music was born, and it was called stile recitativo or, you guessed it, recitative.
Continuo developed as a way of undergirding the soloist in these recitatives and also demarcated the difference between speech-like recitatives and the more repetitive, florid arias that were accompanied by continuo as well as by several other instruments, such as the violins, flutes, oboes, etc.
In Bach’s St. Matthew Passion almost all of the Biblical text of Matthew 26 & 27, translated by Martin Luther, is recitative accompanied by continuo. The two primary speakers are the Evangelist, a tenor, and Jesus, a bass. And you can tell them apart besides their vocal ranges. Bach always writes a group of violins in with the continuo for Jesus’ part, and these strings form a kind of musical halo around Jesus’s words. In the image below you can see the Evangelist’s part begins the line, and then when Jesus’s part starts, a chord of strings are added in the staff of accompaniment (the full-sized notes, not the smaller ones).
Okay, ready to hear some recitatives? You never know: you might be moved to tears and great passions like the ancient Greeks.
Recitative 1: “Da Jesus diese Rede vollendet hatte”
We kick things off with the first recitative in the whole Passion. The Evangelist introduces the setting: Jesus is speaking to his disciples. Listen for the strings that enter when Jesus begins to sing, telling them that in two days it will be the Passover, and he will be handed over and crucified. Pay attention around 0:27 as he begins the word gekreuziget, or “crucified.” As you can see in the music below, Bach writes a criss-crossing pattern into the word, evoking the cross.
Recitative 2: “Da antwortete nun der Landpfleger und sprach zu ihnen”
Yesterday I wrote about one of the most thrilling pieces I’ve ever sung. The passage in this next clip is perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever sung.
Here Pilate asks the crowd whether he should release Barabbas or Jesus to them. The continuo sets up an A7 chord, ready for a clean and clear transition to D major, the key in which Pilate has been singing. Pilate chooses the worst offender as the option to Jesus, and perhaps he presumed that they would clearly choose Jesus and that the issue would be resolved.
But it doesn’t resolve that way narratively, historically, or musically. Not only are we not expecting to hear the chorus here in the middle of a bunch of recitative, but instead of the expected answer of “Jesus” in D major, the crowd screams Barabam! in a D#minor°7 or a fully diminished D# minor 7th chord. In other words, Bach chooses the most dissonant possible option to follow that A7 perfect setup. It’s jarring, ugly, frightening, and feels like mob rule. Watch as much of the rest of the clip as you like, because the drama continues.
Recitative 3: “Und von der sechsten Stunde”
Here’s a dramatized version of the passion with a bit more staging than most. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble embedding it. But really, play it! Scroll to 2:48 for the recitative—or watch the whole thing.
Again, if you want to go straight to the recitative, scroll over to 2:48. It tells of Jesus being on the cross and calling out, asking why God has forsaken him. Before that is the aria, “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand.” It starts out with the woodwinds sounding like the clucking and waddling of a mother hen. The alto singing invites all to come to Jesus’ arms, nodding to the Bible reference, Matthew 23:37 in which Jesus says, “how oft would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
But to me, the real feature of this clip is the recitative. Notice that this time, the only time in the whole work, the halo of strings is absent during Jesus’s lines, Eli, Eli, lama asabthani? which translates to “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Forsaken on the cross, Jesus’s halo of strings is gone.