Good Friday 2015, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Gute Nacht

Here is the scene of Jesus’s final time on the cross.

We looked at this scene in Wednesday’s post in the final link that wouldn’t embed the video. The scene, including the hushed and moving chorale that follows it, is only about five minutes. I’ve set up the video to continue running, however, and you can keep watching if you’d like. [**N.B. The first time you pull up this video, it should work, but after that it may only continue from where you were watching. If you’d like the time stamp for this scene it’s 2:46:30.]

If you do keep watching, you’ll hear the dramatic rending of the temple veil. The quick notes that run up and down underneath the Evangelist’s part sound like the ripping of the veil, but even more than that, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has pointed out, these quick thirty-second notes in the continuo part for the text “and the earth did quake . . . and the graves were opened . . . and many bodies arose,” follow a numerical pattern. (Speaking of patterns, there are also plenty in Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition from the Cross, which is the artwork at the beginning of this post. Give it a close look.)

Counting these fast thirty-second notes at the telling of the earthquake shows that Bach wrote 18, 68, and 104 notes, respectively, under these parts. Why 18, 68, and 104? Because the earthquake is described in Psalms 18, 68, and 104. Harnoncourt says, “Such numerical allusions are to be found within virtually every piece of the St. Matthew Passion. . . . This aspect of Bach’s composition deserves consideration above all because the music has not had to suffer at any single point because of this procrustean bed. Bach’s mastery of composition was so consummate that he must have sought such extra difficulties with actual pleasure in order to test himself with them.”

Stormy Landscape by Rembrandt
Stormy Landscape by Rembrandt

Here’s the thing: I counted those notes just to see, and he’s right. Not only does the total number of notes add up, but the text is divided around those numeric divisions: 18, 68, and 104. So the St. Matthew Passion is a work where your heartstrings can be tugged by its beauty, your breath taken away by its drama, and then hidden among all of that are these crazy amazing symbols and compositional games to boot. Speaking of beauty and drama, if you listen just a minute or so more, you’ll hear the wonder in the chorus’s line as they collectively sing the realization, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

To finish off today is the other commentary response (in addition to the chorale) to Jesus’s death on Good Friday: the choir and soloists sing Gute Nacht or “goodnight” to Jesus. In the final scenes of the Passion Bach moves from the confusion and devastation surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion to the tenderness of a lullaby.

Inset detail at the bottom of the cross from Lorenzo Lotto's Crucifixion
Inset detail of the believers and soldiers at the bottom of the cross from Lorenzo Lotto’s Crucifixion

Throughout the Passion the chorus in the chorales and the soloists in the poetic arias have stood in for the larger church community while also providing individual sentiments and feelings. Here, in this penultimate number of the entire Passion Bach stays true to the Lutheran care for accessible, everyman worship by bringing all the soloists together with the chorus to sing Jesus goodnight.

The bass soloist begins (a detail that I’ll return to tomorrow) and is answered by the chorus led by the sopranos. Then the tenor soloist sings, and the chorus responds this time led by the altos. The alto soloist sings, and the chorus enters led by the basses. Finally the soprano soloist sings, and the chorus finishes, led by the tenors. Of course each soloist’s line hearkens to other arias from that soloist earlier in the Passion. These echoes and the sharing of roles, leading, following, and singing together gives through-line to the whole work and a satisfying feel to the unity of believers, all paying homage to Jesus with an affectionate goodnight.

Bass Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht.
  -Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
Tenor Die Müh ist aus, die unsre Sünden ihm gemacht.
  -Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
Alto O selige Gebeine,
Seht, wie ich euch mit Buß und Reu beweine,
Daß euch mein Fall in solche Not gebracht!
  -Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!
Soprano Habt lebenslang vor euer Leiden tausend Dank,
Daß ihr mein Seelenheil so wert geacht’.
  -Mein Jesu, gute Nacht! –
Bass Now the Lord is brought to rest.
– My Jesus, good night! –
Tenor The weariness is over, that our sins have given Him.
– My Jesus, good night! –
Alto O blessed bones,
see, how I weep over You with repentance and regret,
since my fall has brought such anguish upon You!
– My Jesus, good night! –
Soprano Lifelong, thousand thanks to You for Your suffering,
since You held my soul’s salvation so dear.
– My Jesus, good night! –

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