My first serious exposure to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was some years ago singing in the chorus with Chicago Chorale. We rehearsed for months. I marked the music, bought the recording, practiced the German, polished my little solo as the first maid to accuse Peter of knowing Jesus, and I still had a hard time wrapping my head around the whole thing. We got all done with this thrilling performance, and I remember being at home either that night or the next day with a movement in my head that I didn’t know very well. I’d studied my parts, but I hadn’t figured out what all the solo recitatives and arias were yet. But this particular music—this one stuck. I pulled up my recording of the Passion and spent about a half hour hunting for this wonderful music I was hearing that had seeped into my consciousness and stayed with me when everything was finished.
It was the final solo aria, the bass’s “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” I put it on repeat that Easter.
If you’d like to go straight to “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” skip the first 2:33 in this clip. But you should know that you’ll be skipping one of the most gorgeous recitatives in the whole Passion that has a more fully composed accompaniment and muses on Adam’s fall, the point of Jesus on the cross, and the cool stillness of the evening hour. There’s a little moment at 1:03 that feels like an ahead-of-its-time nineteenth-century art song (like this one, for example) in its grace and sentiment for deep feeling and the natural world—all with a Bach-Christianized twist.
Am Abend, da es kühle war,
Ward Adams Fallen offenbar;
Am Abend drücket ihn der Heiland nieder.
Am Abend kam die Taube wieder,
Und trug ein Ölblatt in dem Munde.
O schöne Zeit! O Abendstunde!
Der Friedensschluß ist nun mit Gott gemacht,
Denn Jesus hat sein Kreuz vollbracht.
Sein Leichnam kömmt zur Ruh,
Ach! liebe Seele, bitte du,
Geh, lasse dir den toten Jesum schenken,
O heilsames, o köstlichs Angedenken!
In the evening, when it was cool,
Adam’s fall was made apparent;
in the evening the Savior bowed himself down.
In the evening the dove came back,
bearing an olive leaf in its mouth.
O lovely time! O evening hour!
Peace is now made with God,
For Jesus has endured his Cross.
His body comes to rest,
Ah! dear soul, ask,
go, bid them give you the dead Jesus,
O healing, O precious remembrance!
This recitative and aria comes right after the Evangelist tells of how Joseph of Arimathea begged the body of Jesus so that he could give it a proper burial in his own tomb, a beautiful spot right off of a vineyard and garden.
One concern I had with focusing on the St. Matthew Passion all week is that there aren’t many happy parts of the story. Even when I sang in a production of it myself, we got all done with this great masterwork of Western music, and I felt like it had ended in the wrong place. It ends with Jesus dead, and everyone packs up and goes home. Gute Nacht, indeed.
But this aria takes that theme of Jesus’s burial and wears it with a difference. As I’ve mentioned throughout the week, the format of the St. Matthew Passion has scenes of the Evangelist and other characters sing the story, and then the soloists and chorus comment and meditate on those events in recitatives, arias, and chorales. The soloists and chorus stand in for you, for me, for the church community as a whole, and Bach, in the spirit of Martin Luther, democratizes access to Jesus and his story. The whole Passion highlights the faith and feelings of regular believers.
Here at the end, the final solo of this massive work, Bach (and Picander, the librettist) think about what it means to give Jesus a place to be buried. The tragedy of Jesus’s burial is turned into an opportunity for personal devotion and closeness to him.
Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,
Ich will Jesum selbst begraben.
Denn er soll nunmehr in mir
Für und für
Seine süße Ruhe haben.
Welt, geh aus, laß Jesum ein!
Make thyself pure, my heart,
I will myself entomb Jesus.
For he shall henceforth in me,
Forever and ever,
Take his sweet rest.
World, begone, let Jesus in!
And I think that here, more than anywhere else in the Passion, Bach makes the voice of the music his own. The soloist still stands in for everyone and also folds us into the perspective and story of Joseph of Arimathea, but placed in the bass voice, as the final extended solo expression in the work, taking us back into a major key, I think this aria is a particularly personal expression of Bach himself. We could think of it as his signature at creating a musical resting place for his Lord.
Robert Greenberg calls this piece a kind of love song, and I agree. With the lilt and gladness of a dance, it’s affectionate, tuneful music that sticks in your head—the kind you would sing to someone you know well with the kind of feeling you remember for a long time.
Bach was better known in his own day as a keyboard virtuoso than as a composer. When we encounter exquisite technique, indomitable spirit, and deep expressivity combined together over and over in his music, recalling that he composed it amid chronic under-appreciation in his lifetime and that he probably didn’t expect to be much remembered by posterity, we get the sense that Bach was writing for himself and for his God much of the time. Bach was known to have a temper. He loved his coffee, had no patience for his duties teaching Latin at the church school, chewed out musicians for their incompetence, and had a lively sense of humor. As Kapellmeister he fought regularly with his employers at Thomaskirche and sometimes just left town, unannounced, for weeks at a time (usually to check out an organ or composer he wanted to see).
In short, although he certainly had a first-rate mind and heart, Bach was thoroughly human. And, in his humanity, he was also completely devoted to his God. Bach famously said, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” I hope in your listening this week that you find that Mr. Bach accomplished this aim and final end. Happy Easter.
**Today’s cover photo is the Bach window from the Thomaskirsche in Leipzig where he worked for several years. The church boasts a similar Mendelssohn window as well. Felix Mendelssohn is credited with reintroducing Bach into the public consciousness when he led a performance of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, the first performance of the work in decades since around 1800.
** If you want to get into Bach more, I recommend the Teaching Company’s course, Bach and the High Baroque. It’s available on Audible.com for the price of one book.