Sources and Endnotes

March 29, 2021 by

1. Though Bach had twenty children in all, three of his first wife’s seven children died in infancy, as did six of his second wife’s thirteen. Though undeniably tragic, and shocking from a twenty-first-century perspective, such a high rate of infant mortality was not uncommon in Bach’s time.

2. Writing on the history of musical “passions,” the scholar Paul Kilbey says the following: There can be few more evocative words in music than “passion.” As well as its familiar English definition, in a musical context it also suggests the commemoration of that most emotive Christian story, the journey of Jesus to the cross. The word has also come to be all but synonymous in music with its two greatest exemplars: the St. John and St. Matthew Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The passions of John and Matthew were in fact the first two to gain a place in the liturgical canon, though this was a good twelve centuries before Bach’s settings materialized: Pope Leo the Great established that these two accounts of the events leading to the crucifixion should be presented during Holy Week as early as the fifth century AD.

Performances of the passions from this time onwards appear to have developed in much the same way as religious music generally: initially the texts would have been recited or chanted by a single priest, and by the twelfth century there is evidence of musical notation being used to determine pitches. Also apparent in the early sources are indications of a sense of drama: many distinguish clearly between passages relating to the Evangelist/narrator, Christ, and the crowd (or “turba”).

By Bach’s time, passion setting had morphed into a dramatic form with much in common with the oratorio: Bach writes a dynamic and complex part for chorus (or double chorus) and characters with strongly delineated musical styles.

Although the Evangelist’s part in Bach’s settings is composed as “secco” recitative (a speech-like narrative style, accompanied only by the continuo section), moments of immense drama still remain, and the Evangelist’s part in the St. John Passion surely contains some of the most affecting recitative sections ever written. Bach goes to great lengths to emphasize the horrors of the story, the reality of the death of Christ, and he does this with incredible mastery, fashioning a deeply moving and cathartic experience through his hugely imaginative and memorable scores.

Though a contemporary catalogue lists Bach as having composed five passions, only music for the St. John and St. Matthew works survives. But these two pieces are so musically rich that we can hardly complain. The larger, later and more famous of the two, the St. Matthew Passion is for orchestra, double choir, children’s choir and soloists. It was first performed in 1727, but received relatively few hearings from this time until its famous 1829 revival in Berlin with the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn.

The huge interest which Mendelssohn’s performance sparked was a key factor in the resurgence of interest in Bach’s music generally, which grew throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And as Bach has become more and more revered and loved over the years, the St. Matthew Passion’s status as one of music’s masterpieces has only been confirmed; as a large-scale Baroque work it has few competitors in terms of fame or popularity.

3. The following extended quote on this matter (from the critic Alex Ross) specifically relates (in the first of the following paragraphs) to Bach’s St. John Passion, but goes on to discuss his St. Matthew Passion as well. Ross begins by comparing the potential anti-Semitic tone of Bach’s libretto to that of other composers who set the same story to music:

Bach’s libretto is somewhat less severe. The…scourging of Jesus is ascribed not to Jewish soldiers but to Pilate. Were these enlightened choices on the part of Bach or his collaborator? There is no way of know­­ing, but Marissen [Michael Marissen, author of Bach and God] speculates that Bach, following Lutheran convention, wished to shift emphasis from the perfidy of the Jews to the guilt of all participants in the Passion scene and, by extension, to present-day sinners.

Still, the Jews retain enemy status, their presence felt in a series of bustling, bristling choruses. Many of these pieces share an instrumental signature – sixteenth notes in the strings, oboes chirping above. Several exhibit upward-slithering chromatic lines. Bouts of counterpoint create a disputatious atmosphere. All this fits the stereotype of “Jewish uproar” – of a noisy, obstinate people.

At the same time, the choruses are lively, propulsive, exciting to sing and hear. When the Jews tell Pilate, “We have a law, and by the law he ought to die,” the music is oddly infect­ious, full of jaunty syn­copations. This incongruous air of merriment con­veys how crowds can take pleasure in hounding individuals. Moreover, the chorus in which the Jews protest the designation of Jesus as “King of the Jews” echoes a chorus of Roman soldiers sardonically crying the same phrase. Ul­ti­mately, Bach seems interested more in portraying the dynamics of right­eous mobs than in stereotyping Jews. The choicest irony is that he uses his own celebrated art of fugue as a symbol of malicious scheming.

The Jews behave similarly in the St. Matthew Passion, where the crowd’s cry of “Lass ihn kreuzigen!” (“Let him be crucified”) is arti­culated as a driving, demonic fugue. Marissen highlights Bach’s handling of the phrase “his blood be on us and on our children,” which was widely taken to be a curse that Jews cast upon themselves.

The St. Matthew mitigates this threat of eternal damnation with the magisterial alto aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen” (“If the tears of my cheeks”), in which an image of dripping blood, palpably notated in the music, is transmuted into one of melancholy grace. Marissen discerns a theo­logical message: the Jews’ curse is borne by all and, on pious reflection, turns into a blessing.

Such gestures help to explain why the Bach Passions have long found an audience far beyond Lutheran congregations. In 1824, Bella Salomon, an observant Jew living in Berlin, gave a copy of the St. Mat­thew to her grandson, Felix Mendelssohn, who resolved to lead a per­for­mance. His revival of the work, in 1829, inaugurated the modern cult of Bach. Although Mendelssohn had converted to Christianity, he re­mained conscious of his Jewish origins. The scholar Ruth HaCohen speculates that Bach’s “ecumenical, inclusive dialogue” opened a space in which Jewish listeners could find refuge….


Ambrose, Z. Philip. J.S. Bach: Texts of Vocal Works in Translation, with Commentary
Bernstein, Leonard. The Joy of Music (2nd Edition)
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (2013)
Gardiner, John Eliot. “Programmatic Notes to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion” (1999)
Geiringer, Karl. Notizen zur Matthäus-Passion
Gordon, David. “Bach’s St. Matthew Passion” (2001)
Hildel, Winifred. Conversations (1996-1998)
Isoyama, Tadashi. “St. Matthew Passion” (1999)
Jens, Inge, ed. At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
Levang, Rex. “The St. Matthew Passion” – notes for Minnesota Public Radio, (2001)
Ross, Alex. “Atonement: The St. Matthew Passion at the Armony,” The New Yorker, (Oct. 27, 2014)
Schweitzer, Albert. J. S. Bach: Leben und Werk, Bd. I, II
Wolff, Christoph. “Bach’s Große Passion,” (1989)

The recorded excerpts in the notes are from John Eliot Gardiner’s recording with the Monteverdi Choir (Archiv Produktion, © 1989)


About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris and his wife, Bea, live at The Mount, a Bruderhof in Esopus, New York.

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