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Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: An Appreciation

March 18, 2016 by

a statue of Bach outside the Thomaskirche in Leipzig
A statue of J. S. Bach stands outside the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany. Photograph: Appaloosa

Driving some friends to the train the other day – they were headed to Leipzig for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in the church where he composed it – it struck me that Bach is everywhere at this time of year, at least here in his home state of Thuringia. Days before, I had arranged tickets for two other groups who plan to attend performances in the vicinity; and come April, the yearly Bach-Wochen (“Bach Weeks”) will be drawing musicians and music-lovers from around the globe for an overwhelming smorgasbord of offerings put on by local conservatories, churches, choirs, and orchestras.

It’s not just a regional phenomenon. Google “St. Matthew Passion,” for starters, and you’ll come up with a staggering number of matches. Recordings – hundreds of them. Announcements for past and future performances from the smallest rural church choirs to the largest halls of New York, Moscow, Johannesburg, Berlin, Tokyo, and Sydney. Scholarly articles on its structure. Discourses on historically accurate performing standards and instrumentation. Endless critical appraisals, from the academic to the heartfelt, including an unlikely appreciation by a London Muslim who says that the work is so “devastating” in its power that even non-Christians can find meaning in it.

Leaving the cyber-world for the real, it’s much the same. Look at any big city newspaper around Easter, and you’re sure to find a performance advertised somewhere. When my wife and I lived in New York, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was offering a series of special Passion concerts each spring that dispensed with the customary stand-and-sing presentation. (Instead, the choir, dressed in street clothes, was arranged on a round stage, with the audience around it, to invite maximum participation in the experience.) Each of these performances sold out quickly, despite tickets ranging from $30 to $80 apiece. We used to go to similar (free) concerts at St. Peter’s, a church on the Upper East Side, where the audience was invited to sing along with each chorale. These events were so well attended that you had to come several hours early if you wanted a good seat.

What sort of piece is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, that it has such a wide reach and such tremendous staying power? Has anything else lasted, culturally speaking, from 1727 to the present? In an age when churches are normally dark and empty, why are crowds still flocking to hear such an overtly religious piece – an age when any song you could ever want can be had with the flick of your finger? Is it really just the music drawing people?

No one but the individual concertgoer can answer that question, but in the interest of piquing the interest of those to whom Bach’s “Great Passion” is a foreign, inaccessible enigma, here are a few thoughts. Based largely on gleanings from other sources (see the endnotes), they’re not especially original. I compiled them simply in order to share an ongoing fascination with this unrivaled depiction of Christ’s final sufferings – unrivaled in its poetic and musical scope, its spiritual depth, and its uncanny ability to stir the soul.

Background

Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded the greatest musical genius of all time. He was born in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany, the same year as Handel, though the two never met, because Handel spent most of his adult life in London. Bach came from a family of prominent musicians. He began earning his own living at fifteen as a chorister and violinist in a court orchestra, and later became a church organist. In 1707 he married a second cousin, Maria Barbara, and had seven children. He was, by now, working as a violinist, organist, and consultant to organ builders.

Bach’s first wife died in 1720, and he remarried the next year. His second wife, Anna Magdalena, was a singer, and bore him thirteen more children. In between (how there was any “in between” at all, with so many children, is beyond my comprehension) she assisted him by copying his scores. There was a lot to copy: during his life Bach wrote some 250 cantatas, plus scores of sonatas, concertos, trios, oratorios, masses, motets, keyboard exercises and variations. (Despite this prodigious output, by the way, Bach was not known so much as a composer during these years, but first and foremost as a brilliant organist, organ builder and technician, and teacher. Only a dozen or so of his works were published in his lifetime.)

In 1723, the family moved to Leipzig, where Bach spent the rest of his life, mostly at St. Thomas, where he was cantor, though also at the city’s other big church, St. Nicholas. Among other duties, his post required him to instruct the members of the Thomanerchor (the boys’ choir of St. Thomas) in singing and in Latin, and to provide weekly music at both of these churches.

Notes at the Bach Museum in Leipzig contain complaints by his contemporaries suggesting that he was too easy on the pupils in his care, who, instead of doing their studies in the evening, ran wild through the streets. In a way, it’s hardly surprising. After all, he had his own children to look out for, and was busy turning out, during his Leipzig years, more than two full cycles of cantatas (a cycle consisting of a complete cantata for each Sunday of the year). Many were written around Lutheran chorales, such as “Wake, awake” or “How brightly beams the morning star.”

Bach completed his St. Matthew Passion in time for Good Friday, 1727 (he revised it later, at least once). It was performed only a few more times, “always under his own direction and with his apparently meager ensemble of church musicians.” (David Gordon). In the 1740s, he began to go blind. He died of a stroke (after an unsuccessful eye operation) in 1750, at the age of 65, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Writing about the place of the Passion in Bach’s life, David Gordon, a musicologist, writes:

An indication of the special regard he held for this work is that Bach went to considerable trouble in his old age to repair the large manuscript score of the St. Matthew Passion. This presentation-quality copy, still in existence today, is unique among Bach manuscripts: he designed it beautifully, painstakingly bound and re-sewed it by hand, and carefully highlighted the biblical words in red ink. Those few who saw it after Bach’s death considered the manuscript unperformable and left the huge work unpublished and unheard until 1829 [a full century after it was composed] when Felix Mendelssohn organized [and conducted] a performance, heavily abridged, in Berlin.

With this performance Mendelssohn revived, almost single-handedly, interest in Bach. He was only twenty, and a recent convert to Christianity.

Speaking of faith, Bach was a staunch Lutheran. At the Bach House in Eisenach, where he was born and raised, numerous Bibles, hymnals, and multi-volume works by Martin Luther (in some cases heavily marked in the margins) attest to the fact that he had more than a passing interest in theology, and that he took his faith seriously. Indeed, it is clear that his devotion to Christ was deep and personal.

In the case of the St. Matthew Passion, this devotion seems to have extended even to the care with which the text was shaped. According to the Japanese Bach scholar Tadashi Isoyama, recent research indicates that Bach’s librettist (the Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, who went by the pen name Picander) drew on collections of passion sermons included in Bach’s personal library, and that “it seems probable that Bach did not simply select verses and set them to music, but rather influenced the construction of the texts.”

Back to the composition of the music itself, Bach was also keenly aware that his talent was a gift. As he noted, in a scribbled comment in the margin of his Bible, “In music of true worship, God is always present with his grace.” Many of his scores are inscribed with an abbreviated heading (or footer) expressing devotion, for example: S.D.G. (“Soli Deo Gloria,” which means “to God alone be glory”), I.N.J. (“In Nomine Jesu,” which means “In the name of Jesus”) or J.J. (“Jesu Juva,” which means “Help me, Jesus”).

The Title

Why the odd title – St. Matthew Passion – when Bach, a staunch Lutheran, would never have referred to the apostle as a saint, and the “passion” is Christ’s, not Matthew’s? The full title (from the cover of Bach’s fair copy) is Passio Domini Nostri J. C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum; that is, “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew.” Of course, the word “passion” does not refer to “love” in this instance, but comes from passio – a participle of the Latin verb “to suffer.”

Bach sets out to make this suffering palpable in the first chorus by its mood: turbulence, anguish, minor chords, and then light breaking through with what Leonard Bernstein called the “redemptive clarity” of the ripieno. That’s the simple choral melody set above the swirling accompaniment. Note Bach’s use of a most simple, childlike tune – an old French street song that recalls “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” Listen to excerpt 1 – “Come ye daughters.”

The Cast

St. Matthew Passion is an oratorio, which is a musical drama. Unlike the opera, the best-known type of musical drama, the oratorio does not use costumes, makeup, or musicians who act while they sing. Rather, the composer restricts himself to creating a drama whose full force comes to expression through the musical delivery. (This is because most religious music was performed in churches. There was no room for a stage, and no time for scene changes.)

Like operas, though, oratorios do have casts. In St. Matthew Passion we have the narrator, who is called the evangelist, because he recites, in “recitatives,” the story of the crucifixion as told in the gospel, or evangel (from the Latin evangelium). Specific actorsPilate, the High Priest, Judas, the crowd – have roles too. In the short choruses “Not upon this feast!” and “To what purpose is this waste?” it is clearly a crowd speaking, if not shouting, in response to the words of the evangelist. This sort of turbulent, emotionally charged musical outcry is known as a “turba” (i.e. turbulence).

Even the larger “double” choruses, divided in today’s editions simply as “Choir I” and “Choir II”, were originally conceived as having specific historic roles to play. Whereas Picander designates Choir I as “the Daughters of Zion” (Jesus’s contemporaries) he marks Choir II as “The Faithful” – us latter-day witnesses to his death.

The last “actor,” of course, is Jesus himself. Note that whereas Bach used the organ and other instruments to accompany most voices of the cast, he used strings alone as accompaniment whenever Jesus himself speaks, resulting in what Bernstein called a shimmering “halo” effect. David Gordon notes, “Only at the moment of Christ’s death does this halo fall away, and Jesus utters his poignant final ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’ accompanied by the basso continuo alone.”

Listen to excerpt 2 – and note the evangelist, the turbae, and the strings accompanying the voice of Jesus. The story here is as follows: Caiaphas consults with leaders to kill Jesus. The crowd says, “Not upon this feast!” Then the evangelist sings of the anointing of Jesus in Bethany, and the crowd reacts, “To what purpose is this waste?” to which Jesus responds by singing of how the woman who anointed him will always be remembered.

Returning to the idea of a cast: there are also commentators. Some of what they sing is reflective, as the piece that addresses the evil of Judas’ betrayal; other pieces consist of a soliloquy in which the singer pours out his or her heart, the best-known example being the aria, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” In numbers like this one, Bach puts the spotlight on our own condition, and forces us to deal with the words on a personal level.

Finally, Bach employs a sort of Greek chorus to respond to the events. These take two forms: there are eleven chorales which “step outside the action at significant spots and react to the story…They provide commentary and create a sense of a community response to the events just described by the soloists.” Then there are the four longer choruses that frame each half of the Passion, like bookends. They are written for soloists (both instrumental and vocal) and a single or double chorus, and often involve dialogue, as in the first piece, where Choir I asks questions (“What?” “Come where?”), and Choir II answers them (“A spotless lamb.” “To Jesus’ bosom”). David Gordon writes:

In these pieces, the singers do not depict actual characters in the narrative, but rather comment introspectively on the meaning of the events, often explicitly inviting the listener’s heart to become involved in the unfolding drama, to react to it and be changed by it. This skillful and repeated invitation to the listener actually to join the story is a crowning touch of Bach’s genius, and it is this element above all which makes the entire work so moving and powerful.

The best example of this is the so-called “Lord’s Supper sequence.” Note the accompaniment (and the interplay of narrator and cast). Jesus says that someone will betray him, and the chorus, representing the disciples, responds, “Lord, is it I?” The phrase is repeated eleven times, once for each faithful disciple. There’s a certain irony here: the missing phrase, of course, belongs to Judas, and highlights him as the only disciple impudent enough to ask the question.

Just at this point, Bach interrupts the narrative to insert the chorale “’Tis I who am most guilty,” a stark reminder that the real responsibility for Christ’s betrayal is not Judas’s alone, but that each of us must bear our part. Whether a singer in the choir, or as a listener, we are thus drawn into the story.

It is this sort of device that makes the oratorio so heart-rending. Again, it doesn’t just describe Good Friday, but invites everyone to participate in remembering it, and thereby relive (for example) the emotions of the anxious, tired, or faithless disciple, the watcher in the crowd, or Christ’s grieving mother.

Listen to excerpt 3: the Passover story; Jesus’ prediction that one of his disciples will betray him; the evangelist’s depiction of their growing sorrow; and finally, the question, “Lord, is it I?”

The following chorale (excerpt 4) answers their question from our perspective: “Lord, it is my sin that binds thee – I am the one who ought to be suffering such tortures.”

With respect to the chorales, their poetic lyrics are perhaps just as moving as their musical power. Whereas the recitatives and arias dramatize the agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the chorales give one a chance to “breathe in,” as it were, and respond on an even more personal level to the unfolding story. Even the deepest aria – take, for instance, “Have mercy” – remains a solo, performed by one person; everyone else remains a listener. Singing a chorale, on the other hand, presumes the participation of everyone in the choir (and in Bach’s day, the entire congregation as well), and allows each singer to voice – and thus admit – his complicit guilt in relation to Christ's death, and his longing for redemption.

According to the critic Alex Ross, all this is a fruit of Bach’s intent, which was not merely to set an important text to music, but to bring to life a theological truth. He notes that in a 1519 treatise on the Crucifixion, Martin Luther had

grim tidings for those…who wished to lay the blame for Christ’s death entirely on the Jews. You killed Jesus, Luther told them: “When you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work.” Luther’s message served as a warning to those who felt secure in their faith, their virtue, their worldly position. To him, guilt for the crime committed at Golgotha is ubiquitous, seeping forward in time… This [view] lies at the core of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which, scholars argue, takes that 1519 treatise as a model.

Mood

In the Passion, as elsewhere, Bach uses his mastery of musical forms to create powerful contrasts of mood. The best example is (again) the chorales, which often have similar (if not identical) melodies but are harmonized differently in order to evoke different emotions. Bach actually uses the melody of his best-known chorale, “O sacred head now wounded” five times in this Passion, but they are harmonized so differently that the repetition is not at all tedious. Instead, it works to give the oratorio coherence, the way a literary motif might in a novel.

One setting of “O sacred head” is unrelievedly somber, as when Jesus has just been crucified. Another is anguished, set in a minor key with an unsettling chromatic bass line that never really finds its footing till the end. Still another is solid and confident, representing strength and faith. In the best recordings, these nuances are taken into account, avoiding the tedious delivery that so many people unfairly (but understandably) associate with chorales; in fact, their delivery will be appropriately varied, according to the context. (For a peerless example of such chorale singing, listen to excerpts 5, 6, and 7.)

A fine example of Bach’s use of repetition to make connections is noted by the scholar Christoph Wolff, who suggests that the use of the same melody for “O blessed Jesus,” the first chorale in the oratorio, and one of the last “O wondrous love” is intentional. In the first instance, the text refers to Christ’s prediction of his sufferings. In the second, which follows the crowd’s shouts of “Let him be crucified!” the crucifixion has become a concrete reality.

The chorales, by the way, are not Bach’s own melodies, but familiar tunes that he borrowed and arranged. We might think of them as sober, earnest hymns, but some were originally street tunes. (According to the Bach scholar Z. Philip Ambrose, the most famous one “O sacred head,” by Han Leo Hassler, was originally a secular love song.) This tradition of borrowing music is still going strong; though whereas 300 years ago serious musicians were borrowing popular tunes, it’s now working the other way around: popular musicians are borrowing from classical tunes. A familiar instance of this in recent years is Carlos Santana’s use, in his album Supernatural, of a melody from Brahms’s Symphony No. 3. For a specific example relating to Bach, there’s Paul Simon’s song “American Tune,” which is almost identical to “O Sacred Head.”

Tone Pictures

In St. Matthew Passion as in his other choral works, Bach devised specific “tone pictures” or “musical pictures” to help deliver his narrative. Some of these are obvious because of the interplay of music and text; others are open to interpretation and have been “discovered,” so to speak, by critics over the years. Here, a few examples:

In one number, the cello ascends a major scale, as the singer describes Christ’s ascent of the Mount of Olives. In the same sequence, a flurry of chords dissipating in different directions illustrates Christ’s words about the scattering of his flock. To hear both examples, listen to excerpt 8.

In another number, the oboe seems to represent Mary running first one way in the garden, and then the other, looking for Jesus. In yet another, the basses stumble over and over the same phrase, illustrating Jesus’s footsteps as he stumbles under the weight of the cross. There’s also a number where the woodwinds play in repetitive triplets that evoke the soloist’s words: she’s singing about how her heart is swimming in a sea of tears. Listen to excerpt 9 to hear the rippling motion.

Then there’s the dramatic point where the soloist sings Jesus’s words, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” On the word “weak,” the accompaniment crumbles. Peter’s weeping, after his betrayal of Christ, is also vividly depicted by the vocal line Bach gives the soloist at that point in the story. Listen to excerpt 10, which depicts the whole sequence of Peter’s betrayal, and ends with him weeping.

And in the aria where the soprano sings about the scourging of Jesus, a harsh, rhythmic motif in the violin part represents Christ’s being lashed with a whip. Listen to excerpt 11 to hear this.

To me, the most vivid tonal depiction comes in the alto aria “Have mercy,” which Alex Ross calls “the most beloved passage in the St. Matthew Passion.” Evoking Peter’s bitter weeping after his denial of Christ, the “keening melody” is interwoven with a “sad, serene, gently dancing violin solo… The singer tries to emulate the violin’s endless melody but keeps falling short, because parts of it lie outside her range. It is an audible symbol of human frailty, akin to Peter’s failure of courage.”

Numerology

Like the Jewish cabbalists, and like Christians down the centuries who have highlighted the significance of numbers in everything from seven-armed candelabras to the triune God and the twelve gates of the Holy City (or the twelve disciples), Bach was interested in numerology – that is, mathematical symbolism. For example, he wrote melodies comprised of 14 notes, 14 being the sum of the letters of his name, with each letter representing a number (A = 1, B = 2, etc).

Bach sometimes wrote “symmetrically” too: if the melody would go up or down by a certain interval, the bass line would mirror it by doing the opposite. Some of his music can even be played, simultaneously, by two musicians on opposite sides of a table, one reading the music upside down, to form a second part. (There’s a whole book devoted to this subject called Bach and the Physics of Music.) John Eliot Gardiner has also written about the schematic symmetry in the larger structure of the oratorio too – that is, the way the sequence of choruses, arias, and chorales in Part I is mirrored in Part II.

Some illustrations: In No. 17, the bass accompaniment consists of 116 notes, a not-so-subtle reference to Psalm 116, which has the verse, “I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

In No. 40, while the tenor sings “My Jesus remains silent before the liars’ falsehoods,” the accompaniment is made up of 39 brief chords. This is a reference to Psalm 39, which contains the line, “I will keep my mouth with a bridle while the wicked stand before me.”

Then there’s the so-called Lord Supper sequence, where, as mentioned earlier, the phrase “Lord, is it I?” is repeated eleven times – once for each faithful disciple.

Conclusion

When all is said and done, the best testimony to the meaning and power of the St. Matthew Passion is the music itself, and the best way to approach it is simply to listen to it, whether by means of a recording or a live performance, and to let it work in you. As Tadashi Isoyama writes, “Put simply, the Passion is music that calls for mankind to reflect and to awaken. It prompts repentance, urging us to turn from vice toward freedom and salvation. It moves the spirit toward self-reflection and the exercise of the conscience.”

As with all great religious art, there is no need to explain or justify such an assertion: the piece has, in and of itself, sufficient power to touch the heart, awaken the imagination, and enliven faith. In short, you don’t need to understand it to be moved by it.

In a book of letters by Hans and Sophie Scholl, the famous German siblings beheaded in 1943 for their outspoken resistance to Hitler, a letter from their mother, Magdalena, admonishes Hans not to forget the importance of receiving Communion at Easter. In Hans’s reply (from Munich, where he is studying medicine), he says he didn’t go; he fears it wouldn’t have meant much to him. But he then tells his mother that he did go to hear Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” on Good Friday, and that it shattered him.

Fast forwarding to 2014, the same seems to have happened to one of the best-known music critics of our time, Alex Ross, who attended a performance of the Passion by the Berlin Philharmonic that year and was so deeply affected by it that he wrote an entire piece about the concert in the normally cynical-witty pages of The New Yorker. Extolling the “invasive beauty of the lamenting arias, which give the sense that Christ’s death is the acutest of personal losses,” he said they had the effect of “pulling all of modern life into the Passion scene. . . . By forcing the singers to enact both the arrogance of the tormentors and the helplessness of the victims, Bach underlines Luther’s belief in the inescapability of universal guilt.”

Moving on to describe the recitative where the baritone sings Jesus’ final cry of “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” Ross writes that “a more uncanny symbol of the loneliness of death can scarcely be imagined. From there to the end [of the performance], many of us were in a trance, out of which the chorus jolted us with one last unexpected gesture: in the silence after the final chord, the singers turned…and stared outward, with cold, expectant glances. They seemed to say, ‘You, too, are responsible.’”

To some, this may sound like a dismal way to end an evening. On the other hand, as the writer Johann Heinrich Arnold (a lifelong lover of the St. Matthew Passion) stresses in his book Discipleship (1995),

One cannot encounter Jesus without encountering the cross. His person emanates suffering. If we love him, the desire to suffer with him will well up in us quite naturally. I cannot imagine how one can follow Jesus without having a deep understanding for his way of suffering. . .
The thought that God is all-loving can insulate us from the power of his touch. People know that God forgives sin, but they forget that he judges it too. There is something in modern thinking which rebels against the Cross and the Atonement. Perhaps our idea of an all-loving God keeps us from wanting to face judgment. We think that love and forgiveness is all that is needed, yet that is not the whole Gospel…

In the end, perhaps it is Bach’s insistence on reminding us of this “whole Gospel” that gives his Passion such depth. By drawing us right into the shadow of the Cross and prying open our hearts to Christ’s agony there, he invites us to share in it as fully as possible. Obviously, our anguish is vicarious, limited to the realm of Bach’s (and our) imagination. Even so, the experience is vital. For until we are willing to open ourselves to the suffering that took place at Gethsemane and on Golgotha, it cannot work its redemptive powers in us. Without guilt, forgiveness is meaningless, and without death – without Good Friday – there could not be possibly be such a thing as resurrection and the joy of Easter.

Listen to excerpts 12 and 13 - the last recitative, followed by the powerful closing chorus, “In tears of grief.”

Sources

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)

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Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman and his wife Bea live at Holzland, a Bruderhof House in a village south of Berlin.

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