Notes on the Program - St. Matthew Passiom

March 8, 2012, 7 pm

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed his St. Matthew Passion for the 1729 Good Friday service at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. He later expanded and revised the work for subsequent Good Friday services. In the services the work was performed complete, with a long sermon in between Part I and Part II.

The tradition of singing the Passion (the story from the four Gospels of Jesus's capture, Crucifixion, and death) had begun centuries earlier. At first, the narrative was set to simple chant melodies. Over the centuries composers gradually became more elaborate. By the early Baroque period Heinrich Schutz had already composed a setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Composers of the late Baroque were particularly influenced by two new musical forms of the period: opera and oratorio. Bach's St. Matthew Passion is the culmination of that centuries-old tradition. And it represents without doubt the single finest musical setting of the Passion narrative ever composed.

The work is the largest single composition Bach ever wrote, both in terms of length and in terms of forces called for in the score. A performance of the St. Matthew Passion requires two choruses - with a third soprano chorus for the first and last movements of Part I - two orchestras, four vocal soloists who sing the arias, and many vocal soloists for the various character parts. The Evangelist role represents St. Matthew. He is narrating the story. Bach set this role for a tenor voice. The Evangelist and all the various character parts are accompanied in a secco recitative manner (short, simple chords) with harpsichord and cello. Bach, however, set the music of Jesus to an accompaniment of string orchestra, thereby clearly setting him apart from all the other characters. Much has been written about this "halo of string sound" which surrounds Jesus in this work. And it is very poignant that, at the moment of his ultimate human experience - his death - he utters his last words with only harpsichord and cello, his string accompaniment having been stripped away.

The libretto of Bach's St. Matthew Passion is one of the finest ever constructed. It is not certain who put it together - was it the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici or Bach himself­? - but the texts comes from three sources:

  1. The Gospel of St. Matthew, chapters 26 and 27, in the Bible;
  2. traditional German Lutheran hymns, called "chorales;" and
  3. religious meditative poems by Henrici (whose pen name was Picander).

The basic construction of this epic work is actually quite simple. Bach takes the story, scene by scene. He usually begins with a portion of the Bible narrative as sung by the Evangelist and the various characters. And then he freezes the scene (often at the scene's end) to comment on what just happened. The commentary comes in the form of the traditional hymns (chorales) or solo recitatives and arias. The chorus plays two different roles in this work. Sometimes they are characters in the action (such as the angry crowd), other times they stand outside the action, reacting to what just went on, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. At the beginning and end of Part I and Part II Bach provides introductory and closing choruses. (In our libretto each scene is separated and titled to make the construction more noticeable.)

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is a musical, religious meditation on Christ's sacrifice, which Christ made voluntarily so that humankind would have redemption. Constantly throughout the work, Bach's extraordinarily nuanced harmony depicts the suffering and sacrifice in minor and dissonant chords, with the music organically evolving to major keys when representing the redemption that comes from the sacrifice, And it is quite amazing how Bach's largest, most epic work is also perhaps his most personal work. Time and time again he will follow a moment of violent, extroverted operatic drama with a solo aria, frozen in time, a personal utterance from deep inside the soul.

The St. Matthew Passion is one the greatest creations of Western Civilization. Virtually every phrase of Bach's music reveals layers of meaning in the text. The most rewarding way to approach this work is to follow along in the libretto to appreciate the transporting effect Bach achieves between the text and music.

-Dennis Keene