Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion
- October 9, 2015
- October 10, 2015
Bach took up a prestigious, if demanding job when he moved to Leipzig in 1723. Besides directing the musical activities at a school (and parenting a growing brood of young Bach musicians), the composer was responsible for providing music for services at all four of Leipzig’s main churches. While each church had more or less developed use of music within the liturgy, he was required to provide sacred cantatas which reflected upon the readings of the day and served as a musical counterpart to the extensive hour-long sermon. He had arrived in Leipzig with some cantatas from his earlier tenure in Weimar, but he set about composing new works at a quite astonishing rate, teaching them to the school’s young choristers, university students, and town musicians, and performing them weekly in the organ lofts of the Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas churches when the ink on the parts was barely dry.
The Vespers service which took place on Good Friday was in many ways the liturgical and musical highlight of the church year, and was centered around a rendition of the Passion story; performed in two parts, framing the sermon, it recounted Jesus’s last days from his arrival in Jerusalem to the Crucifixion, as told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. From the earliest days of the church, this narrative had been given semi-dramatically, with the different readers taking the characters of the story; during the Renaissance some of the “crowd” responses were set in polyphony. But in Germany, in the early years of the 18th century, the musical settings of the story were often elaborated with the insertion of texts reflecting on the theological significance of particular passages. An important example dates from 1712, when the poet Barthold Brockes published a libretto that was soon set to music by Telemann and Handel. Bach’s Leipzig predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, wrote his own setting in the new style.
It is possible that Bach composed some sort of Passion setting whilst working in Weimar, but the work that stands as his first great achievement in this style was the Saint John Passion of 1724, which forms part of the first cycle of cantatas for Leipzig. Bach may have planned the setting of the Saint Matthew Gospel as part of a cycle of cantatas composed for the next liturgical year, 1724–25, but instead he offered a revised version of the Saint John Passion for that year. It was not until 1727 that Bach presented his setting of the Passion according to Saint Matthew, which was first performed on Good Friday of that year in Leipzig’s Saint Thomas church. It soon became known as his “Great Passion,” not only on account of its two and half hour duration, but also for its scoring, requiring two vocal and instrumental ensembles, (although this first version in fact had only one bass line, shared between the two ensembles). The libretto was by a favorite cantata scribe known as Picander (the pen name of Christian Friederich Henrici) and is in itself an extraordinarily complex work of art, multi-layered and full of allusions, which interpolated the biblical text, not only with established chorale hymns but an elaborate and highly poetic commentary, often making much use of dialogue. Bach revised this work in 1736, the version performed in the present concerts, when he changed a number of movements, incorporating a new chorus for the end of part one, once heard as part of the Saint John Passion; he also further divided the bass line between the two ensembles.
The narrative itself is delivered by the tenor of the first ensemble in marvelously fluent speech-based recitative, and accompanied only by the basso continuo. The words of Christ, given to the first bass, are—in a novel effect—accompanied by the strings, and the other characters are sung by solo voices, or by the ensembles in four or eight parts. Of the reflective arias, the bulk is given to the first ensemble, no doubt partly due to the limited number of expert players and singers Bach was able to command. But the second ensemble also has highly developed music, even if the arias are fewer and less inclined to feature solo instruments; this group often functions in a rhetorical way, commenting upon or questioning the text of the first ensemble, as can be heard in the very first chorus. The Gospel narrative is divided into many sections, many of which include reflective chorale settings which were well-known Lutheran hymns. Contrary to popular misinformation, the Leipzig congregations did not sing along with Bach’s often elaborate harmonizations, but they would nevertheless have recognized these hymns as both musical and theological touchstones. One of these melodies appears as an extra voice in the first movement, which is sometimes sung by an additional voice, or played on the organ.
That Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion is one of the great works of Western art is surely without question, but its very genesis as part of a communal act of worship—and not as a masterpiece necessarily written for posterity—leads to a number of questions. If our 19th century forefathers rejoiced in seeing Bach “in excelsis,” dancing with the angels, our current preoccupations, at least in theory, concern contextualization of his work. While Bach’s music may be the closest many of us come to experiencing a sense of the divine, we still wish to see him in the context of his time, his place and, above all, his musical circumstances. However prolifically endowed with genius, we are intrigued by Bach as a fellow human being, working daily in the organ loft. The tension between these two attitudes is encapsulated within the great Bach issue of the early 21st century. Put succinctly, is Bach’s church music—including the Passions—“choral” at all? What did German composers understand by the idea of a chorus? Was it simply a number of voices singing together “in consort,” or a bigger ensemble with at least two singers on each vocal line? The idea that a single-voice performance was the norm for Bach was first put forward in 1981 by the American conductor and scholar Joshua Rifkin. There followed considerable scholarly debate (see various articles mainly in the journal Early Music published throughout the 1990s). At the turn of the century, the evidence was persuasively assembled in an excellent book by the English conductor Andrew Parrott (The Essential Bach Choir, Boydall Press, 2000).
After the revival of the Baroque organ, harpsichord and clavichord, and then the other instruments of the 18th century orchestra, one might have expected that this fresh direction in scholarship would arouse a balanced mixture of enthusiasm and opposition, alongside a willingness to experiment in performance. In fact, much of the musical world seemed extremely reluctant to embrace this challenging new proposition, even within the “early music” movement which had hitherto prided itself on the rigorous questioning of the status quo. It seems that the “choral tradition” and its vested interests are not so easily dismissed, especially in the English speaking world where such institutions are at the very core of the musical establishment. While the controversy went on and on in print, the traditionalists (including many of our most esteemed Bach scholars) were always promising “irrefutable” evidence that Rifkin and Parrott are simply incorrect. However, more than 30 years later, such evidence to support traditional choral performance seems to have evaporated, and performances of solo-voice Bach, although still infrequent, are more and more proving the musical validity of Bach’s small but inherently virtuoso ensemble.
Paul McCreesh ©2015
Please note the early start time on Friday and Saturday evening.
Please note: Due to the continuous nature of this performance, there will be no late seating. If you arrive late, you will not be able to enter the hall until intermission. Please be sure to arrive early so you can enjoy the entire concert.
Please join us in delving deeply into Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion – the crowning achievement of a musical genius and one of the SPCO’s most anticipated performances of the season. This three-night event, including a discussion, open rehearsal and performance provides insight into the artistic process and production of this monumental work. More information can be found below and at thespco.org/passion.