Bach's Inexhaustible, Immersive Passion
By Thomas May
One commonly accepted criterion for a masterpiece — in the genuine rather than the inflated sense — is a work of art that contains too many levels to be exhausted in a single encounter. Still rarer among these are the compositions, paintings, writings or films that resemble a renewable resource, reliably yielding revelations over the course of a lifetime, or even generations. Sophocles’ Oedipus tragedies, King Lear, the St. Matthew Passion (SMP): these are essential creations, works we need more than ever in our era of instantly forgotten, click-bait cultural preoccupations.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s SMP in particular offers us an experience of “immersion,” as John Eliot Gardiner describes it in his fascinating recent portrait of the composer, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf, 2013) — “one that creates space and time away from the fidget of perpetual sound bites and being constantly bombarded by noise coming in short sharp stabs.”
Even for its first audience — Bach’s community of fellow Lutherans in Leipzig — the SMP must have seemed immersive in a way that had no precedent. It followed by a few years the premiere of the St. John Passion (SJP), his first great Passion setting for the city where he had taken on the position of music director of Leipzig’s major churches in 1723. Within Germany’s Protestant communities, sung versions of the Passion story (the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ execution) had been established as a new tradition, although such liturgical dramas date back long before the Reformation. Initially their texts were based solely on the Gospel accounts, with a chorale added at the conclusion, as in the St. John Passion setting for unaccompanied chorus by one of Bach’s greatest predecessors, Heinrich Schütz.
The middle of the seventeenth century also witnessed the introduction of a more complex type of Passion. Known as the “oratorio Passion,” this type interleaved meditative arias and choral numbers to provide commentary on the scriptural narrative; instrumental accompaniment was used to enhance the musical texture as well. In 1712 the Hamburg-based poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes published a Passion libretto in which even the Gospel text itself is paraphrased in the form of devotional verse resembling the style used for such “commentary” sections. Brockes’ text became a popular challenge for a wide variety of composers to set (there are versions by Handel and Telemann, for example), pointing to a new Zeitgeist and a new sensibility for which the emotional directness of the oratorio Passion was especially well suited.
Well suited to relatively cosmopolitan centers like Hamburg, that is. But not to Leipzig, where the city and ecclesiastical authorities had until shortly before Bach’s arrival remained staunchly opposed to a trend they considered dangerously theatrical and quasi-secular. Johann Kuhnau, who held the post of cantor at the Thomaskirche immediately before Bach, possibly introduced a full-scale musical Passion there only as recently as 1721 (only a fragment survives). This established a model for his successor, one in which the events of the Passion itself had to be told using the original Gospel source (in the vernacular German) rather than a poetic paraphrase in the Brockes tradition. This narrative then served as the backbone for the chain of meditative arias and chorales, whose texts could encompass familiar hymns and freshly written devotional verse.
A principal leitmotif of Gardiner’s portrait (running contrary to the general image of the composer as a model of respectful obedience) is that Bach displayed a “recurrent refusal to accept authority.” Gardiner underscores the challenges his ambitious settings of the Passion posed for fellow worshippers and his bosses alike, deducing that the clergy reacted negatively to the first version of the SJP and to its expression of theological views that “may have looked like a deliberate flouting of their authority, made worse by his refusal to explain his aims in language that they could understand.”
By itself, as the grand culmination of his first full annual cycle of liturgical music for Leipzig, the SJP had embodied an enormous undertaking grander than anything Bach had accomplished up to that point. In Gardiner’s hypothesis, Bach planned to top even this as early as 1725, conceiving the St. Matthew Passion as a still more monumental climax for his second cantata cycle (of 1724/25): so monumental that he failed to complete it in time, possibly for a combination of reasons involving “a case of exhaustion” and “further dispiriting disputes with the clergy.” Eventually, of course, Bach summoned the inner resources he needed to round out the SMP, into which he poured all the wisdom he had acquired through his art — much as he would do for the later Mass in B minor. And he had all the while been carefully preparing his audience as well, Gardiner believes, “by means of unmistakable musical anticipations and adumbrations of theological themes in the cantatas leading up to Good Friday 1727.”
As far as can be determined, the first performance took place on Good Friday, April 11, 1727, at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, after which (as with the SJP), Bach revised the SMP for later revivals. The autograph score he eventually prepared stands apart as a kind of precious relic, calligraphic evidence of the particular veneration the composer reserved for this Passion, with its striking use of red ink (mostly for the sacred text from Matthew). “The impression of a meticulously constructed autograph score, worked over, revised, repaired, and left in a condition aspiring to some sort of ideal,” writes Gardiner, “is at one with the work itself.”
The performing forces required are just one index of the scale of the piece. In addition to its large complement of soloists — they either reenact the Passion story via recitative or reflect on the events unfolding — Bach divides the chorus and instrumentalists for the SMP into two groups, at times combining this double orchestra and chorus, at others using them in antiphonal contrast. Still another subchoir of treble voices enriches the texture of the two massive choral pillars that frame Part One. This complex layout was conceived as a “site-specific” arrangement to exploit the space of the Thomaskirche and is related to the immersive experience intended by Bach.
Structure of the St. Matthew Passion
For the SMP libretto Bach collaborated with fellow Leipziger Christian Friedrich Henrici (who went by the pen name Picander). A civil servant during the day, Picander was a prolific poet whose verse Bach had previously set in several of his weekly cantatas. Picander’s libretto interweaves the sacred narrative from Matthew (in Luther’s German translation) with two additional elements: texts from hymns (also known as chorales) that would have been familiar to the congregation and his own poetry in the form of devotional reflections on the Passion events.
Regular followers of the LA Master Chorale might recognize the resulting collage effect as an antecedent for the approach devised by the director Peter Sellars in the libretto he prepared for John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (first heard right here in Disney Hall in spring 2012). The Other Mary represents a contemporary variant of the Passion setting and its juxtapositions of past and present, of a timeless biblical past and its resonance in “the eternal present.” In another sense, the ancient story, in the process of being “reenacted” through musical representation, fulfills a function comparable to that of classical tragedy or, for the Romantics, of myth retold.
Herein lies the universal significance of what might otherwise seem limited to narrowly sectarian interests. Sellars, who arrived at some of the ideas behind the Other Mary libretto after devising his “ritualizations” (staged performances) of both the SMP and the SJP, beautifully describes the rationale behind this collision of distant past and immersive present: “Bach insists that it is not enough to be retrospectively mindful. He wants to help us move forward, and he has created dynamic musical forms that activate and deepen our commitment, and that support us in the first steps on a new path.”
Two monumental choral movements frame the first part and a grave sarabande chorus rounds out the second part; together these sustain the weight of the entire work. The Passion narrative itself mostly occurs in recitative entrusted to the tenor Evangelist. Other singers assume the roles of particular Gospel “characters,” while the chorus also functions as various larger groups in the narrative: the disciples, the crowd (Latin turba) of onlookers in Jerusalem, or the Roman centurions. The very first chorus introduces an elaborate Biblical allegory of Jesus as both the bridegroom and the sacrificial lamb and a dialogue between the Faithful and the “Daughters of Zion.” The vast musical architecture of the double chorus with added treble choir evokes for Gardiner “a grand altarpiece by Veronese or Tintoretto.” Even more, in poetic and musical terms this opening establishes “the essential dichotomy — the innocent Lamb of God and the world of errant humanity whose sins Jesus must bear — which will underlie the whole Passion, the fate of the one yoked to that of the other.”
Glossing the events are a series of arias, ten of which include particularly expressive recitative introductions (“ariosos”), and fifteen chorales. Some arias likewise echo and comment on previous ones, eliciting a complexity that oversteps the Baroque aesthetic of concentrating on a single dominant Affekt (emotional state). The complementary arias Nos. 12 and 13 at the end of the Last Supper, for example, encompass sorrow and “gratitude for the institution of the Eucharist” (the latter in No. 13, “Ich will dir”), writes Gardiner, so that, “fittingly, [No. 13] is the only genuinely joyful music in the Passion; it is also overtly sexual in its imagery — the idea of merging or ‘sinking myself into thee.’”
Twelve of the chorales are brief, self-contained hymns in four-part harmony, but three are incorporated into large-scale movements. The melody from one of these chorales recurs throughout the Passion five times, though with alterations of key and harmonization to account for the relevant context within the narrative.
Picander’s libretto retells the Passion in fifteen scenes, which are keyed to six major events and organized overall into two parts: the Last Supper and Jesus in the garden, ending with his dramatic betrayal (Part One) and the trial (in two stages — before Caiaphas and before Pilate), the Crucifixion, and the burial (Part Two). A sermon would have been given in between the two parts during the liturgical service for which the SMP had been composed.
A Sense of Immediacy
The two parts vary in overall character, effectively shifting from a philosophical to a dramatic perspective. Bach’s setting of the moment when Jesus is arrested foreshadows the violence to come. The change in tone extends from nature (the lightning and thunder that dramatically steal in with the choral interjections in “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”) to the wounding of the High Priest’s slave.
The perspective continually shifts — between past and present, event and reflection, the crowd and the individual. Consider the bass aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz” (No. 57, in Part Two), which encapsulates the central paradox of the Passion: as Jesus approaches Golgotha with the Cross, the singer attempts to “intersect” with the narrative, seeking a redemptive meaning for the present from this moment of suffering.
Bach’s genius is to give the events of this narrative, so familiar to his intended listeners, a newfound immediacy, even while the more formal aspects of the Passion (including its function as sacred ritual) are allowed to unfold. “This is music for the soul,” Sellars writes, “but also, inescapably, music for the body. Bach and Picander come back again and again to the limbs, to vulnerable flesh.”
Bach infuses variety in his moment-by-moment word-painting of Picander’s earthy, emotive imagery. Examples range from various imitations of tears and weeping figures (in the Passion’s very first aria) to more symbolic devices, such as the descending motif in the concluding chorus to imply the burial of Jesus in the Sepulcher. Or note how he portrays Jesus (whose words are sung throughout in recitative) accompanied by a ritual “aura” of string harmonies — except at the moment of his greatest despair and vulnerability and despair (the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Another enduring mystery: how can this music remain so meaningful to contemporary audiences regardless of their beliefs or knowledge regarding Christianity or faith in general? Gardiner cites the remark by fellow conductor and scholar John Butt that “one of the greatest ironies about Bach’s Passions is that their original audiences were far less familiar with the genre than we are; moreover — as is the case with all Bach’s most celebrated music — we might have heard them many more times than did the original performers or even Bach himself.” Few works offer as rewarding an experience as the SMP in performance. “It is the intense concentration of drama within the music and the colossal imaginative force that Bach brings to bear in his Passions,” concludes Gardiner, “that make them the equal of the greatest staged dramas: their power lies in what they leave unspoken.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.