BY JOHN CURRIE
“The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the gospel of Matthew. Text arranged by Master Henrici otherwise known as Picander.”
Written in 1729, Bach's St. Matthew Passion comes at the end of a long tradition of passion music, beginning with the Holy Week recitation of the Gospel Passions by the early Christian fathers, and continuing through the Middle Ages to the mature and subtle settings of Schütz in the seventeenth century. The richness and power of Bach's setting is due to his awareness and authoritative use of dramatic and symbolic devices which had become accepted even before his own lifetime.
The Evangelist is the traditional narrator of the passion story, while the chorus (in this case a double choir) is expected to assume a number of roles: an excited mob, the Pharisees, or simply the pious Christian onlooker. Characters in the story are identified with solo voices as the narrative proceeds, and the character of Christ is sanctified by the use of a halo of strings whenever he sings. The solo arias reflect pietistically on aspects of the story, and it is here that Bach uses his most appealing orchestration: the double-reed sound of oboe d'amore or oboe da caccia to express darkness and sadness, the solo violin to match the intensity of the alto voice in 'Erbarme dich’, the grace of the solo oboe in ‘ich will bei meinem Jesu'.
In recent years discussion has continued on the forces which Bach used. There is no doubt that his choirs were small - even when he combined forces for some major liturgical event - and we have on record his hopes that three competent voices to a part would be achieved eventually. Nor is there any doubt that a more balanced relationship is established among choir, soloists and orchestra when resources similar to Bach's are used. The enduring qualities of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and its ability to overwhelm modern audiences do not depend on the use of massive numbers, but rather on revealing the subtlety of his ideas, his masterly dramatic timing, and the wonderfully clear shape of his musical structures.
In order to remain within the time limits of an evening performance the work is being given this evening with some cuts in Part Two.
HISTORICAL NOTES BY
RICHARD H. TRAME, S.J. Ph.D.
The greatness of J.S. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion needs no vindication in our time. Since Mendelssohn's historic, but not altogether authentic revival of it in 1829, one hundred years more or less after its initial performance, the St. Matthew Passion has never ceased to be considered the greatest example of its genre.
From the time of Bach's death, however, in 1750, and during the intervening years up to 1829, the most famous and popular Passion by reputation in German music was Carl Heinrich Graun's (1704-59) Tod Jesu (Jesus' Death), composed in Berlin in 1755. Its preeminent position, notes Gerhard Herz in his essay "J.S. Bach and the Church Music of the Age of Rationalism'' (Essays on J.S. Bach pp. 51-66), remained unchallenged until Mendelssohn's revival of the St. Matthew Passion.
It is no secret that Bach, third ranking choice for Cantor of Leipzig in 1723, was considered an insufferably old-fashioned composer. For as early as 1704, under the impact of Enlightened Rationalism, Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739), master of the Hamburg opera, set Hunold's The Bleeding and Dying Jesus. This Passion libretto abandoned all use of the Scripture text in favor of a poetic rendition of the story's episodes sung aria-fashion by male and female soloists. The result was pure religious opera, not a shred different in style from Keiser's secular products.
Graun, as had his predecessors and contemporaries, approached the setting of his Passion text in a fashion similar to Keiser's. Tod Jesu's power, however, resulted chiefly from the fact that as one of the pioneers and early masters along with Bach's son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, of the newly created German classic style, Graun's harmonic inventiveness and orchestral versatility lent exquisite color and emotional power to the Passion. Frederick the Great, as Herz notes, shrugged off church music as such. In Graun's Tod Jesu, however, he applauded specifically its operatic elements, the secular-styled arias. It was, as the great King notes, Graun's "best opera." With it Baroque orchestral and vocal polyphony fell completely from fashion within Germany.
Judged by his own sons as musically outdated, Bach, nevertheless stands forth for us today as that mighty link illustrated in the Saint Matthew Passion, who bound the achievements of the past to the contemporarily fashionable and to future developments wherein profundity in the musical art would by such subsequent composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, be judged through their use of that same "outmoded" orchestral and vocal polyphony.
Bach did not disregard the best developments of his day. But he incorporated Picander's and his own poetry into his Passion libretto to allow for the expression of universal human emotions resulting from the simple declamation of Luther's superb German translation of the Scriptural text with its various dramatic episodes. He never forgot that the Passion resided within the liturgical setting of Good Friday. Nor did he fail to incorporate the Congregation into the Passion's rendition through his exquisite harmonizations of the familiar Chorales.
Herz offers this summary: "Loyal to the cantus firmus and the scriptural word, Bach opposed the sacred opera as a species of music that in liturgical respect had become shallow. By preserving the biblical text and inserting Lutheran hymn verses, Bach returned to the Passion its liturgical substance. By using both the old and the new Bach created a synthesis which, viewed solely from the textual side, wants to be regarded as religious service rather than as poetry:'
The Saint Matthew Passion is generally said to have received its initial performance on Good Friday, April 15, 1729. Recent research, however, would seem to indicate rather that the great work's premier occurred on Good Friday, April 11, 1727.
Bach, it seems, found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place. Practically snubbed as old-fashioned, his ingenious incorporation of old and new elements in the Passion met with raised eyebrows at Leipzig on the part of some in the congregations of the Nicholaikirche and Thomaskirche.
In 1732 one, Christian Gerber, wrote down his impressions of having heard the St. Matthew Passion. The rather inimical account appeared in his History of Church Liturgy in Saxony, just then published. He observed that many in the congregation of this conservative town could not easily relate to these newfangled accompanied Passions. The reactions described by Gerber highlight that on-going seldom resolved debate prevalent especially in liturgically oriented churches about what constitutes proper religious music.
"When in a large town,” Gerber writes, implying Leipzig, "this (new) Passion music was done for the first time with twelve violins . . . many people were astonished and did not know what to make of it .... everyone was genuinely displeased by it and voiced just complaints against it."
Given these comments and the fact that the congregation had under Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor, by 1727 already withstood the shock of the concerted Passions, one may question the universality of these reactions. One may also question the musical quality of the Saint Matthew Passion's presentation, which could well have enhanced the congregation's offense. Given Bach's paucity of competent singers, the necessity to diminish further his choral forces, to provide amateur instrumentalists mixed in with some of the town's professionals, his ever hurried and harried preparations of large amounts of music, Bach and his congregation never really heard an adequate or polished rendition of the Saint Matthew Passion, to say nothing of many other of his larger compositions. Our high esteem of and appreciation for this mighty and superbly profound masterpiece rests for the most part on professional renditions carefully rehearsed and properly presented. We hear what Bach probably realized only in his mind's eye and inner ear.
Bach's Saint Matthew Passion did not spring from his supreme genius without reference to the antecedents of the Passion genre. Evidence points to his interest in the 'oratorio Passion' with the composition probably of a Saint Matthew Passion, now lost, which he elaborated for Holy Week services about 1717 in Weimar. Both the present Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions contain music from this early work.
The Saint Matthew Passion is the culminating and supreme example of what is technically called an oratorio Passion. This species adhered to the original structure of the chant passion, but the gospel narrative was interrupted through the insertion of reflective poetic episodes called "madrigals,” instrumental sinfonias, and parallel biblical text quotations. Bach incorporated other innovations into the Saint Matthew Passion. He introduced the reflective arias of Picander's text with an introductory arioso or recitative demanding a more songlike melodic and rhythmic declamation of the text. By accompanying the texts of Jesus with strings he added a musical 'halo’ to the Savior's words. Moreover a special feature of Bach's passions is the unusual frequency of Chorales set out in exquisite four-part writing.
From 1725 Bach worked in close association with Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764), known as Picander. The two planned the cantatas for the years 1728 and 1729. While all of the texts of these cantatas survive in Picander's printed editions, only nine of Bach's musical settings have. In all probability Picander's Saint Matthew Passion text headed this cycle.
The Saint Matthew Passion consequently exhibits much more unity and is more highly dramatic than the earlier but much reworked Saint John Passion. St. Matthew's gospel text provided Bach with many more dramatic episodes to illustrate musically so that the two parts of the work are better balanced. This Passion evolved and developed over the years. Bach in all subsequent performances in 1730, 1736, and the 1740's adapted the work to the varying acoustical conditions of the Nicholaikirche (better) and the Thomaskirche, or to the instrumental and choral forces available to him. Hence it is now impossible to reconstruct the earliest version.
Emerging out of these varying conditions of production, the Saint Matthew Passion is scored for double (plus ripieno) chorus, the Evangelist narrator and seven biblical characters, soloists, two orchestras of matched strings, viola da caccia, viola da gamba, flutes, oboes, organ(s) and harpsichord continuo. At the singing of the Chorales Bach certainly envisaged full supportive orchestral accompaniment with the Choir leading the congregations in the familiar melodies.
The congregation that Good Friday of 1727 (1729) had been summoned to Services by the tolling of the Church's bells at 1:15 p.m. Having assembled, the Choir led off with the Hymn Da jesu an dem Kreuze. Part One of the Passion then was sung in its entirely. Another Hymn, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, led into the 'Pulpit' or pre-sermon Hymn Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend. A lengthy sermon followed. Part Two of the Passion was sung immediately upon the conclusion of the sermon. After its famed lullaby-chorus finale, the strongly traditional motet of Jacob Handl Ecce, quomodo moritur justus (Behold, how the just die) preceded the closing prayer or 'Passion Collect' when all heads bowed in prayer. The musical portion of the service concluded with the singing of the Chorale Nun danket alle Gott (Now thank we all our God) and the blessing was imparted. Having been together for about five hours, the congregation now reverently returned to their homes.
As they left the Thomaskirche or Nicholaikirche on these late Good Friday afternoons, one wonders how many, impervious to the unearthly beauty of Bach's music, shared Gerber's adverse opinion of the Passion. How many among them too like succeeding generations, moved to the depths of their souls, foreshadowed in their thoughts Basil Smallman's modern views: ''The strength of the Saint Matthew Passion lies more in its epic devotional qualities than in its dramatic realism. Aided by the rich variety of incident in St. Matthew's account and by the skilled collaboration of the versatile Picander, Bach was able to produce a work of beautifully balanced proportions, in which the lyrical interpolations are blended with the gospel drama to achieve a perfect unity.”