By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
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. In either event, the advent of the "Oratorio Passion," and the far less scripturally oriented and more operatic "Passion Oratorio" about 1721 in Leipzig, apparently met with rather stiff resistance from the congregation steeped in the traditional liturgical music of the Lutheran Church. Rooted in the "humble and reverent" chant versions reaching far back into the Middle Ages, the unaccompanied Passion narrative preserved the musical starkness required for Holy Week.
In 1732, Christian Gerber wrote down his impressions on having heard Bach's 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 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. There are, it is true, some people who take pleasure in such idle things, especially if they are of sanguine temperament and inclined to sensual pleasure. Such persons defend large-scale church compositions as best they may, and hold others to be crotchety and of melancholy temperament - as if they alone possessed the wisdom of Solomon, and others had no understanding."
These comments would appear to underline Gerber's views more than the congregation's. This particular congregation at the Thomaskirche certainly by 1727 or 1729 had already withstood the shock of Kuhnau's (Bach's predecessor as Cantor) introduction of a concerted St. Mark Passion at Leipzig in 1721 and 1722, and two performances of Bach's St. John Passion in 1724 and 1725.
Nevertheless this much more highly dramatic St. Matthew Passion employing double, even three, choruses, two orchestras and organs may well have intimidated them. Moreover, the pietistically oriented interpolations of Picander's poetry into the gospel narrative even when it was fitted with Bach's deeply sincere music probably could not fail to offend the more orthodox theologians in the much divided congregations of those days.
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 further diminish his choral forces to provide amateur instrumentalists mixed in with some of the town's professionals, and 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 larger of his 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 1721 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 song-like 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 survived. 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 Tomaskirche, 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 of 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 entirety. 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 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 that late Good Friday afternoon, 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."