NOTES BY ARTHUR F. EDWARDS
Los Angeles Master Chorale
The St. Matthew Passion
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) The Passion of our Lord According to St. Matthew is one of the most monumental conceptions of the human spirit. It is this very monumental quality that tends to intimidate the average concert-goer, particularly when he is confronted with a work containing seventy-eight separate sections and designed according to a stylistic approach completely foreign to the contemporary worshipper, much less the modern concert-goer.
First things first. To reassure the prospective listener with regard to the monumental length of the Passion: although there are four sections lasting more than six minutes each, there are seven sections lasting less than a half minute each, one of them being ten seconds in length. Also, it should be pointed out that monumentally Romantic performances, with huge choruses and orchestras and monumentally slow tempi, even when extensively cut, will last as long as a complete performance stylistically faithful in tempi and forces to Bach's period and intentions.
THE HISTORY OF THE SUNG PASSION
The scriptural text of the Passion and death of Jesus, found in all four Gospels, has been treated with great solemnity during Holy Week from the time of the Medieval Roman church. The St. Matthew Passion, traditionally chanted in place of a shorter Gospel selection on Palm Sunday, was by Medieval times presented in a quasi-dramatic form. The words of narration, i.e., those of the Evangelist, were chanted by a voice of medium range. The words of Jesus were chanted by a voice lying approximately a half-octave lower (it was not until the 19th Century that the low voice began to be associated with villains). All other single voices were sung by a third cleric possessing a voice approximately a half-octave higher than that of the narrator. All words spoken by more than one person (disciples, by-standers, priests) were sung by the schola or choir. By the Renaissance these choral turba parts were set in polyphonic treatment by many composers, among them, the Spaniard Victoria (c. 1548-1611). Complete motet settings of the Passion, in which the entire text was set polyphonically, were popular for a time but the basically undramatic and unintelligible quality of these settings mitigated against their survival. The epitome of the dramatic but ascetic treatment of the Passion was achieved by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) who wrote settings of all four Passions. "Schütz retains the dramatic Passion as he had received it. He dispenses with instrumental means of every kind, making the Evangelist psalmodise in the old collect tone, and makes no use, in the Passions, of the declamatory arioso that he elsewhere employs for the solo renderings of Bible passages. No aria, no chorale interrupts the action. The severe beauty of this old Passion form, transfigured by Schütz's art, is unique of its kind. It reminds us of the affecting representations of the Passion by the realistic painters of the Netherlands." (Schweitzer: f. S. Bach, I pp. 83-84)
In 1678, with the founding of the Hamburg Opera, a new and extremely equivocal influence entered German musical life. A series of operas very loosely based on Biblical stories at first received the full support of the clergy. In spite of the fact that it is "hard to find anything religious in the trivial and absurd texts of these operas; that age, thought otherwise." (Ibid. p. 84) As the purely theatrical productions declined into vulgarity and lost the direct support of the clergy, poets such as Erdmann Neumeister and Saloma Franck created the texts that were to become the basis of the new cantatas based on the Italian operatic style. "The new cantata brought with it the new Passion. The first theatrical Passion was produced in Hamburg in 1704, during the Monday and Wednesday vespers of Holy Week. The text was by Christian Friedrich Hunold, a writer of opera libretti living in Hamburg from 1700 to 1706, who did not enjoy the best of reputations. In the literary world he was known by the name of Menantes. . . . The whole Passion was now represented as a dramatic action. The place of the Biblical story of the Passion was taken by a versified text that connected the separate scenes. It is noteworthy that in this Passion we already have the 'Daughter of Zion,' whom we shall meet with again in Baah ." (Ibid. p. 93) Hunold was nothing if not versatile. According to Schweitzer, he was known as an obscene litterateur; in 1706 he had to leave Hamburg on account of a licentious novel.
In 1712 the Hamburg town councillor, Barthold Heinrich Brockes, wrote a Passion poem based on the earlier model of Hunold. "He makes use of free recitative and da capo arias, admits the Daughter of Zion, and replaces the Gospel narrative by a versified recital of the Passion, .. . the only really new feature was the insertion of chorale strophes [verses]; for the rest he did nothing more than discard some of the theatrical elements of Hunold's Passion, and to purge the diction of its worst impurities. And this text became the classical one for the Passion!" (Ibid. p. 93-94) Among the composers who set Brockes' poem to music were Handel and Telemann, both in 1716. We possess Handel's setting only in a copy made by Bach and his wife Anna Magdalena.
When Bach became Cantor of Leipzig in 1723 he was already skilled in writing for the new style of cantata, preferring the texts of Franck to those of Neumeister. In Leipzig he was to find a man described by Philipp Spitta as "an adequately skilled and always willing collaborator. Christian Friedrich Henrici, born at Stolpe in 1700 [-1764], had .. . begun his literary career in 1722, as a satirist; ... When his satirical
poems created ill feeling he was frightened, and declared that he had only the best intentions in writing such productions, but that the unfortunate results had spoilt the fun, and the threats of the evil disposed had deprived him of all his pleasure in it .... In the year 1724 he turned his hand to sacred poetry .. . . The work ... was entitled: 'Collection of profitable thoughts for and upon the ordinary Sundays and holidays'; he uses here the pseudonym of Picander, which he adopts from this time. The work consists of meditations in rhyme, mostly in Alexandrines, to which a set of verses to the melody of some church hymn is usually appended." (Spitta: Johann Sebastian Bach, II pp. 340- 41) Probably Picander's best work remained in his secular texts, the best known being the one he fashioned for Bach's Coffee Cantata. "In his sacred poems, Picander shows even less original talent than in the satires and the secular occasional verses .... It is clearly perceptible . . . that Bach fashioned him for his own purpose . . . In the year 1725 Picander wrote for the first time a Passion poem, taking Brocke for his model." (Ibid. 343-44) Picander seems to have been somewhat aware of his own limitations when he wrote in 1729 that he hoped that " the lack of poetic charm may be compensated for by the loveliness of the music of our incomparable Kapellmeister Bach, and that these songs may be sung in the chief churches of our pious Leipzig."
"For Good Friday, 1726, Picander wrote the text of the St. Matthew Passion, this time, however, not imitating Brocke's plan, but keeping the Bible words unchanged." (lbid. p. 345) This, with many changes and editions, was to become the St. Matthew Passion as we know it. According to Nickolaus Arnoncourt, Bach originally planned to follow the same basic structure he had used in the earlier (1723) St. John Passion: in which the entire work revolved around a central point. In the St. Matthew Passion the central point occurred between what is now Nos. 54 and 59, the two choruses in which the mob cries out, 'Crucify Him'. In both Passions it is in this section that Pilate changes his attitude towards Jesus. Arnoncourt speculates that Bach stopped work on the St. Matthew Passion for several years. When he resumed work, he had an entirely new conception of its form. Picander had added several arias- Bach inserted them into the structure destroying the original scheme which was obviously no longer important. An even more important change was the addition of four more chorale verses of Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (Hans leo Hassler, (1564-1612), each one in a lower key culminating in the C major setting at the death of Christ, now the central point to which the entire work strives. "Never before had a chorale text been interpreted in music with harmonies so charged with emotion. This chorale, and the words of the centurion and those with him ... (Truly this was the Son of God [No. 73], are set here in such a manner that they make clear to all how the beginning and the meaning of the Christian Faith result from the events of the Passion. Henceforth they form the new heart of the work." Among the changes that Bach made was that he specifically omitted or re-worded aria texts by Picander which were uttered by Biblical characters, thereby avoiding operatic arias by Peter, Judas, etc.
THE POLYCHORAL STRUCTURE
We know from Bach's writings that he had a constant struggle to find adequate forces to present his music in Leipzig. For example: he states that the ideal choir would have four voices in each section or a total of sixteen. However, he usually had to be content with two or three on a part. He considered it necessary to have at least two or three violins in each section (Violin I, Violin II) but often had to make do with single instruments and, at one point, complains of having to sacrifice singers to fill vacant viola, cello and bass chairs. (Under such circumstances it is not surprising that one of his sons' principal recollections of the music at the Thomaskirche was that it did not sound good and that his father was perpetually furiously dissatisfied with the results.) Why then did Bach undertake the added challenge and risk of scoring the St. Matthew Passion for two choruses, each with its own orchestra and, in the 1736 revision, its own organ continuo?
Antiphonal singing was an ancient tradition that had begun simply with the alternation of sections of the monastic schola in chanting psalms. By 1550 Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562) was writing his famous Salmi Spezzati (polyphonic psalms divided between two choirs) for St. Mark's in Venice. For a hundred years polychoral music flourished, reaching its augmentation ad absurdium in 1628 when Orazio Benevoli wrote his Mass for the consecration of Salzburg Cathedral- a work in 53 parts divided among twelve different choirs. No wonder this style of composition was referred to as the colossal Baroque! Another hundred years passed. Polychoral music was no longer fashionable, but Bach decided to use the antiphony of two choirs. The dialogue character of Picander's poem was probably the deciding factor. To quote again from Harnoncourt's scholarly notes, "Picander's text on the Passion story according to St. Matthew is a meditative dialogue between the daughter of Zion and the Faithful. The Daughter of Zion, a personification of Jerusalem in the Old Testament (in Isaiah), is regarded by Christians as a symbol of the Church as the Bride of the Lord. Bach probably wanted all the text passages spoken by the "Daughter of Zion" to be sung originally by a soloist only, thus in particular the First Choir of the opening chorus. He later emphasized the generality of this character more strongly, so that it IS no longer a concrete personality. He could thus let her words be sung by each of the soloists, and even by the choir.... At first, probably also at the first performance at St. Thomas's Church in 1729, the choirs would have stood on the left and on the right of the big gallery, and could thus have been accompanied by one organ .... At the second performance in 1736, we learn from the sexton Rot that it was given in 'St. Thomas's with both organs', which means that the two choirs with their orchestras were placed opposite each other at the east and west ends of the church." In the contemplative movements Bach usually gave the words of the Daughter of Zion to Choir I and those of the Faithful to Choir II. In the final 1736 version he divided the arias in like manner- the vast majority being sung by soloists from Choir I, but with several arias typifying various aspects of the Faithful (Nos. 12, 28, 29, 40, 41, 51, 60 and 61) assigned to soloists of Choir II.
The biblical texts are carefully fitted into this plan. All the speaking characters are assigned to Choir I with the exception of the False Witnesses. The Disciples are portrayed by Choir I; the servants of the High Priest are sung by Choir II. Two short choruses near the end (No. 71) are distributed dramatically: "Some" is sung by Choir I while the reply of "Others" is assigned to Choir II. The excited choruses of the High Priests and the people are sung by double choir without dialogue in a manner calculated to give the impression of a large crowd (Nos. 5, 42, 43, 49, 54, 59, 62, 67, 76). All movements- chorale, meditative or scriptural, that express the community of all Christians are sung by both choirs as one- notably Nos. 35 and 73.
In his fair copy for the 1736 performance, Bach was meticulous in indicating exactly how he wished the Passion to be performed. All scriptural quotations are written in red ink and separate parts including continuo are -provided for each Choir (including the orchestra and soloists proper to that choir) . Also a special part for Soprano in ripieno is written for Nos. 1 and 35. In the first instance the vocalization of a chorale melody previously assigned to an organ stop; in the second instance a simple reinforcement of the chorale melody. In the great fantasia originally written as the opening movement of the St. John Passion. As befits the solemn character of the Passion, there are no parts for trumpets or tympani - each orchestra consists of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, strings and basso continuo (the latter automatically including bassoon as well as cello and bass). The number of subtle details and imaginative imageries are staggering but a few particularly felicitous touches should be noted: the "halo" of strings that accompany Jesus’ every utterance is extinguished for his cry in agony of abandonment on the Cross; the Priests refer to the law in ten double choruses- one for each of the Commandments; in the chorus of the disciples (No. 15) the word "Lord" is sung eleven times, once for each apostle except Judas; in the duet of the High Priests as they sing of their inability to use Judas' silver, the bass plays thirty notes: even more subtle imagery is used in No. 73 wherein the tenor recitative refers to Psalms 18, 6B and 104 to the accompaniment of 18, 68, and 104 notes respectively.