Bach’s Passion, Head and Heart
By Thomas May
The St. Matthew Passion reaffirms the power of art to transcend historical change. Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary revival of the work in 1829 followed over a half-century of posthumous neglect, when the work was considered of marginal interest. News of the revival inspired Goethe to send Mendelssohn a congratulatory letter. “It is as if I heard the sea breaking in the distance,” wrote the aged poet. St. Matthew’s belated success deeply moved Goethe as evidence of the timeless afterlife of a masterpiece.
J.S. Bach himself clearly aimed to create something beyond the “occasion” of liturgical music intended for afternoon service on Good Friday. Although writing within a particular Lutheran tradition—one that had evolved into elaborate musical settings of the gospel story of Jesus’ death—Bach planned the St. Matthew Passion on an unprecedented scale, surpassing the other great Passion of his Leipzig years, the St. John (the composer’s obituary records a total of five Passion settings, but only these two have survived complete).
After its first performance—most likely April 11, 1727, at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche—Bach revived the St. Matthew Passion several times, expanding its dimensions further in revisions he made for 1736. The composer even left a visual testimony of the unique regard in which he held the work. He prepared a complete autograph score in stunning calligraphy (based on the latter revival), using an emphatic red ink for the sacred text taken from scripture (chapters 26-27 of the Gospel of Matthew). Bach treated this score as a precious manuscript and painstakingly repaired damage it sustained years later.
The St. Matthew Passion is, on one level, a summa of Bach’s art. In that sense, it anticipates the later B minor Mass, though St. Matthew is conceived on an even grander scale—not only in temporal dimensions but in terms of variety and the magnitude of performing forces. In addition to its large complement of soloists (who either play out the Passion story in recitative or reflect on what is happening), the score calls for double orchestra and double chorus, which Bach sometimes combines and sometimes opposes antiphonally. Another subchoir (children’s voices in our performance) is added to the canvas in the two choral movements framing Part One. This extraordinary layout—originally conceived as a “site-specific” arrangement for the space of the Thomaskirche—adds another dimension to the decisions that any performance of the work must address.
In the case of the St. Matthew Passion (unlike St. John), Bach had the benefit of a close, trusted collaborator for his text—fellow Leipziger Christian Friedrich Henrici, who went by the pen name Picander. A civil servant in his day job, Picander was a prolific poet whose verse Bach had previously set in several of his weekly cantatas. The libretto interweaves the sacred and unalterable scriptural narrative—in Luther’s German translation—with two other elements: Picander’s contemporary poetry, offering devotional reflections on the events unfolding, and texts from hymns that were familiar from regular liturgical usage (also known as chorales).
Bach uses a meticulously planned overall structure to articulate the Passion’s sixty-eight separate movements. His design frequently evokes analogies with architecture, with the four great choral movements framing the first and second parts as “pillars” (you might even compare the childrens’ choir that emerges from the opening chorus’ intricate textures to light piercing through clerestory windows). The Passion narrative itself is mostly couched in recitative, guided by a tenor evangelist. Other singers assume the roles of particular gospel “characters,” while the chorus also functions as various larger groups in the narrative, from the crowd (the so-called turba) to the disciples or centurions, for example.
In counterpoint to the narrative, Bach elaborates a series of arias, ten of which include particularly expressive recitative introductions, and fifteen chorales. Twelve of the latter are brief, self-contained hymns in four-part harmony, but three are incorporated into more complex and large-scale movements. Bach threads the melody from one of the chorales through the Passion on five separate occasions, slightly altering its tonality each time. For example, this tune frames the recitative in which Peter affirms his loyalty to Jesus but is heard a half-tone lower the second time.
The narrative plays out in fifteen scenes that pivot around six major events: the Last Supper and Jesus in Gethsemane (Part One) and the two stages of the trial, the Crucifixion, and the burial (Part Two). Picander’s poetry and the chorale verses add a layer that crosses over from these past events to the present, supplementing the narrative “action” with contemplative commentary. Bach exploits this duality to masterful effect so that we are drawn deeply into the story, despite its familiarity, inviting us to reflect on its significance.
The perspective continually shifts—between past and present, event and reflection, the crowd and the individual—in order to intensify a sense of immediacy. Consider the moment when Peter is forced to recognize the fact of his denial of Jesus (in Part Two). Already, on the narrative level, Bach evokes the emotional reality of the situation through his setting of the Evangelist’s report, with a tortuous melisma on the words “and he cried bitterly.” There, in compact recitative form, is the bald fact Bach’s fellow worshippers knew so well from the scriptural source. But he follows this with one of the most memorable arias of the entire Passion, “Erbarme dich.” An alto solo now steps forward—representing both a kind of imagined interior monologue—a reflection on Peter’s state of mind—and the voice of humanity in the present, shattered by the experience of guilt. Bach’s approach to vocal writing, with its demand for superhuman breath control, is sometimes described as “instrumental.” Here that quality is especially apparent in the continuity of articulation between the alto and the solo violin, which in effect engage in a duet of profoundly grief-stricken intimacy.
The bass aria “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (later in Part Two) is another example of how Bach conflates past and present—the musical equivalent of a painter using perspective and color to dissolve the sense of separation from what’s painted on the canvas. This moment in fact 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 access this immediacy, at every moment, alongside the many other dimensions that operate throughout the Passion, including its more formal, “monumental” aspects and its function as sacred ritual. The massive opening double chorus announces this strategy in one of the most remarkable beginnings in all of music. Setting Picander’s conceit of an allegorical dialogue between the Daughters of Zion and the Faithful, Bach unleashes a churning river of sound and endless melody, catching us up immediately in the tragic gravity of the situation. As the two choruses question and answer back and forth, Bach floats the first of his chorale melodies (“O Lamb of God Most Holy”) above them. As Leonard Bernstein once described it, they cut “through the worldly pain with the icy-clear truth of redemption.”
Redemption briefly surfaces, like a mirage, much later, in the score’s most serene moment, the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.” But the St. Matthew Passion is, by its nature, essentially grounded in the tragedy that must be experienced before that redemption can be effected. Another aspect of Bach’s genius here is the variety of emotional truths he reveals beneath the predominant tone of tragic sorrow that the Passion reenacts. This is first apparent on the larger structural level. The Passion’s is divided after the vigil on Gethsemane, rather than at the break that occurs between Matthew’s two chapters. 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.
On a more local level, too, Bach applies an ongoing series of contrasts. Some of these involve shifts in timbral variety in the accompaniment to the arias. Indeed, so often is Bach associated with the intricacies of counterpoint and musical architecture—all splendidly in evidence here—that his mastery of timbral variety and texture sometimes goes uncredited. The pacing of the contemplative elements that punctuate the narrative also offers an element of contrast. Still other contrasts may be more subliminal (the result of subtle shifts in tonality, as in the five recurrences of the “Passion chorale”).
Meanwhile, Bach infuses variety in his moment-by-moment word-painting of Picander’s earthy, emotive imagery (this illustrative technique is sometimes referred to as “madrigalism” from its heritage in Renaissance masters). These range from various imitations of tears and weeping figures (in the Passion’s very first aria, for example) to more symbolic devices, such as the descending motif in the concluding chorus to imply the burial of Jesus in the Sepulcher. An especially moving instance of Bach’s attention to every dramatic detail can be found in his musical portrayal of Jesus himself. Throughout, his words (given in recitative) are accompanied by a ritual “aura” of string harmonies. But Bach emphasizes the moment of his utmost humanity and despair—at the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—by removing this device.
The St. Matthew Passion is one of the few truly inexhaustible masterworks of Western art because it contains so much of Bach. His encyclopedic impulse led him to synthesize all he knows—from the most popular dance idioms of the day to esoteric numerological symbolism—in an awe-inspiring musical edifice that has consumed lifetimes of study. Yet in no other work of Bach’s are head and heart so inextricably woven together, so that the Passion remains the ultimate musical enactment of compassion.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.