Mar 18, 2019

Behind the Musik: Bach St Matthew Passion

By Charlotte Nediger

Bach St Matthew Passion concert image- Crown of thorns. Photo by Michael Barker.

A Brief History of the Lutheran Passion

The tradition of reciting the Passion, or the story of the Crucifixion as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was established as early as the fourth century. The texts were read as Gospel lessons during Holy Week, and were to be recited “in a solemn manner.” This manner of recitation, or chant, soon took on a rough musical and dramatic shape. Manuscripts from the ninth century, for example, include annotations of pitch, tempo, and volume, all indicated by a system oflitterae significativae (literally, “significant letters”). The text was divided between an Evangelist, reciting the narrative sections, the role of Christ, and the turba (“crowd”), the latter including the various individuals in the Passion and the people as a whole. The Evangelist’s part was marked c (celeriter  – moving ahead), and was to be sung at a middle pitch; Christ’s text was marked t (tenere– held back), and was to be sung at a low pitch; the turbaroles were to be sung strongly and at a higher pitch. Further markings for differentiation were gradually added, and by the sixteenth-century polyphony was introduced, particularly for the turba portions.

This early framework provided the model for the post-Reformation Lutheran Passion settings. The pastor and other clergy intoned the narrative roles of the Evangelist and Christ, the choir sang the increasingly complex turbachoruses, and the congregation responded with chorale hymns at appropriate moments in the text, the whole done in the vernacular. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the influence of the new baroque form of the sacred oratorio was felt, and the new “oratorio Passion” became popular. Instruments, previously barred from the church during Lent, were introduced. The traditional recitation tones were replaced by composed recitative. Lyrical poems and reflective verses were inserted in the text, and set as solo arias and chorales. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century, performances of Passions in Germany often took a public stage. In Hamburg, for example, Lenten performances of Passions by Telemann, Handel, and others were given in concert halls to a paying public, entirely removed from the divine service. These large-scale oratorio Passions were usually settings of completely original texts, and were almost operatic in style.

There were many who were offended by secular presentations of such a quintessentially sacred subject as that of Christ’s Passion. The Town Council of Leipzig was among them. The influence of traditional Lutheran theology was still strong in Leipzig, and in signing his contract as Thomaskantor, Bach had to agree not to write in an excessively operatic style. Indeed, the first Passion of the “modern” type, with instruments, composed recitatives, arias, and so on, was only performed in Leipzig in 1721, under Bach’s predecessor Kuhnau. Until then, only the traditional Passion performances in psalmody had been known.

Bach composed at least two Passion settings for Leipzig, the St Johnin 1724, and the St Matthewin 1727. The latter overshadows all other Passion settings, in its size (scored for two choirs and orchestras), scope, and complexity, as well as its power and poignancy. In many ways it represents a summation of the Lutheran history of the Passion. The setting is distinctly liturgical, and decidedly Lutheran. The two parts would have been presented to the congregation on either side of the Good Friday sermon, preceded and followed by congregational hymns. The music and text was meant to speak directly to the individual listener who, together with the performers, was to experience the Passion story on a deeply personal level. It is, in a sense, truly functional music, but in Bach’s hands so sublime that it reaches well beyond the liturgy of a baroque German church service.

The Libretto

Bach collaborated closely with the Leipzig poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (under his pen name Picander) to assemble the libretto of the St Matthew Passion. Picander provided texts for all of the reflective portions of the work: choruses, recitatives, and arias which react and comment on the narrative. The latter is drawn from the Gospel according to St Matthew, verses 26 and 27, presented in their entirety and unaltered.

A Note About Our Performances

In baroque Germany, liturgical choral music fell into two general categories: complex concerted music (i.e. with instruments), and simpler motets sung a capellaor with continuo accompaniment. The latter were performed by choirs with several singers on each part. The concerted music was sung by a small ensemble of singers who took on the solo roles, and joined together to sing the choral movements. Most of Bach’s Leipzig cantatas, for example, were performed by only four singers. For large-scale cantatas, special occasions, and the Good Friday Passions, additional performers were added. In the St Matthew PassionBach asked for an expanded group of instrumentalists and singers, split into two orchestras and two choirs. To the opening and closing choruses of Part I he also added a group of “ripienist” sopranos, singing chorale tunes above the complex vocal and instrumental parts.

There was no division between chorister and soloist: all those singing the recitatives and arias also sang the choruses. This significantly alters the experience of the text for both the performers and the listeners. For example, singers step directly out of the visceral music of the turbachoruses to react to that music in the solo arias. The bass steps out of the role of Jesus and the narrative of the recitatives to respond, in a way, as a member of the congregation. Thus after dying on the cross, he sings “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein/Ich will Jesum selbst begraben” (Make thyself pure, my heart, I will bury Jesus myself).

Our performances this week are based on this baroque performance tradition, rather than the modern tradition of a distinct group of soloists. The only exception we’ve made is to the taxing role of the Evangelist, who would also have sung the Choir I solo aria and choruses. However, in Leipzig the Passion was performed only once, during the Good Friday service. It would be unwise, if not impossible, for the tenor to undertake all of this in four performances over the course of four days. James Gilchrist, singing the role of Evangelist this week, is taking on both the Choir I and II solo arias, but will not join in the choruses.

St Matthew Passion
Masaaki Suzuki
James Gilchrist
Chamber Choir