By Ann Monoyios
Johann Sebastian Bach and his very musical family all referred to his St Matthew Passion as “the Great Passion.” Given its first performance at St. Thomas church on Good Friday in 1727, it is based on the Biblical Gospel of Matthew in the German translation by Martin Luther and commemorates the final days in the life of Jesus, from his entry into Jerusalem to his arrest, conviction, and crucifixion.
Considerably longer than the St John of a few years before, the Great Passion is a monumental work involving soloists, 2 choirs, and 2 orchestras and it showcases Bach’s masterful interweaving of many different musical styles and textures.
The work begins with the extraordinary opening choral fantasy built on the German text of the Agnus Dei and featuring a separate, extra soprano part singing a chorale cantus firmus. Listeners are then drawn directly into the narrative by the tenor Evangelist singing with a simple basso continuo accompaniment, and joined periodically by other characters in the drama. The words of Jesus are singled out for a very special treatment with his speeches accompanied by strings, sometimes called “a halo” of sound.
The Evangelist’s narrative of each scene is punctuated by choral interjections as Bach has the choruses represent both believers and angry crowds. They sing to each other (antiphonally) as if in conversation; they sometimes break into a solo aria with commentary or confused questions; and they periodically remove themselves from the drama altogether to join and sing simple, four-part devotional chorales.
Although Bach quotes the Gospel text in the narrative as required by the conservative Lutheran tradition in Leipzig, he and his librettist, Picander, take great care that new, added texts create an overall pacing that allows for moments of reflection and much-needed relief from the intense emotion of the drama. These texts are used in solo arias. Each is preceded by a short arioso, and they are supreme examples of Bach’s invention, using the voice and solo instruments to portray the myriad emotions evoked in the listener by the Passion.
Bach made only one major revision to his score of the St Matthew Passion and he took great care to write a clean copy, even painstakingly repairing it when it later became damaged. Clearly Bach was proud of his “Great Passion” and wanted it to be preserved for posterity. Unfortunately, after Bach’s death the work was not heard again in its entirety until the young Mendelssohn revived it in 1829 for a performance in Berlin. It is not difficult to imagine that Bach would be pleased to know how beloved and oft-performed his Great Passion has become today!
Further reading and listening related to Bach's St Matthew Passion, BWV 244.
Wolff, Christoph Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 2000
John Eliot Gardiner Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, Penguin Books, London 2014
The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans David and Arthur Mendel, revised and expanded by Christoph Wolff
The Passion according to St. Matthew, BWV 244; John Eliot Gardiner. Deutsche Grammophon Archiv. Listen here on Spotify (You will be required to create a free account.)
Image credit: Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748 (copy)